Sunday, 2 April 2017

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

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

Catchy huh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Leave a little light on

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

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

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

These are the things you left behind

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

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

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

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

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


The food of love

At Wagamamas on a rare occasion when Paul let me buy him dinner because he was helping me with Christmas shopping after my mum's death

'People always wanted to feed Paul,' says your mum. This information makes me smile because it leads me to conclude that this is how you got by. Even as a grown man, you'd rock up to people's houses unannounced and find yourself eating plates of toast, or cake or staying for dinner. You loved food but you didn't know how to make it, though some of your concoctions were legendary: garlic sandwiches, cider vinegar potions. I don't really even know what you ate most of the time. I know you occasionally cooked fish and roast dinners for your friend but generally I assume you got by on a diet of tinned food. I know that you liked to mix things up, adding spices and garlic to tins of beans and soup and that it didn't always turn out the way you intended. And I know that you loved cheese.

'Do you like cheese?' I once asked you by Messenger.
'I am at least 40% cheese,' you replied. 'And must have it at every opportunity.'
You made me laugh.

At the beginning of our relationship, things proceeded in the manner to which you were evidently accustomed. I'd bake flapjack in anticipation of your arrival and you'd arrive hungry and eat your way through a plate of it with obvious gusto. If it was evening, I'd cook you sweet potato curry. You didn't like going out to eat. It wasn't really your style and you didn't like spending money. And nor did you like me to pay for you but, on the other hand, I really didn't like having to cook on my days off childcare. As a feminist it irked me to always be the one doing the cooking. It was another conundrum. 'I'm not cooking for you every time you come round,' I said. So, you started picking up a meal for one in the supermarket with mock seriousness, even though I protested that I didn't really mean that I would never cook for you; you took feedback on board and you were not going to have me resenting you.

One day, in January, you decided to show me that you could be the new man you felt I needed you to be. You determined to cook me dinner. You arrived, Ainsley Harriot cookbook in hand, with a bag of shopping and set about chopping in my kitchen while I went to a doctor's appointment. I returned to the smell of burning and you, dripping with sweat and visibly shaken in a way I'd never seen you, pans all over the kitchen and a pile of orange slop deposited onto two plates. It tasted ok, I said, just slightly singed. I said it added to the depth of the flavour. It took you a full hour to calm down. It took another hour to clean the kitchen. You never cooked for me again. But I loved you all the more for trying.

Monday, 13 March 2017

I would do it again

'Each griever must ask the question, ‘Who am I, now that you’re gone?’ And the answer to that question often revises one’s self-narrative. Grief is a story you tell yourself. It’s a story of the death of someone you loved. It’s a story of the life of someone you loved. It’s a story of your life with them and it’s a story of your life without them.'

Ron Marasco and Brian Shuff, About Grief

A little while ago I went to see La La Land at the cinema. It was a bit of a milestone for me as the first film that I managed to sit through that wasn't grief-related, in fact I really loved it. Essentially I'm a sucker for whimsy and romance, the classic dreamer, head in the clouds and all that jazz. I want always to believe in destiny and true love even though my own life hasn't done much to encourage those beliefs. La La Land is a perfect dreamers' film. It reminded me of our magical love affair, of course, and also a bit of my first true love. He was an aspiring actor from California and I was an aspiring writer from Yorkshire. We had a fairytale meeting in Eastern Europe (dancing in the snow in Prague as opposed to the sunset in LA), a wonderful courtship (including drama and deportation) and we had a beautiful wedding after eighteen months. A few years later, we divorced. It was a harsh lesson to learn, at twenty-six, that happy ever afters are often just the stuff of Hollywood and not of real life.

For that reason, I quite liked the ending of La La Land, even though I still sat crying on the back row with my friend when it finished, not because the hero and heroine didn't end up together but because it reminded me of the unsatisfactory nature of my own love stories. 'What is it all supposed to mean?' I asked her. Like the couple in La La Land, you and I seemed destined to be together. I felt you were my soulmate and that it was written in the stars that we should collide. Our paths had criss-crossed so often throughout our lives that it was only a matter of time, or timing, before we would get the message and fall in love. And when we finally made it, I thought I'd made it too, to the end of some kind of convoluted romantic journey, to my own (slightly later than expected, slightly unconventional) happy ever after. And then suddenly you died and the narrative was shredded and I was bewildered again wondering what to make of it all. 'The end just happened in the middle,' I wrote. The path into the future had disappeared overnight and I didn't see how I could go on. Essentially, I lost the plot.

As a graduate of English literature and a writer (predominantly of fiction), narrative is important to me and something that has preoccupied me a lot in my grief. I'm painfully aware that the narrative of my own life (put simply) is a complete mess and not something any publisher would be interested in; there's no clear narrative arc at all, certainly not from a romantic point of view. It might make a good collection of, mostly tragic, short stories but it's a hopeless romance novel. Every time someone looks like the hero of the piece and I invest in them, they vanish and your particular vanishing act was truly spectacular. In a pitching workshop that I once attended, I was told that I needed to be able to encapsulate the plot of my novel in a one-line summary. At the beginning of my grief journey, this is how the story looked: 'Two lovers, destined to be together, miss their chance repeatedly, spend their lives apart having a pretty miserable time, finally unite and then, just when things are going great, he dies and her life is ruined'. Maybe it makes a good weepy but it's certainly not an easy story to write a sequel to and, left here without you, that is, essentially, what I have to do. 

My bereavement counsellor says that the work of bereavement is to find a new narrative and perhaps, in this respect, I'm lucky that I know a lot about making up stories. Perhaps that's why I have written so many thousands of words since you died, trying to find a way to write the story in such a way that it makes your narrative bearable (though it would take a genius to achieve that) and also leaves the way open for me to continue to write a better future for myself. When you died, my overwhelming feeling was that I just wanted to die with you but gradually, over the course of the last twelve months I've been forced to consider the possibility that your ending can't be the ending of my own story. If I'm going to go on to live a rich and fulfilling life (and how can I contemplate anything else when I have the privilege to still be here when you are not?) I can't afford to have my narrative be the one in which the love of my life appears and disappears in the space of a year during middle age. It's just too ridiculous. So, I must try to find a new way to frame things and, though I have raged against the people who talk of gifts and silver linings, I find myself looking for them anyway. Because who wants to read a narrative without hope? And who can live a life in which there are no gifts?

