A Pig of a Season
Almost ten months since JS died, and I’m still constantly wrong-footed by this grief business.
Actually, please, someone, anyone, take Christmas, I beg you.
I wasn’t always like this about the festive season: grouchy, tearful, wanting to strangle every adult in the Morrison’s Christmas advert with a string of tinsel, especially the flirty butcher in the boater who says suggestively to Freddie Flintoff, “And the British beef.”
Pre you-know-what-you-know-when, I loved Christmas, becoming ridiculously excited when Selfridges opened their Christmas grotto in August. Being somewhat of anal control freak (oh the irony now), by October I had my presents bought and wrapped, menus planned and a list of ingredients to procure.
In mid-December, our house would be decorated. Lots of holly, flowers and foliage; two trees: one enormous real one that had to be sawn up in the front room on Twelfth Night, as once unfurled from its mesh condom, we could never manoeuvre it out of the front door, and a small artificial one in the kitchen. We put a garland with lights winding up the stairs; lights in the garden; lights on the garage; lights strung around the mirrors; lights on the pot plants. Not quite Home Alone, but enough to push EDF Energy’s profits up.
Sadly, last Christmas was the worst Christmas and New Year JS and I spent together, because in December I got every bug imaginable, peaking with the winter vomiting bug making a spectacular appearance on Christmas Day. Then, because what was mine was his and vice versa, I generously passed it on to JS. When we took the decorations down in early January I started sobbing, “What if this is our last Christmas together, ever?” I told JS of my feeling of impending doom. He put my fears down to post-viral slump and told me not to be so silly…
If I was a betting woman instead of someone who once a year gets anxious that I’m wasting a fiver on a £2.50 each way bet on the Grand National, I would have put good money on my going into hysterical orbit at writing Christmas cards without JS’s name on them, and guaranteed I would need sedation if I so much as thought of putting up a tree without him. Which is why I had no intention of doing either of those things.
Christmas Chez PG was cancelled.
But life drags you along in its wake, and I ended up writing cards and putting up a tree. And did either of those things reduce me to floods of tears and a lake of snot?
No, they did not.
What did was the following:
1. Smug round-robin Christmas letters.
2. The stack of cards written and ready to post.
3. Shrink-wrapped cured pig.
Let’s start with the Christmas letters and go downhill from there.
I thought that this year I might be spared these self-satisfied smug missives trumpeting fantastic lives and amazing holidays with perfect gifted children, who not only got fifteen A*s in their GCSEs, but who, if only they didn’t have to train for the Olympics/sing in a professional choir/compete in Junior Masterchef would have developed a cure for the common cold in their bedroom.
OMG we’ve had some corkers in the past. One year, when it was well known that we (along with many of our friends) were having serious financial business issues relating to the recession, a letter dived straight in with: 2008 saw us start the year as we went on – in a fabulous hotel in the Seychelles!
Another highlight which had JS and me sniggering every time we remembered it, was the letter which discussed in detail a newly purchased washing machine and separate tumble dryer: Because with a new kitchen and a large family doing sport at the highest level (see how they smoothly incorporated two subjects), it is important that we have household equipment that is both reliable and stylish.
With the advent of digital cameras and sophisticated computer programmes, these letters have become increasingly elaborate. Now they feature coloured fonts, each photo in a frame, ivy around the border and sometimes even angels in the corner, presumably trumpeting the arrival of the letter rather than the baby Jesus. In the next few years I’m fully expecting a DVD to be included in the card, a mini-movie of the year in review starring Mr & Mrs Smug and the gifted Smuglettes, possibly directed by Martin Scorsese.
When I was a child in the sixties and seventies, my father and mother sat at the table and laboriously wrote the Christmas cards and letters, an event which took days to complete. I know it took days because so as not to disturb the piles of cards in their varying states of signing (thereby incurring the wrath of our mother), we had to eat our meals around them. But nowadays communication is so easy, you would think that Mr Smug or Mrs Smug might be able to add a personal paragraph to a letter to someone who, for arguments sake, lost her husband to drowning whilst on holiday earlier in the year, perhaps cutting out some of the more Aren’t we a fabulous family! sections. Even if the fabulously exciting couple can’t locate the Select and Delete sequence on their state-of-the art computer, or are too busy being absolutely fabulous to get around to doing it, surely one of their amazingly gifted children could stop swotting up for Cambridge at the age of thirteen and help them out by pressing a couple of buttons? But no, those letters have been slipped in the 2011 cards, many of which wish me a Magical Christmas or even, Have A Wonderful Year!
