Saturday, 31 December 2016

A rock and a hard place

I've always seen New Year's Eve as a time for reflection. I've never been a party animal, preferring to muse on the year gone by and on my plans for the future. I like to sit, listening to music and making a collage, picking out inspirational images and photos. But today I just can't do it.

Partly it's the memory of making collages with you last year. I still have your collage and mine. I still have your glue. I just don't have you. 

I thought Christmas would be the hard part. I thought I would be ok on my own tonight. But I fell in a grief ditch around the twenty-eighth, after I'd triumphed at Christmas and given my daughter a fantastic birthday, after I'd felt so proud for getting through it all. I'd even written my positive New Year blog a few days early. And then something happened, a couple of posts on social media, an aborted trip to the seaside and suddenly I was ambushed by grief again. Grief tripped me up and threw me down a deep hole and I've been struggling to get out ever since. I should have learned by now not to rest on my laurels. Grief goes on and on and on. Grief likes to pounce when I'm not paying attention. 

I've been reflecting today on why New Year is so hard in grief and realise that it's the reflecting that is the problem. If I look back at the year that I'm leaving, I see mostly darkness. It was, as I have already said, the worst year of my life. But if I look to the future, I see an emptiness that I have to fill with something new. Sometimes emptiness is exciting. Sometimes it's good to turn over a new leaf, to start a new chapter. But sometimes the blank page is frightening. I have griever's block. I don't know what to do with my future.

Sitting here, on this day, perched between the old year and the new, I feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. To look back or to look forwards is equally terrifying. So I'm back in the moment again, noticing my feet on the floor, clinging to my keyboard while the children watch another episode of whatever they're watching on Netflix, feeling the breath coming into and leaving my body, watching thoughts like clouds, knowing that I just need to get through it, that it will pass. 

Tomorrow, your death will be last year's news. And maybe that's what I fear the most, the idea that you and I are moving further apart and the idea that somehow I should close the door on grief and embrace a new chapter. But grief goes on and on, with no respect for dates. And love goes on and on too. I will carry both over into the new year. For now I will sit, like patience on a monument, not smiling at grief but breathing and praying for it to be over soon.

Tonight I build myself a fire in my log burning stove and remember the fire that you built on the moors at Redmires at midnight last year. It was a defining moment for me, to have a man strong enough to carry logs and an axe up a mountain but gentle enough to make a collage. You were a rock to hold onto when I floundered and a soft place to land when I fell. You'll be a hard act to follow. Whatever the years ahead hold for me, I will love you and miss you and remember you for the rest of my days.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

2016 - Worst Year Ever

I suspect we are going to see this headline a lot on social media over the next few days. Maybe we'll see it for months and years to come too. With any luck, 2016 will go down in history as the year when things hit an all-time low before they started to improve. Along with the majority of my peers, I will, mostly, be glad to see the back of 2016 and I even feel some tendrils of hope reaching out towards 2017. But I'm wary these days. I'm not sure I want to risk hoping anymore. In my personal life, 2014 was a bad year as the year that my children's father and I separated. I thought 2015 would be better but 2015 was worse, including as it did, the heartbreaking break-up of a new relationship and the death of my mother. Again I thought 2016 had to be an improvement. How wrong I was. The heartbreak of 2016 was on a scale that I didn't even know existed. As my daughter learned this week when the doctor added a noxious red antibiotic to the disgusting yellow one that she thought was the most horrendous thing she had ever tasted, there is always something worse.

Over this last year I have found myself eligible to be part of the clubs that no-one wants to join - the online communities of the widowed and violently bereaved. For people who, this year, have felt like the ground has been torn from under their feet and that their very hearts have been ripped from their bodies, it can be galling to hear the constant refrain on social media about how bad this year has been. For people who have lost their soulmates, the fathers of their children, their income and their vision for the future, 2016 hasn't just been a bad year, it's been catastrophic. I picture a graph and a curve dipping down towards the baseline during 2016. A lot of people I know in the real world have been down there on that baseline. Understandably they have felt very low about the social and political climate, about rising poverty, about the refugee crisis, about Brexit and Trump and all the celebrities who have died this year. It has felt like our history and our culture is being eroded. It is really sad and scary. And yet, we, in the widowed community, find ourselves wanting to say, 'you think you feel bad. You should try feeling what I'm feeling.' If the baseline of that graph is ground level, some of us feel that we have spent this year in the underworld, trapped in a pothole or on the seabed, reaching for air, struggling to find some kind of foothold, trying to survive.

This year I have personally endured the kind of pain that I didn't know existed. For the first time in my life I have genuinely felt that I wasn't sure that I could go on, not just for one day, or a few days, but relentlessly day after day after day. I have cried so hard, so many times, that I couldn't breathe, that I felt I was going to die. At times the pain has been physically debilitating; there have been occasions when I've been unable to stand or walk. I still feel unsteady if try to go out in an evening. Having watched both parents die of terminal cancer and having held my newborn baby limp and breathless in my arms while I dialled 999, having been through my parent's divorce and experienced my own relationship breakdowns, having been through courtroom battles against my stepmother, having suffered from anxiety and depression and chronic illness and having cared for my son in his own chronic illness, I thought that I knew about pain. It turns out I didn't have a clue. The pain of losing is a partner is so much worse than anything I'd experienced before. The pain is indescribable and yet I have tried and tried to describe it. I don't know why. I'm a writer, it's what I do. For some reason, I want people to understand. But I know that no-one can really understand unless they've been through it. And I don't wish this pain on anyone.

Without question, 2016 has been the worst year of my life, not because of Brexit or Trump, not because of Bowie, or Victoria Wood or George Michael. The thing that makes this the worst year ever for me didn't even make the news. 2016 is the worst year ever because you died. On a global scale it is insignificant but my world was altered forever when you left it.

And yet, as I approach the end of the year, as I climb slowly upwards out of darkest days of my grief, I am reaching a position where I can breathe more easily and where the vista is expanding so that I can see beyond my own pain and start to see things from the perspective of others again. I can recognise that my view this year has been, of necessity, solipsistic. When you're struggling to stay alive, you naturally turn inward. But I can see now that I am not the only person for whom this year has been agony. I am not the only person who has lost a partner; I've come to know lots of others who have too. And we're not the only people in pain. Around the world, people are struggling and suffering. 2016 has been really truly bad for a lot of people. It will be good to see the back of it.

