Saturday, 30 July 2016

In love for the last time

Before we'd even got together, you made us a shared dropbox. I liked the way our names sat next to each other on it, like guests at a wedding feast. First you shared photos of our days out but then you started adding music to it, trawling your extensive collection for songs and albums that you thought I might like. And I did always like what you put in there: music, like surprise parcels, waiting to be opened.

The first album I discovered this way was Love for the Last Time by Experimental Aircraft. I listened to the first track, Symphony, over and over again, carried away on the melody, in sync with the lyrics, listening out for a message in the words, a hint at your intentions. Maybe it was there and maybe it wasn't but the words haunt me now. I told you that I loved the song and you agreed that you loved it too. I think we loved it for the same reasons; we shared more than a dropbox, even in the early days.

We'd both had a fair few relationships. You were a late starter so you'd had less than me but probably still more than you would have wished to have. Even when you were younger, you didn't realise how attractive you were. At your funeral women from your past told me how they had waited, hoping for you to notice them but somehow you didn't notice them, noticing you. You lacked confidence and took rejection badly, found it hard to take the chance, but you told me that you had never given up hope that one day you might meet someone special. I know that you felt I was the someone you'd been waiting for. I'd never given up hope either but I was as scared as you were. We were a couple of old romantics who had learned the hard way that love doesn't always end with a happy ever after. When you get to our age, you become tired of endings, wary of new beginnings. Why even start something if it's just going to end? We wanted to be in love for the last time, the kind of lasting love, we could not seem to find.

The other day I was driving in the countryside to meet a friend for a walk. I went the wrong way and  almost reversed into a river as I tried to turn round. It is par for the course these days. I am not safe. When I'd rescued myself from the brink and we were walking, I found myself reflecting on my own death. 'Who would give my eulogy?' I asked my friend. I am the Queen of Eulogies. I did my grandma's, Dad's, Mum's, yours. I know how to make a funeral really special. I am so good at it that I have considered making a career out of saying goodbye. But I felt a sudden new kind of desolation (who knew there could be so many?) that, if I died, I would be no-one's love. There would be no red roses on my coffin and you would not be there to mourn me, the way that I mourned you.

'He would still be your love though,' said a friend and, of course, she is right. Our love did exist. We might not have been married but we were together, at least until we were parted by your death. Other relationships had gone wrong but ours never did. This time we did not fail. This time, we took a chance on love and we flew. You were in love for the last time and, though you weren't wrapped in my arms when you went, you were wrapped in my love. Everyone who came to the funeral knew it, it was written in the local paper and now I write it for all the world to see: Blacksmith Paul, died 10th March 2016, beloved soulmate of Beverley. I don't know if it will be the last time that I will be in love but I am glad that, in some small and tragic way, you got what you wanted: a pure love, unbroken, that will last for all eternity.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

I am thinking about what I have gained

'Next time, let's think about what you have gained,' she says. I feel my hackles rise a little as they do every time someone offers me some platitude about things happening for a reason, or your love being a gift to cherish. And I think to myself that I don't want to think about what I have gained. I don't pay no money to come to this amazing bereavement counselling service week after week to talk about what I have gained. I come here to cry and to tell her what I have lost. I want to sit here and tell her again and again. Does she not understand how big it is? Does she not see yet just how much I have lost?

The truth is, I want to tell everyone what I have lost. I want to talk about it and write about it over and over until I have explained it in every possible way. I want to express it in poetry and prose, with pictures, signs and symbols. I want to find, each day, a new simile, a new metaphor, a new way to tell someone. I want to dance it, walk it, swim it. I want to spread this loss like a disease until everyone is just a little bit infected, until everyone has felt, just for one moment, a homeopathic amount of this grief. And yet.

Today I went out into the Peak District where you lived. I spent the morning with my writing group and then met an old friend/ex-partner for lunch and a walk. We had a good chat. He listened while I told him again how much it hurts and I accomplished my mission of making him sad too which always makes me feel just a little bit better: misery loves company. Together we talked at length about life and death, purpose and meaning. We talked about lack of purpose and lack of meaning too, about the way that, for both of us, sometimes, we're not sure where we're going, or why. The way that sometimes, we lack motivation.

