Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Stumpcross Caverns and the Coldstones Cut

As soon as we saw the sign, we made up a song with the words: Stumpcross Caverns and the Coldstones Cut. You invented a kind of jazz riff to go with it, tapped out the rhythm on the dashboard. We kept muddling up the words, had to practise several times to get it right, had to debate the best tune to go with it. But there was no debate about what we needed to do. We had to go there.

But, before we did, we walked along the riverside hand in hand talking. We were always talking. I try to remember now what we talked about along that river and during that time, that precious three days together in North Yorkshire. It was exactly a month before you died. It would have been utterly unthinkable to us then that you might be about to die. It is still utterly unthinkable to imagine that you did.

I remember talking about sailing. We were on the other side of the river then. We were trying to walk a circular route. I was trying to take you to an art gallery that I'd been to with my young husband over twenty years earlier, but it was gone, replaced by some kind of chain pub. Wherever we went, the sailing kept coming back. You'd read books about sailing for years and worked on boats in your youth but you'd never really learned to sail properly. 'What are you waiting for Blacksmith?' I said. 'You're fifty-three. If you want to sail round the world, get yourself some lessons.' And then I said that I'd be sad if you left me to sail round the world but that I wanted you to fulfil your dreams. I only ever wanted the best for you and you for me. With you I learned that that's what love is. Sometimes, you would say, 'I just want to possess you,' and yet you let me be myself, would have set me free if you thought it was for the best. For the record, it wasn't for the best. I wanted to be possessed.

You stopped to take photos of doors and I walked on ahead. We had this joke that if we needed space we would set up elaborate signals to each other. We never needed space, weren't together enough to tire of each other, but it kept us entertained. I did the yogic tree pose from my position down the road and you replied by doing a blacksmith arabesque by the doors. (How it made me smile and cry to see a photo of you in that pose from years ago on the memorial Facebook page after your death.) Then we spotted a tiny path leading back down to the river and ducked under the leaves back to the van.

It was a week of mostly walking (and talking and Scrabble and swimming and reading and writing and making love - the perfect break). The day before, we'd clambered up Brimham Rocks and gone through the charade of trying to shift the giant rocks with our bare hands. (Somewhere there should be photographic evidence of you playing the caveman, pretending to topple the rocks down the hillside. They must be on your phone. The police should release your phone soon, surely. There is no longer an investigation. The case is closed. You died of natural causes. Nothing untoward except for the abomination of a heart filled with love that stopped beating one random night in March.)

We stopped in a jeweller's workshop. You chatted to the jeweller about rivets and working with titanium and I was proud to be with you, enjoying your interest in the craft she was engaged in. I asked you if you'd ever tried to make jewellery - you were a metalworker, after all - and you said that you had plans to make me something. 'I've been saving silver in a coffee pot for years,' you said. It made me laugh and I wrote it down in my notebook. Only you could have silver stored in a coffee pot. (We found the silver after you died and I wrote to the jeweller. She says she will make me something with the silver and titanium. It won't be quite the same but it will be nice to wear your ring, even so.)

We ate lunch in a cafe in Pateley Bridge and then we headed to the Cut. We missed out the Caverns. I prefer to be up high, not down below. It was bitterly cold and windy as we assailed the hillside next to the quarry, striding towards the massive limestone sculpture carved into the landscape. We chased each other round the maze like children and stood, wrapped in each other's arms, staring at the view, like sailors on the deck of ship. We didn't stay long. We hurried back down the hill and holed ourselves up in a cosy cafe. I got out my notebook and wrote this poem while we drank tea and you leafed through a magazine. Perfectly content, alongside each other.

I read the poem at the funeral but I had to change the last line. I couldn't bear to stand up there and break the already broken hearts of the congregation with my own heartbreak. I had to give them some hope, even though I had lost mine. And so I changed it to 'through love, we live again.' It is true, we do. And we love even though death can tear us apart.

Stump Cross Caverns and the Coldstones Cut

The stones are cold, sober and grey,
sand in the wind, whipping around a spiral
sculpture, cut from the cliff,
a giant conch swirling up the hillside,
ice cream on a cone
but made of stone.

I am not alone.
You are my buffer against the breeze,
forging a path through the maze,
smiles frozen, eyes ablaze.
I put my hand in your glove,
remember honeymoon days of youthful love
as we race time around the bend.

You and I are streadfast friends.
On the banks of the Nidd, in Pateley Bridge,
artists trade silver and glass for cold hard cash.
We tread the well-worn river's path,
laugh our way through the bleakness.

You smell of metal and sweat and sweetness.
We marvel at doors we won't walk through
and you glimmer like a hint of February spring
bringing sunshine to everything,
daffodils in the snow.

And down we go, slipping through the snicket
arched with leaves. We are thick as thieves
stealing a moment as precious as titantium
as a light fans into a flame.

