Two, Down. WAY, Up!
It is an undeniable fact that the unexpected and untimely death of your spouse changes you. Some widows and widowers have done amazing things after they were bereaved: built their own house from scratch; travelled around the world; reached the top of Kilimanjaro clutching a picture of their husband. It makes me very proud of them and their achievements, whilst feeling somewhat depressed that if I had to give examples of what I have achieved in the two years since JS died, I could only dredge up minor things such as learning how to change the halogen bulbs in the kitchen lights, and filling my car with petrol, something JS always did for me.
I have changed of course: I am considerably sadder, poorer, grey-haired and generally more of an anxious sleep-deprived snivelling wreck than I was when JS was alive. Those are just a few examples. I have a list as long as a fresh roll of Andrex of such changes, but I don’t want to depress you any further than you might already be, plus, you probably have a lengthy list of your own.
But there is one thing that hasn’t changed since JS died: my love of making plans.
Rats are incredibly bright creatures. They quickly learn how to negotiate a maze and differentiate between tasks which give them a reward (a tasty morsel), or disappointment (no food and an electric shock). Clearly, I have an IQ lower than a rat, because it doesn’t matter how many times my plans go to pot, how many times I’m left standing in the wreckage of some carefully constructed itinerary, or even after the ultimate plan-gone-wrong, my husband dying on holiday which annoyingly completely altered the restaurants I had booked from the UK, the clothes I was going to wear and the day-trips which were set in stone, I never learn. Like some bright-eyed brain-dead Weeble, I pop back up after a thwarted plan and chirrup, “Never mind. I have a plan…”
In more than two-decades, poor JS never really got to grips with my plan-fetish. A simple evening out with friends in another part of London would have me planning the route, the time we had to leave, what to wear, even down to quizzing JS as to where we would park the car, as the walk from vehicle to venue influenced the height of the heels I intended to wear. This is all very sensible a day or two before said event, but such planning would begin the moment the invitation arrived, even if this was weeks in advance. The more planning I did, the more likely the evening would be cancelled because of some babysitter/dog-squits/migraine issue.
Once, I even started making notes about the Christmas lunch I planned to cook.
Woody Allen said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”
I’m not a believer in God, but if I was, I’d be pretty proud of myself for giving him so much to laugh about over the years. So it won’t surprise you to know that I had the first few months of 2013 all planned out. And it also won’t surprise you that it all went horribly wrong.
At the end of last year, I was invited to give a talk about my blog at the March 2013 annual general meeting of the charity WAY – Widowed and Young. WAY is a self-help group that offers emotional and practical support to men and women widowed under the age of fifty (there is a group for the over fifties called WAY UP) as they adjust to life after the death of their partner. WAY has more than 1400 members across the country, and around 180 delegates were due at their AGM in Edinburgh.
I gave the idea of speaking about five minutes thought. The date of the conference was the 2nd March, 2013, which would mean I would need to travel from London to Scotland on Friday 1st March, which was only two days after the two-year anniversary of JS’s death on the 27th February. This was hardly a reason to decline to speak. I’d got through the first year anniversary in some style; surely that first year was the hardest? See, I even had my emotions planned out.
I accepted the invitation to speak, and planned to start preparing my talk in January.
Early in January I fell ill with something more than a cold, but less than full-on flu. I felt wretched, but unfortunately my very limited support network was either also ill, on holiday, or not close enough to lob a bottle of Night Nurse and a box of tissues over the garden wall.
Fifty miles away, immune-supressed Gorgeous Grey-Haired Widower became really quite ill, so ill, he needed to be whisked to Addenbrooke’s Hospital by ambulance where he spent a few days in the High Dependency unit. I lay in my bed feeling not just ill and worried about GGHW, but horribly, terrifyingly vulnerable and alone all over again. When JS was alive and I was poorly, even though he went to work during the day he would regularly ring me to see if I was OK, if I wanted anything bringing in, and whilst no cook, he could recall the entire ready-meal selection at M&S to tempt my virus-sodden palate. But the biggest comfort was knowing that he would be coming home. Isolated and ill, my anxiety levels began to rise.
Nothing on my list of January tasks got done.
GGHW came out of hospital, I recovered sufficiently to go and look after him, but not sufficiently enough to say I felt well.
Appointments that had been postponed were re-fixed.
It was now February. My plans were in chaos, but there was still time to rescue them. The January plans would have to be squeezed into February. I felt better. I was taking something called ‘Daily Immunity’ which was packed with herbs and vitamins. It was expensive so it had to work. I was back on track. I made a new plan.
I fell ill, again.
The diary had to be cleared, again.
Sewage from the block of flats next door started coming onto my property. Day after day, men with tankers and pumps arrived whilst they tried to work out the run of drains under old London streets.
My anxiety levels shot through the roof.
Stuffed with cold, I sat down to prepare my talk for the WAY AGM. I thought of my old introduction in the days when I gave talks to schools: “Hello, my name is Helen Bailey. I’m a writer of children’s books, mainly teenage fiction…”
Clearly, I needed a new intro: I would be speaking to widows and widowers about bereavement and blogging, not a group of schoolgirls about books about boys and snogging.
I typed a new introduction: “Hello, my name is Helen Bailey. I’m a widow, I’m a member of WAY and I write a blog called Planet Grief.”
Then I sat back and looked at what I had written.
And completely freaked.
I couldn’t believe the difference between the two introductions, of what had happened between them and how different my life had become.
