Monday, 31 October 2016

Raising the dead


I've never been a fan of Halloween. As a child, I went to every Halloween party in a tutu, waving a magic wand made from tinfoil in the hope of protecting myself from all the black magic in the air. I could never watch the scary films either. I was traumatised by Bambi and Watership Down and never progressed onto anything harder. I didn't like any mention of death. In fact I often had nightmares as a child about dying and about losing everyone I loved. Halloween and I were never going to get along.

Since I've had children myself, I've got into the spirit of it a bit. It has seemed like harmless fun, just a chance to dress up and eat sweets. Until this year.

This year, the sight of smeared make-up has been giving me flashbacks to finding your body. This year, I paused before purchasing a scythe for my weapon-crazy six year old; I don't need reminders of the Grim Reaper. This year I felt physically shaken standing in front of the Halloween decorations that line the supermarket shelves as my children pleaded with me to buy skeletons that lurch out from plastic gravestones. Dead bodies don't come back to life.

I drew the line at the plastic gravestones and we stuck with bats and spiders. I'm ok with bats and spiders. In fact, I like bats and spiders and 'Dead Bat in a Tin' is one of my most treasured possessions since you died. That bat was precious to you. So precious that you loaned him to me for a writing workshop but insisted I give him back. Your brother found him above the visor in your van. 'Why would Paul have a dead bat in a tin in his van?' he asked. Why not? That's just the kind of guy you were (plus I had only just returned him the week that you died). I keep him safely now and still use him in writing workshops: imaginations grow wings and fly when presented with a dead bat, nestled in an old tin.

I have been thinking for the last few weeks about Halloween, about the irony of our death averse culture that makes such a big deal now out of celebrating death, just on this one day of the year, with no reverence for the actual dead. And about how Halloween has become almost as big as Christmas, almost as commercial, an environmental disaster of throwaway plastic crap. I've thought about writing about it, but I haven't. I thought about writing about it today, but I won't because mostly, today, I just found myself thinking how much I wish that I could make a tinfoil wand, don a tutu and bring back the dead.

Last night I found myself hugging your jumpers again and talking to you before I slept. 'If I could bring you back,' I said. 'I would never let you go.' It took your death to make me realise just how precious you were. Sometimes I want to be able to show people how it feels to lose something, someone, you love so much. I want them to feel, just for a moment, a tiny fraction of this pain so that they will hold on tightly to their loved ones and never let them go. I want to tell them that everything can disappear overnight, without even a puff of smoke. And to the people who daydream about someone they're not with, I feel like saying, don't wait, you haven't got forever. And to the people who aren't with the right people, I want to say, grow wings and fly. Life is short. Wear a tutu.

I wrote a poem about the destruction of my fairy wings when I was in an unhappy relationship and I sent it to you one day. Late at night you would often write messages to me saying, 'send me a poem, Beverley Writer'. You said my poem made you cry and then you said that it also made you smile. 'I know my heart will soar with yours,' you said. It did. And mine with yours.

I look at the bat in the tin, stroke his downy fur and imagine the scene where I can blow gently onto his body until his wings take flight again and he can flitter across the night sky, as bats should. Imaginations take flight. Writing is the only way that I can bring you back to life.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Going on a life hunt

An adaptation of the classic, 'Going on a Bear Hunt' by Michael Rosen

We're going on a life hunt.
We've got to find a new one.
What a beautiful day!
We're not scared.

Uh-oh! Sadness!
Thick, cloud of sadness.
We can't go over it.
We can't go under it.
Oh no!
We've got to go through it:
Stumble, trip.
Stumble, trip.
Stumble, trip.

We're going on a life hunt,
Don't want to find a new one.
It might be a beautiful day but
we don't care.

Uh-oh, numbness!
Brain-dumbing numbness.
We can't go over it. 
We can't go under it.
Oh no!
We've got to go through it!
Eating.
Drinking, 
Overthinking. 

We're going on a life hunt.
We've got to find a good one.
Want a beautiful day!
We're not impaired.

Uh-oh! Memories!
Deep, creeping memories.
We can't go over them.
We can't go under them.
Oh no!
We've got to go through them:
Sinking, drowning.
Sinking, drowning.

We're going on a life hunt.
We can't go back to the old one.
It was full of beautiful days.
Life's not fair.

Uh-oh! Anger!
Hot, mean, anger.
We can't go over it.
We can't go under it.
Oh no!
We've got to go through it.
Storm, rage.
Storm, rage.
Storm, rage.

We're going on a life hunt.
We've got to find a future.
Just one more beautiful day
with someone else who cares.

Uh-oh! Guilt!
Icky, sticky guilt.
We can't go over it.
We can't go under it.
Oh no!
We've got to go through it:
Sorry, sorry.
Sorry, sorry. 
Sorry, sorry.

We're going on a life hunt.
They say we've got to move on.
Make our own beautiful days
if we dare.

