Tuesday, 18 August 2015

The Identity Parade

Firstly I want to tell you that I am okay, I feel okay and I will be alright. 

The positivity within me astounds me to the core even now, 14 months almost into widowhood. 

I instinctively feel it when the freezing cold and all immersing waves of grief crash over me. They try to knock me off my feet. Occasionally those waves succeed and they feel stronger than my soul. And sometimes, when I feel that my head is so far under the water, it feels strangely comforting as I am transported into a moment where nothing else matters. Nothing at all.

I sit here night after night in the room where I shared so much joy with my husband. I remember this space being filled with the boxes of our existence, not quite 2 years ago when we moved to Wales with all the exuberance of a couple of young puppies. We bounded around this house, up and down the stairs, in and out of each room and despite the exhaustion of the previous 12 hours of loading the removal van and travelling the long journey here – we were full of life.

This is the room where we shared our dreams, our hopes and our ideas for the future. This is the table that we formulated our plans and then danced around to a carefully selected playlist that reflected our past and our present states of mind. Our youth, our twenties, our musical heritage.

This is the laptop that we created spreadsheets on and pinned maps to of all the places we would travel to in our lifetime. The eBay account that we racked up 350 plus sales of vintage jewellery and trinkets as we watched every Friday night with eagerness as the bids went up (or not as occasionally was the case).

I am sat in the place where I announced to the virtual world just how happy we were with our lives.  A photograph of 2 glasses of Tattinger with a caption ‘There is no place like home’. 

This is the room that we laughed so much in. A room where sometimes we would sit in silence together because we didn’t need to talk. I did my thing and he did his. It was enough to be in each other’s presence because that is what made us happy.

At the back of me is the staircase where one morning my Bebe sat down exhausted and told me that he didn’t know how much longer he could deal with the pain in his back. I tied up his shoelaces that morning and reassured him that the pain would go in time – if he went to the physio and took the painkillers that had been prescribed by the doctor.

This is the room where my sweetheart lay gasping for air in a hospital bed that was delivered less than a week before he died. It is where we spent our last night together in our own bed. After transporting it and rehousing it in here, I lay by his side - with him high on morphine and me in denial as I wrapped myself around him, cocooned in his smell and caressing his deteriorating frame underneath his favourite rock t-shirt. If I try really hard, I can remember that smell but I fear very much that it is fading.

This is the room that I fled when the undertaker arrived. I feared that it would never be a place that I felt comfortable in again. Someday I will leave here but for now I just can’t. As painful as it is to remember the final moments, I feel a comfort in knowing that the good times outweigh the bad.

This is the house that Jack built and then Cancer bombarded it with a wrecking ball. 
And so I sit here. Nothing has changed and yet everything has.

I am struggling with my own sense of identity.

In the beginning I found comfort with the nurture and concern that came with my birth into widowhood. I was not in a place to appreciate the love that was poured upon me by our friends and our families but subconsciously I was aware that people were looking out for me and I recall being overwhelmed by the sheer empathy of some of them, many that I did not really know.

Because we were only married for 12 days, I found the whole idea of being a widow most uncomfortable until I got to a place, quite soon after, to process that really this label is a question of semantics. I am eternally grateful that we married but spiritually, we always have been.  In my heart I knew that we had found a life partner in each other and I am resolute in my belief that we would have been together until old age – had cancer not had other ideas.

Recently I was in a bar where I witnessed the banter of strangers. I find myself increasingly aware of peripheral conversations these days and am fascinated by the views and opinions of others. A man in his fifties was talking about the woman in his life with a warmth and a passion that I found endearing.  Seemingly this guy had been a bit of a ‘jack the lad’ in his past but finally met someone who he wanted to settle down with. I asked him what it was that had made the difference and his reply was that he had been with many women in his life but this one was the first that he wanted to talk to and laugh with the next morning.

Of course this made sense to me. I had just never really thought about it in this way before. Isn’t that what we are all looking for? And if you are like me, is it not the immense source of our pain – that we haven’t got this anymore?

I do know who I am. I feared that I had lost all sense of this but ultimately, I believe that we return to our default state – even after immense trauma or catastrophic loss. The death of my husband has left a gaping hole in my heart and a bombsite of dust and rubble that I have had to pick over, sift through and step carefully across. 

By default, I am not suggesting that I am wholly the same as before. I am merely suggesting that there are some things so innately within me that even the worst thing I could never imagine or have imagined. lest tragically has happened, will still allow me to return to the person that is me.

I am adamant that widowhood will not define me. It is a label and one that which bizarrely given my circumstance I am grateful for because society although it struggles with it, does have some understanding of what that state may entail. 

But then I think ‘well widows are old aren’t they?’ A person who has lost their husband or wife must at least be in their fifties ( which is testament to the idea that at 45 I still think that I am young).

People don’t just die when they are 37. They surely have some kind of warning or chance at putting things right don’t they? Well the answer to that is no. Not necessarily.