With you I start to live again.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

The reality of this grief

Sometimes I imagine that my body is full of water. Someone has left a tap dripping inside me and each drip is full of grief and love and memories of you. They say the female body is sixty per cent water, but at the moment it feels more like ninety per cent. I am at least ninety per cent grief. Still. Almost four months since you died. Grief is my constant companion. I feel the water sloshing around inside me constantly and it makes me feel unstable. The noise of the dripping is like tinnitus that I can only drown out temporarily and I have to tread carefully to stop the water from spilling. The longer I go without talking about you, about it, the more the water builds up, the drips getting faster as the day goes on. Eventually, I am full to the brim with grief and it spills out in tears. I am still crying every day for you.

Today the tears came as I was standing in a sandpit at a children's party and a friend asked, with genuine concern, how I was doing. I don't know what I said but the tears and the words came unbidden and with them the relief that I feel when I am allowed to talk about it, to say to someone, 'this is how it feels', to share, just for a moment, the unbearable pain that somehow I am expected to bear, that somehow, I am bearing. I want to tell people about it again and again.  I want to tell them how awful it was to find your body; how terrible it is to have to live without you; how painful it is to have loved you and lost you so soon; how horrendous it is to have been the person you shared your dreams with; how your unfulfilled dreams are carried in my body now, like the weight of that water.

But I have told everyone I know all about it. This isn't news. And yet, somehow, for me, the bereaved, it is. Somehow, when you have lost someone so close to you, that person dies again and again as you wake up each day and with every day, they just get more and more shockingly dead. It isn't getting any easier, in fact is is getting harder, I guess because denial has retreated and I am facing the reality that you are never coming back and that somehow, I have to build a new life without you.

When some people see me crying and hear me still talking about you four months on, they look at me with concern. Their usual response is to ask if I am still seeing my bereavement counsellor. They look relieved when I tell them that I am: at least the professionals are involved. Others ask if I have seen my GP, the implication being that perhaps I need some pills, that this sadness is not normal, that it is out of proportion to the loss. Sometimes I wonder if they're right. The professionals tell me they are not.

Part of the problem is the length of time we were together. We were only involved for eight months. Sometimes I remember the break-up calculation that someone once gave me. Theoretically, according to someone, it should take half the length of the relationship, to get over it. By this logic, I should be over it by now. How great that would be. To be able to put it neatly away in a box, along with the other failed relationships and move on. But this isn't the same. You didn't leave me for another woman, we didn't get bored of each other and we didn't hit that point where we realised that it just wasn't going to go anywhere. You died, completely out of the blue and disappeared from my life without warning. It is a huge loss.

And yet, I am not a widow. We weren't married. We hadn't even established whether we would ever get married, or even whether we could live together. For comfort, I read books written by widows and I see the difference. They describe the way in which family and friends descended on them with food for weeks and months on end, how they moved in with relatives or how relatives moved in with them. They describe not having enough vases and buckets for the flowers, their houses overflowing with letters of condolence. It wasn't like that for me. I got two cards and a bunch of tulips. A wonderful friend stayed for two nights and other friends brought food occasionally, listened occasionally, helped with the kids occasionally, but, essentially, I was on my own. I am on my own. It is hard.

The professionals agree. My bereavement counsellor tells me that even if I had just found a stranger's body, I would still be in shock. It would be normal to still be reeling. And, as she points out, I didn't find a stranger's body. I found the body of the man I loved, deformed and decaying, three days after he had died. The memory haunts me still. It is natural to still be crying. And even if I'd had a happy life and then this had happened, that would be hard enough but to have it happen on top of the loss of my mum and previous partners and the long-term sickness of my son, is really too much. 'No wonder you have lost your optimism,' she says.

And the GP says that, no, I don't need pills. I am having a normal reaction to a horrendous set of circumstances. This week I took the coroner's report to show her because I don't understand the medical terminology. She visibly flinched as she read it and acknowledged that she has had no experience of post-mortems, that she has never seen a body three days after death, that it has just struck her how horrendous that must have been for me. I remember the therapist I was seeing when you died and her reaction when I told her. She sent me home because it was too upsetting for her to deal with. The shock was unbearable for her. She had been listening to me talk about you for eight months and needed time to grieve herself. She had become fond of you and suddenly you had died and she was completely unprepared for this turn of events. She couldn't help me.

Only people who have been through similar bereavements understand how completely earth-shattering this kind of grief is because there is no widespread recognition of the pain of grief in our culture. In other cultures and historically in our culture, the expectations around grief are much clearer. People wear black or rend their clothes to visibly show the world that they are grieving. They are not expected to act normally. And there are recognised stages to the grieving process, that go on for months and years. No-one expects someone who has experienced a close bereavement to socialise and after my attempts at going out and attempting to be normal, I can understand why. Yet, in our culture, we are expected to 'get over' someone's death once the funeral has passed and get back to normal as quickly as possible. My bereavement counsellor likened it to the way in which we deal with having children. These days, celebrity magazines show us photographs of women who are back at work with their bodies slim and toned, weeks after giving birth. We are meant to assimilate these huge changes effortlessly and are left feeling like failures if we acknowledge that birth and death have completely rearranged our internal and external landscapes.

