Thursday, 30 April 2015

The Schedule

I approached my thirties with a grand degree of optimism. The previous decade had been an absolute joy and so utterly carefree that I never felt an ounce of apprehension as the big ‘three zero’ approached because I had every reason to believe that my life was on track. 

I always had this ‘thing’ that I would say to myself which went along the lines of ‘if I was to die right now, then I have reached every goal and achieved all that I wanted to do by this time in my life so far’.  

It wasn’t that I was particularly ambitious or that I had consciously set myself a host of goals but I had sketched some sort of vision of how my life might be and I had a rough plan of how I might negotiate the journey. As I look back, I guess I had some kind of tick box that was tucked away in my subconscious. 

So, the big things in life were sorted by 30. 

I had got married 3 years previously (to the one before Bebe) in a kind of ‘act in haste, repent at leisure’ kind of way.

Don’t get me wrong, it was love. But in hindsight, which we know is a perfect science, it was probably a little hasty to get engaged in less than 2 weeks and married just a few months later. But like my sleep habits, falling in love was a kind of boom and bust thing for me back then – and I was clearly in a boom period.

The bust bit came a few years later and not without complexity. Following a magnificent thirtieth birthday, we had settled down to start a family. But a series of tragic and life changing circumstances completely de-railed the love train.

My closest friend had taken her own life just months before. She had suffered with depression for her whole adult life and made a choice to leave this world. I understand now that she didn’t want to cause us any pain but at the time, I was so full of anger. I was the one who found her and my then husband was the one who tried to resuscitate her. It was a horrific experience that I hoped with all of my heart would bring us even closer together. I equally feared that it would not.

Despite living with the nightmare of post-traumatic stress, we twice entered the heavenly heights of anticipated parenthood together. I was pregnant during the inquest but collapsed a few days later at work, only to wake up in recovery with the dreadful news that I had suffered a ruptured ectopic pregnancy at the life-threatening stage of 13 weeks. I had lost 2 litres of blood, along with our baby and was left with the stark realisation that this thirties lark was going to be harder than I had imagined.

The second loss tipped us over the edge. We lived in the most beautiful house and were financially stable, with both our careers looking promising. I climbed on the grief train and he fell off the wagon. Living in a dream home and going on expensive holidays to far flung destinations don’t fix that kind of thing as it turns out. 

We had both been so badly damaged that the only fix was to be separate. In the early hours of yet another morning, when he hadn’t come home – I packed all that was precious into my car and I drove away. On reflection, it was an act of love for us both.

The schedule was wiped. However, I was able to gradually sort myself out after the obligatory chaotic party period (yes the thirties crisis had hit!) and I just seemed to bounce back. Being on my own was something of a therapy. I landed a job, I bought my own house which was tiny and modest, and filled it with second hand furniture. I dated the most unsuitable men and had a sumptuous fling with an old flame. I got to a place where I was thankful that I had inadvertently been gifted with a new chance at life. 

With life’s timeline in shreds, my timings on a smaller scale had also become a little shaky. I would arrive at work within a shrapnel of a moment to spare but yet be the last to leave. It didn’t seem to matter how much time I would allow myself to get ready for an appointment because there was always a sudden dash at the last moment because I had dilly dallied and failed to keep a close enough eye on the clock.

I would always be a little late to the ball or get lost on the way and turn up as the lights came on. Either way, I went out looking like Cinderella but returned home looking like maleficent. Snow White I was not.

So it was no surprise to me at least that when I met Bebe, he was early to pick me up for our date and I was running ridiculously late getting ready. 

I had been chatting on the phone to a friend, getting a last minute pep talk on how to apparently ‘Wow!’ my suitor that I had completely lost track of time and when the doorbell rang, I was half clothed, half made up and not in the slightest bit ‘Wow!’ at all.

But as he stepped through the door, he didn’t bat an eye lid. It was like he had come home.
He wrapped his arms around me and I stood on tiptoes to reach him as we kissed. He seemed to tower above me in his 6ft frame and when we sank into the sofa, it was already clear that my tiny house was not only filled with junk furniture – it was also filled with love.