Now, let me put my non-festive cards on the table and say that I am not the sort of widow who on seeing elderly couples holding hands wants to stick a magnet near their pacemakers because they have each other, and I have The Hound and my V+ Box for company. Wistful yes, angry no. I do want people to be happy and I am genuinely interested in the lives of my friends and family; I relish their successes. Some letters are a joy to receive. My friend Gill P always sends the most wonderfully witty Christmas letters, but like me, she was on the receiving end of a spectacularly smug letter from L, a mutual smug-since-schooldays friend, crowing about her academically and sportingly gifted children. In the same self-satisfied missive, L announced that she had finally broken into the Cheshire coffee morning set and was loving it.
Gill had only recently had given birth to her handicapped daughter whilst she and her RAF serving husband were stationed in Germany.
If Gill could have pulled strings and sent a fighter bomber to drop something nasty on that Cheshire house, believe me, she would have done it.
This year, when the first letter came through oozing with self-congratulatory smugness, I felt sad that I couldn’t mock it with JS. Standing alone in my kitchen, there was no one to share my evil fantasy that one day Perfect Child A would run off to the circus with a lad working on the wall of death and forget all about ‘A’ Levels and a Nobel Prize, whilst Perfect Child B was on remand for growing skunk in the school greenhouse. Reading about these oh so fabulous families felt isolating. And then, like Gill P when she opened that letter from L, I was mad that these people hadn’t had an ounce of thought or humility to realise how they must sound to someone in my situation.
So I did what I always do when I am mad.
Firstly I cry.
Then I fill a wine glass.
Finally, I start bashing away on the computer, in this case, composing my own 2011 Christmas Letter.
It started pretty well. I wanted to keep it light and upbeat with a touch of self-depreciating humour:
2011 has been a year of change for me, and I don’t just mean the menopause…
But fuelled by Merlot and misery, it soon degenerated into sarcasm and bitterness.
Whilst I have had a difficult year, I want to acknowledge that many of you had problems in 2011 too. I remember the email I received from an old friend after JS’s funeral, apologising for not being in touch because as she said, her life was currently a nightmare. There was me grieving, and until I got that message I hadn’t grasped just how life-changing it must be to have to deal with a leaking washing machine in one of the properties she and her husband rent out.
I was touched to receive hundreds of cards after JS died and really appreciated all the kind offers of help and support. Since the funeral (JS would be proud of the enormous bar bill we ran up!) I’ve only heard from a handful of you, but the thought was there, even if you weren’t.
See what I mean?
So I opted not to send a letter, but I did decide to send cards.
Originally I was only going to send cards to those people that have been there for me this year.
So I bought ten.
Then I started going through our address books, and in a spirit of two-fingered (victory or otherwise) defiance, I decided to send cards to pretty much everybody, which meant I had to rush out and buy more. I ended up with seventy-nine UK cards, six overseas and eight neighbours. I know these figures, because I had to go back out and buy stamps. Anyway, I signed away, sometimes from me, sometimes from me and The Hound, often putting a few comments in too. I wanted people to know that with or without them and JS, life goes on. And it was OK, it really was. I found I didn’t mind signing the cards. I finished them, stamped them, and flicked through them.
And that is when I realised something.
Not one of my circle of (pre-accident) friends had lost a spouse suddenly. Not one. Now of course, I know that the world is full of those who have lost a loved one in tragic circumstances, but sitting on the stairs flicking through those white rectangles, I felt horribly isolated and picked on by life. The early emotions of Why me? surfaced for the first time in months. Even during the recent low period I never thought Why me? because I know it’s not just me, it’s probably you too, and there are many other widows and widowers out there in considerably more difficult circumstances than moi. But with my previous social circle stamped and in my hands, I felt victimised. How could this have happened to me? To him? To us? That old stuck record started playing, and I started crying. And then I gave myself a mental slapping, dragged the dog from his bed and went out and posted them.
The next day I went food shopping.
I was back in defiant two-fingered mood, though this time the fingers weren’t aimed at anyone in my address book, they were aimed at The Grim Reaper.
I powered my trolley up the first aisle. At the top, I spotted packets of smoked salmon and blinis. JS and I had a tradition on Christmas Eve night: smoked salmon on blinis with mock caviar, sour cream and champagne. It was ‘our’ time, the calm before the storm of Christmas Day. There was a lump in my throat when I saw them, but still defiant, I decided, Sod it! I’m going to buy them for myself. I tossed them into the trolley with a flourish.
This is going to be OK! I thought. I can do this!
I swung round the next corner to come trolley-to-shelf with a massive display of hams of different sizes: breaded; smoked; honey cure; glazed; studded; browny pink; luminous pink; pale pink. A piece of cured pig for everyone.