So, I try to rework the narrative and I'm left with something like this: 'Just as they are both about to give up on hope and true love, two star-crossed lovers, battered by ill-fortune and plagued by self-doubt, find each other and repair each other's broken hearts, restoring their faith in love. Though he tragically dies, he dies happy in the knowledge that he is truly loved and accepted for who he is. And, though she is heartbroken at being left behind, she is left with the same knowledge: she has known what it is to love deeply and to be loved deeply in return. He has left her with the gift of knowing she is worthy of true love.'  It still needs work, but it's an improvement, at least, on the first version. 

Sometimes, I reflect that, overall, my own story is perhaps not a romance at all. When I got divorced, my mum, bless her, suggested that perhaps I was just 'one of those people who isn't meant to be in a relationship.' Cheers for that, Mum. I don't like to think she was right but there are allegedly seven possible plots and not all of them are boy meets girl. Probably my narrative is more a voyage of self-discovery, of becoming. Mostly, in my life, the men along the way feel like they have been obstacles and distractions from my main work, of being my true self and being the writer that I was always meant to be. I remember once saying to a, now well-known, author that I felt I couldn't be a writer and have love. 'With the right person, you can,' she said wisely. You were the right person and I learned that I could. I learned that someone could love both the writer and the person that I am. In truth, the person and the writer are one and the same thing.

I don't know what the next chapter of my story will be as I've yet to write it. Maybe I will go on to find my fulfilment in my writing and you will remain the one true love of my life but, I don't think that's my story. I don't think my mum was right. I've learned a lot over the last few decades of living tragic short stories. I'd like the chance to apply my learning to a bigger and more sustainable project. Maybe I'm greedy but I'd like to have my writing and still have love. I can understand the widows who feel that the love they shared with their spouses is enough to sustain them but I only had a few months. It's not enough for me. I don't know what the point would be of finally understanding what love is, if I'm never to have it again. It may be crazy but the romantic in me didn't die with you. If anything, it has been reborn. 

In the van, I sing along to the soundtrack to La La Land, turning the volume up every time Emma Stone's audition number comes back round. 'Here's to the ones who dream,' she sings. 'Bring on the rebels, the ripples from pebbles, the painters and poets and plays.' She doesn't mention blacksmiths but I see you and our story in every word. It was a magical story completely devoid of pragmatism, a real romance. A story of madness and colour, a triumph of heart over head. Together we captured that feeling, 'a sky with no ceiling, a sunset inside a frame.' And whatever happens next, 'I'll always remember the flame' of our love. Like you, it lives on, in me.
 'Here's to the ones who dream. Foolish as they may seem. 
Here's to the hearts that break. Here's to the mess we make.'  
And here's to you, Blacksmith Paul, the ultimate dreamer. 

At the bonfire that we held after your funeral, I scrawled a message on a paper lantern. I still remember the words that I wrote: 'What an adventure we had! I wouldn't have missed it for the world,'  It's true. I wouldn't. And even though, during this last twelve months, my journey has been a nightmarish trip to the underworld, I am still so grateful for the love we shared. I know that if I had my time again, I wouldn't change a thing, apart from the ending (and perhaps I'd bring forward the beginning). The storyteller in me is able to write new endings and she will. She can conjure worlds in which we will have our time again, in some other lifetime or some parallel universe. Maybe there we will get to have a happy ever after. But in this universe, I will go on and, when the time is right and the person is right (and he will have to be right, now), I know I will risk my heart once more. Because I'm a foolish dreamer like the aunt who jumped barefoot into the Seine.

Smiling through it, she said, she'd do it again. 

Grief is not like sadness and we can't all be butterflies

It is a year today since I found your body. The anniversary of your death passed on Friday but, for me, it feels like it is still ahead. This time last year I didn't know you were dead. This time last year I didn't know what to think but I'm not sure that the idea that you might be dead had even crossed my mind or, if it had crossed my mind, it had been swiftly discarded as a possibility because that kind of thing doesn't really happen. Only sometimes it does. Sometimes, when you least expect it, when it's really the last thing on earth you could do with having to deal with, monumentally bad stuff happens. And when you died like that and I found your body, it was by far the worst thing that had ever happened to me. One minute I thought you were alive and then, at some point late that night, out in the Peak District in my pyjamas, I found you were dead. A few hours later I got up, got the kids to school and began an unexpected journey into a whole world of pain. I don't want to think about that night and I don't need to write about it again but still, this is what I find myself thinking about as I sit down to write today. I still can't quite believe how horrendous the experience has been.

I find myself saying this a lot, like I think people still don't really get it, like I want them to understand even though I know they can't truly comprehend the enormity of it if they haven't been through it. I find myself wanting to explain that I'm not some kind of drama queen, but that losing a partner like that is a mind-blowing, life-changing trauma. I want to say it for all the other people who feel the same, not just for me. It is a natural urge for people to compare experiences as a route into empathy but I want people to understand that it wasn't like getting divorced (though I know that feels really bad, having been there) and it wasn't like losing a parent (though I know that really sucks having lost both) and it wasn't like being left by someone you were in love with (which seriously nearly pushed me over the precipice just the year before). It was worse, much much worse than all of that. And it wasn't even like the stress of watching my little boy suffer with chronic illness for years, or like watching him apparently lying dead in my arms as a baby. It was worse than that because there was a happy ending to that story eventually. He survived and now he's thriving. But you didn't.

For a while, I wondered if it was just me who felt so bad but, no, I have spoken to a lot of people who have lost partners this year and, give or take a degree or two of pain, they all agree that it is excruciating. I have also questioned whether I felt your loss so much more acutely than my other losses because perhaps I wasn't as close to my parents as some people are but I've done my research and my experience isn't unique. I asked a Facebook group of widowed people if anyone else had found that the loss of their partner had been a lot worse than the loss of a parent and 100% of my survey answered 'yes'. About a hundred people answered, not just with a quiet, subtle 'yes' but all of them with a loud agonising scream of a 'YES!' Losing a partner (especially perhaps with the shock of a sudden death) is pure agony. The grief at losing a partner is not like sadness (though sadness is there, of course) and it's not just a case of missing someone (though we do, desperately). Grief at losing a partner is physical. It runs through every fibre of your being and rips its course through every aspect of your life. It is serious trauma. It takes a long time to recover from and, much as society would like to push it away and get us all to move on, grieving for enormous loss can't be rushed.