Uh-oh! The future!
The yawning, dawning future.
We can't go over it.
We can't go under it.
Oh no! 
We've got to go through it.

Tiptoe, tiptoe, tiptoe.
WHAT'S THAT?
Minutes, hours and days ahead,
got to keep getting out of bed. 
IT'S A LIFE!

Quick.
Back away from the future:
tiptoe, tiptoe, tiptoe.
Back through the guilt:
Sorry, sorry, sorry.
Back through the anger:
Storm, rage, storm, rage.
Back through the memories;
Sinking, drowning, sinking, drowning.
Back through the sadness:
stumble, trip, stumble trip.

Get back to the past,
open the door, 
up the stairs.

Oh no! 
We forgot to shut the door.
Back downstairs.

Shut the door.
Back upstairs,
Into the bedroom.

Into bed.
Under the covers.

We're not going on a life hunt again.

(Well, not today, anyway).

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Once upon a time the man I loved died

When I started my blog, I didn't set out to tell a story. I was simply in agony and writing was my way of trying to survive. I wasn't writing for an audience, I was writing for myself. But gradually my blog has turned into a story with an audience: the story of my grief's journey and also the story of a beautiful love affair that ended, like your life, way too soon. I hardly have any photos of you, so my blog is the equivalent for me - a photo album in words, a way to remember every precious moment that we shared. Because our relationship was short and restricted by the fact that I wouldn't introduce you to my children, when you died I was able to make a list of each day we spent together and what we did. I know I will keep writing until I have recorded them all. There are only a few left. And now, for some reason, at my hundredth post, I find myself wanting to put a structure to the story, wanting to write it from the beginning but I'm not sure where the beginning is.

It is always a tricky decision, knowing where to begin a story and this one is no different. I could start it back in the nineties when we first met, when Cupid made a blunder and fired his arrows in the wrong direction. Or I could go further back to when I met your future best friend. Ed, at playgroup while we were still in nappies. I could talk about my divorce and my terrible relationship with the children's father or the break up of my last relationship, to give context to the precious nature of this love story. Or I could rewind time just a short way and start last year when our paths crossed again, back to that good time when Cupid had his act together and everything was aligned, until suddenly it wasn't.

Still, I've been to enough creative writing classes to know that, these days, a story should throw us into the centre of the action and start with a bang. So, if I were going to start this story properly, I would start it with a body, the body of the man I loved -  your dead body. Without that appalling scene, this blog wouldn't exist.

And so it transpires that, at what is the true beginning of this story, I am standing in my pyjamas and dressing gown on your doorstep, staring at the dead body that is laid out on your bed. It might seem surprising to some that I can almost see your bed from the doorstep, but those people don't know yet that you are a surprising hero who lives in a tiny shack in the Peak District. Also a little odd that I am out here in my pyjamas with two male friends of yours that I don't know. They've just bashed the door of this shack in with a fire extinguisher as if we are in some kind of crime drama and a voice is saying the words, 'there's Paul'. Before they've had time to stop me, I am pushing past them into the darkness of the room where you sleep and there is a breath in time where I think you might actually be asleep now and I feel guilty for dragging your friends out here in the dark. But as soon as I am near enough to see your body properly, I know that you are dead. Either that or you have been abducted and someone has left another deformed body on your bed. Part of me wants to run to you and hold you but a larger part recoils in horror and I stay in the doorway, wanting to leave but unable to move. I stay just long enough to take a picture in my mind, a picture that I will never be able to erase. Your head is black and purple in hue and swollen so that your features are distorted. You look like the elephant man, completely unrecognisable aside from your clothes, clothes from which you are bursting, your body inflated and leaking. Your hands are clenched, there is blood on the bed and the stench makes me want to retch. One thing I know for sure. This is a body but it is not you. You are gone.

Your friend calls an ambulance. Someone on the end of the line asks routine questions, trying to ascertain whether there is any hope of resuscitation. We all know there is not but they force him to touch your skin and check for signs of life even though he is saying repeatedly, 'he is definitely dead.' And I just stand there listening to the word: dead. How can you be dead?

Afterwards, I stand on the porch shaking until someone ushers me into a car and I sit, still shuddering and stare into space. I don't know how long I am there. At some point I see blue flashing lights moving up the long drive to the shack where you live, the shack where you are dead and some time after that a policeman slides into the driver's seat of the car and asks me questions that make me feel like a terrible girlfriend. You have been out of touch for three days and judging by the state you are in, you have been dead for all of them. I wonder with him how it can have taken me three days to raise the alarm. Was it just yesterday that I was out on a day trip with a friend? What was I thinking going out for the day when you were lying dead on your bed? If this is a crime drama then I assume that I am a suspect. I'm not yet sure how you died and maybe circumstances are suspicious. So I try to justify myself, explaining to the policeman that you don't always answer your phone, that we don't live together, that we don't see each other every day because of my children. I tell them that I have been sending messages and calling for days but that you haven't answered. I don't tell them that I have been worrying that you were about to dump me but I tell them that I came out last night and that your lights were on but your door was locked. I tell them about the notes I left on the door and on your van.  I don't tell them that I was frightened and crying, banging on your door and shouting your name, pleading with you to let me in.