For some of us, the succession idea doesn’t work. We hope with all of our hearts that we won’t get to bury our children and at the same time, we expect to have to deal with the death of our parents. I don't have children so I know I will never experience such tragedy but as my parents are getting older, I am increasingly aware that I will have to deal with losing them.

I had kind of got to the stage where I felt prepared for the loss of my parents. I know now more than ever that there is no such thing as being prepared for the finality of death. And in my new normal, without a significant other, I am also dreading the fact that I may likely face these eventualities without the support of a soulmate. This terrifies me.

We are all so busily wrapped up with those massively important considerations that we fail to consider the death of our equals, our friends, our contemporaries. Our life partners. Our spouses.

It is no wonder therefore, that young widowhood is even more shocking - no time to prepare or consider because in youth we feel invincible. Losing a partner doesn't register on the conveyor belt - Grandparents? yes Our parents? yes An elderly Aunt or neighbour? yes.

Like some sick generation game finale, with the grim reaper as a host rather than Bruce Fortsythe, we subconsciously see the way it is supposed to pan out but you don't consider your partner will pass by next to the cuddly toy or food processor. 

Suddenly I was  thrown into a group of people that I never thought I would meet. I say group but us widows have our own category.

I was irked when I went from having to tick boxes on a form that tipped me over the age range from 25 - 39. And having come to terms with the fact that I now have to place myself in a box where my age is 39 - 45, I have this year had to change my status from married to widowed.

It sucks to tick that box. I am too young. He was too young. He was younger than me by seven whole years -  I never worried about how I would cope after losing him as with those stats surely I would be the first to go?

Okay I get it. It's just a box right? I don't have to fit into it yet sometimes I do - in the same way it rips my heart out to update my next of kin details on the HR forms at work. My mother is my next of kin - when she is gone I am f*cked.

So it brings me to the question of how other people see me…

Do others define me by my circumstance? And does it matter if they do?

There is nobody in my immediate close circle of friends or acquaintances that has lost a soulmate. Therefore, I am fully aware that my husband’s death permeated the psyche of those that knew him, me or us to a level of unprecedented proportion. At the moment, I am aware that I am still ‘the one whose husband died’ in some circles. I cannot argue or take issue with it because it is a fact. 

If that doesn’t suit me then it’s tough but I have no right to argue the toss because in raw daylight, it is the case. 

If I want sympathy (and in the early days I did) or I want other people to have empathy (which is a rare but valued capacity) then I must learn to be comfortable with the label of a widow. I can’t have it both ways by expecting people to treat me like this hasn’t happened – after all, this is life changing – it is big school stuff – it is Oh My God with bells on and a stack of grief bunting.

It is my duty to guide people through this if I want them to stick by me. My friends and family are human, they are not saints. They love me as I love them – and just like me, they don’t always know what to say or how to behave. If there is no handbook for me then there is sure as hell no handbook for them.

And as I travel through the fog, lost in the forest of darkness then they are similarly feeling their own way through it in a brave attempt to find me. 

My grief has been selfish. 

It moved into my heart the day that my soulmate died and has been occupying me with an all-consuming passion. There were no house rules when it moved in. It strolled about the place as if it owned my soul and I guess that it did. It dictated when I ate, slept and cried. It actually decided if I ate or slept at all and I just did exactly as it directed. And the thing is, that I trusted it. I was right to trust it actually – even though I was angry that it had moved in without paying the rent, somehow I did not feel alone.

I am now in a place where I feel stronger. I am the landlady and grief is my lodger. We have some ground rules as I begin to understand how it operates. Sometimes I allow it the freedom of my soul and there are other times when I am learning to keep it in check. I realise that this attitude may be controversial but if I am going to move to a place where my widowhood aka grief does not define me then I need to co-exist with it and co-operate with it so that we can live in harmony.

I will not allow it to make me selfish any longer. Selfishness is not my default and I refuse to let my self-pity ride rough shod over the coals and embers which need to re-ignite.

When my husband died, grief fooled me into thinking that my life was over and that I had no choice in the matter.

The truth is that as long as I am living and breathing there is always a choice to be made. Being a widow is shaping me, I do not need to be eternally defined by my loss. I will never be exactly the same as I was before all of this happened but I do have a default – I am an open and free thinker who is full to the brim with gratitude for what I have, what I have had and what wonders I may uncover if I make the choice to value life and love.

For Bebe: I realise today that I am so very fortunate to be living in a society where I have the freedom to make choices in life. Although I am building my new life without you with some degree of success, I sometimes still sink into a depth of despair that I am grateful you have never felt.

 But then I remember that my worries about life must pail into insignificance in comparison to you learning that you were dying. You made the choice to grab every moment of joy that you could during that very limited time, despite the fear that you must have felt. I know I have choices ahead of me that I will need to make. I will value them rather than hide from them – and I will embrace each one, as and when they come my way.

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