In my grief journey, I've become expert at naming clouds and emotions. It's a trick that I learned in mindfulness classes and it has helped me enormously to be able to recognise emotions as they come and go, without chasing after them or chasing them away, without clinging onto them, without trying to excavate their meaning or build a future upon them. Everything changes and this too shall pass. So I watch them now, the clouds that come along with this new beginning, this blue sky of happiness and I name them as they float by. I see Clouds of Guilt (how can I love someone new when he is dead?), Clouds of Sadness (how can I be happy when he is dead?), Clouds of, what is this - Shame? (I said I really loved him. If I love someone new do I diminish that love?), Clouds of Doubt (can I even do this?) and, worst of all, Clouds of Fear. These are the clouds that are big and dark and simply labelled: What If? What If? What If? They trail anxious thoughts behind them, that go like this:
What if I am vulnerable and no longer able to make sound judgements in matters of the heart? What if he sees my vulnerability and wants to take advantage of that? What if I allow myself to fall in love again and then he leaves me? What if he has an undiagnosed disease? What if he has a mental health problem that might, one day, cause him to commit suicide? What if we start to be happy together and and then his heart stops beating too? What if we start to be happy together and then I get cancer? Having got comfortable with the idea of death, (having even actively wanted to die), perversely, I now find that I want to live again and feel afraid that my life could be taken away. My brain is on over-drive. What if? What if? What if?
The What Ifs have been running amok from the moment I first spoke to this man, trampling over my tentative attempts at trust - in him, in life, in a future. In fact, when I reflect on it, I realise that I haven't fallen in love at all. Falling in love implies reckless abandon. I picture someone diving wilfully from a high cliff into a warm pool. If falling has been involved, in this case, it's been more like a game of Kerplunk, a process of carefully and slowly removing barrier after barrier until eventually everything comes tumbling down in a chaotic heap. It's been a clumsy process of fits and starts, back to Snakes and Ladders again, one step forwards, two steps back, falling occasionally, yes, into gaping chasms of bliss but also of utter terror. Because, the ultimate truth is that each step towards love, each opening of the heart, is a step towards inevitable loss and I know now how agonising that loss can be. I'm actually not sure I can withstand another loss. But nothing is permanent. Everything changes. This too shall pass.
Last week my new boyfriend and I were meant to be meeting for a date. He works nights so I knew he would be sleeping until he came to meet me but he didn't turn up and my brain got busy immediately, presenting me over and over again with the possibility that he was either dumping me or that he was dead. I kept telling myself that both possibilities were incredibly unlikely but that logic no longer works for me. The last time I told myself that everything would be fine, Paul WAS dead. Shit happens. Option A doesn't always work out. My heart was racing for a full hour while I paced the streets, naming emotions, sights and sounds, trying to keep my feet on the ground, my head out of the black clouds: this is anxiety, this is fear, I can see a homeless man next to a red door, I can hear water from the fountain, I can smell fresh fish from the grocery store. I sent messages, remembering the way I'd sent messages before and the way they had gone unanswered and when he phoned me, an hour late and distraught because his alarm hadn't woken him, I sobbed uncontrollably down the phone. And when we met, finally, I held him tight and knew that this was love. Not perfect, not Option A or even Option B, but love and something to be cherished. My boyfriend was surprised at how lovely I was about it. Perhaps he expected me to be cross. Perhaps I would have been cross in the past too but he hadn't dumped me and he wasn't dead so what was there to worry about? This is what things are reduced to now. If it isn't life or death, it doesn't matter. Life feels simpler now and yet more complicated. I am simultaneously fearless and more afraid than I have ever been.
Because I know now that love is the only thing of value in this world and I know that the price for loving is huge. On the one hand, I know I can survive anything. On the other, I know how badly a heart can break. Like a mother with two children, my heart has made room for someone new, whilst still cherishing the love that came before. At night, when my boyfriend isn't here, I find myself still holding onto Paul's fleeces whilst simultaneously missing both him and my boyfriend. It feels odd. It is confusing. It is not the way I thought it would be. My new boyfriend is not Option B (who would want to be Option B anyway?) but I have been given another chance at love and I will take it. Because fear is no place to live. I don't forget Paul by loving again. Instead, I honour his memory by making the most of the gift of my life. I know that every moment is precious and that love can vanish in a heartbeat. So, in spite of everything, as long as my heart is beating, I will love. Especially in these difficult global times, we must keep choosing love however scared we are.