They ask me what your mum's name is and I feel even worse. I don't know. I can tell them roughly where she lives because you once drove me past her house but I haven't met your mum yet. We've only been seeing each other for eight months and we just haven't found the time. I can tell them the first name of your sister but that is all I know. I don't know where she lives. I could tell them so many things about you if they asked: your favourite songs, what kind of tree you would choose to be if you were reincarnated as a tree, how you have changed my life, but I can't tell them anything they want to know.

The policeman takes my number and eventually says that I am free to go. I wait for your friends and find myself browsing Facebook as if it is just a normal evening except for the fact that I am sitting in a stranger's car in my pyjamas at one in the morning. I see that a friend is up and I message her to tell her that you are dead. How can you be dead? She phones and I try to explain through my tears and I say, 'can you come?' She says that she will catch a train in the morning to be there.

Your friends drop me back at home and I stand in the kitchen wondering what to do now that you are dead. I go upstairs and climb into bed with my daughter because I need to be next to someone whose heart is beating. I hold her hand and lie awake for hours. I think about the last time that I saw her, standing at the top of the stairs as I told her that I needed to go out to look for a missing friend, that I was leaving her with a stranger, that I would be back soon. I am wondering how I will tell her in the morning that I found you but that you were dead. It is only three months since I told her that Grandma was dead. It is only a week since she met you for the first time and gave me her approval. It is too much. I am wondering how on earth I am going to get up and get the children to school. I am thinking about you and every snapshot of our beautiful time together, time that is now over, snapshots that I will record later. I am wondering where your body has gone and thinking that I never even turned back to say goodbye. I am wondering if they have found your mum or your sister and what happens next. But mostly I am just lying there thinking that you are dead. How can you be dead?

I am wondering how it can all be over now. This is not the way the story should end. It is not the way the story should begin. But it is the way it happened.




Sunday, 23 October 2016

I want to go home now

This is what happens. Sometimes I'm with friends and maybe I'm feeling ok for a while. I'm chatting about something else, in the world together with other like-minded souls and it's not so bad anymore, this grief malarkey, it's manageable really, just a background hum, a touch of interference, a slight buzz of low level anxiety, like an irritating fly that I can't quite block out, a dripping tap in another room.

And then someone says something. Maybe a friend mentions their partner or their summer holiday plans. Perhaps they ask me what I'm doing for Christmas. Or perhaps someone walks by with the same build as you, the same smell, the same clothes. And the noise is a crescendo building, anxiety rising up from the pit of my stomach and soon there are flies swarming all over my skin and the water is pouring out of the tap and flooding the system. Eventually there is so much water that the flood activation alarm sounds and the building has to be evacuated. So I go outside, take deep breaths and find myself thinking, again, that I just want to go home now. I have done well. I've made it through another day. But now, please, can't I just go home?

It reminds me of when I first had a proper job and I came home every day exhausted. Just finding the toilet or working out which tea bags I was allowed to use was like climbing a mountain. And I felt proud that I'd got through it and then realised, in horror, that this was my new life and that I had to go back and do it again, and again, and again. It was too much for me. I went freelance. But there is no escape from this life of grief, this new life of mine. And though I'm doing well, all things considered, I am so tired of getting out of bed every day and carrying on.

So, I watch the friends turn back towards their lives, pick up phones to send messages, walk towards cars that arrive to collect them. I wave them goodbye and as they retreat into the distance towards their homes, I remember that I am locked out of mine. When they get back they will relive the moments of their day, continue the ongoing conversation of their lives and I will turn towards the gap where you used to be.There is no-one to ask me how my day was, no-one to recount my stories to. Life is a series of unconnected scenes with no plot, no backdrop, no audience.

It is cold outside and I think about calling someone but there is no-one to call for help because you had the key and my mum had the spare. And I know that this is loneliness. And this is my life. So I walk all night, looking for a way back home, even though I know that I can never return. It is tiring, all this walking. And all of this noise. I want it to stop. I want to rest now. I just want to go home.

The turbulence of grief


The upping and downing,
the almost drowning,
the black and white,
the dark and light.

The ebbs and flows,
the round it goes.
The toss and turns,
the friction burns.

The holding tight,
the letting go,
the taking flight,
the going slow.

The sinking and swimming,
the ending, beginning.
The future, the past,
the nothing lasts.

The darkness dragging,
spirit flagging.
Gravity pulling,
the world dulling.

The waters swirling,
memories whirling,
time passing,
waves crashing.

The senses sharpening,
brightness startling,
the search for home,
the all alone.

The turning towards,
the turning away,
the leaving behind,
the wanting to stay.

The longing, the missing,
the searching, the wishing,
the dreams fading,
heart aching.