As I approach New Year's Eve, I think about where I was last year. At midnight, I was in your arms on the top of a hill warming myself by the bonfire that you'd built and watching the fireworks explode over Sheffield. For the rest of the bank holiday, we were cocooned at my house. We watched 'It's a Wonderful Life' and made New Year collages, envisioning how we wanted the year to be. It is an annual tradition for me and you embraced it with gusto. I look back at my collage now, as I do at the end of every year. At the top is a quote cut out from a magazine. It reads, "Those who don't jump will never fly." I jumped into your arms and together we flew. It is true. It is also true that sometimes, when you jump, you land face down in a ditch and that it's a heck of a job to get out of that ditch. At the centre of my collage is another quote attributed to the Buddha: "No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path." This is also true. No-one else can feel the pain that I have felt and my path is mine to walk alone. What a journey this year has been.

And yet, when I look back on 2016, it hasn't all been bad. I have written more this year than I have written in any other year of my life and WRITING is the word that I have placed, in capitals, at the centre of my new year's collage every year for as far back as I can remember. For the first time in 2016, writing has truly been at the centre of my life where it belongs. And I have learned a lot this year. As 2016 began, I was experiencing true love with you and I feel confident now that I will never be mistaken again about what love is, as I have been so many times in the past. And this year, I haven't been afraid to speak out. I have stopped worrying about what other people think. I don't think I will ever be silenced again as I have been in the past. In 2016, I also stopped pretending that I was superwoman and I learned to ask for help. And it has been overwhelming, the way people have responded to my requests. I have walked alone in my pain but there have been people willing to walk alongside me and to those people I will be forever grateful. I have lost a few friends but gained a lot more. It has been a year of extraordinary pain but also of extraordinary compassion. And that gives me hope for the future. (It's not a trade. I wouldn't swap your life for my writing, or my learning or my spiritual growth. It's just the way it is).

In some ways I don't want to leave 2016 behind. 2016 was an awful year but it was the last year that you were alive. As the clock strikes midnight on Saturday, I will be walking alone into a year that you never lived in. Sometimes I'm not sure that I want to go there. But I look back at the collage that you made and know that I must go on without you. Yes, the world is a sorry mess but I will keep on keeping on, I will look for the bright side, even in the darkness and I will continue to explore. And I will love, until my heart stops beating. Because while-ever there is love, there is hope. Yes, there is always something worse but there is always the possibility of something better too. In spite of everything, it is still a wonderful life.

Monday, 26 December 2016

The alchemy of love

I never discussed the science or philosophy of alchemy with you and I don't need to. I already know that the very word 'alchemy' would have made your heart sing and if you could play it on a Triple Word Score, all the better. Alchemy encapsulates the realms of physics and metaphysics and, at its simplest level, metallurgy. It epitomises for me the man you were: a giant who had his feet firmly planted in the ground of reality and his head so far into the clouds that he could touch the stars. Historically, alchemists sought to transmute base metals into gold, to cure disease and to discover a way to prolong life but, metaphorically speaking, alchemy is, according to Merriam Webster, 'a power or process of transforming something common into something special'. Alchemy is akin to magic and there was always something of the wizard about you. It was there from the first day we spent together, transforming old iron into the poker that looked like Ginny Weasley's wand. 'Magical thinking', you said, with a nod to my ex, the rationalist. There was magic in the air from the moment we connected. When we first went for a walk together at Redmires, you took photos and I wrote you a poem: 'the perfect way to remember a magical day,' you said. And it really was. 

In February, we walked further afield, along the river to Pateley Bridge and stopped off in the workshops of some makers. We admired some jewellery and I admired you as you chatted to the jeweller about the mysteries of titanium and about the placing of rivets. I asked you if you'd ever thought of making jewellery and you told me that you had a coffee pot of silver somewhere in your house and that you were thinking of trying to make me something. Your words amused me so much that I wrote them down. Who else would have a coffee pot of silver?

A few months ago, I walked that path again, this time with the silver decanted into a plastic bag. Your family had found it in the junk shop that was your house and kindly agreed to let me take it to the jeweller. It was like something from a fairy tale, walking along the river with thirty pieces of silver, hoping that she could make a permanent reminder of our love.

We emptied the bag onto the counter and looked through the pile of common objects. Something about this mish-mash of the precious with the mundane was so very you. We found the innards of mobile phones, bottle tops and crucifixes, such an odd assortment, but all of it silver, all of it usable. You knew what you were doing when you stored it for some future date that never arrived, although, in the end it did arrive, just not the way you planned it. I cried, of course, as I told her again about you and about our story and she promised to make me something, perhaps in time for Christmas.

Today the parcel arrived. I was nervous as I opened the box, scared that I might not like it. I'd given the jeweller some ideas but left it to her to create something that she thought fitting. I gasped like a child opening a magic lid when I peeped inside. It was perfect. From those old scraps of metal she had made something beautiful, special, magical. I put it on and it fit like Cinderella's slipper. It is a treasure trove of clouds and hearts, stars and rivets, intersected by the bark of trees. It is the perfect reminder of our time together, a way to keep you always with me. 

As I sit here now facing Christmas without you, I am surrounded by mementos of our time together. The photo from our first magical day out is blown up as a canvas and sitting in pride of place on my wall, the poker rests by the log-burning stove, the Stardust print that you gave me for my birthday is framed and sitting on my desk and there is a little corner of my shelves which houses your bat in his tin, the collage that you made last new year and the photo that you first sent when you were hoping to capture my heart. And now, on my finger, this ring, a sign of our love. It's not a wedding ring. Death did us part. I can no longer give myself to you, or share my life with you, but with all that I am, I honour you and in all that I go on to do, I will remember you. 