Still, time heals they say and I guess it does. Slowly, gradually synapses reconnect and new paths into the future are forged, though what I have learned is that there are no shortcuts. There are surely things you can do to make it more bearable but, in the end, you just have to live with it, feel it, work within it and hope one day to emerge. If you're lucky, maybe you get to emerge like a butterfly from a chrysalis but it is perhaps more likely that you emerge like an amputee from a hospital in a war zone. Either way, you're never going to be quite the same again.

Twelve months on, I'm pleased to say that I do feel a kind of re-emergence taking place and a transformation too. In some ways I am probably a better person and in other ways not. I find myself softer but also harder, in many ways more able to empathise with others and yet also impatient with struggles that sometimes seem lesser than my own; there's nothing quite like losing the one you love to give you a clear sense of what matters. I'm able to look forwards again now in a way that I never thought would be possible. I'm even starting to get tired of writing about grief and beginning to contemplate a return to writing fiction. ('Thank goodness' say my loyal friends who must be tired surely of reading this misery, but 'don't stop,' say the grievers who find solace in my writing, who know that grief isn't over yet). I have a couple of memories that I still want to record and a few things I still want to say but I'm preparing to gradually slow down the blog. My bereavement counsellor is getting ready to discharge me as well. She thinks I'm doing well. She's using my writing when she trains other bereavement counsellors and says she's now getting clients coming through who are quoting my blog back to her. 'You're as good as you're going to be,' she said recently. I'm not sure whether to be proud of my achievement or terrified that she's saying I'm going to feel like this for the rest of my life. Either way, I can see that there are other people who need her more than me. Unlike most widowed people, I've been so lucky to have had fantastic, regular counselling free of charge from a qualified counsellor via the hospice where my mum died and it's been so helpful to me. But my counsellor is like Mary Poppins, Nanny McPhee or Pete's dragon. She needs to fly away to help someone new whose world has been freshly decimated. Eventually, whether I am a butterfly or an amputee, I need to learn to survive on my own.

When I found you this time last year, you were already gone and I was already on my own with a new journey beginning. It wasn't a journey that I chose and it isn't a journey that I would recommend to anyone.  If you've been on this journey, I look into your eyes, hold your hand and salute you. And if you haven't, I hope it's a journey that you never have to make. There are surely better ways to achieve transformation and there are easier ways to break out of a chrysalis. And maybe, sometimes, it's ok to stay in a cocoon.

How do you survive that?

A year ago my beloved partner, Blacksmith Paul, died. We'd only been together for eight months, although we'd known each other when we were younger and not realised the depth of the connection that we shared. It is a tragic story of chances missed, bad timing and true love. I was a single parent, recently orphaned, who had not been lucky in love. I'd known a few things that I thought were love before but nothing like this. This was the real deal. Too scared to risk things going wrong after the last boyfriend debacle, I'd been reluctant to introduce him to my children but, on the sixth of March 2016, I did. I can still see him standing in my front garden that night writing messages to Hephaestus the blacksmith god with them, releasing paper lanterns into the sky. They loved him. I loved him. He loved me. And that was the last time I saw him. Five days later, he was dead. No-one really knows why. It seems his heart just stopped beating. He went out of touch and I went out of my mind with worry. On the thirteenth, two of his friends and I broke into the tiny shack where he lived alone in the Peak District and found his already decomposing body on the bed. My world imploded and I experienced the kind of relentless pain that I didn't know existed. I didn't think I could survive it. But I did. Like lots of other people who have been through impossible heartbreak, I continue to survive.

It seemed appropriate just before the anniversary to spend last weekend at the AGM and birthday celebrations of the organisation Widowed and Young. The organisation has been a lifeline to me over the past year even though I'm not really a widow, even though I'm not really that young, even though I've not been sure that I really belong. It was only a short relationship after all and we weren't even married; I've not been sure that I can compare my loss to the loss of people who have been married for years, some of them with children. But the members of WAY have always welcomed me and, over the past year, I have spent most evenings in an online room with the only people who truly understood how it feels to have your future ripped apart. It felt right to make it to the AGM, to meet some of those people in person, at this time. The title of John Irving's novel, 'A Widow for One Year' keeps going round my head. When I read it, I never thought that it would be me.

It is strange the solidarity and comfort that can be found from being in a room full of people who have known great tragedy. As I stood in the hall of the hotel in Stratford last Saturday night, I looked around me and was overwhelmed by the thought that every one of the people in the room had lost a partner, that all of those people had had their worlds blown to pieces. The love, and the lost love, in the room was palpable. Still, it wasn't a sad occasion, on the whole. There was fun and laughter and by the end of the evening everyone was on the dance floor. It turns out that the widowed have lost more than their spouses - their inhibitions have gone too. For them, the worst has already happened. In some ways, they have been liberated from fear and they know how to live, how to love. They are a truly fabulous bunch. It was a fabulous weekend.

Even so, gradually, inevitably the stories came out. I found a girl (really, just a girl) crying in the toilets and offered her a hug. My heart broke for her. How could someone so young survive something like this? Then I spoke to a man who had lost his wife just after his baby girl had been born. She'd developed ovarian cancer while she was pregnant. 'That's so sad,' I said feebly and he nodded wearily. He had told this story before. And then there was my online friend, who had given birth to her only chid the week after her partner had been killed in a bike accident. She was choosing funeral flowers when she should have been choosing baby clothes. 'How do you survive something like that?' I found myself thinking, kicking myself at the same time because I already know the answer. You survive because you have to. Because, unless you kill yourself (and most people who have been widowed will have considered it), you have no other option.

