Friday, 29 May 2015
The Widow's Feast
I was an early reader, thanks to my sister who is 6 years my senior. I was the ever present guinea pig in her role play as teacher which resulted in me being able to decode quite a lot of words before I even started formal schooling at the age of 5.
I was utterly fascinated by the alphabet and the endless possibilities of stringing letters together to create words. Somehow, reading and in turn writing, came very naturally to me and I was totally enthused at the prospect of discovering such an amazing way to communicate.
Writing, reading and even handwriting were fun for me, as I realised these skills were quite literally the key to opening up a world that had been previously inaccessible.
I remember my mother once telling me that the day I had learned to read, was the day that her life moved into another dimension of parenting. ‘Once you could read’ she said ‘I knew that my attempts to keep anything from you were diminished’.
No longer could she spell things aloud to my stepfather or other adults because within moments I had worked out the critical secrets she had intended to keep from me. From spelling out ‘p.r.e.s.e.n.t’ in relation to a birthday to quietly spelling out that little ‘e.a.r.s’ were listening, her game was well and truly over.
Nanna on the other hand, was more difficult to work out.
She had grown up in the East End of London and commonly spoke in cockney rhyming slang (referring to my skills on the old Joanna). But more weirdly, as the wife of a butcher she would revert to the lesser known language known as butchers slang – which broadly meant that she would entwine normal words said backwards – a habit adopted by traders to mask the gist of the conversation from outsiders.
I was fascinated by Nanna’s conversations – particularly when I heard her talking to my stepfather. She always referred to money as ‘Yenom’ and called a leg of lamb ‘gel of bee-mal’. I first heard the term ‘yob’ from Nanna and felt a bit insulted – ‘are you still hanging around with that yob?’ she would say… only later, I clocked that she was referring quite endearingly to the ‘boy’ from the next village.
Indeed, I blame Nanna for the scorning I received at a trip to the beach one day, when I spotted a word on the café window that had been loving scribed by a finger in the condensation of its warm interior.
‘KCUF!’ I exclaimed to my mother (who had become proud of my reading skills).
‘It doesn’t say that Elizabeth’ She replied.
‘So it must say ****’ I announced joyfully. It was the first time I had ever sworn. And the last time in my mother’s presence.
By the age of eight or so, there were very few words that I couldn’t at least make a good attempt at reading or spelling – and Nanna, along with Mother had to think very carefully about what they said or spelled out in my presence. With an ever increasing wealth of knowledge about words and language, my life had opened up as I had this wonderful skill that could connect me with the world on a grand scale.
As I ponder my love of words – of reading and of writing, it has dawned on me just how much they have contributed to shaping my life in all manner of ways. I composed a love letter to my first crush in 1979. It took all of my nine year old courage to scribe the inner feelings of my heart on a piece of pink sugar paper.
I gave it to the ‘yob’ who was a couple of years older than me and then ran away in fear that he might not feel the same way about me. I recall vividly, even now, how he stood on the steps of the portakabin-come-classroom and ripped it up in front of all of his friends as they teased him about his little admirer. I stood in the playground, hidden amongst the other kids to witness the shredding of my feelings. I was heartbroken.
I later found out that he couldn’t read.
Ironic really, that I had managed to write what was ostensibly a declaration that I thought he was the kindest, most gorgeous boy I had ever met yet to this day, he will never know what that letter had said.
Rule number one: Know your audience.
I have beautiful handwritten diaries from the age of 13 to 21. All of my secrets, hopes and dreams are packed into those notebooks and they chart my journey from teenager to adult with all of the angst, passion and opinion that shines through that passage of time.
Over the last twenty years or so, I have seldom looked back on those thoughts but when I have come across them during a clear out or house move, I have spent hours immersed in the pain and the passions of the past.
I returned briefly to writing a diary in my early thirties as a result of my abandoned schedule but it seems, as I reflect, that mostly my etchings and scribbles over time, have mostly been borne from either love or a crisis.
So talking of a crisis…
I hadn’t left the house since the day we tied the knot. I also had not eaten.
When my friend arrived an hour after the undertaker had departed with my husband, I was in a state of complete numbness and disbelief. She walked through to my kitchen and placed a bag of shopping onto the worktop.
‘Supplies’ she said.
A large bottle of vodka, a 2 litre bottle of coke, a bag of ice, 20 Marlboro lights and a packet of tortilla chips...
The widow’s feast.
I woke up on the morning of July 4th last year with my head pounding. In the hours that followed Bebe’s departure, I drank a copious amount of vodka followed by a bottle of champagne.
The champagne was a wedding gift from just 12 days earlier and I didn’t crack it open in a symbolic way – unless you count wanting to drink enough to pass out and never wake up as such.
For a moment, or more than a moment, I thought I was in some kind of vodka induced nightmare.