The fear of morning,
new days dawning,
the wanting to die,
the staying alive.

The almost sailing
then falling, failing,
faint hopes growing,
keeping going.








Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Lost

I saw him in the park a while ago, your old friend who runs the fairground, who told me of his own loss soon after you died. He didn't ask me how I was. (I appreciate that in a person now.) He just gave me a hug, looked me in the eye and said, 'you're in the lost zone, aren't you?' I nodded. 'It takes a long time,' he said with a wisdom that only comes from experience. 'It will take a long time.'

I'm not sure what 'it' is. Some people might call it feeling better. Some might call it recovering from shock and grief. Some might talk of getting over it or getting back to normal. I'm not sure any of those things is possible. I don't think I can return to the place I was in before. I'm not sure that 'it' is even a destination I want to go to. The truth is, I'm not sure where I want to go at all. All I know is that he was right. I am in the lost zone. And 'it' is taking a long time.

Funny that lost used to be a good place to be. When I was with you, for our twenty-four hour periods together, there was no time, no destination. We meandered through the day, often through the wilderness, aimlessly content, always happy to stray from the path. We didn't know where we were going from the day we set out together and most of the time we didn't care. Neither of us knew how we were going to be together but we knew we couldn't live our lives apart. 'I can't imagine you not being in my life,' you said and I felt the same. I still can't imagine my life without you now but somehow I am living it. Having you by my side is no longer an option. There is a huge empty space where you used to be; a vacancy that I'm not sure how to fill. It is a lonely life being a single parent and an orphan. It is not a path I would choose to go down. But it is the path I am on.

I reflect sometimes that it's not just a partner that has gone missing since you died. Huge parts of me have gone too. My world has shrunk to this tiny zone of grief. It reminds me of being a new mum, when the world seemed to be encapsulated in a tiny fingernail. Only this time my focus is death instead of life, overwhelming absence instead of overwhelming presence. Focus shifts when lives come into and leave this earth. Everything is re-evaluated. I'm not sure anymore how I want to fill my days. So much of life feels pointless. So I lean towards the things that keep me sane, that bring me joy: writing, sharing my words, teaching,  nature, my children. And love? Love has always been what I value above all else but I'm not sure I even want it anymore, not that kind of love, not the kind of love we had. Love like that doesn't come around every day.

Still, I reactivated my Ok Cupid profile yesterday, just for five minutes, just to see who was still around, just to see how it felt. Crazy to think that it's only a year or so since I deactivated it. I turned it on just long enough to watch a few people watching me, to watch the numbers of my 'likes' go up. Counting again, I re-read my profile, wondered if it was still true, wondered if I was still the same person, found that I am not. Found that none of the men on Ok Cupid were you. Read about men who want someone who 'doesn't take life too seriously', who 'likes going out'.  Found myself deactivating swiftly. Confirmed that I am not ready.

I wonder what I would write if I were to re-write my Ok Cupid profile now. It might look something like this:

My self-summary
Heartbroken writer, lost since March 2016, seeks a new direction. Still sincere and quirky, just very tired and sad. Doesn't like going out. Tried it last Saturday and had to stave off a panic attack. Might consider nights in with someone who gives good hugs and is attracted to women who cry a lot and talk about previous partners all night.

What I am doing with my life
Mostly I am wondering how the fuck I ended up here again. When I'm not wondering about that, I'm wondering what the point of anything is and writing about my lost love and grief. Attractive huh?

I'm really good at
Ok, I am still good at writing and teaching and swimming and talking, just that I am mostly writing and talking about sadness.

Favourite books, movies, shows, music and food
Truth is I haven't read a book that isn't a grief memoir for the last year. I don't watch TV or films either (can't concentrate for long enough and don't see the point). Listen to the occasional sad song and eat whatever is in the fridge (so long as it's in date and free from gluten, dairy, eggs and sugar). Feel too wobbly to drink alcohol. Living life on the edge.

The six things I could never do without
Writing, my children, nature, oh, and that man that I am doing without. Can't think of two more.

I spend a lot of time thinking about
Death and how to live a good life in the face of devastation.

On a typical Friday night I am
Crying.

I'm being slightly facetious, of course. It's not quite that bad. Still, I wonder what kind of man would fall for a woman like that? Only someone strong and brave and true. Only someone like, well, like you. I know that, even now, you would take me as I am and love me anyway. You weren't afraid of tears. I think of the words of my bereavement counsellor: 'The worst grief is when the person who would have made it better is the one who died.' She is so right. You made it all better. Without you it is all a lot worse.

I've been thinking of the words of another mentor this week as well. Megan Devine runs Refuge in Grief and she doesn't believe in recovering either but she does ask this question: 'Given that what I’ve lost cannot be restored, given that what was taken cannot be returned, what would healing look like?'
This week I found it a helpful question and I started to wonder, knowing that wondering is the first step on a long road to who knows where. 

