Tuesday, 17 October 2017

I'm doing much better now, thank you

On Facebook tonight, an old friend asked me how I was doing. We'd not spoken for a year or so. 'Not too bad,' I replied, not wanting to go into too much detail in a public conversation that began with me wishing her Happy Birthday. Not too bad. 

At the same time, today I rejoined the charity Widowed and Young having let my membership lapse when I felt that I no longer wanted to be identified so completely with my grief. Tonight I found myself going back onto their Facebook page wanting to offer some hope to people who are earlier on in their journey. I wanted to tell them that things do get better, at the same time as recognising that, when I was in the early stages of my grief, the idea of being 'better' was almost as horrifying as the idea of 'dating' or 'loving again'. Still I offered some hope anyway and then realised that if they looked at my blog, my last post with all of its talk of trauma, anxiety and depression would not be very helpful. So, here's a hasty update.

I am doing much better now, thank you.

The grief and sadness has not totally gone. I still miss Paul (and my mum). I still sleep with his fleeces. I still find myself periodically gazing at clouds, hoping for hearts. I still see people walking towards me who share his build or his facial expression and feel an unconscious surge of joy followed by a crushing sadness when I realise it can't be him. I still pause to notice herons on the pond or feathers on the path. But I walk on without picking feathers up. It's a calmer, more reflective. more intermittent sadness these days.

Of course, sometimes I still get completely derailed by grief unexpectedly, like the time last week when the chimney sweep came to clean the chimney of my log burner, declared it unfit for use and handed me a card recommending a friend of Paul's for the job of rectifying the situation. And suddenly I was crying just because I saw his name and because Paul used to make log burning stoves and he should still be here. As his friend said when he came round to look at the stove, 'he's a bugger going and dying like that.' I don't blame Paul but still, it is, a real bugger. And just the other day, I received a Facebook notification that it was Bert Mulligan's birthday and, honestly, my heart leapt with excitement as if I thought that Paul's Facebook alter ego might still be alive even though he is not. And I almost opened up Messenger to re-read our messages, but I didn't. I didn't. 

It's nineteen months now and the fog has really started to clear. I no longer live in a state of perpetual anxiety and fear. A week or two ago, I finished reading my first novel and I've managed to watch a few episodes of TV dramas as well as a few films. I am working more and buzzing with ideas for creative projects, in fact, I have so many ideas that I'm impatient that I can't bring them all into fruition immediately. I was moaning to a friend about my frustration with my progress towards my creative goals the other day and she helpfully said something along the lines of, 'I think you're doing ok. Not so long ago, you couldn't see the point of living.' She's right. I couldn't. I have come a long way. 

The truth is, when I read my early blogs, it's almost like reading fiction. Last week I met an author that I hadn't seen for a while and when I blithely told him about what had happened, I saw the look of horror on his face and was taken aback when I remembered that it actually happened to me. I remember it of course and I can recall the anguish and the unbelievable pain but it feels distant now, like a memory of a place that I lived in for a while, that I hope never to return to. I blame the therapist in London who has been treating me for post traumatic stress disorder. He's been practising some bizarre magic that takes away some of the pain associated with traumatic memories. Evidently it's worked. I look at the photo of myself taken by my boyfriend at the seaside last weekend and I see joy in the eyes that have cried so many tears. The bags under them, I fear, are here to stay but who cares? It is such a relief to see that I can smile genuine smiles of happiness again. 

Of course, not everything is fixed - he wasn't that magic. Life is not perfect and I'm still finding my way. I still suffer from anxiety and I am worn out right down to the bone marrow. I'll never go back to being who I was before. But I feel that annoying post-traumatic growth taking place that I never wanted to hear about; who wants to trade love for growth after all? Yet, I feel it anyway. I feel like I'm changing, evolving, moving forwards into some unknown future. I don't know where I'm going but, as I learned so very deeply, all futures are unknowable anyway. All I know at the moment is that my future is a future that I want to live for and that I'm doing much better now, thank you. 