In my new normal, one of the most challenging questions to come to terms with has been the one of ‘what if?’ 

More specifically, I have battled with the ‘what if I had done this?’ or ‘what if I had done that?

What if I had spotted something was wrong earlier?
What if I had urged him to go to the doctor sooner instead of supporting his mission at the physiotherapist? 
What if I had realised that he was losing weight before it was so obvious in the week before diagnosis?
What if I had noticed that he was eating a little less than normal?

I have already talked about what ifs but they still creep in, nearly one year on.
But they aren’t helpful to me. 
They are questions I will never know the answer to and I have already addressed the excruciating frustration of the why and the wherefore in my previous post
I can not go on like this with these questions haunting me.
I refuse to punish myself even more and live on this monorail of torture. 
When you love someone so deeply it is magical - but does not bring the kind of magic that comes with having a crystal ball.
Bad things happen to really good people. 
It sucks beyond description but it is what it is. 

I commit myself to asking only the questions that are helpful for me to move forward.
It is up to me to change my own thinking. I have the power to do this.
In my new normal, I have lost the power or control to do so much but I am in charge of my brain and I can make it my enemy or ensure that it is my friend.
I refuse to be unkind to myself any longer. I am sad enough and I have mountains to climb here.
I need will not beat myself up with guilt in a world where quite frankly shit just happens.

So. Instead - the questions I ask are now in reverse.
I ask myself 'What if I had not..?'
What if I hadn’t experienced such tragedy in my life?
What if I hadn’t experienced the loss of my babies?
What if I hadn’t been through the heartache of realising that I couldn’t survive in my first marriage?
What if I hadn’t had the courage to walk away and start again with nothing?
What if I hadn’t moved back to Manchester after those miserable years of living in Sheffield?
What if I hadn’t taken the chance to meet Bebe because he was 6 years younger than me and he lived too far away?
What if I hadn’t abandoned my schedule and pressed on regardless?

These are the questions that are helpful to me. I have answers to them now and see clearly that all of these cruel events and the terribly difficult decisions that I made with a tired and tattered heard were an important part of my journey that preceded meeting the one that really mattered.

If I had not been through these traumas and if I had not abandoned my schedule, then I would never have lived the truly wonderful life that we had together and I would not have known the real meaning of love.

Real love does not disappear because difficult times are pressed upon us. It doesn’t begin to slip away but rather it continues to grow. The roots of this kind of love deepen, they bond you together and hold you steadfast.  The harder life gets, the stronger love becomes.
It doesn’t weaken, or crumble or thin out when life vomits tragedy.
Instead, it rises up and proves itself with magnificent authenticity.

That kind of love screams out - yet you can’t hear it.

You feel it. You trust it.

I know the love between Bebe and I was real. It showed me that previously it never really existed. No matter how hard I clung on to it or tried to mould it.

Our love was not malleable. It was like water because it naturally found its own way by seeping to the very roots of our relationship where it nourished us and gave us room to grow stronger together.

It lasted on earth until the end. And still it continues after death in so many ways because it is eternal.

For Bebe: When my thinking becomes unhelpful to my progress, I seek to reprogram my thoughts and reverse them as promptly as possible. I am thankful for the traumas I experienced before we met and recognise that they were all part of the jigsaw that brought us together. They helped build my resilience and led me to recognise real love. If I had not been through such pain, I would have been a different person and in an entirely different place.

 The pain I am learning to live with now that you are gone, is nothing in comparison to the torture of imagining a world in which you and I never met. And I continue to move forward with you in my heart.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

The question, the script and the truthful answer

I have the right to grieve in any way that feels right for me at the time but I am constantly reminding myself that I am still responsible for all of my actions and behaviour.

Some of my actions and behaviours are bearable and acceptable to other people. Other actions may deeply offend, disappoint or upset people, maybe even people that I love. But this is unchartered territory and any normal navigation system has been completely disabled.

My grief should not be used as an excuse for my actions or behaviours but it is the root cause of them and as I mature in my new normal, I will strive to make amends if and when appropriate.