I am grateful, Blacksmith, for all the things that you gave me, the physical and the intangible, all the things that you left me with. You weren't able to prolong your own life or cure your disease but, nevertheless you were an alchemist: every day with you was a day out of the ordinary. You transformed the common into something special. I sit here and know that I am also transformed, by your love and by this grief that has ripped through my life like a tornado. I will never be the same because of you. But I'm so glad to have known the alchemy of your love.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Last Christmas I gave you my heart

Well, not really. I gave you my heart in stages, piece by piece, week by week, taking it slowly, figuring it out, working through the inevitable doubts, wanting to be sure. By the time you died, the puzzle was complete: my heart and your heart welded together. Giving someone your heart is a risky business. What becomes of it when they die? It seems that there are bits that are still living, bits that are gone to the grave, bits lost forever, bits that will stay always together. There are bits that I am still looking for.

Last year was not a happy Christmas. My mother died on the tenth of December, so the festive season was shrouded in sadness. The run up to Christmas was spent choosing coffins and flowers instead of presents. I sent funeral invites instead of Christmas cards. I read eulogies instead of singing carols. On the twenty-third, instead of riding with Grandma on the Christmas train, I travelled behind her coffin in a funeral cortege and said goodbye to my mum for the last time.

But Christmas wasn't completely blown to pieces, because the children were there and because you were there in the background, holding me up, making me laugh through my tears, giving me hope for the future.

This year is shrouded in sadness too. The spectre of Christmas past, Christmas last, hangs over it as I remember you. This is what I remember:
  • The antique Oxo tin of trinkets that you brought for my little boy's advent calendar. (You said you wanted the Oxo tin back, but it sits on my desk now).
  • The way you hung around in Sheffield on the night my mum died, waiting for me to signal you to come for a hug. I've no idea what you did that evening. But when I needed you, you were there. 
  • Shopping with you in Meadowhall. I was joyful that evening, in spite of my sadness, thrilled just to have you by my side as I shopped for children's toys.
  • You putting up my Mum's Christmas tree as I wrote funeral letters. (My daughter and I did it this year and I remembered the system you worked out, which branches went where. It looks pretty good. I hope you agree.) 
  • The way you looked at me and the words you spoke as you arranged the fronds. 'You're special,' you said. 'Even if I wasn't completely besotted with you, I'd still think you were special.' I think I gave you the last piece of my heart that night. 

  • Our first moment of discord (we only had two) when you double-booked yourself on an evening when I was expecting to see you. Your heartache at causing me pain; you couldn't bear to make me sad.
  • The palaver of trying to find you something suitable to wear for my mum's funeral. Your old suit was too big as you'd lost so much weight. I bought you an extra large shirt and an extra large jacket but they were still too small. You were XXL and worth your weight in gold. (They lay you in your coffin in your suit anyway. I thought at the time that it must have been baggy but I don't suppose it mattered.)
  • You sitting chatting to my friend the night before the funeral.
  • Waking up in your arms and longing to curl back into the night. 
  • The sight of you, as you walked along the line at the funeral shaking hands with the family. My relief to see you there. I introduced you to my brother for the first time: 'this is Paul. He's been looking after me,' I said. He shook your hand, liked you immediately, told you to keep on looking after me. You did, for as long as you were able.
  • You sitting in the armchair across from me, later back at home. You were still there when the children came home. I was too tired to make you leave. Neither of them were concerned by the unexplained presence of the big man in the corner. 
  • The sight of you arriving though my door in the evening on Christmas Day with a huge printer's tray, unwrapped, slung over your shoulder. Me chastising you for the lack of wrapping paper and the lack of a card. You made up for it at New Year. And on my birthday. You were a man who listened to feedback, took things on board.
  • The shirts that I bought you, and the tub of flapjack, the notebook for your ideas. (The shirts sit in my drawer now. I've thought about making something from them. It's a thing people do. But somehow I can't bring myself to cut into fabric that you once wore. I have so little of you left. I like to keep the shape of you in your clothes).
  • Watching It's a Wonderful Life in your arms. What a film to watch. What a wonderful man you were. What a difference you made to me. 
Last Christmas, I gave you my heart. Less than three months later you died. You took part of my heart with you when you left. But at least you didn't give it away. At least I know that I gave it to someone really special. You kept my heart safe. I believe you would always have kept it safe. 

You gave me your heart too and, though you died, I still keep yours safe, tucked up with what is left of mine. I write to keep you alive. Your love helps to keep me alive as well. 

Happy Christmas, Blacksmith Paul, wherever you are.  

Lot of Love,

Writer Beverley


Thursday, 15 December 2016

Where do you start?

'Where do you start? How do you separate the present from the past?
How do you deal with all the things you thought would last? That didn't last
With bits of memories scattered here and there
I look around and don't know where to start.'

I'm not ready for another relationship. At least I don't think I am. Mind you, I'm not sure what ready would look like anymore. At the beginning of this journey, I imagined I might be ready when I had stopped loving you. But I understand now, that that is never going to happen. I was in love with you when you died and you've not done anything since then to make me change my mind so my feelings for you will always stay the same. Which is kind of comforting to me but, I imagine, rather disconcerting to any future partner. It's a weird complication that I could have done without. I was hardly straightforward before you came into my life and died. I'm even more complicated now.

My other thought was that I might be ready when I'd stopped grieving. But what does that even mean? When someone you're in love with dies suddenly, in horrendous circumstances, do you ever stop grieving? I am going to be sad about losing you forever. Perhaps grieving has nothing to do with being ready for a new love.

So I look to mourning traditions and am none the wiser. In the Muslim tradition, widows must stay away from potential suitors for a period of four months and ten days. I'm long past that marker. On the other hand, in Victorian England, a widow wore mourning clothes for two years. But did that stop her from signing up to Ok Cupid? I don't know. Anyway, I'm not a widow or a Victorian or Muslim. We were only together for eight months and only the last four or five were official. In some ways it makes sense that I might be 'ready' sooner than someone who has been married for years. In other ways, not. I ask my bereavement counsellor how long it might take for things to improve and she tells me that, statistically speaking, the average time to regain equilibrium following a major loss is two years, eight months and four days. As I've had two major bereavements in the space of a year and lost three partners in three years (only one of them to death), I'm guessing I might need longer. It seems reasonable to round it up to five just to be on the safe side.