Had I really witnessed the last breath of my husband? Had I really handed over his favourite ‘Clockwork Orange’ T-shirt for the District Nurse to dress him in?
He couldn’t be gone. He just couldn’t be gone – not forever?
I switched on my laptop and logged into Facebook. Over 100 notifications signalled that this was not a terrible nightmare. Glued to the screen, I read each comment and kept on scrolling down...
So very sorry xx
He was a gentleman.
He was a true friend.
My thoughts and prayers are with you x
You know where I am if you need me…
…The list went on and on and on.
I thought this was someone else they must be talking about. I had read these kinds of threads before and have left comments of condolence myself.
It is simply impossible to put into words the true horror that consumed me as I slowly began to process that these words were not meant for someone else – they were about Bebe. And about me.
For someone who has often been described as eloquent, I had nothing to give. Sat in our bedroom, filled with his clothes and belongings I was utterly muted. Those damn open plan IKEA wardrobes were staring back at me with my darling’s clothes hung dutifully on the rails and his beautifully folded T-shirts on the open shelving.
His glasses and his watch on the bedside cabinet.
Where the **** do I start? How on earth can I carry on? What in heaven’s name am I supposed to do now?
I couldn’t write. I clicked to return some kind of comment but I just couldn’t write. I clicked the like button on every kind sentiment – it seemed wrong to ‘like’ RIP but for the first time in my life, I had writer’s block and I went into autopilot mode with the ‘thumbs up’ button in the absence of an ability to respond with words.
I sent my friend away. She couldn’t deal with my pain. I couldn’t deal with it so I felt that it was easier if I was left to my own devices.
Life unfolds. Even when your world has ended and time is stood still – there is plentiful evidence to the contrary.
The post still arrived every day and it didn’t take long before literally a hundred or so cards with the kindest and warmest of words dropped through the letter box. Some people took the time to craft well thought out handwritten letters which at first I could not concentrate on reading.
My house was filled with flowers. Two or three times a day for the first week of so, I would receive a delivery – some from as far afield as America and Australia.
I had text messages and emails from friends and family. And I noticed with stark poignancy that Bebe’s phone lay silent after weeks of constant messages.
I still could not write. I did not have the words to respond. I feared I would never be able to communicate again using the written word.
One day, in my muted, silent world – I received a letter to confirm that my membership to a charitable organisation (WAY – Widowed and Young) had been activated. I was desperate for support and I noticed that there was a Facebook page for members.
I reached out.
I introduced myself on a new thread. It was relatively easy because I wasn’t responding – I was simply writing a few words about my loss and dipping my toes into a new kind of normality I guess. Within minutes, I had the most compassionate and supportive replies – and for the first time since Bebe had died, I felt that I could communicate again through the medium of writing. And I could read and interact with lucidity and concentration.
At first I was unsure about sharing my innermost thoughts but I realised very quickly that this was a safe, secure and supportive space to park even the darkest of ideas. It is true that you should not judge a person until you have walked a mile in their shoes and well; some of these people had walked much further yet there was no judgement of me – only compassion.
I get it. If you haven’t suffered the loss of someone you love so dearly then you can only do so much to help. I am sincerely grateful for everyone that reached out to me despite them not really being able to empathise.
In my new normal, I am finding a balance these days of being able to communicate again with a wider range of people, family and friends.
My writer’s block melted some 6 months ago and as I approach the first year without Bebe, I am able to take on new projects at work, interact with my new friends as part of a support network and am back to full banter on the pages of Facebook and other forms of social networking.
I no longer have to write my emails in the ‘round robin’ fashion which I have always despised and am able to respond honestly yet mostly upbeat in the optimistic, witty way that I feared once may never return.
I am reading again. I am reading for enjoyment and not putting all of my energies into absorbing theories and ideas about grief. I am always open to learning more about life after loss but I don’t pursue it in the desperate state of mind that I did nearly 12 months ago.
And finally of course, I am writing my blog. Those of you who are following my ramblings will know that I began my journey from survival to revival right here … http://thefuschiatree.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/the-fuschia-tree.html
In those early days on the support forums, I was told to take each day as it comes. Minute by minute, hour by hour if necessary.
Nana would say ‘Would you Adam and Eve it?’
Time has passed. I am making progress.
For Bebe: I worried that if my pain lessened and I started to feel a sense of peace that it may be a sign that I either did not love you enough or that I am still in denial that you are gone. But I know that these are both ridiculous thoughts that do nothing but hijack my efforts to live the kind of life that I deserve or a life that you would be proud of. So instead, even when I am struggling to hang on as the rollercoaster dips – I recognise that even the roughest of rides will end up on the level once again.
For Nana: You lived so many years without Grandpa – I wish I could have understood how brave and strong you were and listened more respectfully when you wanted to talk about him. I get it now.