This much I do know: I'm not ready for dating yet. So instead I will keep holding onto your fleeces instead of your body at night and I will talk to you in the clouds instead of face to face. It's not the same but it will have to do while I am still lost and wondering which path will lead me to a future. Other things I know are that I can feel the path beneath the undergrowth, that you will help me to find my way and that slowly I am moving forwards. This week, at least I started looking for a path. I don't know where my journey will take me but one thing is for sure: it will be a road less travelled. And it will be different to the one I would have walked with you. I am different now. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood. You left me at a crossroads and I don't know where I'm going anymore. But I will keep going anyway because what else can I do?


Saturday, 15 October 2016

Counting

These days I find myself counting,
I am always counting.
I count breaths, days, months,
log the seasons as they go by:
spring, summer, autumn.
Only winter lies ahead.

I don't know why I count,
don't really know what I am counting.
Life is upside down and back to front
and I'm not sure anymore
if I am counting up
or counting down,
if I am counting towards something
or away.

But I count the days,
tick them off on the calendar
labelled 'After';
you ended as it began.

I don't want to count:
every day takes me further
from a day spent with you
and a day closer to

But I count anyway,
watching time pass by,
amazed by the number of
days survived,
amazed still that you died,
amazed I am still alive.


This time last year - falling in love as the leaves changed 
at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Shipwrecked

Some days, some parts of days, I am buoyant, afloat.
Some days I even think I can steer.
Some days I think I can see the shore.
Some days I am brave. I push the boat out.
Some days I push the boat out too far.

Monday was one of those days. I thought I could do it. I thought I could stand up in front of an audience and read the words straight from my broken heart. And I did. And it was awful, not because of what I was reading (though maybe that was part of it) but because all I could see was that you weren't there. And all I could remember was that this time last year you had been cheering me on, that this time last year I was full of hopes for the future: I had a wonderful new boyfriend, my mum was alive and I was launching my first book.

As it turned out, the convergence of my reading with the day we got together was too much to take and I was thrown back into disbelief again asking the same old, unanswerable questions: How could you have been there just last year? How could you disappear, just like that with no warning? How could the ending happen so close to the beginning and how am I supposed to face the future now? I stood up there trying to listen to the words of my fellow authors but all I could hear were the words of the letter that you wrote to me at this time last year, when you talked about all that you wanted our future to be, our future together that has been wiped out. I cannot believe it still. On the way out of the pub a man smiled at me. It surprised me to think that a man could find me attractive still; evidently my exterior doesn't look like my insides. The man had a laptop and a nice face. Maybe he was a writer and a kind man. It surprised me to realise that I was available, and that, at some point, if I don't want to be alone forever, I am going to have to consider other men. I smiled back at him and then walked out of the pub crying. I didn't want him. I don't want someone else. I want you. I want to go back to the life we were building together, the life that has been destroyed.

On Tuesday I woke up crying and didn't stop. I cried through my mindfulness class, tears seeping out from beneath the eye mask as I tried to focus on my breathing and not on the gaping hole of the future. I sought refuge at your mum's and cried some more. I was back to searching again, for a piece of you to hold onto and your mum held out her hand like a branch at the water's edge and I clung on. I cried as I drove to my friend's for tea, cried into the nutritious stew she'd cooked. I went for a massage and cried into the towel, face down on the table. I came home, lay down on my bed and cried some more. I cried as I messaged a friend, cried down the phone to her when she rang, as I told her again how unbelievably unbearable this pain is. I cried myself to sleep.

Now I am shipwrecked, exhausted, washed up again on a small island of calm, unable to move, waiting for the wind.

Grief is not linear and sometimes all the emotions strike at once: anger, shock, denial, depression, pain, guilt. You are in the eye of the storm and all you can do is cling on for dear life even while your whole being is screaming that this is impossible, that this is more than any human soul can survive. The pain now is no easier to bear than the pain at the beginning. Sometimes it feels worse. Maybe the contrast is bigger now between the moments of lightness and the depth of the dark. I don't know.

From my island of calm now, I look back at my life this week and it seems ridiculous. I am so privileged. What did I actually do: read a few words to a few people, had a drink with writers, lay down on a mat watching my breath, spoke with friends, had a massage, ran a couple of writing workshops. But, inside, I feel like I have been out on the high seas at night without a rudder or a map or a compass when the waves are titanic and the winds are whipping across my face, utterly alone in the storm.

Grief isn't linear. I'm not sure it's even cyclical. Grief is exhausting. Today I am shipwrecked.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Keeping on

I was looking through your photos yesterday, searching for a photo for my blog, when I came across the photos that you took last year at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. I noticed the date: 10th October 2015. It was the day we properly got together (for the second time). It was a year ago today.

I notice every month when the 10th comes round. The 10th is the day that you died. Seven months today.