From my side of the fence, I have great powers to spin the truth in whichever way I feel and with whoever I choose to share my story with. Spinning the truth is a choice I have to make on a daily basis and it is not grounded in dishonesty but rather it is a tool for my survival and a protective barrier for those who cannot cope with the reality of my situation.

Sometimes my honesty is welcomed and I am in a position where I have the strength and encouragement to divulge my inner most feelings and thoughts but there are other times when I am just too weak or vulnerable to express how I really feel.

I have learned to build a series of scripts for myself that I can call upon in certain situations. When I am asked if I am okay, I can answer these days with some level of confidence that ‘I am okay. Some days are better than others’.

If I am asked ‘How are you?’ then my stock answer is somewhere in the region of ‘I am doing alright on the whole. I am keeping myself busy and focused with work.’

But today I was asked a question that I had not been asked before and it took me by surprise…

‘How are you feeling?’

Right there, in the middle of the office floor, I encountered a question that I had not expected and neither did I have a stock answer prepared for it.

For a moment, I paused. I felt a surge of deep and heavy grief push up outward from my chest and then upward to my throat. It was like nausea without the sickness. The nausea of grief.

It takes a special kind of person to ask ‘how are you feeling?’
Just the addition of that word 'feeling' changes the whole expectation of my answer. 
After all,  I have found that most people stop short and just ask ‘how are you?’

That one word to the end of the question changed the entire parameters of the conversation and I had to make a decision quite quickly as to how I might answer it.

Today, I chose to tell the truth and it went something like this…

I am feeling quite strange at the moment. Everyone is out and about enjoying the sunshine, getting excited that summer is on the way and the lighter evenings bring talk about drinks after work or a barbecue in the garden. In short, the general population is optimistic and seems to have a spring in their step.

The clocks have gone forward and the evenings are becoming lighter. For most, it signals a time when the period of hibernation has ended and we step out into the light - energised, optimistic and full of plans for the Summer months that finally, after the darkness of Winter seem tangibly within our grasp.

At this point in my life, 9 months without my love, the onset of Spring signals a plunge into my own personal darkness once again. My hibernation from the world continues as the lighter evenings are a stark reminder that this is where it all started to crumble even though at the time we were unaware that the cancer had already moved in and was waiting in silence to obliterate the world that we knew.

I am feeling everything and nothing at the same time,  I am a sensory person and notice vividly the smell of freshly mowed grass and feel the warmth of the sun on my skin. I notice that the flowers are in bloom and the temperature is changing much like you probably do.

I smell burgers cooking on the neighbour’s barbecue and hear the kids playing out in the street. I hear the flattened tin can tune of the ice-cream van at the same damn time every evening and wonder why it never changes.

But there is one fundamental difference.

The last time I experienced those things was in a life that no longer exists for me.
I had got used to this new normal (or so I thought) during the past Autumn and Winter months and yet now these beautiful daffodils in my garden and the sunlight that seeps through my blinds in the early mornings are the cruellest sensory assault to my memory that this is the time where it all started.

You have all said it. ‘This time yesterday we were on the beach!’ ‘This time last week we were at the cinema/watching our favourite band/out to dinner with friends…’

We mess about with the concept of time – all the time. Even when the clocks change – we say ‘It’s seven o’clock but really it’s only six o’clock!’

I think of my friend in Australia and the time difference between us. I think ‘Well it’s 11pm here but it’s 9am tomorrow for her’. Crazy stuff.

Crazy indeed.

Well try this one…

This time last year, my husband was alive. He was tall, dark and handsome with a hundred yard stare and eyes so beautiful that I could lose myself in them and feel I was part of his soul. We were talking about his fortieth birthday, still some years off and planning to go to New York – although he never had the travel dreams I had, it was somewhere that he really wanted to go.

This time last year, he woke up and said that he had slept funny and that he had a knot in his shoulder blade. We went away for a weekend in our newly purchased 2 berth touring caravan – joking that we had got old before our time but pitched up like 2 excited kids on a site not 10 miles from our home. Because we could.

For a couple of months, I stocked up on nurofen and sprayed his back with deep heat every night. He went to the chiropractor and then a sports physio but the ‘knot’ seemed to shift from his upper back to his lower back and nothing could ease the discomfort.