Thursday, 6 July 2017

And the grief goes on

I thought I'd finished my blog with a positive post about finding new love. It seemed like a hopeful ending and I've been been trying to wean myself off blogging. I don't want grief to define me. I'm a writer and grief is just one of the things that I can write about. I also want to be a fully rounded human being and loss is just one of the things I have experienced. But I'm also a person who is committed to telling the truth, and the truth is that I have been struggling lately.

I was warned that this might happen. The people further down the road in online support groups told me that the second year of widowhood is routinely found to be worse than the first as the shock wears off and they adjust to the reality of a new normal without their partner. Not for me though, I thought. I am different. After all, I'm not a widow. I don't have grieving children and I don't have a whole life to rebuild. Neither do I have all of the secondary losses that I read about: I haven't lost my income; I'm not having to learn how to be a single parent (I've had that t-shirt for four years and, like me, it's worn out); I haven't lost my identity as a part of a partnership because Paul and I were only just becoming a couple and still lived mostly independent lives. Yet, I have lost a lot and the repercussions are still being felt, like aftershocks, long after the the debris from the original earthquake has been cleared up.

To the outside world, I probably look like I'm doing well. I have a lovely new house, I'm working, I took the kids on a foreign holiday on my own, I no longer walk around crying in public and I occasionally manage to go out and smile at social occasions. I imagine that I've lost the haunted look of the newly devastated and the bags under my eyes have gradually faded. Most importantly, I have a new boyfriend which is surely the ultimate indicator of my success in embracing a new future. I lost one boyfriend and found a new one. Job done, surely?

But, no. In fact, having a new boyfriend, like every forward movement, has unleashed a whole new tirade of grief. I proclaimed my new love to the world like someone who was one step away from winning that slippery game of Snakes and Ladders and promptly landed on a snake which sent me cascading back to the beginning again. It happened a month or so ago on Paul's birthday. I woke up smiling in my new boyfriend's arms, looked at the date on my phone, realised its significance and everything began to fall apart. How could I have woken up happy on such a sad day? And how could I be sad while my new partner was happily basking in the glow of new love? Even worse, how could I have forgotten the significance of the date? (Not so hard for me because I never spent a birthday with Paul). As a friend helpfully said, "it's a headf**k!" I couldn't hold so many conflicting emotions in one body and I slid down that snake into a pit of anxiety that I'm gradually trying to climb out of. I've been waking up with that lurching feeling in my stomach again, walking on a tightrope again, feeling like I might fall at any moment. I am full to the brim with emotions that threaten constantly to spill out and I am vibrating again like I was at the beginning, shaken to my very core, feeling unsafe.

Things got so bad that I went back to see a therapist  She tells me that I am suffering not just from grief but from the repercussions of trauma which has been triggered by the very thing that you'd think might have made me feel better: falling in love. It turns out my whole being is trying to protect me by screaming, "don't do this again! It only ever ends badly." My mind is on red alert, looking for signs of danger in the strangest places - in the tattoos on my boyfriend's arm, in the words that he speaks, the messages that he sends, the love that he gives. My therapist has me recording my anxious thoughts and the other day I'd written down twenty-four of them by 10am. She says I'm like a victim who has been in a fire who now registers every whiff of smoke as a life threatening situation that I need to get out of when, in reality, I have a faulty toaster (my brain) and a bit of overdone toast (a new relationship which, like all new relationships, is a bit scary and not 100% perfect.). When my boyfriend mentioned the idea of one day meeting my children, my anxiety went a level higher. The last time I introduced a partner to my children, he promptly dropped dead. The one before that left and broke all of our hearts. Ok, logically I know it's unlikely to happen again. Maybe it will be third time lucky. But logic has nothing to do with anxiety. My limbic system is out of control and is over-ruling the rational part of my mind. The therapist explains that the amygdala stores my memories and determines my fears based on the strength of my emotional reactions and my amygdala has learned in no uncertain terms that love and the grief that ensues when it ends, is terrifying and not to be messed with. And yet, the part of my brain that can still think really wants to love, and my boyfriend and I are very compatible and he's lovely and is doing his best to understand........