I notice other anniversaries too, noticing often what I was doing this time last year. Today is one of those for another reason. Tonight I am reading with other writers in The Red Deer pub as part of the Off the Shelf literature festival. I read there last year with the same writers. Last year I read from a romantic novel that I was writing, smiling at you in the audience, proud to have you there cheering me on. Tonight I will read from my grief blog and try not to notice the gap where you were. I have switched from fiction to memoir, in a relationship to single. Narratives aren't always under the writer's control.

I miss your support during this festival season. Last year you were my groupie, my cheerleader, my photographer and my chauffeur. You even helped me choose my outfits for my book launch. You were so proud to be with me and I was so proud to have a boyfriend who, for once, was behind me and everything that mattered to me. I introduced you to my friend, Anni, who shook your hand and told you fiercely, to 'look after Beverley.' You promised that you would. You did. You were neither overly-impressed nor threatened by my writing, just loving and admiring. You were the perfect writer's partner.

I remember the conversation we had about my writing and about ambition. You said you were glad that I didn't need you to be ambitious because you weren't sure what to be ambitious about.  'I've never seen myself as a front seat sort of person,' you said. 'and nor am I a back seat sort of a person. More the kind of person who makes his own seat.' I loved that about you. In the same conversation you said that you knew that big things would happen for me in my writing career and that you were right behind me. Or maybe you were alongside me. And maybe now, you are somewhere above me, in your own seat. 'Keep on trucking, girl,' you said. I will. I do. Even without you. And even though I don't recognise myself in the photos from last autumn, I know that the optimistic author is still in there somewhere and that one day she will return. You helped me on my way, Blacksmith Paul. Thank you.





Sunday, 9 October 2016

My brain has been blown to pieces

Here's something I never knew until this year. When someone you really love dies suddenly without warning, it is not just your heart that gets broken. Everything is broken. There is not one tiny corner of your life that is unaffected. It is like a bomb has exploded into the centre of your reality and smashed it all to smithereens. Nothing makes sense anymore. It is like you've gone out for the day and come home and someone has changed the locks and rearranged the furniture. Everything looks wrong. The person who was at the centre of your world has randomly disappeared and it's like they've taken huge chunks of you with them. The bits that they haven't taken have been smashed into minute fragments and scattered who knows where. Some of them you might find gradually, close by, in the weeks and months following the explosion. Maybe they're just stuck in the waste disposal unit or down at the bottom of the garden in the compost. But some have been blasted into space and I'm not sure they ever return. Sometimes, you might find a corner of something that looks vaguely familiar and feel pleased that you're starting to piece things back together but when you try it for size, it just doesn't fit anymore. Then you remember about the changing of the locks and the furniture and realise that you're going to have to start from scratch.

Here are a few things that go missing when someone close to you dies without warning:

  • Your sense of order: if people can just vanish overnight, anything is possible. Anything might happen at any moment. 
  • Your sense of justice: it turns out really bad things happen to really good people. If this is the case, is there any point in being good anymore? Is there any point in anything?
  • The illusion of control: why plan for tomorrow when tomorrow might not even happen?
  • Friends and family that you thought you could rely on: turns out not everyone wants to be close to a disaster zone. 
  • Your belief system: if you thought there was a benevolent God before, chances are you find yourself questioning their benevolence now. If you didn't think there was a God perhaps you start looking for one. It's all very well believing that one life is all you have when you're twenty-one and studying philosophy but when your soulmate has just disappeared, suddenly, that philosophy seems sorely lacking. 
  • Your sense of narrative (important if you're a writer): the end just happened in the middle, redemption and resolution seem impossible and, frankly, the narrative trajectory is stuffed. 
  • Your empathy for other people: you either have too much or not enough. You can't watch the news anymore because one more bit of sadness could tip you over the edge but when your friend is moaning about her husband or her job you want to bite her head off because she has no right to complain when her partner is not dead. 
  • Your sense of self: this angry, confused person is not the person you're used to being. 
  • Your memory: you can recall precise details about your time spent with your loved one but everything else is obliterated. 
  • Your brain: your brain has been blown to pieces. 

Sometimes I think my brain has been more badly affected than my heart. I just can't remember or process things in the way that I used to be able to. Basic tasks baffle me. Emails go unanswered, bills go unpaid, bits of paper disappear on a daily basis and information, rather than going in one ear and out of the other, goes in one ear, bounces off this huge boulder of grief and goes straight back out the way it came in. People ask me if I've had a nice a weekend and I genuinely have no idea. I mean, I know it probably wasn't a nice weekend because those don't happen anymore, but I don't know what I did. Often, I literally don't know what day, week or month it is. My daughter corrected me the other day when I said it was 2017. Turns out I was wrong. The children correct me a lot. I get my words muddled and can't add up. I look at the stats for my blog and can't work out if something has been read a hundred times or a thousand or ten thousand. It's like my brain just looks at numbers and starts malfunctioning. Computer says no. It has taken me six weeks to assemble the six administrative pieces of paper necessary for me to run my school writing group. I forget to invoice for work that I've done. Frankly, if I had a proper job, I would have had to leave.