As I sit here, a year on, I find myself reflecting, not just on my enormous loss and sadness but at the resilience of the human spirit. Sure, my grief is still deep and I still cry a lot. I still wish that I could rewind time and bring Paul back. I wish I could undo this long year of pain. And I know that grief will not be tied up neatly at the end of this year but will go on for as long as love goes on (forever). But I can also see how far I have come. I have moved house and started new ventures. I have let go of the work that was weighing me down and now only do work that I love. I have written more than ever before and made new friends. I am even, very tentatively, dating again. And I experience joy, like sunshine between clouds of sadness, on a regular basis. Slowly I am building a new life for myself. What's more, I can tell you how I did it. And this is how.

I wrote. Sometimes, I wrote all night long, often with tears streaming until the words on the screen blurred in front of my eyes. I just had to tell the world my story, even if they thought I was mad, even if I felt mad myself. I needed to get it out. When you're in love and your partner dies, you just want to talk about it and my laptop listened when friends were asleep. The very act of writing calmed my mind. Sometimes, just trying to find the perfect metaphor for turmoil gave my brain something to do and when I had finished, I felt sated. It was like literary self-harm, releasing the pressure from my heart and mind. And in sharing my words, I found support from compassionate friends and from other bereaved people. I also found meaning, as I realised that my words were helping other people. Writing gave me a purpose and, when your world has fallen apart, a purpose is what you need.

I learned to slow down and I learned to say no. I rarely went to social occasions (it all seemed so trivial and alienating) and I removed from my life anything or anyone that didn't make me feel good. I let go of the pressure to meet other people's expectations and focused on myself. I filled my life with the things that made me feel better: not fixed, but less bad. I went outside as often as possible and looked at the world from high hills with big skies. I walked crying through woods and parks, not caring who saw. I swam, feeling the support of water, absorbed in the rhythm of the strokes. I learned, finally, to meditate, practising mindfulness on a daily basis, staying in the moment, learning to name my emotions, to focus on the feeling of the ground beneath my feet. In deep grief, the moment is the only place to be; thinking about the future all too often gives rise to panic. So I stayed in the moment, even when that moment was pure agony. I gave in to pain and sobbed so hard that I thought I was going to die. Like the writing, it brought release, it brought peace.

I exercised. Gently at first, more vigorously now. My bereavement counsellor tells me that in shock, we are in fight or flight mode all of the time. Exercise seduces my body into thinking it has fought and afterwards, it can relax. I tried to remember to eat. I tried to remember to drink water. I tried to remember to sleep. Finally I understood what people meant when they talked about the need to look after myself, about self-compassion. I asked myself what I needed and I tried to give it, to myself. In the absence of anyone else (and often there was no-one else), I had to care about number one.

Still, I reached out to people and I learned to ask for help. I had regular bereavement counselling, saw a herbalist, paid for help at at home (luckily, I was able to afford to do it). I said to my friends, 'I can't do this!' Some of them stepped up to support me. Some of them backed away and left me floundering. When I moved house, I told Facebook that I couldn't manage and a whole hoard of people came to help, some of whom I barely knew, some of whom I hadn't seen for years. I will never forget the kindness of the people who came forward. (I am trying to forgive or let go of the people who let me down. Not everyone is able to be close to a disaster zone.)

I learned to stop caring about what other people think. I let go of my own idea of how I should be. When I'm on my own death bed is it going to matter than someone I don't even like that much thinks I'm self-absorbed, or that someone I barely know thinks I'm too vociferous in my grief? Does it really matter if my children go to bed an hour later, or watch a bit too much TV, so long as they know that they are loved? Does it really matter if I am ten minutes late and don't send thank you notes? As Dr Seuss says, 'those who matter, don't mind and those who mind, don't matter'. I learned to value myself as my partner valued me. My resources are precious, my energy is precious, my time is precious. I am careful now where I invest it.

And this year, I have invested a lot of it not just in surviving my grief but in supporting other people who are in agony. Every day, for the last year, I have talked to the people on the Widowed and Young Facebook group (and to the writers from Refuge in Grief) and, regardless of the differences in our circumstances, I have felt myself to be at home in those places. There is solace to be found in the communities of the heartbroken. There is no silver lining to the cloud of my grief and yet, I am grateful for the wisdom that comes from experience and for the companionship of the people I have met. I am grateful for the knowledge that I am not alone, that other people have been here too and they have survived. We know what it is to love and we have known great loss. We have stared death in the face and we will make the most of the time we have left. We know how precious life is. We know what love is. We are warriors and we will survive.

A version of this blog also appeared in The Huffington Post

Friday, 10 March 2017

The best collaboration I ever had.

This time last year was the last time I spoke to Paul, by Messenger, the night before he died. I've told the story before. We had a chat about our respective days. Mine had included writing a poem about clouds in my writing group that day. I sent it to him and he replied by sending me a photograph of clouds that he'd taken and then he said his (almost) last ever words to me: I love the poem, I love clouds and I love you. And then we talked again about our need to collaborate on something involving his photographs and my writing. My blog has turned into that project. It's not the collaboration that we planned but I've done my best with what I have left of him. It's all I can do. So, here's my attempt to put together the poem and his photo. Remembering a wonderful man and a wonderful relationship: though it was woefully short, in many ways, it was the best collaboration I've ever had.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The last time ever I saw your face

Not the last time, but the week before.

I don't remember the first time that I saw your face. I wish I did. I wrote a poem about it. It was the first thing I wrote after you died. All I could think about was all the years that we could have been together and weren't, all the chances that we'd missed. That and how impossible it was that you could be dead and how impossible it was for me to imagine a world in which I could carry on without you.

I remember the last time that I saw your face, though I didn't know it. No-one told me it would be the last time. This year has been the longest and most painful year of my life and yet, in some ways it feels like it was yesterday. The truth is that it was yesterday, just yesterday in 2016, not 2017.

It was Mother's Day and my mind was flooded with memories. I was not feeling great. My last boyfriend had left on Mother's Day 2015 and my mum had only recently died. Besides which, being a single parent of young children on Mother's Day sucks at the best of times, as you struggle on cooking and tidying and trying to keep people happy, all the time seething because this is your day and someone should be looking after you for a change. But no-one is.