I read about bereavement and am reassured and horrified in equal measure. I keep reading, with dismay, that the second year is worse than the first and that grief takes not months but years to work through. I read that uncomplicated grief, such as for the death of a parent in old age (uncomplicated because it is at least somewhat expected) takes four years to come to terms with where shocking death (like the one I have experienced), takes seven. I feel like I don't have seven years to lose to this grief having lost so many years previously to other griefs and losses and sickness. And then I realise that grieving is not going to be the only occupation of these next seven years. I will live alongside the grieving process and there will be moments of joy amongst the sadness. But I read, also, that it will never go away and my bereavement counsellor tells me that this is true, that she is not in the business of making it better. I will carry this grief, like water, for the rest of my days. And sometimes it will spill over. And I will need to keep talking about it. And I will write about it because spilling ink is as healing as spilling tears for me.

A friend recently sent me this quote from Elizabeth Kubler-Ross:
'Telling your story is primal to the grieving process. You must get it out. Grief must be witnessed to be healed."
So I keep talking about it to people who listen and after I had cried in the sandpit, I felt a little more able to carry on again. The tears that spilled out made room for a little more pleasure and made the grief easier to carry. And now that I have written, I feel a little better, until tomorrow morning when I will wake up and realise that you are still dead and it will all start again.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Through your lens

I've never had a decent 'author' photo. It's been okay because I've never really quite seen myself as a proper author. I never thought I was good enough, as an author, or as anything really. I've always been plagued by self-doubt. It was something you and I had in common, along with the difficult fathers. But when I published my first book last year, I thought I'd better make a website and I struggled to find one of those suitably enigmatic portraits that authors have. So I cobbled something together using inadequate snapshots taken by friends. Some time after we got together, I asked you if you'd take a good author portrait for me but you never did. Like so many things we had planned, we never got round to it. Or so I thought.

And then I found this photograph amongst the files on your laptop after your death and instantly thought that here it was, a gift from you to me - the author photo that you never took. It is extra special to me because, though you'd never shown it to me before, strangely, you had written about it in a message to me, the message that you sent me when you were wavering about whether you were good enough for me. It was taken in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park last October on the day that we got together (for the second time!) This is what you wrote:

I was looking at one of the pictures I took of you yesterday on the bridge where the poppies are. I could eulogise. I'm not going to though, except to say that one of the qualities I saw there seemed to be a tremendous maturity and yet last night as I looked at you I saw a completely different face, youthful, angelic almost, such grace. I am overwhelmed.

So am I, when I look through the photographs that you took of me. Somehow, looking at myself through your lens, I see a different version of myself. I can see myself the way you did. And the gift isn't just the pictures to put on my website and on the jackets of the books that I must now write, it is the gift of having been truly loved. I can see myself through your eyes and know that, just as you were, I am loveable. I am good enough. It is the most precious gift. Thank you.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Perfect for me

'How do you just keep getting better and better?' you once said, as we'd discovered yet another shared pleasure. It was something we observed regularly, this amazing compatibility we had and yet, when you re-joined the dating site that I was on, just in order to view my profile, I didn't even notice you, didn't actually recognise you, would certainly not have considered you as a romantic prospect. And yet, there it was, an irrefutable, wonderful, easy connection between the two of us that did just keep getting better and better.

'Are you like, just my perfect man?' I asked as we were walking along Ecclesall Road on an early date.  'You tick all my boxes.' We were on our way to Ann Atkinson's Memorial book launch, the night that you would dance with me for the first time.
I don't think you replied, just smiled and held my hand a little tighter, walking with an extra bounce to your step. You'd just told me that you'd quite like to learn to tango. I had always wanted a partner who would learn to dance with me. We hit a slight problem when you realised that the tango lessons would be at the Millennium Hall; you'd had an altercation with the manager having parked your van in the space reserved for religious officiates, but, hey, it was a small obstacle.

Other boxes that you ticked:

  • Like me, you loved to be outside but saw no need to turn the enjoyment of the countryside into a competitive sport. ('Beverley', one internet suitor asked, 'on your country walks, do you ever break out into a run?' 'No,' I replied. 'Never. Running would spoil a good walk.')
  • You loved swimming
  • Your idea of a good New Year's Eve night out was to be alone (or alone with me) contemplating the big questions of life, outdoors with a good vantage point - not a party or a drop of alcohol in sight
  • You loved a good bonfire
  • You loved music
  • You loved making things
  • You loved talking
  • You loved books
  • You loved words

This last one, along with the dancing, swung it for me. When I discovered that you liked doing crosswords and playing Scrabble, my head nearly exploded with joy. How I had missed having a man to play Scrabble with. Once we had discovered this shared delight, we played many times, mostly at my house but also on the mini-breaks we had together; you would neglect to pack food or clothes, but always remembered the Scrabble. I'm sorry to say that, when you died, I was in the lead. I know this will displease you immensely and that it was something you wanted to rectify. I'm sorry you won't have the chance. You will be pleased, though, to know that your mum and I have plans for a game soon.

