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.

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