For me, this sense of purposelessness has reached a new level since you died. My bereavement counsellor says that I am having an existential crisis. I am questioning the very point of being alive. I no longer take it for granted that existing is, in of itself, a good thing. Every moment now is framed by the knowledge of death. Big things and small things are seen through this filter. My friend is talking about buying a new sofa and as he's talking I find myself wondering why anyone would bother buying a sofa when we're all going to die. (And then I concede that while he's waiting to die, he may as well have somewhere comfy to sit). We take it further. Why go to work? Why accumulate wealth? Why visit foreign countries? Even my writing feels pointless these days. A friend online says how important this grief writing is but I'm not sure anymore. I write because I can't think of anything else to do but I reflect to her that no amount of writing can bring you back and that feels like all I want. I could turn this into a bestselling memoir and then what? You still won't be here and I'm still going to die one day. It all feels kind of meaningless. The truth is, I tell my friend, when the person you love has died, you just want to go and join them. Without actually feeing suicidal, it's where you want to be and everything feels empty without them. At the beginning I felt that if I hadn't had children, it is where I would have gone.

I don't feel that anymore, I realise.

I am thinking about what I have gained.

I was always painfully honest but I am even more unguarded now. I say what I think. I speak what I feel. A writer friend tells me that writing online so openly would scare her. I tell her that sometimes it scares me too but what's the worst that can happen? It is only words. It is only truth. My truth is that grief has made me fearless. Grief has made me more me.

I am thinking about what I have gained.

I am buying a new house and I'm sure there is a multitude of things to be stressed about but I don't really care. It is only a house. It is only money. I have a different perspective now.

I am thinking about what I have gained.

Since you and my mum died, I have felt more alone than I have ever felt. I am no-one's partner. I am no-one's daughter. I am peripheral to everyone but the children. I tell my friend that I lack support because there is no-one who is there for me day to day. But then I look at him, this old friend, who has caught the train to spend the day with me and I realise it is churlish of me to say that. Here he is, supporting me. I talk online to other bereaved people and I feel their support too. This week I told my Facebook world that I was worried about being alone without my children while they are on holiday with their dad, and friends flocked to fill my diary. So many people offered their company that I am craving alone time, that I have people on a waiting list to see me. I tell my friend that no-one would care if I died and he says that perhaps I might be surprised how many people would care. I would care, he says. People do care. I have learned to ask for what I need. I have learned that there is more than one kind of love. As I sat with my friend eating dosas in the sunshine at the end of the day I felt, for a moment, that I was glad again to be alive.

I am thinking about what I have gained.

I tell my friend that I can't think about the future anymore. Thinking about a future without you is too painful and so I have no choice but to live in the moment. While we are out, I find myself stopping to look at things more closely than I would have done before. I notice things more. I stand and observe the greenness of green, the treeness of tree, the cloudness of cloud. I see what is and nothing more. And I look at everything knowing that one day I won't be here to see it any more so I take it in. I  learned that from you: the man who lived in the moment, who never planned for the future, whose future has been wiped out.

I am thinking about what we gained.

I tell my friend that it was fear of the future that made us doubt whether we could be together. We both knew that, in the moment, it was fantastic; it was the future that we couldn't see. I reflect again that if we hadn't overcome our fears and lived in the present, we could so easily have missed what we had. We took a risk, let our guards down, opened our hearts. We were fully present in each moment together. What we had was something real and brave and fearless. We had true love.

I am thinking about what I gained. I am thinking about what I lost.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Ancestral memory

I remember now what we did on the day we first kissed, before the walk in Eyam, before the kiss under the ash tree. You went with me to look at a property in Rowsley in the rain. You wore a long black raincoat, which somehow looked more like a wizard's cloak than protective outdoor gear on you. Afterwards we had lunch in Cauldwell Mill. We watched a rival blacksmith in the forge then stood by the old mill, watching the wheels turn, breathing in history. We talked about ancestral memory, the idea that somehow we might carry the collective unconscious of our ancestors in our minds and souls. We both felt it, the familiarity in the hum and whirr of industrial equipment. It was the same feeling we had with each other: breathing deep, drawing close, coming home.

Weeks later, together now, we held hands as we walked the Porter Valley, ambling along the river where Little Mesters once sharpened knife blades on millstones. We held each other, watching the flood and gush of water on the Shepherd's wheel, remembering those ancestors of ours. My great-grandfather made penknife blades on this river, I said, casting my mind back for the fragments of stories my grandmother told. Later still, in Knaresborough, so deep in love that there was no way back, I idled the time by the River Nidd, leafing through books in an antique shop while you studied the markings on penknife blades, choosing one carefully for your collection.

