Survival of the Unfittest

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Paris, August 2014. This is the part of me – and Mark – that survived

I’ve never been much of a sportswoman.

The subs bench of the netball team was about as far as my career in Phys. Ed. went – shoved reluctantly on court when the regular Wing Defence was off playing first team hockey. I blame my low centre of gravity and the fact that I am a lover not a fighter (give them a bib with letters on and women turn VICIOUS).

It continues today – I’m the one in the swimming pool who does two lengths with a pinched expression, then gets out with entirely dry hair.

As an evolutionary theory, ‘survival of the fittest’ is open to interpretation, but if it has anything to do with physical prowess, I’m done for.

Imagine my surprise then, two years and seven months post-sudden death of husband, to find that I have survived. But not just survived. From the broken pieces, regrowth is underway.

Grief textbooks tell us that the success of our ‘recovery’ depends on many things – support networks, family, friends  – and our individual ‘inner resource’. The latter is an elusory concept; you don’t know the depth of yours until you are required to plunder it with your bare hands.

I continue to plunder mine; I still haven’t reached the bottom, thank god, for whilst I have survived and flourished up to now, I am only too aware of the duplicitous nature of grief. It could have me back on my withered arse tomorrow if it so desired.

But when I reread the desperate diary scrawlings of two years and seven months ago – the diary entitled ‘Random Ruminations Since We Parted’ – I feel a distance from those thoughts. I still recognise them, but they don’t stoke the fire in my heart in the way they used to.

In fact, if the fittest are the ones who survive, then I consider myself the Jade Clarke of the grief circuit. (That’s British Netball’s Wing Defence and Captain to you).

 

 

 

 

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I’m going in…

I’ve spent the morning cross-legged under my letterbox, awaiting a delivery from the postman.

It's all the words that are putting me off...

It’s all the words that are putting me off…

And lo! Said delivery finally dropped onto the doormat (Inevitably just after I’d given up hope and left my vantage point in favour of Facebook.)

The first, long-awaited copy of Me After You, my memoir about life since Mark’s death.

Thing is, I hardly dare open it.

It’s all the words that are contained within it that are putting me off – the ones which raged from my broken heart onto the keyboard over five fraught months. They’re as precious to me as little pearls, those words; they are fierce, tender, raw, profane, downright dirty in parts.

But most importantly they are truthful, which is all I really wanted from them in the first place.

But what if they don’t look right? What if, now they’re out there, you don’t like them, or the calamitous tale they recount?

The book has been a labour of love. It has permitted me to spend time with my husband every day, to exhume Him and all the memories that go with Him.

It is also proof that if you believe in and love something passionately enough, with all of your heart and every sinew, you can achieve anything.

Ah fuck it. Mark, pet – this is for you. I’m going in…

The End?

Family portrait - 2014

Family portrait – 2014

I haven’t written much lately – not on the blog, at least. Most of my writing energy has been expended on the final draft of my book, which, being that it deals with the tumultuous and largely wine-soused course my life has taken since Mark’s death, has taken the place of the therapy offered here.

After Mark survived His sudden and savage illness in 2008, He had one goal: never to let it define Him. He took the pills, checked in for INR tests, trundled down to Oxford for His annual review. He reluctantly acceded to these things because a man with a stethoscope and big glasses told Him He had to.

A less optimistic person may have allowed the regime to take over their lives. But not my husband. It spurred Him on to achieve and conquer. In fact, most of the time He’d have you believe it never happened. (Except in those rare, dark moments of reality which seeped in unseen and made us both sob at the cruelty of it all.)

When I started this blog just over a year ago, it was a giant primal scream into the ether. I had no expectations, just the hope that it might help me cope with the pain of losing Mark.

Turns out, it has.

Thanks largely to those people who have stayed with me, read, commented, understood (or tried to) – and even the odd person who told me I was talking shit – I have realised that I am not alone or abnormal in my grief. And whenever I have felt that I may have stagnated on this journey, I only need look back to my early, frantic posts to see how far I have actually come.

But like Mark with His illness, I don’t wish to be defined as A Widow. I will always be one, but I owe it to Mark to try and live my life beyond that persona.

The book is now finished. My feeling is perhaps so is the blog.

The Tao of Sudden Death

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Many years ago I worked for a well-known chain of booksellers. The shop was in an out-of-town shopping mall near Bristol, and I once served Colin Jackson. (He bought the Guinness Book of World Records. Presumably to prove to his mother that he really was holder of the title for ‘Longest Peanut Throw’. No really, he was.)

The sales counter was always festooned with those irritating little books of quotations that are apt to be bought and then immediately misplaced behind the settee, and as booksellers we were required to promote them with each sale.

It always confounded me as to why anyone would buy these books. They seemed to contain nothing but a selection of mawkish quotes about life and love and ‘self-realisation’. Yet they were in perpetual need of being restocked.

