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.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

It's that time of year again

It's that time of year again. The shops are awash with red, the streets suddenly lined with hearts and flowers and teddy bears. Love is in the air. Love is on air. Love is everywhere. Valentine's Day is looming and there is no avoiding it.

Truth be told, I've always found Valentine's Day a bit grim. I'm not sure I've ever had a really good one. When I've been single, it has seemed that every man is out in the street carrying bunches of flowers and balloons that aren't for me and when I've been in a relationship, the flowers and balloons that I have received have always seemed wrong; who can be attracted to a man who has just presented you with a teddy holding a felt heart or to someone whose best effort is a ready meal for two from M & S. (Not me, that's who, in case you're wondering.) And let's face it, nobody really wants to go out on Valentine's Day - too expensive, too cheesy - but if you stay home watching TV what does that say about the state of affairs? In my experience, it's usually a day of pressure and expectation, commercialism and disappointment. One could almost be grateful not have to deal with it, except...

When the one you loved died not so long ago, Valentine's Day just becomes another obstacle to navigate (along with Christmas, New Year, his birthday, your birthday, your anniversaries - first kiss, first date, last kiss, last date - the list is endless.) However much you might believe that love continues after death and that signs from beyond the grave do occur (and I do), when the odds of your partner sending a celestial greetings card are as remote as the possibility of him walking through the door with a bunch of flowers, Valentine's Day, like most days, sucks. It is a day of missing, of remembering.

Last Valentine's Day I didn't give you anything. I bought you a card from a shop in Knaresborough but I never wrote on it. I found it the other day in a pile of papers, a plain white card with a drawing of lilac crystals and the words, 'You're a gem' on the front. The words were right. You were, a most precious gem, a real diamond in the rough. But something about the colour and the crispness of the white card was wrong. Instead I just sent you a text in amongst a string of other messages: 'Happy Valentine's Day by the way'. You sent me a message too but, for some reason, I didn't see it. I found it on the Saturday after your death as I lay crying on my bed, re-reading all of your messages - a little red heart that opened up as I scrolled past it, the words 'I love you' popping up like a message from the grave to soothe my aching heart. That Valentine's evening, we went to the cinema. I booked us a couple's seat. It was just cheesy enough. We sat wrapped up in each other, wrapped up the movie. Perfect.

This year, for Valentine's Day, I give you a park bench: sturdy and solid and a place to rest, just as you were. It will be by the edge of the water next to the old grinding workshop, a deep pool whose water still powers the wheel, just as your love still powers the cogs of my life, keeping me moving, living, loving, creating even in your absence.

I give you a park bench, a place of calm as you were. Strong and stable with a view of trees and clouds and an inscription of the words you spoke to me in that park, a few weeks before your death: 'Stop and feel the sun.' It will be a place for tired folk to take a moment to rest and reflect on the beauty of nature, the fragility of life.

I give you a bench, like a pause in the vast breadth of time. It is small in the scheme of things. It has edges, a beginning and an end. Over time it will weather, no doubt and the words will fade. Nothing lasts forever. But I give you this bench as a sign of my love. We never got married. Death did us part. I can no longer give myself to you, or share my life with you, but with all that I am, I honour you and in all that I go on to do, I will remember you. You will be with me every step of the way. 

This year, I'll buy my own flowers and eat my meal for one, loving myself as you once loved me. You were a gem, Blacksmith Paul. Happy Valentine's Day, my love.

(This post was also published in The Huffington Post)

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Birthday Blues

The print that Paul bought me for my birthday last year

It's my birthday this week. It's ok, I'll be amongst friends. I have a strategy. That's how life is approached these days. It's a case of looking ahead for hazards, taking pre-emptive action where possible, thinking of the least worst option for how to get through it all, choosing the safest route. It's not always the quickest route, nor the shortest route. It's not even the most scenic route. It's just the one that seems like it might have the least potholes and the smallest chance of landmines, the one where I'm least likely to be ambushed.

Big dates are obvious danger zones although every day is an anniversary of a better day last year (until next month when the best year was swapped for the worst year overnight). Every day is filled with your absence.This time last year we were away at a holiday cottage having the best three days of our life together. It was half-term and I'd planned the perfect strategy, no pre-emptive action required. Last year was all about maximising the opportunities ahead: three blissful days in a holiday cottage in North Yorkshire with you, returning on the Tuesday (my birthday) for a pancake party with my kids and friends and then back to North Yorkshire for three days on my own with the kids. It was a wonderful week, the best birthday for a very long time. You were by my side all day long.

This year you will be missing all day long. Soon you will have been missing all year long too.

You are missing every day when I wake in the morning and missing when I go to bed at night. You are missing every time I go out and every time I come home. You are missing even in the places you have never been and in the spaces in between.

Tonight I went to a friend's house to a clothes buying party (I know, it's weird, but somehow it's fun). I weighed it up, as I weigh everything, thought it was safe, no pre-emptive action required. It was all women so not a place that you would have been, I was amongst friends who know and understand and there was an external focus - always good to have. And yet, it turned out you were still missing. You were missing as the host joked with the guests about the habits of husbands and the seductive positioning of zips, missing as I tried on the clothes, knowing that there is no-one to appreciate them but me. You were missing as people tilted their heads and asked me how I was doing now, wondering if things were improving.  You were missing as I walked home crying to an empty house, knowing that everyone else is going home to a shared bed. (Eleven months and still I am walking home crying.)

I remember the last time I went to one of these parties six months ago. The host didn't know then. She asked me something about my circumstances, looked at me aghast as I explained that you had died, that I had found your body, that my mum had died too. I remember her words: 'how are you still standing?' It made me wonder myself, made me feel ridiculous to be sitting there looking at clothes when you were dead. I left early and walked home crying that night too.

It wasn't so bad tonight. The truth is I have come a long way. Things are improving, thanks for asking. I had a nice time and was doing well, all things considered, and then a friend mentioned my birthday. She'd been wondering what I was doing, said that she was remembering last year. And my lip started to tremble and the tears started again because suddenly I could see you, like it was yesterday, flipping pancakes in the kitchen at my old house, as if you thought you had a lifetime left to live, not just twenty-nine more days.

Sometimes I can anticipate the triggers for grief but often it is like this and, when I think I am safe, I am ambushed again by memories - memories that are as alive as you are dead. I saw all of my memories of this time last year, times I have written about, as I walked home: the synchronised swimming in the pool at the holiday cottage, the walks by the river, the talk about the ring that you were going to make (that the jeweller made instead), the beautiful print that you gave me for my birthday, the conversation in the van about how you wished we'd been married and had children, the happiness at being together now with our future ahead of us. And that trip up to the Coldstones Cut and the poem that I wrote: a poem that is so full of life, that I read aloud at your funeral as we mourned your death. And that last line that cuts now like a cold stone through my heart: with you I learned to live again. You missed a lot more birthdays than you were there for. I only spent one birthday with you. But I will miss you still on this one. And I will do my best to hold onto the gifts that you gave me as I take a new path into the future, learning to live again without you.

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

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

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

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

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

With you I start to live again.