The week that you died, I was meant to be leading a heritage writing walk along the banks of the River Don. You'd come with me a few weeks earlier to scope out the territory. You'd navigated the way by scrapyards, told me about a world that was alien and yet so familiar. My Sheffield is the Sheffield of green valleys and tree-lined streets, my accent polished like a fine knife blade, my only tools those of words and imagination. But my father and grandfather worked on that river. My father worked with oiled machines, big wheels and steel buckets. His father was a furnaceman who stoked the fires of the steelworks, My mothers's father was a coal merchant, who sold the coal that powered the city. And here you were, a man of fire and iron, words and imagination, strong by my side, a bridge between the past and future. We talked about our future again on that walk. We'd been to see another house, the house I will soon move into, and we were discussing still the old conundrum: to live together or not together, that was the question. We never found the answer. We know it now. Still, on that river, we held each other tight and kissed to the accompaniment of gushing water and clanking steel, in the moment, melded together.

Yesterday, I walked back along the Porter Brook on a poetry walk and I remembered you, as I always do. I stood beneath an ash tree while my friend read a poem about the ash and looked up into the branches, remembering how you told me, on our first walk, that if you were a tree you would be an ash, remembering how you kissed me for the first time beneath an ash tree, later on that day when we first talked of ancestral memory in Cauldwell Mill.

My memories come full circle, my home town littered with images of you now, strewn like leaves across the pavements. I walk my own heritage walk down memory lane, write my own poetic footnotes.  Our memories are part of who we are. And you are part of me now.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

My heart has lost its home

These days I find myself looking for hearts. I look for them in cloudy skies, in blossom petals scattered on pavements, in frying pans and puddles. This week, I found them on the beach, heart-shaped pebbles strewn across the sand, like stepping stones across the abyss. Sometimes I feel I am clutching at straws, searching for evidence that, though you are gone, love has not died. I am looking for you everywhere. I look for you in the faces of strangers, in the backs of men with broad shoulders, in male bodies in workmen's clothes. I send frantic messages to your friends and family. Sometimes they reply and sometimes they don't. It is just another form of looking. I am looking for evidence that you lived, that we loved, that it was real. I want someone else to say, yes, that happened. Though this is a nightmare, that wasn't a dream. Love existed. Love still exists.

I looked for you on my arrival in Norfolk with the kids. This too is something that I do. With every coming and going, I am searching for my home, longing to tell someone - I arrived, I am safe, we are here. And suddenly I was crying in a strange kitchen as I looked for spoons or cups or spaces on shelves, lost in a strange place where you had never been, where you would never be, where I wouldn't even have expected you to be, just because my heart was looking for its home.

Though a love of the sea was something we had in common, we only had one weekend by the coast. As it happened, it was the weekend before my mum died, but we weren't to know that then. I just knew that I was tired of the trips backwards and forwards to hospitals and that I needed a break, that I needed some time with you. After she'd died, I felt guilty that I'd spent that weekend away from her. Now that you have died, I'm glad I did. She would have wanted it that way. You took me to Sterchi's in Filey to buy chocolates for our mums. Though my mum never got to eat hers, I'm glad that your mum had one last box from you.

I try to remember every detail of our weekend but already it is blurred by time, already the memories are out at sea, like the waves at high tide and I feel them slipping away. We left early on Friday, I think, but then I think, no, surely you were at work on Friday and what did I do with the kids and it must have been late when we arrived. We listened to Neil Young, I think, but no, we were in your van, surely we listened to your music and the Neil Young cd was mine. I don't know anymore. I know that we arrived and that you made a fire. I know that we played Scrabble. I'm not sure who won. I know that we made love and that you felt that you had won that night. I know that you felt strange being away in a holiday cottage and that you looked too big in the low-ceilinged house, were out of place in the pure white bed linen. I know that the whole idea of renting a holiday cottage was alien to you. You were used to roughing it and not comfortable with me paying but I'd told you in no uncertain terms that I was too tired for camping in December. 'I'm going to book a cottage for the weekend, Blacksmith,' I said. 'It's up to you whether you come.' I'm so glad that you came.

You took me to some of your favourite places, to the lighthouse at Flambourough and the beach at Thornwick Bay. We saw a seal. He peeped his head out of the waves, bobbed about for a while and was gone. We picked up pebbles on the beach then too. You were searching for smooth round shapes, to make runes from. We couldn't have predicted that you wouldn't have time to make them. We wouldn't have dreamed that the seal was a sign or a siren, calling you home, though you posed me like a mermaid on a rock, saw me like a wild sea creature, even though I was bundled up in waterproofs and a woolly hat.  You were an artist then and I was happy being your muse. I loved the way you loved me. You didn't agree with taking naked photos of women having spent too much time around dishonourable blokes but you confessed that you wanted to then, as art. Maybe in summer, I said. But that summer never came.

