The Duchess of Hazard

I am the Fun Police.

At least as far as my daughter goes. She wants to take her scooter down a slight incline and I’m there, sucking my teeth on the sidelines, hardly daring to look. She wants to do star jumps on the trampoline and there’s my face, moulded into the mesh like a bank robber.

Yesterday, a group of us went to Newby Hall. Fun central, as far as kids are concerned. Water fountains to jump in. A lake to paddle in. A zip-wire to…zip down.

All potential death traps. Lynn Faulds-Wood has got nothing on me.

Water fountains = slip hazard.

Lake = drowning hazard.

Zip-wire = one way ticket to paraplegia.

Friends will testify that I have always been on the cautious side. (Except after a few beers – then I’ll do owt). However, since M died, I have become convinced something is going to happen to take my child too. In fact, my buttocks have been permanently clenched for eighteen months.

Prior to this, it was my own health which caused me anxiety. Everything took on catastrophic significance, from headaches (brain tumour) to athletes foot (skin cancer). It was a psychological unhinging which was attributed to M’s sudden illness and near-death in 2008. Finally I was told I had ‘Health Anxiety’ by my weary-eyed GP, who just wanted to satisfy me with a diagnosis of some description so that I would fuck off and leave her alone.

Since M was taken from me though, my anxieties have been transposed onto my girl. To the point yesterday where I was so caught up in worrying, I forgot to take her bathing suit and she refused to go into the fountains nude.

Instead she stayed close to me, wrapped up in the safety of the towel.

A Head Full of Funk

The Inconsolable Widow

The Inconsolable Widow (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are certain things that only widows know. And like any exclusive group, we like to keep our knowledge to ourselves.

This is mainly because people outside the group don’t have a clue what we’re going through and rather than get irate about their reactions (last post notwithstanding), we don’t bother them with the detail. But really, there’s an underground revolution going on. Widows are communicating via closed fora and private coffee meets all across the world. It’s like the Resistance, with cappuccinos and Kleenex.

At the risk of being cast-out, I’m going to share one pearl of received widow-wisdom. It is known as…’The Six Month Low’.

It is the point in widowhood when friends have stopped their cross-country pilgrimages to see you, their daily pep-texts have dwindled to once a week. This isn’t a criticism. Lives must go on and just because M was a central part of my life, I can’t expect the loss to be felt with the same sense of perpetuity by anyone else.

Six months is the point at which you feel at your lowest ebb. You have to reach into the pit of your resources for the last remnant of strength to pull you through.

Except, here’s the thing – for me, it didn’t happen. Six months was no worse than four months or nine months. In fact, I’m about to propose a new timescale theory: how about eighteen months? Because actually, today, as I approach eighteen months without M, I’m feeling a mixture of rage and heartbreak, and wondering if I can carry on.

I’m so fragile you could break me with a breath, and so angry I could kill someone. I’m feeling the loss in that space between my shoulder blades and in the joints of my fingers. My bottom lip won’t stop wobbling. I’m scrabbling about in the pit of my resources and emerging with nothing.

I am aware this is liable to change. After all, two days ago I was all for living it up. I guess what I’m trying to say is that timescales don’t work. It’s not an illness from which one recovers. This will go on and on.

Today I’ve got a head full of funk. Tomorrow it may be the musical type instead.

This is not a suicide note

In a tragi-comic twist, my Granny died five days before M.

Me, writing a message down for Granny on the whiteboard, as she couldn't hear.

Me writing a message down for Granny on the whiteboard, as she couldn’t hear.

She was old, tired, she’d had enough. She was also much beloved.

M and I cried together when we heard the news. Little did we know that by the end of that same week, He’d be gone too.

The day after Granny died, Dad told me: “It’s sad, but life is for the living.”

I took it as one of those perfunctory statements that people make in such situations. Didn’t give it much thought, got on with the task of living. For the next four days, at least, until my world would shockingly and without warning become utterly un-liveable.

Dad’s statement has been on my mind lately though. I understand what he was saying, but does living really exclude the dead?

In a purely physical way, yes it does. But M is still so much part of the fabric of my life and that of my daughter, I can’t condemn Him to that other land. His presence is felt in everything, from the food we eat, to the TV we watch, to the choices we make about the future.

I still grapple with a need to conceptualise the two worlds (living and dead) and their relationship with each other, which is why I cannot yet inter His ashes. I need a physical remnant of Him to remain here – a box of dust to act as a bridge between the two lands.