The first game we played was on the 19th September. I know the date because it was the day of my son's fifth birthday party. After our first night together had left us confused and overwhelmed that week, we had agreed to be friends but there was no question that we were still assessing the situation, that we were on probation. That day you notched up a few more points in the wider game that we were engaged in. You were on call all day to help with the building of the Ninja Lego birthday cake for my allergic son and you fetched bouncy balls from Tescos for party bags, delivering them just in time for the party - as usual, I was running late. And then you waited for the evening when the children had gone back to their dad's and you came round after the party for Scrabble. I was exhausted and longed to curl up in your arms but instead we just hugged for a little longer than was decent and then set about playing the game. We disagreed on some of the rules but agreed, crucially, that there was to be no looking up of words. In my tiredness I knocked the board over at a crucial point in the game and impressed you with my ability to completely reconstruct the whole board. I can still picture the scene. You sitting across from me on the kids' dressing up box. You always looked big in my living room, like some kind of Hagrid figure who didn't belong in a normal house. When you died, I found a description of the game that you had written. Funny to think that, to you, I looked small.

Her son's birthday party has left her tired leaving our choices diminished.We hug for a long minute - her lonely, I needy. Small talk, pictures on laptops, then we play Scrabble. We appear close matched. I sit opposite her over the board and she looks small suddenly on a big sofa in a big room whilst I observe disembodied a fact in the room, not sure what to make of things. The game ends. It couldn't be better, a kind of quantum superposition of victory: by my rules she wins, by hers I win. Perfect. 

It was. You were. Perfect for me. 

Saturday, 18 June 2016

The tightrope of grief

Every day I walk a tightrope in the darkness over a gaping chasm. I have no idea where I am trying to get to as there is no light out there to aim for but I know I must keep moving, edging tentatively towards some kind of unfathomable future. It is a balancing act, I am told, between grief and recovery.  Spend too long looking at the chasm and you risk falling into the blackness, never to return. But run too quickly over it and the darkness will eat you just the same, perhaps slowly or unexpectedly. Perhaps at some point in the future when you think you are sitting safely on the other side on a sunny patch of grass, the ground will open up and swallow you whole without warning. You can't escape from this kind of grief. The only safe way to go is carefully, inch by inch, breath by breath, word by word, day by day, putting one foot in front of the other, hoping, and yet I dare not even hope anymore, that one day you will be glad that you kept going, that one day you might reach the other side.

The best way to keep your balance on a tightrope is to focus on something directly in front of you which is fine by me because I can't look too far ahead; the emptiness is too overwhelming. So I put things in my diary, not because I look forward to them, but because they keep me looking forwards and, sometimes, looking forwards keeps me from falling. And sometimes I fall anyway. I don't yet know my limits in this new world. I have to test the rope to find out whether it can take the weight of me and this grief that I am carrying, this unwieldy monster that I haul around with me in the dark. Sometimes it is sleepy and well-behaved and I can carry it gracefully; the crowd don't even notice the beast on my shoulders. And sometimes, they notice it and are impressed that I can still tiptoe onwards with such a burden on my back. But sometimes, it is wild and wakish and it pulls me off-balance.  And when this happens and the rope is slippery and the spotlights are too bright in my eyes, when the noise of the band and the crowds is too much, I go down. And you, my safety net, are not there to catch me. Luckily, at the bottom of the chasm there is water. Luckily I can swim. So far, I have not drowned.

I have started to compile a mental list of the things I can do so that I can put them in the diary and keep walking towards them. These are the things I can still do: writing, swimming, walking, talking about you, talking about grief, reading about grief, leading writing workshops, talking about work, reading stories to the children, getting children ready for school and bed, listening to music, playing games. I hope that I can move house. The new house is like an investment for the future, a pleasant place for some future self to dwell in some future life where there is joy. This week I added tennis to my list. I grew up playing tennis and the memory of how to play is strong: hold racket, move legs, hit ball. Repeat for an hour. Success.

This is the current list of things I can't do: keep the score whilst playing tennis, drink, go to the gym, watch TV, read normal books, make flapjack, manage money, listen to the news, listen to other people's problems, talk about other people's relationships, not talk about you, make small talk.

I have never been good at small talk but now I feel completely inept. I can't get my face or the tone of my voice to match my words and find myself smiling whilst explaining breezily to strangers that I recently found my partner's body and that my mum died too and that's it's all been a bit tricky. But, hey, I'm lucky that, because everyone is dead, I have money and so I get to buy a lovely house. And they don't quite know what to say and I try to change the subject and then they start talking about their families and I realise that I can't bear to listen to them. I try to join in with conversations about partners and I fall back on the conversational female staple of comparing experiences and then I remember that I'm talking about someone who is dead and that no-one wants to hear about the sex life and domestic habits of someone who is dead. And if people are talking about their divorces, I have no empathy anymore because death trumps divorce every time and I know because I've experienced both. I am positively, twistedly smug in my misery. It feels ugly and unkind and not at all like me. And even when people talk about illness I lack sympathy and for a moment I find myself thinking, hey, worst case scenario, they're only going to die and death looks pretty appealing to me compared to this farce. We're all going to end up there and right now, that feels like a blessing. Death holds no fear for me. It is living that scares me. I would have hoped that all this tragedy would give me empathy but at the moment I am self-absorbed and all off-kilter, tumbling off the tightrope under the bright lights while I feel the audience is staring aghast.