April and May came and went. The doctor prescribed a stronger anti-inflammatory and he continued to go to work.

He. Did. Not. Miss. A. Single. Day.

That bloody ice-cream van tune filled the air at the same time every evening and we would grimace together and hatch comedy plans to disable the 1980s sound system.

On June the 4th, he woke up for work as usual but was really very unwell. He had a yellow tinge to his skin and felt sick. He still went to work but left at lunchtime to go to the Doctor and it was only then, that he was referred immediately to hospital.

He was under investigation for gallstones.

This time last year we did not realise that they were going to pull the curtains around the cubicle and deliver the most terrifying and unimaginable diagnosis of terminal cancer of the stomach, liver and spine.

I apologise for the directness of the previous paragraph. Today I felt honest enough to say how I felt and this evening I am being honest with you.

This time last year how could I ever have imagined that I would become his wife on the 22nd of June and his Widow 12 days later? Our wedding and his funeral in less than a month. 

I thought we would have time to say goodbye. The truth is that we just couldn't. Despite what I may have tried to imagine in a scene from a Hollywood film or Shakespeare-esque play, we were too busy concentrating on the Hellos and getting on with the business of living as I saw my darling waste away and removed the mirrors from the house so that he could retain the best memory of himself. 

And for all the wishes that I might have had for us to experience a lucid and loving 'Goodbye', the fact remains that we gently gave each other a kiss and I told him to get some rest and I would wake him in the morning with his breakfast. 

He slept for the next 72 hours. And then he died.

I don't feel regret that we never said Goodbye. We said I love you a million times and more importantly we showed our love for each other in a million different ways.  Our love was full and joyous and unconditional. Goodbye in comparison would have been an empty word but full of sadness. I am left with love. He left knowing he was loved.

I feel okay. But I also feel a parallel world of darker memories that are triggered by the sunshine and the lighter evenings. And the hum of a distant lawnmower.

I know that I have to feel them. I cannot escape them. They must sit and live alongside my new normal and everyday life. I don’t have to dwell on them but neither can I deny their existence. The next few months I will have to ride the waves as they come and I have no idea how big they will be or how frequent.

They may not come at all. I may be like the surfer, waiting with my board and find that the waves are not as enormous as I anticipated.

If you are lucky enough to find a life partner – one of you has to die first.

Anybody in a loving relationship will at some time, find themselves in my position if they are not the first to go.

The one left standing will be just like I was, staring onto a landscape of complete and utter destruction. It does not matter if you have an average lifetime to prepare or no time at all because the end result will be and is impossible to imagine.

But I feel that it is my absolute duty to ensure that anybody who experiences such loss also knows that it is possible to carry on. It is possible to survive and it is possible to thrive again. I have survived and I am working on the thriving.

I have taken responsibility for the way in which I deal with what I have been given.

My grief and feelings while deeply personal come with a public responsibility to share the truth, in the hope that we may one day live in a time where it is wholly acceptable to talk about death openly and comfortably.

I read somewhere that grief is love turned inside out. At the time I thought it sounded ridiculous and that whoever came up with the phrase was trying to be over philosophical in an attempt to sugar coat the awful truth. But now, more than ever it makes sense to me.

If you are going to love so deeply, then you will also feel that grief with the same intensity of that love when they are gone. If you never take a chance or have the fortune to experience such a loving relationship then you will never feel such catastrophic loss.

One is the result of the other. I would not change it. This grief is worth the love that I cherished and as I move forward, I accept that if I want to love again then I will also have to accept that I will probably have to grieve again.

Ultimately there is no happy ending – but maybe it isn’t about the happy ending – maybe it is about the story itself.

For Philip: On the days that I feel so incredibly exhausted with sadness, I take the time to remember that it is a result of loving you with all of my heart and soul. I want to honour your love of life by setting an example that it is possible to live a truly happy life again so that those who follow in our footsteps may find comfort and hope after loss.

I know that I cannot escape my grief but actually, I am in a place where I don’t want to. Instead I will embrace it as a sign of love and let it live alongside my pursuit of happiness.