So, I went for some hypnosis and I've seen the herbalist who has increased the anti-anxiety herbs in my medicine. I've been to the GP who has prescribed me pills that I look at every day, wondering if I can manage without or if I should give in. I talk to widows online still and find that, though their circumstances are different, they are still struggling too. Many of them are receiving treatment for anxiety or depression, one, two, three or ten years down the line from the event that changed their lives forever. And, though I don't have all of the secondary losses that they experience, I do notice that I share some of them. No-one talks to me about Paul now. Since his mum died I have lost my main connection with the people who loved him. What do I do with his memory now? And like other widows, my identity has changed. For one thing I've acquired this identity as a person who writes about grief. What do I with that as I try to move forward? Do I keep blogging, write a memoir or just leave it here and move into a new future? Meanwhile, the romantic novel that I was writing when Paul died is still on hold and I'm not sure I can go back to it. Do I start something new? What would that be? I'm a writer and I don't know what to write about. I'm a reader who still can't read a book. I'm a person who still can't watch films or TV. I'm still in transition, out of my comfort zone, trapped between the past and the future, between sadness and happiness. It's not an easy place to be.

And like the other widows, I have lost touch with some real-life friends. I retreated inward when Paul died, needing to be alone to process my grief and spending my time online with the only people who truly understood. Now my Facebook newsfeed is over 50% grief-related and most of my life is lived online. It's been a safe place to be but I know it's not healthy. In the real world I've not been much fun to be around and understandably people assume I should be back to normal by now. The friends who used to call to check on me don't call anymore (I don't blame them as they have busy lives and gave me so much love and support in the early days). I don't have people inviting me to go on holiday with them this year either. Life goes on and I need to stand on my own two feet. I'm no longer a special case. But the grief goes on and, sixteen months in, I am still struggling to keep reaching for the light.

I repeat the words of the hypnotherapist like a mantra: "Love is always stronger than fear," she said. Somewhere, deep down, some part of me believes her. And so I keep going and keep trying to hang on to love.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Love is the only option for me

So, I met someone. It seems almost too perfect for words. I grieved fully and completely for a year, then on the 13th March, three days after the anniversary of Paul's death, I re-wrote my grief narrative to include the possibility of loving someone new (https://bitly.im/JLHYL) and, just a month later, someone appeared. Well, he didn't actually appear but a message from him fell into my dating Inbox and gradually, over the last two months I have found myself falling in love and into the arms of a man who is not the man I thought I would spend my future with. I find myself reflecting often on how lucky I am to have this new chance at happiness but also at how strange it is to find myself here at another twist in the road. I guess it's what Sheryl Sandberg might call Option B. Maybe for her it is Option B but, given the convoluted nature of my life, it might be more accurate for me to call it Option F or G or H or, 'Let's Face it there is no Plan Here'. Whatever I call it, it's not where I expected to be and, however wonderful it is (and it is, really wonderful), it isn't perfect by any means. Because the truth is that, at times, I still feel that nothing can ever be perfect again and every silver lining now brings with it a cloud.

In my grief journey, I've become expert at naming clouds and emotions. It's a trick that I learned in mindfulness classes and it has helped me enormously to be able to recognise emotions as they come and go, without chasing after them or chasing them away, without clinging onto them, without trying to excavate their meaning or build a future upon them. Everything changes and this too shall pass. So I watch them now, the clouds that come along with this new beginning, this blue sky of happiness and I name them as they float by. I see Clouds of Guilt (how can I love someone new when he is dead?), Clouds of Sadness (how can I be happy when he is dead?), Clouds of, what is this - Shame? (I said I really loved him. If I love someone new do I diminish that love?), Clouds of Doubt (can I even do this?) and, worst of all, Clouds of Fear. These are the clouds that are big and dark and simply labelled: What If? What If? What If? They trail anxious thoughts behind them, that go like this:

What if I am vulnerable and no longer able to make sound judgements in matters of the heart? What if he sees my vulnerability and wants to take advantage of that? What if I allow myself to fall in love again and then he leaves me? What if he has an undiagnosed disease? What if he has a mental health problem that might, one day, cause him to commit suicide? What if we start to be happy together and and then his heart stops beating too? What if we start to be happy together and then I get cancer? Having got comfortable with the idea of death, (having even actively wanted to die), perversely, I now find that I want to live again and feel afraid that my life could be taken away. My brain is on over-drive. What if? What if? What if?