Since Mark’s death, I have turned into the sort of person who would buy one. I have become a consumer of quotes and affirmations, one of those people who retweets schmaltz written in dreamy script set against an image of a tranquil Scottish loch.

Because in trying to make sense of Mark’s death, of its brutality and its unjustness, I have sought answers everywhere. But really, no-one knows what to say.

For example, I asked my Dad one night: “How can I ever accept this?”

Dad thought about this and poured himself another whisky. “You can’t because it is unacceptable,” he replied.

This is a man with a PhD and a good line in advice, whose word I tend believe more than any other. Yet when it came to sudden death, he was as clueless as everyone else.

Quotations are comforting in bereavement, even the twee ones, because they are proof that someone has been there before; and by consequence reach out to those of us who are stuck for words.

I’ll end with one I retweeted this week:

I keep myself busy with the things I do,
But every time I pause, I still think of you.

Force-Fed Red Bull on a Waltzer

This morning I looked in the mirror and Jackie Stallone leered back at me.  It tends to happen following A Bad Day, which is what yesterday was.untitled (8)

I’d spent much of it peering in at myself from above, wondering how the hell my life had come to this.

It was perhaps not helped by going to watch The Wolf of Wall Street, which was akin to spending three hours being force-fed Red Bull on a Waltzer. At two hours in, I was so wrung out I actually thought I was going to be sick.

My friend and I went for noodles afterwards and I cried into my Szechuan Pork. Then I suddenly felt anxious: to see my child; to get home; at the sight of rain falling outside. I drove home as the light faded ahead of me, not quite believing that the sun was setting on yet another day He had missed.

It’s days like these when only my Husband will do. I want it to be His voice telling me everything will be OK, pet, and not to worry. I want it to be Him waiting for me when I get home, not a sideboard full of His picture.

I have Mother, of course, and my sister who take on much of the rage on my behalf, but sometimes I feel so broken that even the sisterhood cannot minister to the pain.

Yesterday, The Grief and The Disbelief got me, and like one of DiCaprio’s hookers I had no choice but to lie back and take it.

This morning, though, I patched up Jackie as best I could and told her that she must carry on. I dropped my girl off at school, walked over the fields with my dog and looked on at another day.

Going Gaga

Grief. It’s how I imagine a relationship with Lady Gaga would be. Unpredictable and ultimately very wearisome.untitled (5)

Last week I testified to feeling the brittle rays of happiness seeping into my being. And to a degree, they continue to permeate, but these last two nights I have been caught out by a familiar sinking in my guts.

This generally happens when I’m sober and alone, and make the foolish mistake of reflecting on my missing Love, or looking through the remaining documentary evidence of our life together.

Last night I found myself browsing photographs on my computer. Some of them were close-ups of Mark, where I could make out the individual strands of gingery hair in His sideburns, the minuscule pocks in His skin. I came to the end of the selection and realised, like the last of His DNA (which is stored, for some reason, in a fridge in Salisbury), that the pictures are finite.

My back catalogue stops on a snow-covered walk a week before He died. And on that very last picture, He is seen plodding protectively behind our daughter, who has gone from toddling pain in the arse to celestial little girl in the two years since His death.

I have likened my experience of grief to many things on this blog, from a monkey riding a pig to Dave Myers’ hair. Today’s clunky analogy is of grief as an anglerfish – that duplicitous deep-sea gargoyle which lulls its prey into a false sense of security by emitting a soothing light, only to consume the hapless bastard the minute it starts to relax.

Like I said, unpredictable and wearisome.

It’s enough to make you Gaga.

Lost in Translation

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Mirth and marriage

Here is the problem with admitting that you may be beginning to feel the gentle rays of happiness in your life again after the sudden and untimely death of your spouse:

You say: “I may be beginning to feel the gentle rays of happiness in my life again after the sudden and untimely death of my spouse.”

People’s internal Google-translate hears: “I am over my husband’s death and have finally moved on! Dig your wet-look leggings out of the wardrobe and let’s have a P.A.R.T.Y.!”

So I’m relying on you to turn your Google-translate off and really listen to the words I am saying.

I may be beginning to feel the gentle rays of happiness in my life again after the sudden and untimely death of my spouse.

Who knew, right?

I didn’t think the word ‘happiness’ would enter my lexicon again, but there it is, nestling in nicely alongside those old stalwarts, ‘misery’ and ‘devastation’, with its jaunty double, double consonants.

Perhaps I didn’t give the New Year enough credit for its capacity for ‘renewal’, but the further I edge into 2014, the more determined I feel to start living again.

It is almost two years since Mark died, and it feels like both a lifetime and the blink of an eye. But what would He say if He thought I were still here, stymied by grief, feeling guilty about making the next move?

“Haway, man, Pet,” He’d say. (You may refer to Google translate here).

Don’t get too excited, mind. This does not mean the ache goes away, nor the tears, nor the moments of worthlessness. In fact, I may be back to square one tomorrow.

Today though, I think what it means is that the grief and the trauma have taken enough. I just want to be happy.