We always got a big ham at Christmas; we had it in sandwiches, with salad, baked potatoes, chips; fried up with left-over veg, or with eggs for breakfast. Those ruddy hams represented relaxed Christmas meals when we had come in from visiting friends, walking The Hound or hitting the sales.
The floodgates opened.
I am very lucky in my life in so many ways, but standing by those hunks of shrink-wrapped pink meat, I didn’t feel defiant, I felt desolate.
On a shelf by the Hams of Despair were some Heston Blumenthal pies for one. I bought two. Instead of powering along the aisles with my trolley, I trudged around, using it like a walking frame with wheels. I felt low and slow and defeated. When I got to the checkout and put my things on the conveyor belt, I noticed the woman behind me. She was elderly and hump-backed. In her basket were a couple of meals for one and a small tin of macaroni cheese. When she put them behind my shopping, I noticed her hands were mottled, their skin papery thin, a narrow gold band on her wedding finger. I had more items (and much more booze) than she did, but both of us were clearly shopping for one. Now, in my usual Pollyanna-ish state of mind I could re-frame this situation by thinking, At least she is shopping in Waitrose! Things can’t be all bad! But with Ham Head, I just cried. I cried for her, for me, for everyone who had been affected by JS’s death, for everyone facing Christmas without someone we love and miss. I also cried for my lost youth. I cried so much I forgot to put my green token in the charity collection; I found it in my coat pocket when I was sitting in my car in the car park sobbing, and I fished out a tissue. When I got home and unpacked the shopping, I realised I had bought two packets of blinis, even though this year, there’s just me. Old habits are hard to break.
I talked to my amazing bereavement coach, Shelley, about what had happened with the hams and the cards, about how these events had not only ripped the fragile scab off my grief, but made me feel different to those around me. She reminded me of what I already know, but what I need to hear from time to time: that whatever good things are going on in my life, mourning is part of healing and is healthy. Sobbing over cured pork is part of my healing process, although quite frankly, I’d prefer to sob over something more glamorous, like champagne and diamonds.
Shelley and I talked about making new traditions whilst honouring old ones, or keeping up old traditions but with a new twist.
I drove home, and on the spur of the moment and against everything I said, got back in the car, went to the garden centre and bought a small Christmas tree in a pot. I liked the fact that it was living. I bought some new baubles, and then at home, opened the trunk where two decades of Christmas decorations are kept, decorations that I had put away whilst sobbing, gripped with fear that JS and I wouldn’t have another Christmas together.
I was right.
It was strange to see everything there, but not bad strange, comforting strange. JS and I had so many fun-filled Christmases together, but not putting up a tree, sitting in a bare room, refusing to send cards, mired in denial and becoming bitter over others and their lives isn’t going to bring him back. Nothing is ever going to bring my husband back, not even a letter to Santa telling him I’ve been a good girl this year. As lovely Denise, a Geordie Angel I met whilst walking The Hound on Hampstead Heath on a particularly low day wrote on my Facebook page: If you’re going to be sad, be sad in fairy lit magic. She’s a canny lass that woman; a pragmatic Geordie.
On Thursday night, waiting for my friend, Big Bird, to arrive for the evening, I sat sipping red wine looking at my new tree whilst The Hound lay in front of the fire. Yes, I felt sad and wistful for the days when I sat there next to a towering brightly lit monster, the rest of the house buzzing with life and light and love, but I didn’t feel searingly desolate in the way that I thought I would.
The next day, I went back to the garden centre and amongst all the Peace, Love, and Merry Christmas signs, I chose a new decoration. I hung it near the top of the tree, under the po-faced angel we’ve had for years, the one that we always made jokes about as we stuck the top of the tree under her skirt.
Holocaust survivor, Viktor E Frankl, wrote in his amazing book, Man’s Search for Meaning: Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.
The decoration I chose says: Hope.
The future terrifies me, the past still haunts me, the thought of the year ending and a new one starting and the count down to the first year anniversary and the inquest fills me with anxiety. I am dreading Christmas Day; unless I get lucky (!) at the Carol Service on Christmas Eve, it will be the first time in forty-seven years that I will wake up on the 25th December alone in an empty house. To drag me through, I’ll be thinking of my fellow Planet Grief inhabitants. I’ve had generous invitations from friends to stay with them, but this year, I need to do it alone. There will be a visit to the Crematorium in the morning and then a relaxed lunch with my brother, his partner and a friend, before I head home for the soaps and Absolutely Fabulous.
I can’t wish you a Merry Christmas, because there is still too much sadness in our lives, but I can wish us all ‘Hope’.