The What Ifs have been running amok from the moment I first spoke to this man, trampling over my tentative attempts at trust - in him, in life, in a future.  In fact, when I reflect on it, I realise that I haven't fallen in love at all. Falling in love implies reckless abandon. I picture someone diving wilfully from a high cliff into a warm pool. If falling has been involved, in this case, it's been more like a game of Kerplunk, a process of carefully and slowly removing barrier after barrier until eventually everything comes tumbling down in a chaotic heap. It's been a clumsy process of fits and starts, back to Snakes and Ladders again, one step forwards, two steps back, falling occasionally, yes, into gaping chasms of bliss but also of utter terror. Because, the ultimate truth is that each step towards love, each opening of the heart, is a step towards inevitable loss and I know now how agonising that loss can be. I'm actually not sure I can withstand another loss. But nothing is permanent. Everything changes. This too shall pass.

Last week my new boyfriend and I were meant to be meeting for a date. He works nights so I knew he would be sleeping until he came to meet me but he didn't turn up and my brain got busy immediately, presenting me over and over again with the possibility that he was either dumping me or that he was dead. I kept telling myself that both possibilities were incredibly unlikely but that logic no longer works for me. The last time I told myself that everything would be fine, Paul WAS dead. Shit happens. Option A doesn't always work out. My heart was racing for a full hour while I paced the streets, naming emotions, sights and sounds, trying to keep my feet on the ground, my head out of the black clouds: this is anxiety, this is fear, I can see a homeless man next to a red door, I can hear water from the fountain, I can smell fresh fish from the grocery store. I sent messages, remembering the way I'd sent messages before and the way they had gone unanswered and when he phoned me, an hour late and distraught because his alarm hadn't woken him, I sobbed uncontrollably down the phone. And when we met, finally, I held him tight and knew that this was love. Not perfect, not Option A or even Option B, but love and something to be cherished. My boyfriend was surprised at how lovely I was about it. Perhaps he expected me to be cross. Perhaps I would have been cross in the past too but he hadn't dumped me and he wasn't dead so what was there to worry about? This is what things are reduced to now. If it isn't life or death, it doesn't matter. Life feels simpler now and yet more complicated. I am simultaneously fearless and more afraid than I have ever been.

Because I know now that love is the only thing of value in this world and I know that the price for loving is huge. On the one hand, I know I can survive anything. On the other, I know how badly a heart can break. Like a mother with two children, my heart has made room for someone new, whilst still cherishing the love that came before. At night, when my boyfriend isn't here, I find myself still holding onto Paul's fleeces whilst simultaneously missing both him and my boyfriend. It feels odd. It is confusing. It is not the way I thought it would be. My new boyfriend is not Option B (who would want to be Option B anyway?) but I have been given another chance at love and I will take it. Because fear is no place to live. I don't forget Paul by loving again. Instead, I honour his memory by making the most of the gift of my life. I know that every moment is precious and that love can vanish in a heartbeat. So, in spite of everything, as long as my heart is beating, I will love. Especially in these difficult global times, we must keep choosing love however scared we are.

Friday, 5 May 2017

To the mother-in-law I never had.

I never knew you when your son and I were together but I knew of you. You knew of me too. He and I were only together for eight months before he died and somehow we just hadn't found the time for family introductions. We were too caught up in each other, enjoying our precious time together, knowing that we mustn't waste a moment of it, even though we couldn't see the sand streaming through the hourglass.