Instead, this summer, friends and family fill the gaps in the diary and I write my way through the weeks, ride the turbulent waves of grief. Instead of making runes, I remember the old bag of runes that I found in your house and the message on the one my daughter picked: 'The beginning and the ending are fixed. What's in between is yours. Nothing is in vain. All is remembered.' I find the photos that you took on your laptop and read the signs in my face. I pick up heart-shaped stones on the beach with my children, pocket memories to store for later. We are still here. Love existed. Love exists.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

When you're in love with a beautiful man - and then he dies - then what?

I think about that thing that teenagers do when they're first in love and on the phone. Maybe they don't do it these days. Maybe they just send multiple texts until their fingers fall off or they fall asleep drooling onto the screens of their smartphones. But I'm thinking of the way, in the olden days, young people used to find it so impossible to part that they'd say, 'you put the phone down first,' 'no you,' for about half an hour until a parent's voice would intercept the call and they'd have to say goodnight. We did that a few times, in an ironic way, of course, but kind of not.

It can be a shock to realise that you can still fall in love, I mean really fall in love, when you're a middle-aged man or woman, especially if you're a man or woman who has had a few relationships since those first heady days of youthful romance. Amazing to realise that you can still walk around in a daze, tripping over your own feet because your mind is always with your loved one. Wonderfully destabilising to spend your days waiting for the ping of your phone (because you too have entered the modern age) and your nights so enthralled with your lover's mind, body and soul that you forget to go to sleep entirely. Incredible to feel the kind of love where hours and days apart feel like torture and you can't wait to be reunited, where every parting is a wrench, a tiny grief. You are in the bonding phase of love, the enchantment phase, where you see only common ground and ignore differences. Love is blind, they say. Love is a form of madness, they say. Love is a drug. In fact, scientists have proven that being in love is like being on cocaine. You are bonded to your loved one by a powerful cocktail of hormones. You are attached to your beloved. You are, in essence, like Robert Palmer, addicted to love.

This week I joined WAY, a support network for people who are Widowed and Young. I consider myself neither widowed nor young (even though I am skilled at social networking and can drool on a smartphone with the best of them) but I realised that it might be helpful to talk to other people who have lost a partner and specifically people who have lost a partner before old age. Because the experience has been like nothing I've ever known and I don't know anyone in the real world who has lost a partner. I thought I might find people who understood. I've not been disappointed. I'd only been on the Facebook group for five minutes when someone said, in black and white, so clearly, the thing that I'd been feeling but not quite articulated: that there is a world of difference between losing someone you love and losing someone you are in love with. Suddenly it all made sense.

I've been careful in my conversations with the bereaved, to try not to suggest that there is some kind of grief hierarchy; everyone's grief is unique and incomparable and yet, this feeling has been nagging at me, that this grief is different, that it is violent, that it is visceral in a way that is unfamiliar to me. I've even been feeling guilty that this grief is so much more extreme than my grief for my mum who only died recently, or for my dad. And I get annoyed with friends who suggest that I am feeling so bad because this grief is cumulative, even though I know that they're right to some extent, because my heart tells me that, no, this grief is for you. My grief is commensurate to the amount of love I felt for you and my love for you, as it happens, was enormous. But there is something else going on here. I didn't love you like your family or friends did. I was 'in love' with you. Even when my mum was dying, I didn't think about her all day long. I didn't daydream about the beautiful future we would have together. I didn't pine for her until we were reunited. I loved her and I wanted her to stay in my life but I wasn't addicted to her. I was addicted to you and when a partner dies like you did, suddenly and with no warning, it is like going cold turkey. I am physically ill with grief. My body hums with grief so loudly that I'm surprised other people can't hear it. I am shattered by grief.

I went to a party the other week and your friend found me crying. He thought he understood. 'Paul would have been here,' he said, like I was crying because I'd just remembered you because I was at a party with your friends. But the truth is that I don't just remember you at parties and I don't cry when something reminds me that you lived and that you are gone. I remember you all day long, the way I thought of you all day long when you were alive. I cry, or fight back tears, all day long, the way I fought back smiles when you were alive. I only forget you when I am distracted by something else for a moment. I am in agony, looking all day long for the place to rest my heart and it is gone. 'Are you still sad about Paul?' another friend of yours asked this week. "Of course,' I said. 'I will be sad about Paul forever.'

Today I walked up to the spot where we first held each other as we watched the sun set and I talked to the sky as I often do. 'How on earth am I supposed to do this?' I asked. You didn't talk back, though I do sometimes hear your voice in my head and when I asked you for a sign in the clouds, I found my heart again for a moment. Your love goes on but you are gone.

I think about those phone calls: 'You go first,' 'no you.' You went and I was calling you and there was no answer. You went first and you can't come back. You went and I am talking when the line is dead, waiting for a ping that will not come, rattling like a junkie coming off cocaine, on my own.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Who can reminisce with me?