I have a theory as to why this happens to brains experiencing extreme shock and grief and it goes like this. When something so enormous has happened, all of your brain's energy goes on trying to make sense of it. Your brain goes into its habitual problem-solving mode and sets to work. This is one hell of a problem so it needs all the brain cells you've got. It is scrambling about trying to make the narrative make sense, trying to find the missing pieces, trying desperately to make this ok. We've been programmed to believe that it is all down to us, the universe is ordered and if we just work hard enough we will be rewarded. And so our brains work overtime trying to make it so. But however hard we try, the pieces are still missing and, eventually, our brains pack up and go home, defeated in their efforts.

Grieving takes up most of our energy. And then there are other questions to grapple with. Big questions. What is the meaning of life? What happens after death? Where has the person I love gone? What the fuck am I supposed to do now? All of which doesn't leave much brain for anything else, especially if there are kids to take care of. So, my brain is ninety per cent this big boulder of grief and the rest of it is looking after the kids. Outside of this, only the areas where I am naturally accomplished still function. I can still write, so long as I'm writing about you or grief and I can still teach. I wasn't a naturally ordered person to begin with and now my ability to be ordered has been obliterated. It is coming back slowly, as I find those pieces in the garden, but, seven months on, processing this grief is still taking up most of my brain cells.

I've been away by myself this weekend and, just this morning I was congratulating myself on achieving several milestones. Firstly, this weekend, I read two chapters of a book that was not about grief. This is miraculous. I have not been able to read since you died; I can't concentrate for long enough and I can't see the point in stories that aren't true. I also read at least three articles in the newspaper (skim-read but progress, nevertheless) and completed all but two clues in the crossword. I felt quite proud of myself. I left the holiday cottage feeling positively smug until I got halfway down the road and realised I'd forgotten to leave the keys. I drove back and posted them through the letterbox. Slowly but surely I am putting myself back together. But when I got home and tried my key in the lock, it wouldn't work. I was back at square one: the locks had been changed, the furniture rearranged. And then I looked at my keyring and realised that I had posted the keys to my own house through the letterbox of the holiday cottage and was trying to force the holiday cottage key into the lock to my house. Turns out I still have a long way to go.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

The future doesn't exist

I went back to see my old therapist last week. It was a routine follow-up from the sessions I had when we were together. She was the one who was helping me to trust again, who encouraged me to take a chance on love with you. She told me that no-one is perfect, that nothing is permanent. Love is like a cup of coffee, she said. It always ends. Someone will always leave or die. All we can do is enjoy the coffee while it lasts. When you died, she acknowledged that she didn't expect my coffee break to be so short.  (I'm not sure if I ever told her that I don't like coffee.)

I start crying as soon as I walk through the door, remembering all the conversations we have had in this room about you.  I cry as I tick the boxes on the routine form asking me how often in the last two weeks I have felt anxious, or sad or hopeless (most days, every day). I cry when she asks me if I think a lot about you (most of the day, every day). I cry as my pen hovers over that box that asks if I have had thoughts that I would be better off dead, as I explain that I have no plan to kill myself (I love my children) but that, often, when I am exhausted and drowning in waves of sorrow, I still have that thought that I would rather not be here anymore. Dead would be easier than living with this pain. It is natural, surely, to want to be with your loved one and dead is where you are. I cry when she tells me that my scores are lower than when I started seeing her eighteen months ago, that, according to some clinical diagnostic criteria, I am suffering from moderate to severe depression, that my anxiety levels are high. She suggests anti-depressants and some online CBT. I leave feeling worse than when I went in. I'm not just grieving anymore. I'm now mentally ill. Someone in some central NHS office has created a downloadable test that tells me so. It must be true.

I try not to let it get to me but I wonder again if I should be over this by now. I have passed the six month milestone after all. I logged it as it went by and hoped for some respite. We were properly together for six months so six months seemed a reasonable length of time to mourn your loss. And I'd read somewhere that if you're 'functionally and significantly impaired by grief symptoms' six months after being bereaved, then you move into the territory of 'complicated grief'. And I remember the TED talk that I watched in March that told me that happiness is all in the mind and nothing to do with life circumstances. Apparently, six months after trauma, in most cases, the trauma has no bearing on levels of contentment. Evidently, I am not most cases. (Mind you, I have been through a whole heap of recent traumas. I have covered most of the most stressful life events in the last three years - sick child, ill health, separation, death of a parent, death of a partner, massive change in financial circumstances and I threw in a house move just to finish me off). But I am complicated, still suffering, doing it wrong.

It was the mindfulness teacher who suggested the group watch the TED talk last time. She recommended it again this time, as I restarted the course six months after your death. Take it gently, she'd said to me, see how it sits. And it was sitting ok until she mentioned that talk again and my mind was flung back to that evening when we were apart and I was telling you about the dude on TED and his theory that happiness is all in the mind, all about living in the moment. 'That makes sense to me', you'd said. 'Longer term thinking is more vague and uncertain, more likely to lead to anxious thinking.' Twenty-four hours later you were dead.