I knew where you lived though, having driven past your house with him on a few occasions. I knew of your illness too and of his fears for your health. He didn't think you had too long to live. (It never occurred to him that he might not outlive you.) I knew that he loved you too. I saw the way he cared for you: taking you shopping, bringing you flowers. You'd been restricted by your disabilities for years but he did his best to help you to live a full life. I heard about the trips that he'd taken you on and how he paid attention to the things that you made you happy. He was like that: thoughtful, considerate, kind. I now know that he took after his mum.

When I read through the blog of my grief I notice how often you feature. Since he died you've become an integral part of my story, an integral part of my life. You're another character who is gone too soon, who won't make it to the last page. Still, I'm so glad you were there, so glad I had a chance to know you. You were a life raft when I was floundering and an anchor in the storm.

I'll never forget the first time that we met. It was a surreal experience, bringing flowers to the mother of my boyfriend just a few days after his death. The last time you'd seen him had been Mother's Day. He'd come from my bed, bringing you flowers. You said you'd watched him arrange them for you in a vase and had a feeling, some mother's intuition, that something wasn't right. The last time I'd seen him was a few days later when I'd broken into his house to find his body. We were, all of us, in shock. You asked me to put the flowers in a vase and said you felt some comfort watching me in the kitchen where he'd been the week before.

I remember the moment, talking about the announcement for the newspaper, when you asked me how I wanted to refer to him and the feeling of being lost without him there to confer with, not even sure what my role was or how he would refer to me. Boyfriend and partner both sounded wrong. We didn't even live together, weren't even sure that we could ever live together and he was fifty-three and a giant of a man. And before I could censor myself, I'd blurted out, 'soulmate? Does that sound silly?' and you'd said, 'No, I don't think it sounds silly at all.' I knew at that moment that we would be friends.

Over the last year or so we have spent many hours together. Week after week we drank chamomile tea and talked about where we thought he'd gone, the manner in which he might have died, whether we could see his shape in clouds and rainbows, how much he was missed. At first you phoned me daily, always with those opening words: 'I won't ask you how you are. We don't say that do we, you and me?' It was such a relief to talk to someone who knew that I was not ok, that this was not ok. Together, we filled in the jigsaw pieces of his past. You told me of his childhood and his family; I told you of our adventures and our love, of the happiness we shared for those last eight months of his life. We went on our own adventure together too, in search of ducks on a pond in the Peak District and in search of locations for a memorial bench. We watched clouds scud across the sky and held each other's hands as we walked and as we talked. We drove together clutching his ashes in a green plastic jar to say our goodbyes. Sometimes we cried and sometimes, in the early days, desperate for connection with someone who loved him as much as I did, I would phone you sobbing and you were always so kind, never competitive in your grief as some people can be. You invited me into your family and into your home, once even asking if I would come and sleep on your sofa because you didn't like to think of me being alone. You were the loveliest mother-in-law I've ever known, even though I can't really claim you as my own.

My children like to claim you though. They remember you only with fondness too. You searched through your flat and gave them presents: Meccano sets and an old toy dragon for my boy, Flower Fairy books and pretty scarves for my girl. Once, we'd been to visit before we went on holiday to France and, forgetting to give them the money that you'd intended for them, you threw it down from your balcony into the park where we were playing. When you're eight years old, you don't forget a woman who throws money from a balcony. They saw you as another grandma to replace the one they'd lost, my mum, just the year before and you were like a mother to me too. The same age as my mum, you'd grown up round the corner from each other and told the same stories of May Day dresses and Sunday School. It was so comforting for me to be around you.

Later, I visited you in the hospice. I've been there a lot for my bereavement counselling and I would sit with you for an hour, before going to weep for your son's loss in the room down the corridor. On the anniversary of his death, it was with you that I wanted to be and we sat quietly holding hands as we watched a film of babbling brooks and crashing waves and thought of him. We didn't need words then.

You inspired me in those days. Incapacitated and on the brink of death, having lived such a hard life, as you had, you were still smiling, so grateful for the care you received, delighting in trying new dishes on the menu, revelling in the simple comforts of baths and hand massages, family and good friends. You helped me to see that, even in the darkest of times, there are still things to live for. This year, you helped me to stay alive.