Your mum is talking about your family, the people that I never met. She mentions Auntie Ethel. 'Did he tell you about Auntie Ethel?' she asks. 'She used to pinch his cheeks.' I beam with delight and picture myself sitting on your knee and squeezing cheeks that were still pinchable even though you were fifty-three. 'Stop it,' you said, batting my hand away playfully, 'you're like Auntie Ethel.'

It thrills me every time I talk to someone who knew you and realise that, at least in some ways, we knew the same person. Another time, I am out in my campervan looking for a spot for the memorial bench with your colleague, Rodney, and he mentions the day that you planted the big tree in Broomhill. And suddenly you are sitting alongside me in the same campervan and Rodney is texting you and asking if you'd rather get up early to do the planting or do it late at night. I tell Rodney that I remember this conversation and we both agree that there was no question of you getting up early for anything.

These moments for me are rare and precious because, before your death, I only knew one of your friends and you barely knew any of mine at all. I hadn't met your family and you had only crossed paths briefly with mine. Nobody really knew us together. It  makes me so sad that nobody knew us together. If we had had a few more years, even months maybe, I imagine things might have been very different. I imagine people telling me how great they thought we were together, how they could see from the way you looked at me, how much you loved me. I could take things further and imagine them saying how they never believed you would get married and what a surprise that, at your age, you finally settled down. How you turned your life around - not that there was anything wrong with your life - but that you changed it, because of me.

Instead sometimes I have heard your friends say that you lacked commitment. People have questioned whether it could have worked in the long run. They're not sure, I know. Sometimes I'm not sure either. We weren't there yet. But I knew from the way you looked at me how deeply I was loved and I truly know how great we were together. And I know that you wanted it, all of it, and that you wanted it with me. I know that, for you, at least as you saw it then, I was the one.

But nobody knew us together. There are no wedding photos to keep on a mantelpiece, no shared stories of day trips or holidays with friends. Our memories are all just mine now and the only photos are five pictures of us captured in the background at a poetry reading. 'You look like you're the only people in the world,' your friend said when he saw this photo. And that's how it felt. And now it's just me. I am the one left behind. The only one who can tell the story. I reminisce alone.

Maybe that's how it always is. Maybe, even when we lose the same person as someone else, we actually lose someone different. My lover was someone else's child, someone else's brother, someone else's friend. We all lost something different. We all grieve alone. But how happy it makes me, just for a moment, to share that loss with someone else who lost you too.

All roads lead back to you

I run a weekly writing group called Get Writing. I love it. For two hours a week, I hold it together for my wonderful group of writers and sometimes I manage to focus on something other than you. I get to remember that, even now, I am more than just grief.

I set writing exercises and try to think of things that have nothing to do with death or love or living but invariably, wherever I start out, I end up writing about you.

Today we were in the Winter Gardens and I asked people to focus in detail on the plants, as if we were artists in a life drawing class on a day out sketching. Almost every writer prefaced their reading by saying something along the lines of 'I tried to do what you asked but......' their writers' minds took them elsewhere - to ceiling fans in Hong Kong, to swimming pools, to fairy caves and lands where fibre glass elephants broke free to bathe in the fountains outside. This is what I love about writing groups: writers' minds will not do as they're told.

I told my mind to focus on the plant in front of me, just the plant and nothing else. And this is what I wrote:

In the rattle and hum of an underwater world, life spreads like wildfire: 
a squeak of pram wheels and a shuffle of shoes as people move under glass, like fish in a tank. 
And a baby squeals like a tropical bird on a breath of air while a child's voice says over and over, 
I can do it on my own.

The fire starts here at the heart of this artful plant. 
It thinks it is a flower though its leaves are tough like the rubber soles of shiny shoes,
splayed out like blossoms in a wedding bouquet, 
pear-shaped, bell-bottomed, 
pointing upwards like flames.

The outer leaves are dark black creatures, deep as ladybirds with tiger stripes, 
they lurk down low, so dark they are almost mud. 
Their tips are pointed like feather quills. 
If I spilled some blood and pulled one from its stem, 
I could write the truth right here, right now, scrawling words on pavement. 
I could make a murder scene of this haven.

On the middle leaves, the black has lightened a little to a dark green.
Orange veins streak across bloody tracks, blood orange, going nowhere,
melting into the orange rim, 
the end of everything.

The top leaves are the green of spring grass and fresh apples. 
Their streaks are tracks of lemon and honey. 
They know nothing of the fire that rages beneath them, 
haven't seen the darkness that lurks,
they don't know yet about the blood. 
But the fire is licking at their undersides. 
They can't escape forever.
 They are not blossoms, just leaves and the fire is spreading.
I can't do this on my own.