We'd said goodbye in the morning as we always did, just before the children came back from their dad's. You'd gone to buy your mum some flowers and taken them to her. (It was to be the last time that she would see your face too.) I wasn't expecting to see you until Tuesday. I never saw you on a Sunday. I wouldn't let you meet the children, not after what had happened last time with the other boyfriend, although we had been discussing it. It had been eight months and things were going so well. You were planning a bonfire and you wanted me to bring the children. I'd said I would. All that remained was to decide whether I would bring them as your friend or as your girlfriend, out in the open for the first time.

On the Saturday, things were not right. Looking back, the signs were all there that you were not well. I remember sitting on your knee and pointing out that you had big dark bags under your eyes and you teased me, 'what faults of yours can I pick on?' you said. And you were forgetting things. You couldn't remember where we were meant to be going from one moment to the next. 'What is wrong with your brain? I remember asking. You laughed it off. 'There's nothing wrong with my brain,' you said. We went to your friend's house that night. It was the night that you invented the code, the taps on your hand: two taps to tell you that I was ready to leave, three to make love. I tapped three times of course and you made me laugh, 'what, right here?' you said and we left. No doubt we did make love that night but I don't remember it. We were still at that stage. Only eight months in. Deeply in love. No-one told me it would be the last time.

The children and I were coming back from a play centre that Sunday evening and the neighbours were having a bonfire. We watched for a while, throwing sticks into the fire over the fence and I told them that my friend Paul was having a bonfire and that they were invited. They squealed with excitement and then my daughter asked me if we would let off the paper lanterns that you'd left at our house. And suddenly I found myself asking if they wanted to do it right now, with you, if you were free. I sent you a text and you said, 'be there in 10'.

The rest of it feels like the stuff of mythology. You made stone circles on the ground outside with my daughter and burnt herbs in an offering to the Greek gods that she was obsessed with; she was thrilled to have someone who shared her passion. And then we wrote on the paper lanterns. We wrote on one for my deceased parents and the other one you sent to the gods. You and she were in clear accord that Hephaestus, the blacksmith god, was the best. You wrote a message to him though I didn't look what it said and then you lit the papers and my children held the lanterns and waited patiently for them to balloon with the heat and we stood and watched them together, floating off into the night sky like we were a little family waiting to be born.

'I really like Paul,' my daughter said when you were out of earshot. 'Can he stay?' I said he could and I left the two of you watching The Witches while I put the little one to bed. Afterwards, you said goodnight to her and then there were just us two. I held you tightly in the hall, swaying in your arms, still feeling the glow from watching you with them and the lanterns. 'I love you,' I said. And 'I love you too,' came your reply. We kissed goodnight and then you left with that move that was uniquely yours, the one that I've written about before: the twist on the ball of a foot, one foot on the step, one on the ground, graceful like a dancer, hand raised and your voice tossed into the darkness saying 'goodnight'.

And there we were, just at the beginning of a lifetime together, not knowing that we were at the end. I didn't know that it was the last time I would see your face. You didn't know it was the last time you would see mine. The next day I phoned you in tears, in a panic, saying I wasn't sure I could do it, it was all too big, what if it all went wrong again. You calmed me down, said I was grieving for my mum, said it would take longer before I could trust again after what had happened last time when I had introduced someone to the children. You said that we had all the time in the world, that there was no rush. You told me to rest, to go to bed early on Tuesday instead of staying up all night with you, to go and see my friend on Saturday and have a week off from you; I'd spent every spare moment with you from the day we met. You told me to take some time, said you weren't going anywhere. Though neither of us knew it, it turned out that you were.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

The condition of my heart

This is the scene. A writing workshop in an art space in Sheffield. A dozen or so writers brought together in a room to write their way through the gloom of a winter afternoon. And I am at the helm, as usual. conjuring ways to stir the creative juices, to fire the imaginations of the assembled group.

I have grabbed a box full of random objects in the morning, whilst cooking breakfast and feeding the dog, cajoling children out of pyjamas and into clothes, whilst talking to suitors on Tinder and bereaved people on Facebook. This is how I live and work these days. The boundary between my multiple identities has almost completely dissolved and I find myself switching hats so many times and so quickly within the space of a day or an hour. that I might as well be doing one of those juggling routines, where the man (does it always have to be a man?) is tossing bowler hats from head to foot and back again, like they are seats on a Ferris wheel. I am mother, friend, writer, teacher, coach, griever, comfort, potential date, all day long. I've come to like it this way though it means my mind is often scattered, though I am acting often on instinct, following my heart rather than my head, winging it. It is just a few days since my instinct led to me to write about your bench in a Valentines' blog for The Huffington Post, a couple of days since I learned that your bench is now in place, positioned by the water on Valentine's Day.

I lay the objects out on the table and ask my writers to pick one that appeals to them. 'Don't think about it,' I say. I am always saying this. To my mind, the magic of writing happens when you don't think about it, when you let the object choose you, when you let the words flow and follow their lead, not trying to drag them after you like reluctant children on a country walk. Magic, like love, happens when you least expect it. Magic, like love, can be found in unlikely places.

I grab my mum's old charm bracelet. I haven't looked at it since I was a child but it brings back memories of sitting on her bed (the one with the wooden surround) rummaging in the old leather jewellery box, the smell of her perfume. And this is what I write:

So many stories hung on one intersecting chain. Too much for my brain to take in. The smell of metal taking me to too many places: silverware on the dining room table and tubs of polish, things that were once precious, buffed, taken care of, now tarnished, unwanted, boxed off and sent to who knows where. 

And you, of course and your coffee pot of silver, melted down now to make my ring, metal transformed by heat, like the iron rod in your forge, whisked from the fire and hammered into shape by your loving hands, striking while the iron was hot. Leave it too long and metal, like a heart, can turn cold, fixed and unmalleable. Love, like heat transforms.

My eye is drawn to a battered heart, hanging on the chain, so crushed that it is barely recognisable as the symbol of love and hope that it once was. This heart has been through the mill, wrung out and strung out, pushed through rollers, stamped on, tossed out to sea, returning to me, like a message in a bottle on an empty beach. This heart is like my heart, I think. 