You were by far the best mother-in-law I've ever had, even though your son wasn't there to see it. I want to thank you, Pat. I hope that you are with him now where both of us so longed to be. I hope you look down and see that, it is partly because of you that I can still smile and live on with your memories in my heart.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Today I was your girlfriend again

Today was a weird day. It was your mum's funeral. I guess you already know that. I hope that you and she are already reunited somewhere and that you were looking down on the crowd of people crying and smiling. Perhaps you cried and smiled too. And perhaps you saw me there. Perhaps you watched me take a deep breath as I walked up the steps and saw me looking around like a lost child wondering where her mum was, or where your mum was or where you were. It wasn't right to be going to your mum's funeral without you. You supported me when my mum died; I should have been there supporting you. Or maybe I felt you should have been there supporting me. I have come to love your mum and I will miss her greatly. It wasn't right to be going back to the place where I last said goodbye to your body or my mum's body either. It wasn't right to be saying goodbye to her body. Today was all wrong. As I said, it was weird.

I didn't think that I would know anyone there apart from your family and I didn't but, of course, a lot of people knew who I was. After all, I gave the eulogy at your funeral and your mum's friends would have been there. After all, they had watched me then, this strange being, this non-widow that no-one knew, standing shaking at the pulpit telling them how wonderful you were, how safe you made me feel, how much I loved you. They had probably seen me hold it together until I'd finished speaking and had watched me crumple back into my pew weeping. They will have watched me as I stood by your coffin on the way out too and seen how I kissed it and held onto it, wanting to jump on top of it, wanting to scream, wanting to drag you back to life. I remember afterwards, that your mum told me that her friends had said they admired her dignity for not crying at your funeral. I guess they felt that I'd lost mine. They didn't know that I felt myself being held there by a magnetic force, that I'd lost the use of my limbs, that I didn't know where I was, that all I could see was that box and a lump of oak separating you from me. They will have watched as my friend strode down the aisle and pulled me to her sobbing, as she steered me outside, away from you.

Today, as I stood outside the crematorium the tears came even before the funeral cortege. A woman had just introduced herself to me. I can't tell you what her name was but she had a kind face. 'Can I sit with you?' I said having lost my social skills again, remembering the same moment at your funeral when I had suddenly grabbed the arm of my most motherly friend and asked her to stay by my side. She was kind. They were all so kind, like your mum. There was a lot of kindness in that room. It was a lovely service.

Still, it was a weird kind of day, a sad day. Sad to be saying more goodbyes, sad to lose another connection with you. The strangest thing though was that, just for today, I was your girlfriend again. Perhaps today, I was your girlfriend for the first time. I'm not sure anyone has ever introduced me as your girlfriend before. You certainly never had the chance. It was weird to be ushered around, being introduced to people: 'This is Paul's girlfriend,' they said. 'Oh, you're Paul's girlfriend, aren't you?' they said. It was nice to be your girlfriend again, just for a day. I wish you'd been there to see it. I hope you and your mum saw it. I hope you both know how much you are loved.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Desperately seeking young, fit, risk-averse, spiritually-inclined man, with good genes whose entire family were wiped out in a freak accident

Beverley, Writer, 46
Quirky, sincere, creative and obsessed with when you're going to die.

Catchy huh?

So, it's one thing to decide that you are interested in experiencing love again (see the blog more catchily entitled - I would do it again) but finding love is a whole other kettle of fish. You can't just click your fingers and ask all appropriate suitors to form an orderly queue. Especially if you're a self-employed, single parent who spends most evenings trapped in their own home, meeting someone is not easy. Paul was the only appealing single man that I have encountered in real life in the last decade or so and my time is precious; I don't expect to get that lucky again. So, not prepared to wait another decade, I have dusted off my fishing rod and, only eighteen months since I deactivated my dating profiles, I find myself online fishing again.