All roads lead back to you. Your presence and your absence streaks the plants. I write about what is there. And it is always you. I don't know what else to do but write about life and death and love.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Grieving just as fast as I can

Sometimes, it goes like this.

I'm having quite a good day, all things considered. The sun is shining, the kids are happy, I have ticked some jobs off my to do list. I pat myself on the back. I am doing ok. And then I get a message from a friend asking when she can see me: 'I hope things are a bit brighter,' she says. And the sun goes behind the clouds for a moment and I feel a little bit less ok for some reason. Later a different friend sends me another message: 'I hope things get better soon,' she says. By now, it's raining and I feel thoroughly out of sorts and I still don't know why. These are my really good friends and they love me and love from friends like these keeps me afloat and yet, what is this feeling that they're leaving me with?

Yesterday I went to, not one, but three parties. This, you might call progress, or you might call it insanity. Since you died, so far I have been to two children's parties (and cried at both of them), to one disastrous night out in a pub (from which I walked home crying) and, other than that, social occasions have mostly revolved around you (it's ok to cry at those) or I have been one-to-one with good friends who have been there primarily to support me (while I cry some more). So, three parties was ambitious. I felt like a superhero to even attempt such a feat. If this kind of grief is like carrying a full glass of water all day long or walking on a tightrope, going to three parties is like trying to carry that water on a tightrope whilst making conversation with strangers. It is seriously impressive if you can pull it off. Mostly, I pulled it off.

The first party was the hardest. It was a street party on the road that the kids and I will be moving onto so we were meeting new neighbours. Luckily the natives were friendly enough. The kids had a nice time playing with other kids and I chatted to some other mums about school, about the house and the street. It was ok. For a while nobody asked about a partner but eventually one woman risked the subject and I had the thought then, that I could erase the episode where I fell in love with someone who died from my narrative and just tell her that I was separated. But I couldn't do that to you. I did fall in love and you did die, so I told her. 'I'm so sorry,' she said. 'You're very brave. To move on your own.' I felt it. Very brave.

The second party was easier being at my brother's house and consisting, as his parties mostly do, of running around his garden trying to avoid being soaked by water pistols. In the kitchen he asked me briefly, 'how are things?' He stopped short of asking if they were better but the question hung hopefully in the air and I felt I had to give him something. 'Not too bad,' I said. He didn't have time to chat. And then a friend of his approached me and told me that she'd heard what a hard time I'd been having and told me that she'd recently had a double mastectomy. It was like a breath of fresh air, in a stifling day of small talk. She wasn't ok either and there we were, standing like warriors on a battlefield, comparing tortures, eating nibbles in the sunshine, doing our best to keep living. Very brave.

The third party was fancy dress at the big co-housing project where you sometimes worked, amongst some of your friends: socialist performers and reformers. I walked there in twenties-style heels (talking nervously to you in the clouds, asking you for a sign of your presence as I walked, getting more nervous when the clouds kept moving and I couldn't see you.) I was now walking on a tightrope, carrying water, in heels. I knew I was pushing it. But it was a beautiful evening. People sang and read poems and performed tricks. The people who knew you made me welcome as they always do and I chatted to other people I knew from years of working in Sheffield's third sector. As I sat talking to your friend (the one who found your body with me) the most incredible rainbow appeared in the sky and I felt your presence again with relief. The party host talked to me about the new house which is round the corner. We'd stopped short of moving into the co-housing project, though we had considered it for a while, just to be close to you. 'It's nice to stay loosely connected,' I said. And she corrected me, 'no, you are as tightly connected as can be,' and I was so touched. She introduced me to her cousin who lives on the street I'm moving into and he drunkenly asked me something about my marital status and I said, 'it's just me and the kids.' Just like that. So brave. And then the activist singer-songwriter, Grace Petrie, did a gig right there in the central room in the house and she was amazing. And I sat there the whole time marvelling at how the world keeps turning and how people keep living, even the birthday host who told me herself that her partner died years ago. And I was thinking, 'is this it? Is this how you do it? In crowds of like-minded people, singing through the pain?' And then Grace sang a love song and I started to cry again and had to leave the room. Your friend put his arm around me. 'Are you still in pain?' he asked. And he is so kind and such a lovely man but there it is again, the bad feeling I get when he says that word, 'still'.