Besides, there's this blog to write. I thought I might be ready to meet someone new when I'd finished writing my blog. But when do you finish writing a blog (about someone you still love, who you're still grieving for)? How long is appropriate? I'm committed now to recording this process and I get messages all the time from people telling me not to stop. I can't let those people down. But how could I have a new relationship while I'm still writing about you? And what if I turn this into a book? That's going to take another year at least. Maybe two or three with editing and publication. Could someone please send me the manual for how to move forward?

The obvious solution is to never have another relationship or at least not until the five years have passed and the book is out. I've considered that possibility and it makes sense. I've known great love. Maybe it's enough. On the other hand, I also know that love is the only thing of value in this life and that life can be snatched from our grasp at any moment. Still, people live good lives as single people all the time so why shouldn't I? I know I don't need a man to complete me. I know I should love myself and I do. I have a great career, wonderful female friends, fabulous children and meaningful ways to spend my time. And yet, and yet......I am lonely. And I miss men. There, I said it. I feel like I'm betraying some feminist cause to say that a life lived entirely in sisterhood is lacking something for me. I miss male company, I miss male conversation and on a very primitive level, I miss being close to a male body. Of course I miss your conversation and your company and your body specifically but you're not here anymore and though you are eternally in my heart, a metaphysical love is not enough for me. And as a self-employed, single mother, I live almost entirely in the company of women and children. I rarely speak to a man at all. 

There are a few men in writing groups that I run but I'm in a different role there and boundaries must be maintained. Then there's your friends. I see them occasionally. If I bump into one, in the park say, recently I've found myself hankering for hugs, hanging about waiting for them to offer, sometimes just asking outright. And in my mindfulness class, the other day I found myself staring at my neighbour's hands, instead of focusing my attention on my own feet. I'm not interested in him and the idea of being physically intimate with another man is horrifying at the moment. And yet I just want to be close to maleness. On Saturday night it escalated to new heights. I went to a cabaret night that my friend was involved in. There was a man on stage doing a comedy juggling act in which he and his partner stripped down to their underpants. His physique was similar to yours and I found myself looking for him at the interval, as if I might seriously go up to him and say, "hi. I liked your act. Your belly reminds me of my deceased partner's. Can I hug you?" Sad times indeed. 

So, I reactivated my Tinder account again, updated my profile making it clear that I am not ready for a relationship, that I just want male company. And, so far, it's been great. I've connected with an ex-vicar/writer who is up for platonic debates about existential matters and a seemingly nice man who's happy to be friends. He's offered me his ear and his shoulder, he's up for dog walks and, get this, he even likes playing Scrabble. Which is where the trouble starts.

Surely, nothing could be safer, tamer than a game of online Scrabble with a man and yet I'd barely opened up the app, placed a few tiles, exchanged a few words of competitive banter and I was crying. I felt like I was cheating on you. Scrabble was our game. How can I contemplate playing Scrabble with someone new? We courted each other over Scrabble boards, with Scrabble banter. And yet, I find myself feeling happy, in amongst the tears. Because I love playing Scrabble and Scrabble isn't just our game, it's my game too. I played it every Friday night with my Grandma for years. I can't abandon all the parts of myself that remind me of you, can I?

Which books are yours?
Which tapes and dreams belong to you and which are mine?
Our lives are tangled like the branches of a vine that intertwine

So many habits that we'll have to break

And yesterday's we'll have to take apart

I sat on my own at the cabaret. Being out was tough enough. A few people that I knew asked me if I'd like to sit with them but I declined. I couldn't cope with speaking to people. It was the anniversary of my mother's death and I was feeling bleak. I was in my grief bubble, sitting inside a snow globe, watching the world through a distorted lens. I smiled occasionally at jokes, found some enjoyment in staring at the stage. It was ok. Until the end, when they removed a curtain from the back portion of the room and I saw the maroon, velour bench where we had last sat together, the week before you died. I could have, should have maybe, turned away, but I couldn't do that. I went and sat down on that bench and suddenly you were there, sitting next to me, just on the other side of unbreakable glass. And I couldn't move. It was like I'd wandered into the wrong show and I'd been hypnotised by Derren Brown, my behind glued to the seat. And the panic started rising because suddenly I was all at sea again and I didn't know how I could get myself home. And I was crying again, not wracking sobs, not conscious tears, but the kind of tears that fall unbidden, seeping, like blood from open wounds. 

'One day there'll be a song or something in the air again
To catch me by surprise and you'll be there again
A moment in what might have been'

Eventually I pulled myself from my seat and fell towards the door. I saw a friend of yours, didn't stop to talk, just hugged him, tears streaming and walked out. Then the sobs started and I managed to phone a friend and I was saying those words again: 'I just can't believe he's gone.' And then, again, 'I feel like I'll never be able to go out without crying.' What am I supposed to do with myself when I can't even go out for an evening without crying? Maybe I'll be ready for dating when I stop crying, I thought. Will I ever stop crying?

'Where do you start? Do you allow yourself a little time to cry?
Or do you close your eyes and kiss it all goodbye? I guess you try'

The next night was the Scrabble night, with the banter and the tears and the guilt and the niceness and the confusion. Am I ready, even, for playing Scrabble with a man? I was thinking about it and wondering how it is possible to even start to try to move forward as I made my way to bed. I turned on the radio just long enough to set the alarm. This song was playing, nostalgic, plaintive. I sat on the edge of the bed and listened to the end, waited to find out who the artist was, Googled it and listened again. It seemed like it was for me. It encapsulated my weekend and my feelings. 

'And though I don't know where and don't know when
I'll find myself in love again
I promise there will always be a little place no one will see

A tiny part within my heart, that stays in love with you'

I move forward and turn back, each forward movement a wrench away from the past. But you are with me every step of the way and I know you wouldn't begrudge me a game of Scrabble in my heartache. As for the tiny place in my heart, it's pretty huge and there for everyone to see. And anyone who wants to love future me is going to have to understand that. It's probably the best prophylactic there is. 