I started gently, casually, by reactivating Tinder and adjusting my personal statement to reflect my change in circumstances. I made it clear that I was not ready for a relationship but would like some male company. It was a clumsy beginning. The first person who approached me got short shrift when he asked me about my taste in books, films and music. At that time my brain was so shot to pieces that I couldn't remember anything. I hadn't watched a film or read a book for many months and had had the same CD playing on repeat for just as long. I told him to stop asking me so many questions. Luckily he was patient with me and I found myself an online Scrabble buddy (cue the blog in which I weep my way through my first Scrabble game, feeling like I am cheating on Paul who loved to play Scrabble with me). Next I met an ex-vicar who I've been for a couple of drinks with and then a fellow writer who has become like a surrogate online boyfriend. We chat about kids and writing and he offers me online hugs when it all gets too much. Sometimes he indulges my need to have someone to say goodnight to. He's not ready for a relationship either but, along with the others, he has been part of my rehabilitation into the land of the living. It's been good to spend at least some of my online time talking about something other than death and grief.

Then there are the others (oh so many others), the ones who read, 'I might like some male company' as, 'I want sex'. They like to tell me that I must have needs and the many ways in which they would like to meet them. They are fascinated to know how long it is since I last had it. One of them made the mistake of asking around the time of the anniversary and I killed his ardour somewhat by saying that actually, I could remember exactly when it was because it was the last time I saw my love alive. Sometimes these men delete me before I delete them. Sometimes I get there first. It's been a depressing business. There have been a lot of tears.

Recently I had the revelation that perhaps my ambiguous profile wasn't helping matters and that, actually, I now realise that ultimately I want more than a friend, more than a lover. I changed my profile again to reflect this new stage in my journey and said that I would like to experience love again one day but that I am still finding my feet. And things changed a little. I get messages now from people who might at least consider the idea of having a relationship even if they are few and far between. It is noticeable that I get a lot less messages than I did two years ago. Not every man is looking for a middle-aged orphaned single parent who writes a blog about grief and mentions death in her online profile. On the other hand, answering my dating messages used to feel like an overwhelming part-time job. I prefer it this way and at least it sorts the wheat from the chaff, the men from the boys. I definitely need a man not a boy, I reflect. Or do I?

I expected that it would be complicated to find someone who could love the new me; I have changed a lot as a result of enduring what I have endured. What I didn't realise until I started dating is that my requirements in a partner have changed too. Emotional intelligence and empathy have become my most important criteria now. Naturally, I need kindness and compassion above all things. But there are other things too, surprising things that I come up against as men message me or as I swipe through profiles.

For instance, it turns out that atheists and sceptics are no longer welcome here. Suddenly I can't countenance the idea of having a relationship with anyone who might try to argue with me about the existence of an afterlife. Where before spirituality was just a mild curiosity of mine, now it is a matter of prime importance.

Then there is the question of age and health. I find myself studying profiles and my first thought is not whether the men in the photos are attractive or interesting but how likely they are to drop dead in the near future. Suddenly I am unforgiving of a few extra pounds, social smoking or excessive drinking. I see an imaginary warning label saying 'heart disease risk' over every man who is a little overweight or pictured holding a pint of beer. I discount anyone who rides a motorbike or who likes extreme sports, preferring men who keep fit by doing yoga. I'm no longer sure about anyone over the age of fifty and find myself considering men who are younger than me rather than older. I can't countenance the idea of dating anyone who is called Paul or anyone who is fifty-three.

Luckily, you don't come across many blacksmiths on dating sites but I came across one man who upcycles industrial equipment and found myself sobbing as I told him about the lamp that Paul was making when he died. He deleted me before I had time to realise the terrible conundrum that, having found and lost my ideal mate, I can't go near anyone who might remind me of him.

Finally I realise that I need someone who has experienced enough tragedy to be able to empathise with my own journey but nothing that would suggest too much risk. A fellow orphan would be appealing, I think, because then I won't have to deal with supporting them through loss in the future (I'm not heartless, just tired of funerals) but I don't want an orphan whose parents died of cancer because that might suggest a genetic connection. And I don't want someone who is so scarred by tragedy that it poses a risk to their mental health. I already know that widowers are the gold standard when dating in the widowed community (even my bereavement counsellor tells me that these relationships have the best chance of success) and so I have found myself adding 'widowed' to my search criteria whilst wondering at the same time if I want to deal with their grief as well as my own, whilst considering if I am secure enough to not find myself asking pitifully if they loved their previous spouse more than me. It is a weird world I have entered when I find myself having these thoughts.