In the early days after M died, I wanted to die myself. Not to ‘be with Him’, because I don’t believe that’s how it all ends up. (If it does, however, knowing my luck I’d be stuck with Whitney Houston, who died on the same day. Christ, imagine that warbling in your ear for the ever-after.)

I wanted to die because the pain of losing Him was so intense, I just wanted it to stop. Many widows I know felt the same.

I never actually attempted to end my life though – mainly for fear that I’d end up in a series of botched attempts like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. But also because I have a responsibility to myself and those still living who love me. Plus it isn’t the answer to all this. I’m not sure what is.

But given that we’re all heading that way in the end, and seemingly there is no logic or forewarning from the Reaper, my revenge is to live.

And to live well. Cheers!

A Chimp with a Gun

Sam is capable of using his own abilities, eve...

Sam is capable of using his own abilities, even if this is something his host normally can not do. Taken from the Season 4 episode “The Wrong Stuff” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Widowhood feels like that programme from the 80s, Quantum Leap.

When that bloke arrives in a new world feeling like himself, only to look in the mirror to find he’s now a naughty nun.

Like learning how to live again, widowhood presents a series of ‘firsts’ and new choices. All to be dealt with whilst fighting off the grief gremlin who is clinging to your back  – yeah, Dr Sam Beckett, you didn’t have to deal with THAT added twist, did you?

Today, I had a ‘first’. Yes, seventeen months in. I thought I’d pretty much fielded all the balls in this ‘new normal’, but an emotional googly came at me today, threatening to deflate an otherwise glorious day.

I’d met with some friends in a park in Newcastle. It was a searing 24 degrees, cloudless sky, the kids were free-range, we were young, bronzed and gorgeous*.  (*OK, the group next to us were young, bronzed and gorgeous, but we were absorbing it. Like osmosis. And that was what mattered).

You just knew something had to come along and shit on it.

And he did. Right at the end, as we were saying our goodbyes. Steve Duncan appeared on the periphery of my vision. (We’ll call him Steve Duncan, for that is his name).

Steve Duncan was an ex-colleague both M and I shared. We worked on a youth project together in Sunderland ten years ago and aside from a wild Hallowe’en party involving a Hulk mask and a bowl of vodka-laced gunk, I haven’t seen him since. Yet there he was, Steve bloody Duncan, now with blonde-haired child calling him daddy.

My blood instantly chilled. Steve Duncan wouldn’t know about M. He’d be over in a minute, asking me how things were, what I was up to, how was his old mate M? I could see him looking at me with that, “That is her, isn’t it?” half-smile expression on his face, poised for the approach.

It occurred to me that I had not yet had to deal with people who had known M, but who weren’t aware He was dead. I was confident that social media had covered this for me. But Steve Duncan had been out of the loop for so long, the news wouldn’t have reached him.

I gathered my child and my dog and scurried up the hill towards the car. When I looked at my reflection in the wing-mirror, it could well have been a naughty nun looking back at me.

Another experience in this strange new world.

Note on picture: WordPress suggested it as an accompaniment to this post. This baffled me at first – what combination of words could have prompted it? But then I realised that over the past four months, Wordpress has clearly come to know me better than I know myself. For that is exactly what I feel like. A chimp with a gun. Thanks WordPress!

The Cynical Imp

A stainless steel frying pan.

A stainless steel frying pan. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You know on Tom and Jerry, when Tom gets hit by a frying pan and there’s that ‘doiing-ng-ng!’ sound, followed by Tom’s teeth dropping out one by one?

That was me, today, after my counselling session.

The idea was to talk through M’s last day on Earth in the present tense, responding to prompts by my counsellor. The conversation would be recorded so that we could listen back to it.  The cynical imp who has occupied a space on my shoulder throughout most of my life snortled: This is going to be a total waste of time. What’s for lunch?

Yet despite him, the Exposure Therapy began.

“What’s the date?” the counsellor asked.

The cynical imp was slightly affronted. He didn’t like being taken back to that date. “It’s Saturday, February 11th, 2012.”

“What are your plans for the day?”

“We’re going to Durham. My Grandma died on Tuesday, (yes, in a tragi-comic twist, my beloved Granny died 5 days before M) so we’re going home to support Mum.”

“Are you leaving on time?”

“No – we’re messing about.”