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

This won't be a Happy Christmas

I'm not sending Christmas cards this year. Call me Scrooge, but I just don't feel like celebrating. I don't begrudge other people their happy Christmas (or maybe I do) but I don't want to think about it and I don't want to talk about it and I just want it to be over as soon as possible. I don't have any festive cheer to spare. It took all my energy to put up a Christmas tree for the children. I've booked the panto and the Christmas train and some time between now and the twenty-fifth, I will buy the children some presents. But that's it. That's enough. I have turned off the radio and I'm staying away from the parties. I don't need to be constantly reminded that Christmas is a time for sharing love and that half of the people I love most in the world are missing. Frankly, Mariah Carey has it covered: All I want for Christmas is you. And Santa can't bring me what I want. So it's 'Bah Humbug' from me, I'm afraid.

I suppose I could do what other people seem to be doing and donate to a charity instead of sending cards, but I donate to charities all year long. Charity is for life, not just for Christmas, surely? I'm already saving a few trees. Isn't that enough? Why do I need to offset my sadness? Can't I just be selfish this year? Sometimes sadness is appropriate. We can't all make lemonade every time we get lemons. It's exhausting squeezing every drop of positivity from a negative situation when you're already exhausted.

Don't worry, it goes both ways. I don't want any Christmas cards either. I mean, I don't mind if you have to follow the custom, if writing cards gives you some joy, if it just wouldn't be Christmas for you if you didn't send cards. But please don't send one on my account. Please don't think that sending me a snowy scene with the words: 'Happy Christmas' and 'Happy New Year' is going to improve my lot during this festive period. Putting it bluntly, it's not.

I appreciate you thinking about me but love is for all of the year, not just for Christmas too. The friends who care about me have been here for me during what has been the worst year of my life. Some of them have sent me love on a daily or weekly basis. They have checked in on how I am regularly. Some of them have driven across the country to see me. A lot of good friends have read my blog, religiously or sporadically. They know how I am. They have sat me with while I've cried week after week after week. They know that I will not be happy just because it's Christmas. The word happy is just jarring. It's not appropriate for someone who is grieving.

This Christmas won't be a happy one. I'm not being negative. It's just the way it is. Sure, it will have some happy moments. I have two gorgeous children who are excited and there will be joy in seeing them open their presents and all that malarkey. And, yes, I'm grateful that I have them and that I'm not homeless and that I don't live in Syria. I have a lot of things to be grateful for. I can make lemonade when I need to. But I will mostly be sad and mostly thinking about the people who are missing. That's just the way it is. My life is half-empty, not half-full.

By all means think of me. And if you want to send me a card, send me a card acknowledging that you know this year will be hard. Wish me some peace. Send me some strength. Keep sending me love. Make plans to hang out with me, knowing that there will probably be tears if you do. But don't wish me a Happy Christmas. Christmas will be tough. As for 2017, with any luck it can't be as bad as 2016 but I hear bereaved people and counsellors routinely saying that the second year following the loss of a partner is worse than the first so I'm not counting my chickens and the last time I said things couldn't get worse, you died. I'm not risking saying it again. Probably the second year following the death of a partner is worse, at least in part because friends forget that things don't get better just because the year on the calendar has changed. When the person you love is missing, they just keep being missing. So please, friends, forgive me for the lack of cards and for the Grinchlike behaviour and keep sending the love.

You didn't send me a card last year. You sent me a New Year's card instead. It was a beautiful scene of bluebells and trees. You acknowledged that life had been tough for me for years and that things could only get better. You were a big part of my future plans for life improvement.  
'May all your dreams come true in 2016,' you wrote. 
So much for that. 
Bah Humbug. 

Friday, 9 December 2016

Life goes on

My mother, Susan Ward, doing what she did best. Sorely missed.

I didn't really rate Auden's funeral poem until this year. Aside from the fact that it's hard to take anything seriously once Hugh Grant has been associated with it, it always seemed a tad melodramatic. All of those pleas to cut off the telephone and silence the dogs annoyed me. Why should the rest of us be denied access to all the wonders of the earth and the cosmos just because one tiny speck of a human being has gone? People have died before and will die again. What makes your grief so special, Winston? That's what I used to think. That's what I thought when we looked through funeral verses when my dad died. That's what I thought when my mum died. But when you died, those words weren't strong enough. 'Stop all the clocks'. I get it now. I really do.

But the clock went on ticking and life continued regardless.

When you died I wanted everything to stop. Time lost all meaning and all of life seemed pointless. I know it was hard for the people around me to witness. I have two beautiful children who are the epitome of goodness and hope and yet, for me, for a long time it did seem that 'nothing now can come to any good.' For the first time in my life, I really and truly just wanted to die, not as a momentary thought but as a pervasive day to day reality. The agony I was feeling (that I still feel sometimes), seemed impossible to bear. I wanted it to stop. I wanted time to stop. I wanted to be where you were.

But the clock went on ticking and life continued regardless.

Even so, my sense of time has gone AWOL. It is nine months since you died now but I can conjure you so vividly in a heartbeat, that I can almost believe that you just walked out of the door and will be back at any moment. And yet, at the same time, each of those two hundred and seventy-five days has felt like a metaphorical trudge across a barren desert, feet sinking into sand, dust in my eyes. Or like crawling up a mountain on my hands and knees in a gale, slipping across frozen wastes, with frost biting at my skin. So many cliches. All so true. These nine months have been both the longest and the shortest of my life.

The clock went on ticking but time was a concertina, stretching and contracting.

I went to see the osteopath the other day. I'd been once before since your death and I thought I'd better go back for another check-up; writing non-stop for months on end has had repercussions on my neck and my spine.
           'It's been a while,' he said, when I walked into the room.
           'Not really,' I said. 'About three weeks, I think.'
           'No, five months,' he said, checking his notes.

The clock had been ticking and had left me behind.

Although it is only nine months since you died, I have been grieving for a year now. My mother died at this time last year, from a cancer that had always been terminal, even though it seemed, at times, that she might out-run it. Eventually, unexpectedly, the clock stopped for her at 6pm on 10th December 2015.

But for me, the clock went on ticking and life went on regardless.