So, I walk home crying and long to curl up in your arms because you get me even when I'm weird, but you are not there and so I curl up with your jumpers again and realise that, for now, socialising is on the 'things to avoid' list.

And then I wake up and get back on the tightrope and put one foot in front of the other again, walking towards some unfathomable future. And as I walk I am so grateful for the people who walk alongside me and for the ones whose hands form a safety net beneath me and for the people who fill the gaps in my diary and listen to my self-absorbed, inept talk. And I am so grateful for you and your love, the tiny light in the darkness, that tells me that, even now, I am beautiful and wonderful and enough.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

I miss you

When things go wrong, I miss you.
When things go right, I miss you.

There's a crick in my neck and I miss your hands
to iron out the bumps and knots.
And yesterday I went to the gym
and there were men there your age
being alive and well
and I couldn't lift a thing because the weight
of grief is so heavy and my muscles feel wasted,
I feel wasted by sadness.
It is so hard to describe it,
so unbelievable,
the way in which I am still
vibrating with it all,
the way in which sometimes all I can see is
that you are not there

and I couldn't hold back the tears again
because it was Tuesday
and you should have been there
meeting me at the gym for a swim
and you were not there.
You were not there.

And last night I watched singers sing
and it was beautiful
and I missed your hand in mine
so I held my own hand,
held myself together
and couldn't believe that you weren't there.
You should have been there.

And I have this thought every day:
Can we just stop this charade now
and can you come back
so I can stop being such a sad drama queen
and get back to living and loving you?
It is just farcical
that you are not here.

And, today, I got the best news
that the house of my dreams is mine
(fingers crossed, please help me,
I need it to be mine)
but all I can do is cry
because I saw it with you
and I saw you there
in the garden building bonfires
and I want to call you and tell you the news
and you are not there.
You are not there.
You will not be there.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

On souls and soulmates

I meet your family for the first time a few days after I discover your body. It is surreal to say the least. With all of us in shock, we skip the small talk and set about the important business of discussing coffins and writing notices to go into the local press.  'How do you want to refer to Paul?' your Mum asks, trying to get the wording right for the newspaper. 'Partner, boyfriend?' I don't know the answer. I want someone to confer with. Actually, I want to confer with you but you are not here and it seems odd to ask if I can phone a friend. Anyway, which friend would I phone? No-one really knew us together. Partner seems presumptuous when we weren't even living together and boyfriend seems ridiculous; you were fifty-three and a giant of a man. It just doesn't seem right. And suddenly I find myself speaking, before I have had time to censor myself. 'Soulmate?' I offer. 'Does that sound silly?' And your mum, bless her, says no she thinks soulmate is just fine. I already like your mum.

Every once or twice in a lifetime, two people come together and something magical happens. Biologists might try to explain it with talk of pheromones and procreative urges and psychologists might tell us that we are drawn to each other in order to replay some familial drama but, for most of us, at the point of falling in love, all rational thought goes out of the window. In fact, we feel so far from science, that we feel that we have actually slipped through that window, or perhaps have gone even further and broken through some space-time continuum into a different dimension. Suddenly we exist in a new galaxy where we and the object of our affection are the only living things. We are twin stars on a collision course that has been predetermined by some unfathomable force. (As I said, science is irrelevant. This is how it feels.) Where once we thought we were the arbiters of our own fortunes, we are now inexplicably tossed on the waves of destiny, pawns on a cosmic chessboard, out of control. We don't care if we mix our metaphors, we just know that there is a rightness to this connection and that we are meant to be together, even though we have no idea who meant it to happen or why. Things that were blurred come into focus. We see our best selves reflected in the other's eyes. We have met our soulmate. This is how it was for us, even though we had no idea how we could make it work. We were discussing it right until the day you died.

In the aftermath of your death a few people took the opportunity to tell me that they weren't sure we could have made it in the long run. I wanted to punch these people. 'You could never have lived with him,' said one. 'He was a slob,' said another. I think they were trying to make me feel better. At least now that you had died, I could be spared the disappointment of finding that you squeezed the toothpaste from the wrong end. In fact, your erratic teeth-cleaning habits had already been a subject of negotiation. You had lived alone in a shack in a field for years and unconventional was too conventional a word for the way you lived. But both of us went into the relationship with our eyes wide open and what other people couldn't see was the focus and recognition of those eyes. What we had was unique. It was special. It was beautiful. It was not of this world.

It was, though, a paradox. We were deeply in love and, for both of us, nothing had ever felt more right and yet logic told us it couldn't make sense. I had two children who got me out of bed at 7am in the morning and, left to your own devices, you would go to bed at 2am and get up in the afternoon. I'm hardly known for being house proud, but your messiness was on a scale unlike anything I had ever seen. Caring for a sick child had turned my life into a military operation where you were disorganised and carefree. And yet, somehow it worked. And it didn't just work, it worked beautifully. When we were together, it was simple and magical and irrefutably right. But when we went back to our respective lives, sometimes, especially at the beginning, doubt would set in. Two or three times you sent me panicky messages saying that you couldn't envision yourself in my life, that our circumstances were too different, that it was doomed to fail. And then, one day, something changed. I wrote you a letter saying that I thought we had something special but that I needed to be able to trust you. I was reading a book on polyamory as research for my novel and I sent you this quote:

"I believe that every person you connect with on this planet has some sort of message to give you. If you cut yourself off from whatever kind of relationship wants to form with that person, you're failing to pick up your messages."