In amongst the parties yesterday, I chat to people on the Facebook group that I joined as part of my grief writing programme. They call it the 'Tribe of After', refer to each other as grieflings. I ask them why these words, 'better', 'brighter', 'still', have the power to bring me to my knees and they understand completely. They tell me that, of course, it is impossible to feel that the world is bright when my loved one is dead. And how can it get better? My loved one is dead. Unless someone can bring him back to me, it isn't going to get better. And, as if it wasn't bad enough to feel this way, my friends are, with absolutely the best of intentions, making me feel like I'm not doing this grief thing right, like it's not ok for me to feel the way I do. I am failing at grief. I need to change. Don't get me wrong, I want things to get better and brighter too. Sometimes I actually tell myself to snap out of it. But it doesn't work. I am grieving just as fast I can, healing as best I can in the circumstances. There is nothing anyone can do to speed up the process except listen and sit with me while I cry and acknowledge that I am in pain and that it sucks. I tell the Tribe of After that I feel like a superhero just for staying alive and they reply: 'you ARE a Superhero. You ARE.' One of them, in her own posts writes, 'I don't have a hard life, I know I don't...but it does occur to me....that living is the hardest thing I've ever had to do.' Staying alive, without you, is enough. The kids are getting fed, I am managing to work, I am buying a new house for God's sake. I am a superhero. Please, I've lost so much, let me keep the cape.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Casualties of loss

The tow hook on my campervan is deeply embedded now into the metal bumper. I have reversed into things so many times since you died that I have lost count. Driving is another activity that has become hazardous. I remember the advice I read online for the recently bereaved: if you are crying so hard that you can't see where you're going, pull over. Once or twice I had to. But it's not so much the tears that alter my perceptions, it's that my whole awareness has shifted. My focus has changed. Objects in the rear view mirror should appear closer than they are and yet I am looking so far back into the landscape of my memory that I run into them constantly. Reality hits me, like a brick wall, time after time. My eyes aren't on the road ahead anymore either. Instead they are looking into the past or searching for your presence - in clouds, in trees, in the faces of passersby. I still look for you even now. Today, I actually stopped and walked back down the street and peered at a man in a red van. There was something about him. I just had to check. Maybe you hadn't swapped this life for the next, but had just changed your profession and the colour of your van. The driver nudged his mate and they laughed.

The week my mum died, I ran into the back of a man in a shiny white car. He was cross. It was a new car, he said, like this changed everything. He really didn't want to have it repaired. I apologised, handed over my details, explained that I was stressed. His car was the least of my worries, though I didn't say so. A few days later I put diesel into the tank of my vehicle by mistake. I ground to a halt a few yards from the petrol station though it took two young men from the local garage to suggest that perhaps this is what I had done. I sent you a message with a sad face and you replied immediately: 'stay there. I'm on my way.' I had never been so happy in my sadness as I was to see those words, to see your face when you pulled up alongside me, to feel your arms around me in your warm brown fleece, enveloping me with love and care. Being looked after is not something I am used to. It was a treat to see you during the working day and my tears turned into laughter as they always did when you were near. We sat in the campervan together, snacking on Waitrose provisions - stuffed vine leaves, chocolate rice cakes, millionaire shortbread. It was the closest we ever got to a camping trip, parked up at the end of Ecclesall Road, waiting.

You waited alone for the rescue vehicle while I went to see my therapist. 'You go,' you said. 'you need it today'. I didn't need to explain. You understood. You always did. The death had been a shock even though we had been waiting for it for six long years. I needed to talk it through. 'I'll be fine,' you said.

Later you watched with glee as the man pumped the fuel out of the tank, intrigued by the mechanism, asking questions while I hung about, content, just then, to be a dumb girl. I couldn't understand anything the man was saying. Grief can do that too. He taught you how to use the gas conversion and I let my mind wander, knowing that you had it covered. I have no idea now how to do it. I've no idea how to fix the pump either. That too has broken since you left. I thought it was broken once before and you said you'd have a look. While you were fiddling, I realised I hadn't turned the electricity on. We said you were the catalyst that made it work. You were a catalyst for a lot of things. I just needed to have you around and things were ok.

Since you died, it seems like everything has broken. It feels right somehow that things are grinding to a halt without you. First it was the TV. The reception went fuzzy a few weeks after you died so live TV was gone. Which made sense. Why should the TV be live when you weren't? Luckily we still had Netflix and On Demand, but some time ago, that went too. Turns out we can't always have what we want at the click of a button. We were down to watching the old DVDs but a week ago the DVD player froze. The drawer won't open anymore and Rise of the Guardians is stuck forever now. Now nothing plays at all. The silence is comforting. The landline went down in sympathy a while ago as well and though the broadband stutters into life every now and then, often it fades away, like it too is tired of the effort of keeping going.