I got the call when I was bathing my children. She'd gone peacefully in the arms of her sons. I'd seen her earlier, known that it was possible that she wouldn't have long. But the consultant had said that she might have forty-eight hours or maybe a few weeks depending how she responded to the medication that they'd given her in the hospice. I'd sat with her and held her hand while he'd tried to tell her that there was nothing more he could do, while she pretended not to hear.
         'I'm here,' I said.
         'I know,' she said, though she wouldn't or couldn't open her eyes. As far as I know, they were the last words she spoke. She was asleep when I left, but I told her anyway, that I had to fetch the children, that I loved her, that I would be back. The children needed picking up from school and the Christmas Fair was on. You can't miss the Christmas Fair just because your mum is dying.

The clock went on ticking and life went on regardless.

I hadn't told the children that Grandma might be dying. How could I? The first I'd heard of it was on that afternoon in the hospice. And she might still have three weeks. No need to worry them just before bedtime. And when the phone rang and my brother told me the news, I just put the phone down, scooped my boy out of the bath and texted a neighbour while I read stories and sang lullabies as normal, even though my limbs were shaking and my mind was racing. When you're a single parent what else can you do? I went in to see my daughter, told her I had to go out.
           'Where are you going?' she asked.
           'I'm going to see Grandma in hospital,' I said, not wanting to lie, unable to tell the truth.
           'Tell her I love her,' she said. 'And take her my card.'
           'I will,' I said.
I took the Get Well card that my daughter had made and went up to see Grandma, my mum, lying pale and calm on the hospice bed. I kissed her goodbye, went to the pub with family, texted you to meet me and found refuge in your arms for a while on the sofa. But you couldn't stay the night, not with the children there. So I said goodbye to you in the hall again and went to bed.

The clock went on ticking and life went on regardless.

Though it is the anniversary of my mum's death tomorrow, I feel like I already lived it this Thursday as I watched my little boy narrating the Christmas play (last year, on the day she died, he was a shepherd) and as we heaved our way through the school Christmas Fair. By the time the children were in bed, I was in tears again and there was no you to text for a hug this time. I longed for you, as I always do, but more so in this time of extra grief and remembrance. My mum's death was sad but it didn't destroy me because I had you by my side. And because, though she went too soon, she still went along with the order of things. Parents should die before children. We will all be orphaned eventually. I was just orphaned a little sooner than my peers and my children lost their lovely Grandma way younger than they should.

But the clock went on ticking and life went on regardless.

Until you died. At the wrong time, at who knows what time and who knows why. Your heart just stopped, like a clock whose battery had run out, just like that with no warning. It was out of order. There was no goodbye. There was nothing calm or peaceful about the way I found you. There has been little calm or peace since. And I wanted everything to stop.

But the clock goes on ticking. Twelve months since she died. Nine months since you died. I have been grieving for a year, different kinds of grief, cumulative losses. I miss you both. But life goes on regardless.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Grief is exhausting

Did I say it was getting easier? I lied.

Of course, I didn't mean to lie. Anyone who knows me well knows that I genuinely can't lie. I have to tell people the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, regardless of my relationship with them or the length of my acquaintance. It gets me into no end of bother. I blame my dad. Like an archetypal Yorkshireman, he called a spade a spade, and being on the receiving end of his truth was like being hit soundly around the head with one. I try to be a bit more gentle with other people's feelings but still, for some reason, unless I'm writing fiction, I am compelled to always tell the truth.

And the truth about grief, or about this kind of grief (for I believe there are different kinds) is that grief is unpredictable and temperamental. Just when I think I've got it under control, BAM! It hits me round the head again, like that spadeful of truth and leaves me reeling. Suddenly, I find myself struggling to breathe again, feeling dazed and confused like a cartoon character with stars around my head, in a grief bubble, detached and cast adrift from the rest of the world. And, as if this isn't bad enough, it's then that the panic starts, because I can't believe this this is still happening and that there is no escape from the truth that what happened, happened and that this is my life now. I feel that I can't possibly live the rest of my days with this gaping hole at the centre of my being. I want to run away from that hole but the hole is part of me and there is no escape. It feels that, at any moment, what's left of me might collapse inwards and fall through the crevasse or that I might be sucked into a vortex of oblivion. Seriously. I'm telling you the truth. It feels that bad.

But sometimes, it feels like I can dial my grief down so that it's just a background hum. It is always there, like a constant baseline to the music of my life, but the baseline has become familiar now, maybe it even adds depth. It is irritating living with this interference but it is manageable. Sometimes I can even hear a tuneful melody playing alongside it. New instruments are introduced and the different parts harmonise for a while into something beautiful, something that sounds almost like the soundtrack to happiness, almost like hope. And I think, this is nice, it's getting better, things will surely be ok. And it is usually at that moment that grief turns the baseline up so loud that I can barely hear anything else; grief, it seems, doesn't like to be ignored. And so grief asserts itself until the deep, throbbing baseline is so over-powering that the other instruments can't hear themselves playing anymore and everything is discordant and out of tune. Eventually, the melody is obliterated and the orchestra packs up and all that's left is the overwhelming noise of grief. Seriously. I'm telling you the truth. Day after day, week after week, month after month, (don't talk about the years, please don't talk about the years), it feels that bad.

'No-one ever told me that grief felt so like fear,' says C.S.Lewis on the opening page of 'A Grief Observed'. He is right. It does. Grief feels horribly like fear. I wake up every morning with a tightness in my chest and a kind of lurching feeling as if the bed has been moved in the night and I am emerging every day into a strange new world. Gradually, as the daily routines take place, those feelings of terror recede but they return periodically throughout the day, often with no notice, often with no root cause that I can trace. It is like my mind and body are on red alert, waiting for catastrophe to strike even though the worst has already happened, even though, in many ways, I feel I have nothing to fear anymore. 'I am not afraid,' C.S.Lewis says. Neither am I. But grief does feel like fear and feeling afraid all the time is exhausting.

Yes, more than anything else, grief is exhausting. It is a battle every day to reach for goodness, to climb up a shifting mound of sadness towards the light. It is so tiring to get to the end of the day knowing that tomorrow I will have to do it all again. And again. And again. I am so tired that I am shaking. I desperately want to relax but nothing is relaxing. I want to lose myself in a good film, but I can't concentrate. I want to read but I can't follow the plot. I want to write about something that isn't you, that isn't grief, but I can't make up stories at the moment. I am wedded to the truth. I wish I could get drunk but I can't stomach alcohol anymore. I wish I could go out and drink and dance and socialise but I can't do it.