“What are you doing?”

“M is in the shower and I’m drawing rude shapes in the condensation and telling Him that I’m apprehensive about the funeral of my Grandmother. It’s the first funeral of a family member that I have attended, and I’m scared.”

“What does M say?”

“He says, ‘don’t worry pet, I’ll be there with you…'”

We continue for 13 minutes. We go through loading the car, listening to Neil Young on the car stereo. We go through leaving the village and heading west on the A64 towards the A1 north. We don’t even make it to my Mother’s house before I’m weeping into a tissue.

The cynical imp is WELL fucked off at this emotional turn of events.

The tape is stopped and rewound. This is the point when the frying pan comes swinging into full force. I close my eyes, I listen to myself and I relive that day.

M is there, in His black-grey M&S Italian-cut jacket. We’re in the bedroom of our home: our little nest, just off the A64 – opposite the church, 100 yards from the Coach and Horses. We’re shooting the shit, talking about something and nothing, like couples do. Like couples do. Like couples do.

I sob and I sob, and the counsellor says she’s going to stop the tape.

She asks: “What was it that prompted the emotional reaction?”

“It’s the conversations which only happen between two people who have known each other intimately inside and out; who are best friends and lovers in one. The sort of conversations you can’t have with even your closest friend. I haven’t had one of those for eighteen long months. I’m never going to have one again with Him. It’s another layer of my sorrow, exposed.”

I call for a halt and leave the session.

The cynical imp is chastened and exhausted.

Round two next week. Doiing-ng-ng!!!

A slippery little customer

English: Comfort in Grief

English: Comfort in Grief (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Grief, eh? Slippery little customer. It won’t be defined, no matter how you hard you try to pin it down.

Yesterday I was handed a bejewelled box and a book by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross by my daughter’s counsellor. The ‘intervention’ had come to an end and these were the legacy of the sessions.

The box had been hand-decorated by my daughter and had previously housed shoes. Now it was wrapped in brown parcel paper and covered in sequins. It contained a selection of brightly-coloured toys, stickers and pens, supposedly to comfort her in those moments when she was missing daddy. All I saw was flotsam which would invariably end up strewn about my living room floor. I asked her about the pink elephant.

“It’s a pink elephant,” she said.

“Would you like to cuddle it when you’re missing daddy?”

She looked me as if I’d just shat on the carpet. “……….It’s a pink elephant.”

Six weeks well spent then.

Kubler-Ross was a psychiatrist with an interest in dying, who coined five ‘stages’ which are apparently typical of grief. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. I came across her soon after M died – those early days when I sought a ‘solution’ to my grief by spending a fortune on books on the subject.

Some books contained ‘road maps’ to recovery. Some were heavy with case studies and testimonials from people who had gone through it and survived. None of them made any sense to me though. I didn’t want to ‘recover’. I didn’t want to hear about other people’s losses. I wanted to stop retching every morning, I wanted the jags of anxiety to stop. I wanted M back and for Him not to be dead.

So my conclusion is this: Grief cannot be corralled or boxed or arranged into stages. Grief is different for everyone, as are expressions thereof.

The only solution is to put your head down and push through it. And of course, drink wine.

The Bridge of Love

A detail of the Bridge of Love in Kiev

A detail of the Bridge of Love in Kiev (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love.”

A friend who has also faced the agony of sudden death of a loved one introduced me to this Thornton Wilder quote on the day of M’s funeral. I didn’t understand it at the time, but it has started to make sense to me as time has gone on. I have frantically tried to reach Him since He died – I am weary with it – but I have to finally accept that nothing will bring Him back from the land in which He now resides. Only my love for Him remains.

Accepting this is the thing I’m having most trouble with. I see graveyards with their lines of tombstones and floral tributes. The hyacinth-studded world of the dead. But I cannot place M in that world – probably because He doesn’t belong in it yet. So where is He? I have tussled with this question night after night. Where is He? Where are You? He is neither here nor there. (He is in the bottom of my wardrobe, actually, but that’s just dust.)

This is why giving Him up to the grave is so unthinkable for me at the moment. Placing His remains in the ground and marking them with a headstone is so final, so permanent. It is akin to upping anchor on His ship and sending Him off to that land of no return. At least while He’s dust in my wardrobe He is still within reach. I feel as if I’m in choppy waters at the moment, that anchor is the only thing keeping me from being set adrift.