And then I spy another heart, shiny and intact, on my mother's bracelet. This one is nestled on a bench, like the one I bought for you. This heart looks brand new, gleaming like joy, a message from the past, from her to me to you. A symbol of love and magic in an unexpected place. 

If I jingle the bracelet, it tinkles like bells, like a promise of something good, presents at Christmas. I do believe in fairies, I do. 

My heart may be battered but love is powerful magic and our love, you said, was good and right and true. Love, like life, renews. And sometimes, when the fog clears again, I know for sure that life and death are an intersecting chain, that there is no end to love.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Spring is in the air

There have been some lovely springy days recently. The sun is pushing between clouds and there's a lightening of the sky. Bulbs that were hidden are peeping out of the soil, breaking through to feel the early spring warmth in the air.

Your snowdrops are blooming too. I walk past them every time I pass the front door. They sit in a pot that I took from your garden after your death, shovelling earth with my bare hands, panic rising; I needed to grasp any part of you that I could before your home was completely emptied, your belongings sold off or chucked in a skip in the weeks following your death. I can conjure it in my mind like it was yesterday: old shoes and clothes (that you were wearing just the other day), bloody mattress, broken tyres, iron rods all jumbled up. It felt like you were being torn apart in front of my eyes. I wandered through your home and the surrounding land, like a trespasser combing a bomb site, looking for remnants of treasure, no idea what to hold onto and what to let go, no idea what my rights were. I was not your wife, or your widow and I was not family, but your heart belonged to me and your heart, the only thing I really wanted, was gone.

I was there with my friend that day, just wanting to sit once more on the verandah where we were first drank tea, our boots side by side on the railings, the promise of love hanging in the air, our future spread out like the vista of the wide expanse of moorland in front of us. I wanted to show someone where you lived. She was talking about her boyfriend and, for a moment, I was ok, comparing notes and then I remember the moment when the world cracked open again and I lost the plot because the boyfriend I was comparing to hers was dead. And I walked away from her crying and started digging up the ground with my hands because suddenly I needed snowdrops like the ones your brother had dug up for your mum and I needed them now, in case they too were stolen from me. It was a moment when I realised that everything had changed, that I couldn't relate anymore to normal people with their normal experiences of life.

I'm glad I took the snowdrops now. They are a little symbol of the cycle of life, of regrowth and rebirth and they hold, somehow, a little memory of you in each fragile bud. They sit next to the moon gazing hare that I took from my mum's garden at the last minute before the new owner's moved in. My mum's friend told me that a moon gazing hare is a symbol of growth and new beginnings so I brought it to my new house in the hope that it might bring me some luck. But the wind blew it over and smashed it so that now it is a one-eared hare which doesn't feel quite so auspicious.

I took the photo of the snowdrops a couple of weeks ago, thinking that it would make a nice metaphor for grief. I thought I would write an uplifting piece in the run up to the anniversary of your death in which I was a snowdrop, buried grief-deep through the winter but pushing through the darkness into the light, ready to create a new future. It would be a convenient comparison. A year of grief is enough for anyone. Seriously, a year of this kind of grief is too much, for anyone. I can't live in the underworld forever. I want so much to live again, to love again, to touch someone that breathes. A metaphysical love is not enough for me. Eight months of love is not enough for me. I want something more. And yet.

As usual, grief does not do my bidding and for the last week or so I have felt like I am back at the beginning again. 'Grief is snakes and ladders,' I wrote a while back, only it's snakes and ladders without a winner or an end point and, even when you've made it through three hundred and fifty-five days of grief and you think the end is in sight, you can land on a snake and feel like you've gone right back to square one. 'I don't cry every day anymore,' I wrote, back in October and I didn't. But now I am crying every day again, I feel all at sea again, waves crashing, storm raging, tossed about like I don't know which way is up and which way is down, like I can't separate the past and the present from the future. I feel I'm part of some mythological drama where the gods and the devils are fighting for my soul, like I'm being dragged to the underworld and pulled back into the light over and over again while some kind of orchestral crescendo builds and cymbals crash and I'm not sure where I'm going to land. It is horrible to be flung about like this and the logical part of my brain asks why this is necessary. I know what happened. Why re-live every moment? But grief is not logical and I can't control it so I must go with it and know that, as it has before, it will pass and there will be calm again soon.

And as I sit here, clearing out my old office, trying to let go of the past, I realise that there is a huge difference still between the grief that is raging now and the grief that I felt at the beginning and the difference is this: I know now that I will survive. I know now that, for as long as I'm alive, I can survive anything. I am not at square one after all. I can see ladders scattered about and I know how to climb them if I just keep rolling the dice and moving forwards. Regardless of how I feel just now, I know that new life will come and I know that the metaphor I started out with still serves. I am as fragile as a snowdrop fighting through the frost and the cold, reaching for the light, peeping out of the darkness and I am a moon gazing hare with one ear - irreparably broken but still here, still hoping that something better is around the corner.

Friday, 24 February 2017

The (not so final) countdown

I am counting again. But instead of counting the days, weeks, months since you died, now I count the days until the anniversary of the day that you died. Instead of counting firsts, I am now getting ready to count the lasts: the last good day together, the last party, the last walk, the last night, the last time I saw your face, the last time we spoke. And I am remembering this period last year when you didn't seem quite well. When maybe something could have been done. It is only fourteen days now until the anniversary and the anticipation hangs in the air. The feeling of dread is back when I wake up in the morning and my dreams are anxious. I already know from other big dates that the anticipation is worse than the actual day. The sky is darkening as it approaches.

I'm not exactly sure what I think will happen when the day arrives. It is crazy to be afraid of the tenth of March. I keep hearing those words from Julius Caesar in my mind: 'beware the ides of March'. But the tenth of March is only a date, surely, like any other. Nothing will be monumentally changed by the knowledge that it will have been a year. You will still be dead and I will still be alive, it's just that the distance between us will have grown incrementally again.

Maybe it's the memories that I fear. They are already seeping back in. Those really seriously horrible traumatic memories that I generally try very hard not to remember. They are coming out of the darkness where they are buried, ready to attack. I am prepared for them though, in truth, I'm still not sure how to arm myself against the kind of monsters that can't be seen.