All of which leaves me with my opening statement: 'Desperately seeking a young, fit, risk-averse, spiritually-inclined man, with good genes whose entire family were wiped out in a freak accident'. That's not too much to ask for surely?

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Leave a little light on

I got your lamp back this week. As far as I know it was the last thing you were making. You'd sent me a photo of it one night and told me that it was neo-brutalist art. I wasn't sure how to respond, not really being a connoisseur of post-industrial chic. You know me, I don't always appreciate things the first time I see them. I'm not one for love at first sight and looks don't impress me. But your lamp has grown on me, like you did. I want you to know that I totally get it now. With the wiring done, the tap added and the funky filament bulb installed just the way you intended, it looks really cool. I absolutely love it.

I found the half-finished lamp when I was rummaging through the debris of your house, as a team of friends and relatives were tossing things in a skip, and I asked if I could keep it. If I hadn't, I guess it would have gone in the skip with the other unwanted items: one man's art is another man's junk and in your house it was hard to separate the two.

I know that you had hopes for that lamp. You'd had encouragement from the man who owns the shop down the road. You saw this one as a prototype and thought you might be able to go into production if it sold. I hate that you never got to find out if it would sell, though as I've since found at least two men making a living making similar items, I'd say you were onto something. One of them deleted me on Tinder, presumably because all I could talk about was your lamp and how much it was making me cry to see the things that he made. The other one finished your lamp off for me. I thought about taking it to the shop so that it could be sold as you'd intended but I decided it would be silly as you'd not have any use for the money, besides which, no-one would value it more than me. So, now it sits on my desk and forms part of my collection of the things that remind me of you.

These are the things you left behind

A neo-brutalist lamp, salvaged from your forge,
Two packs of borage seeds with healing properties, of course,
A bat in a tin that you once found in a book,
A print called Stardust -  'the journey of our love',
A pot of aloe vera that you bought to heal my wounds,
The Penguin Book of Love Poetry with an ill-fated poem,
Your 'Rules for Collaging' and a New Year's collage,
Notebooks of your musings on days spent 'with Beverley Ward',
A laptop of photographs of times together and apart,
A ring made from recycled silver found in a coffee pot,
An old Oxo tin that I borrowed and gave back,
Two shirts bought for Christmas - my attempt to smarten you up,
Two fleeces that I still wrap around me when I sleep,
A jangling yin-yang ball: of dark and light, love and grief,
The old printers' tray that you brought, unwrapped, on Christmas Day,
The 'Birdhouse in your Soul' that I made at a friend's craft party,
An Ainsley Harriot cookbook left from when you cooked for me,
Spring bulbs blooming beneath a freshly planted tree,
A Valentine's bench by the side of still, deep water,
And that poker, forged with love one fateful day in August.

And words. Hundreds and thousands of words. Words to remember and words to forget. Words of love and words of pain. Words to capture moments of the greatest joy and the deepest sadness. Words to bring tranquility and words to express pure madness.

This is what I have left of you now. There are no more jobs on my Blacksmith Paul to do list, no more memorial plans. There are no more memories left to record. I have done my best but, in the end,  as people often say at times of great tragedy, there are no words.

In the end, there is just love and a light. And a song by James that I sang at a festival, tears streaming in the rain last summer, a song about grief called  'Moving on'. I don't really believe in moving on. Nevertheless, I have spent a year looking backwards and now I must look forwards. 'My bags are packed and my sails are tacked and my course is marked by stars'. In the end you are not in any of the objects that you left behind but you are in my heart and you will always be close at hand. Wherever I go, I will leave a little light on for you. And I will be there with you too, in that little birdhouse in your soul.

With love to you, Blacksmith Paul from Beverley Writer.
Much loved, much missed, remembered always.