Whenever people asked me about my holiday in Greece this year, I would say, “it was wonderful, beautiful.” The Facebook photos show it, and it is true. But it is not the whole truth. My holiday was wonderful, beautiful – and really hard.
At this point I want to tell you quickly that it doesn’t mean that I’m not absurdly grateful for being given the chance to relax in a place of great beauty. It is a massive blessing to be able to holiday abroad, and one I don’t take for granted. But joy and pain run like parallel train tracks in our lives, and I want to be honest about both.
For the first four days, my heart reacted badly to the heat and went berserk. I felt overwhelmingly, blurringly ill. I needed to take more pain killers in two weeks than I had done in four months previously. I needed to rest, alone, for the majority of the day.
But it was the emotional punch that surprised me. Grief has its own timetable, and it can strike at the most inappropriate and inconvenient times, even in the middle of a holiday you’ve been looking forward to for ages.
Ten years ago, Jon and I had visited that same Greek island. In 2005, I was in my twenties, and it was the last summer that my mobility was unaffected by M.E. Ten years ago, we had climbed up a mountain on the island and walked for miles. We had gone on boat trips and seen dolphins. That twenty-somethinged girl had been utterly ignorant of what would happen to her body over the next ten years.
It took me a while to work out why I felt so sad: I was grieving myself. In 2015, every time I looked at a map, or Jon mentioned a familiar place that he and the boy would be visiting, I remembered that first holiday, and how I had been able to swim in the pool and explore the churches. The ghost of my younger self kept distracting me from enjoying the present.
I needed to talk it through, but there was no space to talk. I had purposely taken myself off social media so I could spend more time with Jon and the boy, but in the evenings I was unable to concentrate for longer than an hour, and needed to go to bed early. I am an extrovert: I do not do well with no people. I am a parasite who needs others to help me to process my thoughts – but I had only the echo chamber of my own thoughts.
I couldn’t escape my grief, so I sat with it.
In the hours after my husband and son had waved goodbye to me for the day, I imagined I was with them. I pictured myself climbing the church tower together with them, sweating and complaining that Jon had not brought enough water. (I needed to make the portrait realistic, after all).
I imagined I was there with Jon, watching my son jumping off rocks into the sea. (I would probably have tried to persuade Jon not to let my son jump off rocks into the sea, come to think of it.)
I imagined walking in rock pools with the boy and telling him stories about starfish. I imagined persuading Jon that although we were going out for dinner in the evening, we really did need to buy a gyros kebab for lunch as well.
I tried to be happy where I was – the hot sun, the beautiful view – but I kept being pulled to the past me and the potential me. In the end, I just let myself be sad.
But there was joy mingled with the grief. The heat embraced me as I lay on the sunbed, and when the Greek sun hits the white walls of the houses, all you can see is light, everywhere. I listened to music and sang loudly, with no one to hear me. When my brain came back after a few days, I got lost in some novels.
On the days I was well enough to leave the cottage with my family, I drank it all in – the bright pink flowers, dark olive trees, blue roofs and white walls, the taste of succulent fresh fish eaten by the sea. On one glorious day, I was able to go the beach with my boy, and for half an hour we sat by the water’s edge, choosing the best stones (naming one stone a ‘margarine stone’ for reasons that now escape me), laughing wildly every time a wave rushed over us. In those moments, I was utterly and completely filled with joy.
We were on holiday, away from our day-to-day routine, our usual vista, but I could not take a holiday from my illness.
This is the truth of holidays, whether you have chronic illness or not: they offer us a break from the norm, but not a break from us. Sometimes they feel like a beautiful, too-good-to-be-true gift and your soul is filled to the brim with joy – for a fortnight. Sometimes they can also be a tantalising teaser of how good life could be, and how plain your normal life is. Other times they can also be a cruel reminder that you and the world are broken, and life is not perfect.
I’ve been reading Wild in the Hollow by Amber Haines, a beautiful memoir about brokenness and searching for home. She keeps saying how so many things in life are a metaphor that point to the greater spiritual reality.
When the grief of chronic illness strikes, I am Adam and Eve, homesick for Eden, looking at the angel barring the way back. My sickness is part of the metaphor that reminds me of the brokenness of the world. When I am paddling in the clear Mediterranean, I am John in Patmos, with a glimpse of heaven and the riches of eternal life with the Creator.
We want holidays to be heaven, but that is still to come. Sometimes it is good to be reminded that we are homesick for paradise, and that heaven is not to be found by jumping on a plane.
In the meantime, grief and joy will always intermingle, whispering to us the truths of this world, fall and resurrection, if only we have the time and ears to stop and listen.
(With thanks to Amber Haines and my friend Katherine Carlisle for the inspiration)
Over to you:
- How was your holiday, if you were able to have one?
- What are the metaphors about greater spiritual reality that are speaking to you at the moment?
- Are you more ‘Adam and Eve’ or ‘John on Patmos’?
The link to Amber’s excellent book is an Amazon affiliate link – £5.22 on Kindle, £10.77 hardback. If you haven’t yet bought it, you should!