Other emotions will be there too.  Sadness of course, at what we lost and what you lost and at the fact that you just continue to get further and further away. And maybe some relief, even pride as I reflect that somehow I have lived through the worst 365 days of my life. It feels like a miracle that I am still here to tell the tale, that I can even, with hindsight, tell new arrivals into this world of loss, how I did it. (More on that another time).

There is uncertainty too and I find myself wishing again that I knew the hour and the moment of your death like some people do. There is a time, on the birthdays of my children, when I remember the exact moment that they were born, the moment when I first held them in my arms, when their birthdays truly begin. And I have that same knowledge of the time when my mother drew her last breath. But with you, it is all a mystery. I knew nothing when you died and felt nothing (I should surely have felt something). And no-one knows when it was. I wish that I knew when it was.

I found myself wondering about the last hours of your life again this week as I walked the coastal path from Ravenscar to Robin Hood's Bay, missing the feel of your hand in mine, missing your side of the conversation. You'd have thought that by now, I'd have gone over the events from every possible angle and tortured myself enough, but no, it turns out there are still things that I haven't considered.

On your death certificate it says that you died on the thirteenth (the day we found your body) but we know that this is wrong. I know in my bones that you died on the tenth. I go over the details again in my mind. I have your phone now so I know that the last message you sent from it was at 8.30pm, about an Ebay purchase that you weren't well enough to collect. I know that your last words were spoken to a stranger. He was the only person who knew how ill you were feeling, so ill that you wrote that you didn't think you'd be better tomorrow. I also know that when I messaged you at ten, you didn't reply. My detective skills tell me that you probably died some time in that ninety minutes.

On the cliff path, I found myself talking to the sky again, saying, 'why didn't you phone me? Why didn't you call an ambulance?' even though I know the answer. You weren't the kind of man who wanted to bother people with his problems nor the kind who would go to the doctor unless you were forced. You'd been for the first time in years, a month or two earlier, to get your ears syringed but only because your deafness was annoying me so much.  In the end, you couldn't be bothered to wait for a week for them to do it and, instead, you fashioned some makeshift tool (from what, I'll never know) and did the job yourself. (Your mum and I have both wondered if you did yourself some damage but we'll never know that either). I've been over all this before. Why rehash it again now? Then, suddenly, out on the cliff path, I had another thought. What if I had messaged you at eight thirty once the children were in bed, instead of waiting until ten? What was I even doing for that ninety minutes that was more important than making sure you were still alive? If I'd messaged earlier, you might have replied and I might have been able to persuade you to go to the doctor's. Or maybe I'd have called you an ambulance myself. Instead, when I messaged you at ten, there was no reply. Probably, you were already dead. I was too late.

I've already apologised, to your dead body and to your mum and I've thought it through before. I can't take responsibility for whatever happened. It wasn't my fault. If an ambulance had been called they might have been too late as well. And even if you'd been to the doctor's weeks before complaining of what: a cough, fatigue, memory loss, a headache? What would they have done? I know there is nothing. Even now, we don't even know really how you died. Suspected heart disease is a nebulous cause of death. There is probably nothing that anyone could have done. But still, it haunts me. It will, most likely, always haunt me, especially at this time of year.

I'm aware, as well, that there is some part of me that hopes for some kind of closure when a year has passed, even though I know that this is naive and stupid. I've heard people say that the second year of grief is worse than the first following the loss of a partner (though I think I am different and have less to rebuild because of the brevity of our relationship) and my bereavement counsellor has warned me that the time after the first anniversary can be difficult. Maybe it is the writer in me that is expecting closure, still hoping to form a neat narrative of events. I've thought sometimes that I will stop writing my blog after a year and that the year following your death would be an appropriate period to base a memoir on. I'm nearly at that milestone. I have a book.

But, as I said at the very beginning of my writing, soon after your death, I didn't want the plot for another novel and I didn't want a memoir of loss. I wanted a living love that lasted. Maybe I will stop my blog and maybe I won't. Either way, probably I will soon start writing a memoir of the first year of grief. I know that, as a writer, I can tie the story up neatly at the end of a year with a message of love and hope and some kind of clear trajectory of healing, but as a human, I don't imagine I can tie it up so completely. The end of a year of grief is not the last page for grief itself. Life is not literature and I know that, whatever the date, there will be loose ends of love and grief that will go on and on with no respect for dates.

At the end of the day, the anniversary of your death is just another date. It changes nothing.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

You and me and the sea

Sitting in a cafe, drinking tea
I see this sign in the gift shop ahead of me:
You, me and the sea.

And just now, I feel blue as the sky,
my sadness deep as the darkest sea
sitting here, thinking of you
no longer here with me.

I walk the wild cliff path
unattached, like a cloud, hands dangling free,
imagining you are here with me:
you, me and the sea.

But I walk here alone,
stare now and then at my phone,
hope for a connection,
tired of looking at my own reflection.
But there is no signal, nobody home.
I'm alone, just me and the sea.

I balance rocks on the sand,
feel the rough and smooth of your hand
in mine and the fine kind of time
we might have had together
if you were here with me:
you, me and the sea.

I draw a heart in the sand on the beach.
You feel so near but always out of reach,
your face a mirage that I cannot touch.
Today, I miss you so very much.

I think of how much you would love to be
here with me, on a trip to sea.

And I wonder if you watch me still,
sitting small as a stone, alone on a hill
thinking of you, me and the sea.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

What's going on?

I bought a Best of the Nineties CD a while back from a service station. I was on a long journey and I'd forgotten the CDs. The truth is, I forget a lot of things. I was bad enough before you died; I'm hopeless now. My mind is just never on the practicalities of life. I'm away with the fairies, head in the clouds, a walking cliche of a hapless artist. I'm even worse at the moment because I'm chatting to men on dating sites in between appointments, distracting myself with thoughts of some kind of future love. Crazy, I know, that I could even think of having another relationship, but there it is. It turns out the human spirit is amazing in its capacity to rebuild and to hope in spite of everything. It turns out I can hold the past and the future in my heart at the same time, though sometimes I forget to focus on the present.