 You wrote me a letter back saying that actually, now, you couldn't imagine me not being in your life. You wrote: 'After much soul searching, many tears, and wandering up and down the road talking to myself, sometimes, quite sternly, I know what I want beyond all doubt. I want you more than anything in the world.'  When something feels so right why shouldn't it work? It might not be logical, but since when did logic have anything to do with love? I will never know now whether we could have made it in the long run but I know we were soulmates and we had a chance.

We still are soulmates though we are now living in different dimensions. Bodies may be separated but souls roam free and sometimes I feel your soul is still in communion with mine. Sometimes I feel you close by and I see signs of you still in nature. The other day, I lay on the ground looking at clouds and asked you to do something for me and the clouds shifted to form a heart shape. And as I walked away, I saw a heron (my symbol for you) on the river and I just knew you were there. Don't ask me how I think you control clouds and birds as I have no idea. But I feel you when you are around. I read that psychologists call it animism, imbuing meaning into creatures and objects, the grief-stricken mind constructing a false reality. But what do they know really? They think love is all about wanting to marry your father.

Your mum feels your soul too. She tells me that she feels you are more at peace now and not quite as sad as you were at being torn away from this world. She doesn't know how she knows it but she says it is like someone has just told her and that it feels true. On your birthday, I take her out to look for a spot for your bench and suddenly, out of the blue she says, 'Paul would have loved to see you dressed like that. I don't know how I know it, but he would. He would have called you his little wood nymph.' And she laughs at herself because the words feel so odd in her mouth. 'Wood nymph is a nice thing isn't it?' she asks. And we look at each other and smile because, of course, that is just the kind of thing you would have said. And I look down and realise that I am wearing the skirt that I wore when I dressed up as Heidi, on the day we first got together and that I haven't worn it since. And my heart sings with the closeness of you.

I tell my bereavement counsellor about some of the things I have felt. 'A lot of people tell me things like that,' she says. I tell her about the skirt and what your mum said. 'That must feel so real,' she says. And then she throws up her hands like she is sick of this charade. 'Well, it is real,' she says. We have slipped through that window again and we don't understand the science of it but some things are bigger than us, bigger than science.  Love and death and grief are unfathomable. In our cynical, empiricist culture, we just don't have the words.

Dressed as Heidi on the day we got together

Friday, 10 June 2016

In love with your ghost

On the beach in Filey in December - not a seagull in sight

I discovered 'our song' this week. It is a song by Martha Tilston, called Seagull and I saw her perform it at the How the Light Gets In festival in Hay on Wye. It isn't a sad song about loss. In fact, it's a song that captures perfectly the confusion and excitement of falling in love and it reminded me vividly of our own process of coming together. And, even though you weren't physically there, I knew that you thought it was perfect too. And that made me happy. And I felt joyful because the feeling of being in love was, for me, so alive as I heard it. And I sang it joyfully at full volume about ten times while I was driving until the singing gradually got drowned out by the tears when I remembered that you're not here anymore and I am in love with a ghost. And then the tears ran dry as they always do eventually and I made a mental note to ask my bereavement counsellor if it's a bit dysfunctional to still be in love with someone who died three months ago or whether this too is a perfectly normal part of grieving.

I am discovering that it is a strange business when the person you are in love with dies. There isn't really anything quite like it. There are other deaths and other losses, but nothing like this.

When you lose a parent (and I have lost both), you're not expected to look for someone else to fill that gap. Your father is still your father and your mother is still your mother. You won't ever have another one and that's ok. There will always be a hole in your life where that person used to be but you will talk about them with other friends and relations and they remain there with their names in tact: my mother, my father.

Some say the worst grief (and I can believe it) is to lose a child. I've only lost a tiny foetus and that was hard enough. It must be unbearable to see your child leave the world before you, even if your child is an adult. Nothing, not even another child, can replace the loss of the unique individual that you engendered. And you will keep their photo on the mantelpiece, maybe even keep their room as a shrine to their memory. They will stay in the same position in your heart for all eternity.

And if your friend dies, even your really good friend, you can still talk about that friend, maybe with other friends, and the gap will be there just the same because there will be some things that only that particular friend would have understood. But you will have other friends and maybe they can grow to hold the weight of the friend who is missing. Probably they won't feel too insecure to be your friend. Probably they won't worry that you loved your dead friend more than you love them. Perhaps some really good friends might even hold your gaze while you talk about your departed friend without looking away embarrassed or changing the subject. Because we want to honour our friends by remembering them. That's not dysfunctional. That's right and proper.

But when the man you are in love with dies, what are you supposed to do?

