Four Birthdays, Three Years, One Blog.
I don’t mean the sort of exercise that involves jumping around in camel-toe revealing thrush-inducing Lycra, more of a cerebral exercise, but not the type that used to make me break out in to a cold sweat at school with the words: Two trains on parallel tracks are travelling towards each other. If one train…
Those were the sort of questions I couldn’t answer for obsessing over what sort of trains they were (Was it a trick question? Was one a new train and the other a steam loco?), or worrying about getting the answer wrong, failing the exam, and ending up in the local fuse factory, soldering the ends onto fuses whilst wearing a hairnet, lonely because my friends had swanned off to university to become big cheeses in industry with expense accounts and Audi Quattros.
But I digress.
No, what I would like you to do is to imagine a guest list for a party you might have given before The Grim Reaper gatecrashed your life, a time when you were part of a couple.
Now, imagine the guest list for a party you might (if you weren’t exhausted/grief stricken/broke) throw today.
And then compare the two lists.
I recently came across a guest list for a birthday party I threw for JS some years before he died. It was a significant birthday, but the Birthday Boy was in no mood to celebrate. He grumbled about getting older, moaned that he didn’t want a party, and other than choosing the wine showed absolutely no interest in the planning whatsoever, claiming that his role was simply to turn up.
You may be thinking at this point: What sort of wife holds a party for her husband when he clearly didn’t want one?
I’ll tell you what sort of wife: one who wasn’t going to let her husband get away with being a party-pooper ever again.
Ten years earlier, JS had taken the same anti-celebratory stance, proclaiming that he would ignore any birthday that ended with a zero, and shunning my suggestion that we should do something significant, such as throw a party.
The day dawned, a card and a gift were given, and everything was low-key just as Sir had ordered. Except that men can be more complicated than I’d realised, and JS was irked that I had taken him at his word.
“But you said you didn’t want a party!” I bleated, confused.
“I didn’t mean it!” he retorted, and flounced out to go for a drink with his friends, whilst I sat in front of the TV with an M&S microwaveable curry feeling wretched.
At various points over the next ten years, the fact that I had done nothing for his birthday was occasionally raised in an accusatory manner, so for this one, JS was having a party, and he was damn well going to enjoy it.
And he did.
It was a joyous event with a band and a magician and a room filled with balloons and friends and family; a lunch at The Oval, home of Surrey County Cricket Club, because although as a member of the MCC JS tended to go to Lords, his introduction to cricket was as a young boy when his father took him to The Oval.
JS gave a speech. He said something like, “My wife said that I should hold a party now because I might not live long enough to see my next big birthday…”
Oh, how we laughed. But in persuading JS to have a party I had said exactly that: over the years we had lost so many people dear to us – some very young – and I was acutely conscious of making the most of the life we had whilst we could live it. Carpe diem and all that. Of course I am now even more aware of the fragility of life, but unfortunately most of the time I am too stressed, anxious, tired and overwhelmed to seize anything other than the sherry bottle and a packet of Frazzles, let alone the day.
For some time after the bereaved have crash landed on Planet Grief, we are certain that whatever we are feeling is unique to our situation. On bereavement sites I see posts from recent widows and widowers asking the same sort of bewildered questions I used to ask: Is it normal not to be able to sleep? Has anyone else had constant heart palpitations? Will I ever be happy again? With the experience of over three years of widowhood I can answer with some certainty: Yes, yes and eventually, at your own pace, yes, even if a deep seam of sadness remains.
One other question which regularly crops up is, “Has anyone else lost friends?”
The subject of friends has featured many times in my blog. I have admitted that I have not been good at keeping in touch with those that have reached out to me. Now that the fog of selfishness that is part of the bereavement process is finally clearing, I am ashamed of my behaviour. A dear friend wrote to me recently in the depths of his own bereavement (he lost a child) and said that he and his partner had tried to reach out to me many times, but I had shut them out. They had been very hurt, but now he understood. But some ‘friends’ have behaved badly and have let me down. They were happy to drink our champagne and let us pick up the tab for swanky lunches and dinners in the good times, but vanished the moment the going got tough or I was no longer useful to them. They ought to feel deep shame, but I suspect they are too busy being a parasite elsewhere to even think about me or JS.
I thought I had put the subject of friends to bed.
And then I found the list.
And just like I asked you to do, I compared the old list with a hypothetical new one.
This time round I wouldn’t need to hire a huge room at The Oval, I could have the party in a four-man tent on the lawn with a couple of picnic tables. But what really got me wasn’t how many people had fallen by the wayside, but wondering if JS walked into my garden party just how many people he would recognise? Just like his beloved Arsenal, since he died, Team HB has changed. There are the core people of course: friends and family who have remained strong in the hurricane of my grief, but there are children that have been born since he died, children who had only just been born and now are little people with strong personalities, new friends and those that I now consider part of my cherished extended family. And if JS queried why certain people were missing I’d tell him, “They weren’t friends. They were parasites.” Sadly, one of the steadfast ones, someone who brought me protein shakes when I couldn’t eat, who did all he could to help me having lost his wife when he was young, would not be at my imaginary party. He died last month.
It’s three years since I first started this blog. I remember giving myself a start date of JS’s birthday. I felt physically sick sitting at the computer, terrified of what emotions my writing might unleash. The moment I began to write I felt the first stirrings of my old self, only tiny chinks of dark humour, but enough to make me realise that I would survive this terrible event, even though there were many dreadful days and calls to the Samaritans to come.
Last Saturday, it was JS’s birthday, the fourth birthday without him.
I had lunch in a restaurant with some of JS’s family and then went back to a house in Hertfordshire to release a balloon, a tradition I started on his ‘first’ birthday and which I wrote about in that inaugural blog post in June 2011: Up Up & Away. JS loved this house and his family living in it and saw it as a sanctuary from the strains of his life, a constant reassuring presence through good times and bad. I first went there and met his family in February 1990. The moment I walked in I felt like JS did, enveloped by kindness, warmth and family life. I loved going there: some of the happiest moments in my life have involved sitting in the garden eating egg sandwiches as children and dogs rushed around. I still love going there, but there is a dreadful yawning gap when I’m at the house and JS isn’t, and I expect there always will be.
Two other family members lost too soon shared their birthday with JS, so we stood in the garden and released three balloons off in to the sky, one for each loved one. As the balloons raced upwards, I vowed to make sure that the children who will never physically know their grandfather know all about JS and what sort of a man he was. A man who enjoyed the good things in life, but for whom the greatest pleasure of all was spending time with his family.