Last week, I left my wallet (unusually full of cash) on the bus. Luckily I got it back with the notes still inside it. I'm annoying like that. I always get things back. In some ways I'm the unluckiest person I know but in other ways I am lucky. I hear my mum's voice telling me that I need to learn to be responsible but I know I'm a lost cause. I will never learn to be responsible and I will never learn my lesson. Instead I learn only that the world is mostly filled with lovely, trustworthy people. Yesterday I took my friend to the cafe on the corner for a cup of coffee (because I'd forgotten to buy coffee so there was none in my house) and, as we left, we waved goodbye to the cafe owner but I forgot to pay. (I went to pay him today, of course, because what goes around comes around and I like to add to the statistics of the lovely trustworthy people in the world). Today, I took the dog to the groomers on the way to work and forgot to pick her up on the way home. But I had a good reason for that.

Today I was just leaving my writing group, checking my emails as I walked and thinking about you and how you used to hate the way people do that, heads down staring at screens instead of looking around them at the wonder of the world, when an email appeared in my inbox telling me that your bench had been fitted yesterday. Yesterday. On Valentine's Day! I'd known that it must be on its way soon but they'd said that they would give me two weeks notice when it was going to be fitted so I was surprised, and pleased. How appropriate that it should have been secured to the ground right then when I had only just written a blog about giving you a bench for Valentine's Day, making full use of artistic licence as I'd ordered the bench at the beginning of December with no idea when it would arrive. How utterly perfect that it should have been done just then. And how unutterably sad too to see your life reduced to a bench.

I've been practising mindfulness recently, learning to name my emotions, to watch them pass like clouds, rather than diving headfirst into them, digging around for answers. I've found it immeasurably helpful over the last twelve months, to watch that cloud of grief come and go, knowing that there is nothing to be done about it, knowing that there is no intervention that I can launch to change things. But sometimes, like today, my emotions move so quickly that I can't catch them. It's like I've walked into a time-lapse photography sequence with the clouds whizzing across the sky so fast, that they merge into one mass and I can't make anything out. I think I catch a glimpse of joy and wonder but it is replaced so quickly with sadness and shock that I'm not sure what's what. There is a dash of hope in there for sure but it is eclipsed by doubt, and yet there is love, always love. I was smiling and crying too, shaking so much that I had to sit down.

On the one hand, how perfect and how lovely that you or the universe seemed to have conspired to put your bench there just then, as if my present for you was also a present for me, a reassurance, again, that there is more going on than I can understand, that there is some kind of mystical order even in chaos, that love abounds even when it seems all hope is lost. On the other hand, the bench is like the end of something. It has taken nearly a year to get it organised and there are only three weeks to go until the anniversary of your death. 'Bench' has been on my to do list for a long time. When I tick it off, what is there left to do? It is the last memorial I have planned. Only my memories remain now, memories that I still try to capture, hoping to immortalise what we shared in words even though memories, like clouds, can't quite be pinned down.

I went to look at the bench after work, before I picked the kids up from school, forgetting the dog in my excitement. Rushing and distracted, I managed to scrape my van on a parked car. I left a note, of course, because what goes around comes around and, though I don't care at all if someone bumps into my van, I am aware that some people love their cars as if they are children. I dashed to the bench with barely enough time to take it in, just a moment to check that the location is perfect (with its view of the water wheel and building)  and that the inscription is right, complete with the full stops that your mum and I laboured over:
In memory of Blacksmith, Paul Harding who loved Sheffield's industry and landscape:
much loved, much missed, remembered always.
And I checked that your words were there too: 'Stop: feel the Sun' and the dates 1963-2016. Full stop. But I couldn't stop and feel the sun. I was in too much of a rush and it was raining. Still, I paused for a moment and felt the smooth wood under my hand, looked up at the clouds and told you I love you again. And then I ran.

Back in the van, I was listening to the CD, when the Four Non-Blondes started playing 'What's Going On?' and I was cast back, as I often am, to one day in the autumn, the autumn of the year before you died (how strange it feels to say that now). You had sent me your letter saying that you wanted me more than anything in the world and we had spent the afternoon negotiating the terms of our new agreement, no longer just confused friends or lovers, but two people embarking on a proper relationship. We had walked along the road into town that evening chatting, holding hands, feeling content and we had found ourselves next to some kind of pub in a marquee where a band was playing and we'd stopped to listen. They were playing that song and we sang along, muddling up the words and laughing at our mistakes, dancing together in the cold night air.

Next, I took you to a memorial evening for the poet, Ann Atkinson, testing you out in a strange setting (I was to take you to a few - book launches, literary nights, funerals, gatherings of mothers and small children). You performed beautifully. You chatted to my friends and members of the poetry world as if it were perfectly normal for you to be found sipping wine on a Saturday night in a room full of poets (you had ironed your only shirt at my house earlier and put on your smart trousers, not having learned at fifty-three that just because both garments were dark blue, it didn't mean they went well together). You sat in wonder all evening, absorbing the words of the poets, letting them fall like snowflakes around you, holding tight to me all night long as if you feared I might float off and never return. (I have photographic evidence. The only photos in existence of the two of us together). And at the end, when the poetry had stopped, my friend who was compering, suddenly said, 'I feel like we should dance' and you immediately stood up and offered your hand in invitation. And I took it and we danced under bright lights at a poetry evening as if it there were nothing odd about it at all. And something fell into place that evening. The next day, my friends who had been at the evening were asking who you were and my friend's mother-in-law spoke with confidence: 'he danced with you,' she said. 'that's a really good sign.' And it was.

It was a really good sign too, when your bench was fitted on Valentine's Day. A sign of what, I don't know but it made me feel good, like somehow, someone or something is still holding me in spite of everything. At the moment, I have a feeling of well-being, like something is falling into place. On Valentines' day my friend brought me flowers with the message: 'For loves lost and loves to come.' The truth is, I don't know what's to come. None of us can know. My thoughts, like this blog, are a muddle of the past and the future and the present, my emotions merging like those speeded up clouds. I don't really know what's going on. But I know this much: I will never learn my lesson and, when the time comes, I will love again. Because, though I don't know what's going on, I know that at the end of the day, nothing else matters. It's all about how much love we can give and receive in the time that we have. And I know that there is still an abundance of goodness in the world even in the darkest of times.