I was forty-four when we met so, although you were certainly up there with the big loves of my life, I had been in love before. And being in love has always ended but not like this. Usually, in my experience, love is slowly eroded over time, by the attrition of arguments and resentment until you can't imagine that love was ever there in the first place, or until love is just a pale, sad memory, or the dim glow of embers. Separation usually follows and then there is sadness and pain, but soon the embers die down and there is just ash, or, if you're lucky, love is replaced by the fond glow of friendship that carries on into the future. Of course, for some really lucky folk, the 'in love' stage mutates into a deeper, long-lasting love - I'm not so experienced with that sort of love. And sometimes, someone leaves you abruptly with no warning and it feels like your heart has been shattered into tiny pieces. But there is still a sense to be made of it. Friends come round with bottles of wine and tell you that he didn't deserve your heart in the first place and though you might rail against it, at some point there is only that truth: he didn't love you enough so you must let him go, put your heart back together piece by piece and wait patiently for the man who does deserve you to arrive.

I did all of that. And then you arrived, on cue or perhaps a little too soon for my liking. I was still healing from that kind of monumental heartbreak and I wasn't ready but it turns out you had to arrive then otherwise it would all have been too late. And, it was just like that song, our song: true love flew in through the open window like a seagull. And it bashed about and freaked us both out and yet, we couldn't stop smiling. And like Martha Tilston we closed ourselves up from time to time and almost ran away. It was too big to handle. We had all those feelings: 'should I stay, should I go, should I even be here?' But in the end we opened up and we stayed and it was beautiful and terrifying all at once. And it is these words that I sing so loudly: 'you are beautiful, you're beautiful, you're beautiful, you're beautiful.' Because it is, in my head, the only word for you and I never told you when you were alive how beautiful you were. You were such a truly beautiful soul. And 'I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you. I really really do.' Because that is how it was and how it still is. My love for you doesn't diminish because you died, in fact, in some ways, it has continued to grow. Our love was growing, rising, expanding, full of energy and potential. And even though you are gone, I still feel your presence. And as I talk to your friends and family I am still learning about you. I am still in relationship with you. My love for you has not died.

And yet, you are physically gone. And joy is replaced by sadness again. And if I were to keep talking about you as my boyfriend or partner, people would think I was weird. And if I made a shrine to you, I would definitely be seen as weird. And when I talk about how much I loved you,  how much I still love you, even now some people turn away and change the subject. I feel like there's an expectation that I should, somehow, get over it, look forward, move on. And even as I write about you I know that I am bringing you back to life again and then grieving all over again when I close my laptop. And I wonder if I could ever make room for another love and if another love could love me, the person who is writing publicly about this lost love. And yet, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I really really do. We have moved from a lifestyle conundrum to a metaphysical conundrum and the process of grief is an unending cycle of joy and pain, love and loss. The seagull bashes about and freaks me out and sometimes, even now, when I remember you and when I feel connected to you, I can't stop smiling. And then the tears come again. I don't know when it will stop. When a love hasn't run its course, how can it ever stop?

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Birthday wishes

Today would have been your fifty-fourth birthday but the first one of your birthdays that I would have spent with you. I wonder what we would have done? It's a beautiful day so we would have been outdoors, maybe even a trip to the seaside. Instead, later on today, I will pick your mum up and we'll go looking for a spot to put a bench in your memory.

On my birthday in February, we woke up in each other's arms in a cottage near Brimham Rocks. You gave me wrapped presents, bought from shops. Only someone who knew you well would understand the significance. Usually your presents came from the e-bay stock in the storage unit of your house. But I had standards and you were rising to the challenge. One of the things you gave me was a limited edition print called Stardust. You said it reminded you of the journey of our love. Or something like that. How I wish I was paying more attention, but we had to pack up and drive home ready to fetch the children and to host my pancake party.

We spent the day together although you were in the background again, pretending we were just friends for the sake of my children. You coped admirably with the onslaught of mothers and young children, eventually seeking refuge in the making of pancakes. It was ok. We'd just had three beautiful days together. It was lovely just to see you there in the throng of people celebrating my special day.

I wanted to buy you something for your birthday today, so I named a star after you. Cheesy, maybe, but it seems fitting. You were a cosmic kind of guy. I paid for an extra bright one (what a marketing ploy!) because how could I not? And paid for it to be in Ursa Major because where else could it be?

And I wrote a poem for you, because there would definitely have been a birthday poem. 'Send me a poem, Beverley Writer,' you would have said. And here it is. I hope you can read it from up there.


Today, no cake,
just this ache

and space.

I write 54 words
instead of lighting candles:
53 for each birthday missed,
one for this day
missing you.

Blacksmith Paul is
in the Great Bear now
and stardust rains like
love below.

With memories held tight,
particles of light:
we form a constellation

of you.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

How could you leave?

How could you leave when we were still in love, when passion hadn't faded, when there was still so much to do? We hadn't yet had time for familiarity to breed contempt or even indifference. I hadn't tired yet of your stories, you still hung on my every word. The air between us was full of longing, the magnetic pull between us so strong. It was like you ripped my skin off when you left, though no-one could see me bleeding. And this longing still scrabbles about like a crab with no shell, searching for its home.