The last time I spoke in public (other than at my husband’s funeral) was to was 300 schoolgirls in Kent on the 17th February, 2011. JS drove me to the school that morning and picked me up from the station later that afternoon. I remember ringing him from the train and telling him that the talk and workshop had gone down well, and him laughing and saying, “Of course it did! I never doubted it wouldn’t!” At the station, I slung my laptop case into the boot of JS’s car. Work was over. I was about to go on holiday.
Ten days later, JS was dead.
Staring tearfully at the screen, I started to resent the fact that I had agreed to talk at the WAY AGM. I began to resent everything to do with widows. I wanted to talk to bright-eyed eager schoolgirls, not hollow-eyed grief-stricken men and women. I’d been a member of WAY since shortly after JS died, but I hadn’t been to any events. Now, I didn’t want to be a member of WAY. I wanted the whole widow thing to go away.
Desperate for a get-out, I hoped that my cold would turn into something more sinister requiring hospitalisation, or that there would be such bad weather that I was forced to cancel my trip to Scotland. If I cancelled my talk, I’d also cancel my WAY membership, stop the blog and delete all the Internet bereavement sites I use. It wouldn’t be running away, I told myself. It would be leaving grief behind and getting on with my life. Meanwhile, the sewage continued to rise, Thames Water continued to let me down, my cold got worse, but not bad enough to cancel, and the second anniversary of JS’s death approached.
Ah yes. The second anniversary.
I had intended a more low key event than the first anniversary, but I did intend to do something, even if it was just going into town to buy myself a little present and meet a friend for lunch. But as the date got nearer and I got more and more fed up of the whole widow thing and how all the plans I made failed, I decided not to make any plans at all. It would just be a day like any other, after all, it wasn’t as if I forgot what had happened on the other 364 days, was it?
Big mistake. Big big mistake.
February 27th arrived. I was still under the weather and still had sewage issues. I was stressed over unresolved and expensive legal problems. A close friend of mine, someone who has been supportive over the last two years was diagnosed with advanced and inoperable cancer. I was anxious about my talk because every time I started to rehearse it, I was reminded why I was giving it and to whom, and it made me sad and scared. I wasn’t afraid of forgetting my words, I was frightened of collapsing in a sobbing snotty heap in front of the audience. I did a lot of reflecting, and after lots of sobbing I went to bed for the afternoon, not to sleep or because I felt particularly ill, but because I wanted to shut out the world in a way in which I haven’t done for some time. I dragged myself up for a swift early dinner with my accountant, but as I went around the house pulling down the blinds before going out, I saw the lights come on in the street outside as the sky darkened. It reminded me of sun-down that first evening after JS died, and the overwhelming feeling of bewilderment and terror, alone in a paradise that had turned to hell. Two years! How could it possibly be two years since I last saw JS! I crumbled again. I had planned to leave the events of the 27th February, 2011 behind me, but my brain had other ideas.
So a year in advance I made another plan, which was to plan something for the 27th February, 2014.
Two days later, I made it to Edinburgh, but not without hiccups. At a coffee break on the first morning I suddenly felt the same I don’t want want to be here! thoughts overwhelm me. It wasn’t about running away from doing my talk – once in Scotland I was committed, and from past experience I knew that by the time I stood up the nerves would begin to damp down – it was about the enormity of the situation, of what I had been through, of what I was still going through, what we were all going through.
The committee had thoughtfully arranged a quiet room, a space away from the main conference where delegates could go if they felt overwhelmed. I never imagined needing such a room, but at that moment I had to get away. I slipped inside.
Sitting quietly in the room was someone I shall call Curly Girl because of her gloriously springy hair. As I sobbed, Curly Girl put aside her own need for time-out and comforted me. Shortly after, Kentish Lass came in. She simply saw me and hugged me. No explanations for my tears were necessary. Those two widows held me up as I felt I was falling down. Later that day over a drink, the lovely Queen of Herts shared with me the trials and tribulations of her house move, something I am thinking of doing. She was a beacon of hope, of encouragement, of warmth. Far from wanting to run away from these people, I felt enveloped by them. I am not the sort of
person to feel proud of being a widow, that’s just not me, but I was proud to be associated with these ladies and by the other men and women I met over the weekend. Yes, there were tears, but there was laughter and lively debate and dancing as well as time for reflection. Edinburgh was a fabulous host city, and I truly had a wonderful time surrounded by amazing people. Far from it being my first and last WAY event, I plan (!) for it to be just the first of many.
GGHW and I flew back to London on Sunday 3rd March. We flew British Airways. Two years before on that same date, I boarded an overnight BA flight from Barbados to London, leaving my husband on the island. He didn’t come home for two weeks.
I haven’t climbed a mountain or built a house, and I do beat myself up about how little progress I think I’ve made, but when I sat on the plane on the 3rd March this year and thought back to the 3rd March, 2011 flight I made, never could I have imagined I would have any sort of a life, let alone one which included flying to Scotland to speak at an AGM full of widows and widowers, who far from being the hollow-eyed zombies I anticipated, were just as eager and interested to hear what I had to say as my schoolgirls used to be.
I came back to London and the next day I started to clear out JS’s office. There had been a major shift over the Edinburgh weekend. Yes, I am still anxious, overwhelmed and frightened, but I truly feel ready to start a new phase of my life.
And my talk? It seemed to go down well. And as I type this, in my head I can hear the smile in JS’s voice as he says, “Of course it did. I never doubted it wouldn’t.”