I did go out on Saturday night though (I couldn't have done that a while ago). I went out with a friend to a street market and I floated around like I was an alien in a spaceship from another planet, observing people living their strange lives in a strange world, where all the men had hipster beards and ate food from trays in the freezing cold, in an industrial warehouse with music blaring as if this was the new fun. I felt dislocated, old, out of place. I drank a warm glass of punch, stared at flames in rusty bins, browsing Facebook and Twitter to feel the protective presence of fellow grievers. I read a quote by Emily Dickinson: 'I am out with lanterns, looking for myself.' Exactly. Most of the evening I hung out by one of the hipsters who was stoking the flatbread oven, watching his hands and his forearms, wondering if I found him attractive, longing for male company but not able to think about being with anyone else. 'He's like Paul,' my friend said. And I realised she was right and that I was just standing watching him move the iron in and out of the fire, like he was a blacksmith at a forge.

What I want, of course, is to relax by curling up in your arms in front of the fire and doing nothing. We hardly ever went out. We had no need. What I want is to feel the calm familiarity of your body, your presence, your understanding. But there is a hole where you were that another man can't fill. So I fill it with activity, with exercise, with my laptop, writing until the words blur on the screen, building a fragile bridge across the gap with truth. Writing brings me calm. But it is tiring.

Grief is horrible. Grief is boring. Grief is exhausting.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Somewhere over the rainbow

I was standing in the hut that you called your music studio. Usually, you came to my house on a Saturday but you'd been working on your new studio for weeks and I asked you if you'd like me to come and see it before we went out for the day. 

You were exuberant on the days when you'd been building, sending me little updates by Messenger, lots of smiley faces: you were always so happy when you were making. I don't really remember how you built it, not being one for details, but you had been hammering pieces of wood and reshaping doors. I think you'd even put the roof on it, fashioning something akin to an animal pen, but soundproofed with carpet tiles and housing synthesisers instead of pigs. I was amazed to see it, so impressed that you could create something so solid with your own bare hands; all I can create are flimsy words from flighty thoughts, pinning sensations with fingertips that dance intuitively across the keys. 

When I arrived you had a heater blasting in anticipation of my presence and the synthesisers and microphones were set up ready; I'd asked you to play me something, intrigued to see in action what I'd only heard recorded. When I got there, I was irritable though. I was tired and grieving for my mum and, in spite of the heater, I was feeling the cold, the kind of cold that feels bone deep in spite of hats and gloves and fleeces. There was snow on the ground out in the Peak District and it was a grey day. I would really rather have been at home. 'Will it take long?' I asked, rather churlishly. 'Three hours,' you said, with a straight face. 'Didn't you get the programme?' You made me laugh, took me out of myself for a moment, as only you could. 

And then you played, although I'm not sure played is even the right word. You described it as 'twiddling some knobs'. You didn't have much faith in having any kind of ability with music but you loved it, really loved it. And as I watched you stroking pads and tweaking dials, there seemed to be something intuitive in your movements and there was beauty in the sounds that filled the air that day. The dance of fingertips on keyboards, feeling their way into something intangible.

Afterwards, you handed me the microphone. 'Sing to me, please,' you said. Maybe you were auditioning me for this band that you wanted to create. You had me down as lead singer even though I had less confidence in my singing than you had in your music. I sang to you anyway, 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' because it's the only song I feel I sing well having crooned it almost every night to my children for the last eight years. I perfected it in the wee small hours while I rocked infants in my arms, imagining I was Judy Garland in Kansas, with ruby slippers on my feet.

When I'd finished singing, you locked up and we went out into the snow for a walk. There was something wrong with you that day, something really wrong. I knew it intuitively but I couldn't put my finger on what it was. The day was clouded in unease.

The next time I sang to you, you were in your coffin at the undertakers a few weeks later. I hadn't seen your body since I first discovered you lying dead on your bed and we weren't allowed to see you again after the post-mortem. But I rested my head on your coffin and sang, trying somehow to soothe both of us, like I was rocking our distressed souls with my voice.

I sang the song again as I scattered your ashes over the heather and gorse above Redmires, where we first walked together, first touched hands, first felt the possibility in the air. Where we dared to dream dreams that almost came true. 

I think of you now every night as I smooth my little boy's curls with my hand, lying next to him on the bed, holding onto him too tightly, lonely for your touch. I sing those words and understand why they play it at funerals. I wonder if, one day, I will wake up where these clouds are far behind me. And I wonder if there's a place that one day I will find you again. Somewhere over the rainbow. 

One thing is for sure. I'm not in Kansas any more. And there is no way home. 

Thursday, 24 November 2016

I don't cry every day anymore

It is official. I have been grieving for longer than we were together. Somehow, eight and a half months have gone by since you died. We were only seeing each other for eight.

A lot has happened in that time, Blacksmith, much of it directly related to your death. Just on a practical level, it turns out there is a lot to do when someone you're in love with dies unexpectedly. I've written eulogies, helped to sort your possessions, catalogued photos, analysed post-mortems, scattered ashes, planted trees, organised memorials and, finally, managed to arrange a suitable location and inscription for your bench. Who knew it could be so hard to get someone to authorise the placing of a simple seat? Each different location that we've decided on has had to go to a separate authority for consideration and most of them have been rejected. But it's sorted now, I hope, finally, eight and a half months on. I think you will be pleased with it, when it's in place. I won't tell you where it's going to be yet, though perhaps you already know.

The words, of course, were a challenge. How can a man like you be summed up in the kind of space you'd get on twitter? Brevity is not my strong point, as you know. I remember how it used to infuriate you when we were messaging each other, that I could type so much faster. By the time you'd replied to something I'd said, I was already two steps ahead. In the end, we settled into a familiar rhythm of a three to one ratio. I still miss those messages.