If you were going to die, couldn't you have left it, at least, until the trees were losing their leaves? So we could have seen all four seasons together. At least, that way, I could relive them each year on a rota. It would have been more poetic, a better title: 365 Days With the Blacksmith, or The Year of Love. They could have a made a movie of it.

And why would you die in March? What were you thinking? Were you in cahoots with the grief police who think I should get this grieving lark over in a few short weeks? It would have been convenient. I could have grieved in the snow and been reborn in the Spring. April Fool. As if it could be so easy. Did you not consider how it would feel to see new life bursting out all over when all I could know was death?

And couldn't we at least have had one sunny day to paddle on a beach, one June night gazing at stars, one outdoor swim, one warm moonlit night, one festival, one camping trip, one barbecue? Is that too much to ask?

And, seriously, how could you leave me of all people? Me, who has been left and left and left again. Couldn't you have stayed long enough to understand that I have abandonment issues? Didn't you promise me that you had at least twenty years in you? That you were as strong as an ox? That, even if we weren't lovers, you would always, always be there for me, always be my friend? You did. I remember it. You promised.

We never even had time to have an argument, for God's sake. Just a tiny blip that one night when you rolled away from me in bed when I hurt your feelings. Do you remember why? Of course you do. I was saying that I was worried because you were older than me that you might get sick or die. I didn't mean this year. I meant in ten years. Or fifteen. Or twenty. I started to cry and you rolled back towards me and held me tight because you understood. That I couldn't take any more loss. That I couldn't risk loving you only to lose you. 'I've got you,' you said. You said that if we got married we could have a pre-nuptial agreement, absolving me of caring duties. I'd seen too much of hospitals, cared for too may sick people. You said you would spare me any more of that. To be fair, you did. No hospitals, no sickness, no deathbed scene or slow farewell. Just a loving goodnight message. And then silence. And blackness. And a longing that has no home.

I know you didn't mean it. I know that leaving me and this earth was the last thing on your mind. I know now what I knew already, that there are some promises we can't keep, even when we want to. That it wasn't in your power to stay. And I know you didn't leave me empty-handed. You left me with our love still in tact, went out on a high note, before anything could go wrong. You left me with a love story, short though it was, maybe a novella instead of a saga. And you left me with a love that continues beyond the last page.

But still, how could you?

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Life interrupted

'Can I get a word in?' you would say.
'No,' I would reply, not used to being interrupted. I wasn't accustomed to being with someone who had so much to contribute to the conversation. You always had so much to contribute. You still had so much more to give.

'What can I contribute?' you said in a message. You were in a state of panic and self-doubt. It was the day after we'd been to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The poppies were on display there and we'd abandoned our plans to go to the coast in favour of a shorter day out.

We explored the landscape, walking and talking and taking photographs, recording the moments. You stopped here to look at the birds circling in the sky, wandered off like a giant wading blacksmith-bird into the mud, regardless of the warning signs. 'Please don't sink,' I said, knowing that there was no way I could rescue you.

We covered a lot of ground: our grandparents' experiences of war, the price of metalwork, the wonder of sky. And the important stuff. You were auditioning for a permanent position in my life, though we were just friends and there had been no public advert, nor formal application procedure. We sat on a bench, enveloped in green, gazing at water and I asked you those all-important questions about your previous relationships, why you'd never married. You talked of your parent's divorce, your cynicism about true love, how you'd just never really wanted marriage, how engagements had never turned into weddings. You just hadn't quite seen the point.

'Do you ever just hear yourself, saying 'will you marry me?' in your head?' I asked one day as were lying in a bed of love and the words were circling like birds in my mind.
'I do,' you said. "All the time.'
You said you wanted it with me. You said it was the first time you'd really felt that way.
'I don't want something that just lasts ten years,' you said.

We walked up the path to the Long Gallery, hand in hand. (We were always hand in hand though no contract had been signed.)
'What are we doing?' I suddenly blurted out, unable to contain it any longer.
'I think we're moving towards something,' you said, holding my hand a little tighter and gazing seriously into the distance, at the long view.
More than ten years.
You wanted forever.
Do you have forever now?

I sit in a cafe in Hay-on-Wye. We never came here but your presence fills every gap in conversation, every note of music, every bookshop shelf, every crackle of wood in the campfire. If you hadn't died, you would be here with me now. It would have been our longest stretch of time together. You would have loved every moment. I should read festival authors but, at night, I return to my books on grief, my words are memories of you.

'Don't look on it as a life interrupted,' says a writer. 'Try to think of it as a life completed and then you can take it with you for the rest of your life,' It resonates with me. I write it down. But it still feels like you walked off mid-sentence, sank into the mud, were snatched by the wind to fly with the birds where I cannot reach you. Maybe your life was completed but your death has interrupted mine. I don't know where I'm going any more. I don't know who I am. I take pictures of heart-shaped clouds and iron bowls of fire and I keep you with me as I promised, waiting for a sign to follow into the future.