My mobile is still working though I dropped it heavily soon after you died and the screen shattered so badly that I could no longer see what I was typing. I don't know when or where I dropped it. There are great holes in my memory. It is another thing that isn't working. My daughter and I have been playing Mastermind with a secondhand game but I have no recollection of buying it even though I know we haven't had it long. I often have no idea what I have been doing from one day to the next. I liked the shattered screen on the phone; the pattern had a certain beauty to it - like a butterfly or a spider's web. (I search for meaning in the strangest places now.) For months I have avoided repairing it as if fearing that somehow if I got it fixed it would be a sign of 'moving on', 'letting go', 'getting better'. I like the visible symbols of what your death has done to me.

There have been other casualties too. As if losing you were not enough, I have lost a friend or two. Not everyone is comfortable with broken things.  Other friendships hang by a thread. I struggle to relate to people in the ways I used to and common reference points have fractured, though I have gained new reference points and new friends too. Some people come closer, while others retreat. My world is rearranging.

Soon after you died, I was crying so hard as I tried to phone a friend that I spilled boiling peppermint tea all over my thigh. I couldn't get up quickly enough, was in too much emotional pain to quite feel the urgency of the physical pain, too scared of my emotions to put the phone down. By the time I'd realised how badly burnt I was, it was late at night and my leg was swollen, raw and blistered. Hoards of friends on Facebook offered advice, while neighbours got out of bed to deliver aloe vera plants and people offered to babysit while I went to A & E. I was swamped with care. It is easier to help a friend with a burnt leg than a friend with a broken heart.

Today though, I fixed the screen on my mobile phone. One day I will repair the bumps and bruises on the van and maybe I can find someone else to fix the pump. Perhaps, when I am strong enough, I will even be able to sit for long enough at the end of the phone to find out, via the call centre in India, what is wrong with the broadband and the TV. But the scar on my thigh will always be there and the scar in my heart will be there too. Maybe I will move on one day and maybe things will get better, but I know I will always feel this pain. Because this pain is the other side of love.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

The safe place

I sit in the counsellor's office and I cry as I try to explain, again, what I have lost. You have left great holes in the fabric of my life. My Tuesdays and Saturdays are blank spaces in the diary now and the ping on my phone no longer makes my heart sing, although I still check, sometimes, in case it is you. (They say the stages of grief are cyclical, not linear, and denial still shows up from time to time.) There is no-one to say goodnight to now and no ongoing conversation. In each exchange with another human being, I am starting from scratch again. There is no adult that I speak to every day, no guarantee even that I will speak to any one person from one week to the next (except your mum, strangely, who I didn't even know in the before.) Mostly, I feel too tired to make plans, too grief-stricken to socialise, too absorbed in my sadness to relate to other people's struggles, too detached from the real world to connect. But I don't want to be alone because when I am alone your absence overwhelms me. And so I make those plans to walk towards even though really I just want to be walking towards you.

I miss my safe place, I tell her. It is the place where I don't have to work to be understood. Where I am automatically understood and where being myself is all that is required, where just being me is more than enough. I don't really want to go to the cinema, or the theatre, or to a gig or to the pub. I actually don't want to do anything. I just want a lazy day with nothing to do and you alongside me doing nothing too, in a world where we were like Piglet and Pooh and the only goal was honey.   I want to lie in your arms all day and forget the real world. You were the real world for me.

I have often been told that I don't live in the 'real world' or that I have my head in the clouds. The phrase resonates more strongly now that I find myself gazing at clouds searching for your presence, knowing that our last words were about clouds, that you had your head in them too.
We were so alike, you and I, not from the outside but the outside is of no interest to folk like us. We live internally, we live from the heart and the imagination. Myers Briggs tests describe us as 'dreamers, healers, mediators'. We were both INFP (Introverted iNtuitive Feeling Perceiving.) I didn't know until this week that it was such a rare personality type, just knew that we were alike and that the thing we had between us was rare and special. Apparently only 4% of the population are INFP. Apparently, for our type, 'the risk of being misunderstood is high'. Apparently when we find like-minded people to spend time with the harmony we feel will be 'a fountain of joy and inspiration'. And it really was.

I don't want a busy social life or a full diary. For an INFP that would be stressful at the best of times and these are the worst of times. I just want my safe place, that rare and special connection, the place where I can relax with my soulmate from the tiny 4%. And so I find myself angry that you have been taken away and depressed about being alone and sometimes, I am back in denial, talking to the clouds saying, ' Are you there? Can you hear me? I miss you. Can't you come back? Please, can't you just come back?'

This post is in response to one by Megan Devine at Refuge in Grief.