Now, instead of typing messages to you in the evening, I type messages to the bereaved on Facebook and write blog posts about love and death. I can't really write anything else at the moment. Other projects have been abandoned and now it feels like my life's work is to write about you and about loss. I've joined a new, international community of broken souls. There is a comfort to be found in being amongst people who understand. Most people, it seems, really don't understand. And why should they? It turns out that there is a big gap between empathy and experience. Still, empathy is a gift to be cherished and I have found it in surprising places.

If you're looking down on the chessboard of my life, you'll notice that the pieces have all been rearranged since you died. It's not just the King that is missing. People that were close have moved further away and others, that were on the periphery, have moved closer. Some people have all but disappeared entirely. And there are people there that I didn't even know before, some of them your people - your precious mum, some of your friends. And others, those broken souls. I look into their eyes and see myself reflected there.

Grief, you'll notice, has settled itself into the centre of my life now. It is not as scary as it was at first, no longer the unwanted visitor that I sought to banish, battle with, defeat. You can't fight with something invisible, nor run a sword through absence. You can't retreat from Grief either. Even when I moved house, it followed me in, insinuating its way under ill-fitting doors and windows, creeping through the gaps in floorboards, settling into silences and empty spaces, making its presence felt when the world goes quiet. I wouldn't call Grief a friend still, but it is familiar now, comfortable almost. Grief is a haven from the madness of normality.

Normality is creeping back in though, slowly but surely, in little ways. I can bake flapjack now and I mostly eat proper meals. Fragments of my brain are realigning and I am probably remembering fifty per cent of the things I should be remembering, rather than the ten per cent I was remembering back in March. I've read a few chapters of books (not consecutive, not the same books) and I am starting to take on new projects (some of them not even grief-related). And yesterday I tried to watch TV again. I thought I'd start with Neighbours, just twenty minutes of something familiar; I've watched Neighbours religiously for decades. It didn't go well. I was out of touch with the characters and plot lines (a lot can change in eight months even in Soapland). But it wasn't the onscreen drama that that felt wrong, really. It was the step towards more normal behaviour that felt wrong in itself, like trying to return to a place that doesn't exist anymore. The assertion of normality feels like attempting to close a door on this awful episode, which in turn feels like closing a door on you. It is the dance of Grief again: the desire for a future, the lure of the past, the need to keep living in spite of the awareness of dying.

Today, as I walked down the stairs at my daughter's school, having run my lunchtime
writing group, I thought of you as I always do in the gaps between activities and remembered those early days when I would walk down those stairs crying. In those days, appearing normal for an hour was a monumental feat. I could only hold back the pain for very short periods of time. Today I didn't cry at all, just went home and made sandwiches, filled in my tax return. In the early days socialising was impossible. But last weekend I went out for an evening (albeit with really good, empathic friends) and I held it together for several hours. There was just one moment when suddenly the floor seemed to tip and I felt I was underwater, unable to hear what people were saying, when I felt the panic rising. But I kept breathing and held on and it passed. Things are improving. I don't cry every day anymore. In fact, when I look back at my blog, I realise that it is a whole week now since I was last in the grip of a proper grief storm. Without question, the periods of calm are getting longer.

In some ways I miss those early days when you were the only thing on my mind, when the whole world was a storm. But it is getting easier now. Not better. No less sad. Just easier. I know you would want it to be easier on me.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Fairy wings

I wrote this poem years ago when I was in the wrong relationship. I sent it to you one night in response to your plea, 'send me a poem, Beverley Writer.' You said it was the saddest poem you had ever read and it made you cry. 'It makes me happy too, though,' you wrote, 'because I know my heart will soar with yours.' Oh, how we soared.

I just found this photo of myself amongst your files. I was dressed up as 'Fairy Tale' for a children's writing event. It made me think of the poem. What a sad fairy I look in this picture.  What a sad fairy I am now. Still, I read the poem again and, just like it did for you, it makes me happy and sad at the same time. However sad I am now (and I am unspeakably sad), nothing could be as sad as being that fairy pinned down with the broken wings. I know that now that you have shown me how it feels to be cherished, even if I am on my own for the rest of my life, I will never be in that situation again. I hate the idea that there might be a silver lining to this cloud, but a touch of fairy dust maybe I'll allow. Somehow, I will clean up those fairy wings and I will fly. Maybe, if I fly high enough, I can reach you still.

Fairy wings

I saw a pair of fairy wings hanging in the sun,
like all a girl’s childhood dreams spun
in pink and lilac. When I slipped them
on I knew they were the one.
Like Harry Potter’s wand, my wings chose me
and I believed that with them
I could dance beyond the edge
of reason, fly sky high and touch
the stars, sprinkle the world with
fairy dust and magic charms,
leave gold flecks in your hair.

You laughed at me.
You didn’t believe in fairies
or magic or the joy of flight.
You brought me back to earth
with a bump and I squeezed
back my tears, but I bought
the wings anyway and in my dreams
for a while at least, I could still fly.

Like a butterfly I longed to flit
from flower, to precious, glorious flower,
to taste the flavours of the rivers of the world,
to rest my fairy crown with yours on shores,
and banks and heather and moor.
I thought that’s what life was for.
But you blotted out the colours to monochrome,
you cut down all the blossoms that were not home.
And then you started to pick at my fairy wings.
You wanted me pinned in your collection,
safe and still.
Your capture made me ill.

Dutiful,  I accepted your ban on all the people
I had ever loved and all the places I had ever been.
I did what I was told, stuck to safe topics like the weather
(British of course, no foreign climes accepted here),
didn’t dare to mention that the stars shine like gold
on other side and how I longed to take you there.
It was quieter then, the way you like it
but in my dreams sometimes,
I could still dance, and sing and fly.

'I need to know where I stand.'
So I offered you my hand, told you that I
loved you more than stars and grains of sand,
proffered you a hundred grand, a plot of land
my family, my friends and everything I had.
But you pushed my love away
and you crushed my fairy dreams
and you tore my lovely wings to shreds,
left them scattered across a lonely bed.

But I still believe in magic.
Those scattered threads of pink and lilac
re-form now and again I see my fairy wings.
Like trusty friends they waited for me.
I put them on.
Step back if you will and see me fly.