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.