The therapist asks me the question that other people ask. 'What have you got to look forward to?' She's like a hairdresser asking me if I'm going somewhere nice tonight or if I have holiday plans, as if a night on the town will fix it all, as if things might look better from the top of the Eiffel Tower. My mind draws a blank. I can't see the future any more. The future now is vague and uncertain and reflecting on it leads to anxious thinking. I shake my head and she adds up my scores and shakes hers. I am failing again.

I leave her office seventy pounds poorer and seventy per cent less happy. Rather than head to the GP for some pills, I think of the words of the mindfulness teacher and ground myself by asking questions that I can answer, the questions writers often ask: what can you see, what can you hear, what can you feel, what can you smell? I see my daughter's freckles, speckling cheeks that are rose-petal soft to my touch. I hear the rustle of autumn leaves underfoot. I feel the water supporting my weight in the pool. I wake up and smell the coffee, even though I don't like what I smell. I do as she suggests and watch my feelings like clouds in the sky. I name them, as writers like to do, welcome them in. I see you, Pain. I feel you, Anxiety. I know you, Grief. Ah, Loneliness, you too. I remember you. I label the emotions, refuse to take on the label myself. I have moments, hours and days of unbearable depression but I am not depressed. I am grieving but I am not just grief. Yes this grief is complicated and cumulative. I have been through a lot over a lot of years. It will take time to recover.

A few days later, I get a message from my daughter's school. A girl has died. She was nine year's old, healthy by all accounts. She contracted meningitis and died suddenly, just like that. I have to lie down and cry when I hear the news. I feel it fully now. It cracks open the rift in my broken heart again. I can't bear to imagine the carnage in another's life of such a brutal loss. This wasn't in anyone's plan. In six month's time, I wonder, will her parents have recovered? Will they be as happy then as they were last week? Will they be back to normal? Dr TED can say what he likes but I don't believe him. When death explodes into your life like that, there is no normal any more. Everything has changed. Everything is rearranged. Life will never be the same again. They will never be the same. I am not the same.

But it is not all doom and gloom, not for me, not now as I approach seven months without you. I reflect again on the therapist's questionnaire and wonder where the other questions are? The ones that paint a balanced picture. How many times in the last two weeks have you felt joy? How often have you felt love? How many moments of calm have you experienced? Did you see today, the beauty of the trees? How many times this week have you held something precious in your hand? Most days, every day.

I am living in the moment now, like you did, like we did. I take notice of each moment and hope that, perhaps, the future will take care of itself.  Yes my moments of sorrow are many and as deep and dark as the deepest sea but I have moments of joy too and these moments are brighter now and more precious. At night, I hold my children tightly, marvel at freckles and fingers and locks of hair. I know that this moment might be our last. Life is made up of moments - unbearable beauty alongside unbearable loss. This moment is all we have. The future doesn't exist.

In response to Island by Langston Hughes


I cannot sea the island
but I see other sailors who pass by,
they holler to me across the rough sea,
tell me of a place where sun shines once more
on golden sands.
Keep going, they say,
and you will reach the shore.

Unable to steer,
all I can do is succumb to each wave,
fearing each time that I might drown
but emerging over
and over
to catch my breath.

Wet-through and windtorn,
I hold onto hope like a rusty rudder,
read again the message from a future self,
tossed aboard in a broken bottle:
this too shall pass.

In between,
I drift on a listless tide,
idle my fingers in cool water
when I can.
I pray
that each wave brings me
closer to a place
to land.

Hibernation

Sometimes, I wish I was a bear. 
I would gather nuts and berries now in the last flush of autumn,
hoard my store while the air is crisp and clear
and then withdraw, hunker down, hibernate. 
I would hide in the darkness 
as the nights draw in
and sleep, deep in a drift 
of white feathers and daydreams.

Someone please anaesthetise me 
while these dark days pass over. 
Wake me in the spring,
when I can recall the love of sunshine,
when I am ready to live again a full life,
not this half-life of grief. 

For now, just let me sleep.

The autumn of grief



The family tree is broken,
the main branches diseased and fallen.
Only this stump remains.
This tree has been pruned too far back.
You can kill a tree with too much pruning;
some varieties just want to grow 
free.

This tree once had dreams,
wanted to be a palm on a distant beach,
dripping with coconuts and
swaying to the beat of a calypso wind.
But now she stands like a lump of lead, 
dormant in the damp earth 
on the brink

of autumn.
Dormant but not silent,
she whispers in the dark,
tells grim tales of long winters
and deforestation. 

I tie her to a stake,
smother her feet in fallen leaves
and water them with tears.
I watch them break down
to feed the soil.

Just now this tree cannot grow,
so she lies low,
waits for spring.
New life will surely come one day
not too far away.
Not today.