Last Friday, the 27th February, was the fourth anniversary of JS drowning whilst we were on holiday in Barbados. Four years since I crash-landed on to Planet Grief wearing The Bikini of Death. Four years since I was a wife at breakfast and a widow before lunch. Four years since I was convinced my life was over, and that JS’s death meant a lifetime of weeping and wailing and wearing shapeless black clothes over a firmly locked chastity-belt. Four years that at times have felt as if I’ve been running a marathon through treacle whilst wearing lead-lined boots, yet have passed in the blink of a mascara-smudged eye.
That first night alone in my hotel room, thousands of miles from home, I didn’t think that I would get through another hour of my life, let alone four years, and yet here I am, very much alive and (on balance) happy. For those of you who have just found yourself on Planet Grief, I promise you that your life will be good again, as impossible as it might seem right now. If you don’t believe me, please just trust me: I’m a widow, like you. I’ve been there, done that and bought the coffin.
My first night as a widow was spent in a daze of adrenalin-fuelled pacing. Whatever protective mechanisms my body was employing to shield me from the full horror of witnessing my husband’s watery death were working flat out, though I didn’t realise it at the time. It was only later, back in London, that I fell into Planet Grief’s most terrifying pit, an acid-filled hell-hole inhabited by grief monsters: shape-shifting demons capable of inflicting a form of torture so sadistic, I screamed in pain. For a long time these grief monsters had me in their clutches, writhing around me, tormenting me, occasionally letting me scramble to the top of the pit and glimpse hope, only to drop kick me back in to its soul-crushing depths. These monsters appeared everywhere: whilst I was walking The Hound; putting the bins out; in Waitrose, even whilst sleeping. They clung to my back and wrestled me to the ground, leaving me sobbing on the stairs or on a park bench or on my knees in a supermarket aisle. Nowhere was safe. I ran around the house in terror, trying to escape. They always caught up with me. They still come in the night and pop up behind the ninth hole on the golf course, but now, four years later, they take my breath away, not my legs.
I dreaded the first anniversary of JS’s death, so I organised a celebratory lunch at one of his favourite restaurants in Central London. Never underestimate the healing power of champagne.
With year one successfully under my belt, I naively felt that year two would be a breeze, so I kept it as a normal day, the sort where the washing needs doing and the dishwasher needs unloading. Never again. Let me tell you, fishing bits of vomity looking peas and carrots out of the drainage filter when you are already feeling like crap, pretty much finishes you off.
Year three. I was no longer living in London, but I was living with Gorgeous Grey Haired Widower (GGHW). We went to London, had a meal and saw a play. It was an excellent tactic, part running away and part diversionary. This, I decided, was to be my future blueprint for coping with D-day: Death-day, Drowning-day.
The fourth anniversary of your husband’s death is (for me) not the time to go and see Hamlet, so I booked Beautiful, a light-hearted musical based on the life and music of Carole King. It was a safe choice: when I heard a Carole King song I didn’t think of JS, I thought of a sleazy sweaty scientist I once knew, an odd little man with jet-black greasy hair cut in a pudding-bowl style. Dr Strange (as I shall call him) waddled along the corridors of a London teaching hospital wearing socks and sandals, reeking of body odour. Despite his eccentricities, Dr Strange had no problem attracting an army of doe-eyed young students, though in those days, it was almost expected that a post-grad student would be the target of a lecherous academic offering rather more than a three-year grant and the promise of your own lab bench. I was regularly asked to appear in Dr Strange’s office to discuss the results of some clinical experiment, only to be grilled behind closed doors about my love life over ‘tea and cakey’ as he called it. Once, staying overnight in Cambridge for a conference, I could hear Dr Strange calling my name in the corridor outside. To avoid him ambushing me on the way to the bathroom, I had no choice but to haul myself onto the vanity unit and pee in the basin. I got off lightly: one of my colleagues got back to her room to find her professor lying stark naked (save for his glasses) on her bed. Her response? “Put it away Trevor, and put your clothes back on.”
You are probably wondering why I am writing about randy academics when this was supposed to be about the fourth anniversary of my husband’s death. As Miranda’s mother would say, bear with, bear with.
Dr Strange was having marriage problems, and during long experiments when the lab door would be locked for fear of animal rights activists breaking in and liberating the furry critters we were working on, Dr Strange would play Carole King’s album Tapestry over and over again on a little black tape recorder. Every time he heard the song So Far Away, Doc S would come over all maudlin about what was happening at home, and when Carole sang the line, “Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore?” he would turn to me all misty-eyed and say, “Oh, Helen. Why doesn’t anyone stay in one place anymore?” and I’d think, probably because you’re sleeping with your PhD student, but I’d just say something like, “That’s life, I guess,’ because I was only twenty-two and hadn’t a clue. I had a year of this. I was Tapestry word-perfect. I thought I knew Tapestry as well as I knew my own name.
Fast forward twenty-eight years.
We had a good trip to London. Beautiful was great. Cheesy, musical schmalz at its best.
At the interval, a woman in the row in front of us turned to ask GGHW when Carole King had married James Taylor. GGHW didn’t know, but I stopped snaffling my vanilla ice-cream and jumped in. Not only did I know all about Carole King, I knew even more about James Taylor. JS and I were both fans and had seen him in concert several times. Rather smugly, I corrected this woman: she was confusing Carole King with Carly Simon. Carole and James had no connection. Amateur!
Almost at the end of the musical, the opening bars of an oh-too-familiar song floated up from the orchestra pit: You’ve Got A Friend. The last time I heard this song was at JS’s funeral. There were three pieces of music that day: two chosen by other people and the third and last by me, You’ve Got A Friend sung by James Taylor. I remember hearing someone cry during it, and realising that the sound of sobbing was coming from me. For all my smugness about claiming in-depth knowledge of Ms King and Mr Taylor, I had completely forgotten that the two had worked together, and that You’ve Got A Friend is a song from Tapestry. I couldn’t walk out, and quite frankly at £90 a ticket I wasn’t going to, so I sat there and thought about something my friend, Thelma, had said.
Four years ago, in another part of England and on the day that JS and I were packing our suitcases to leave for Barbados, young Thelma had just been widowed by suicide in what by any standards was unusual circumstances. Days apart landing on Planet Grief and two very different people with different life experiences, our journey over the last four years has had many common threads. I’m immensely proud of Thelma and the way she has made a new life out of a terrible situation, as I am of all the widows and widowers I have met since JS died. On the four-year anniversary of her husband’s death, I sent Thelma a text. She texted back that it all felt ‘bizarre.’ On the four year anniversary of my husband’s death, she texted me. I replied saying it felt very strange. She repeated her earlier observation of how bizarre it all felt.
Sitting in the theatre, I reflected on how right Thelma was, how bizarre our lives are and yet, at the same time, how as life unfolds in all its hope and horror, somehow the pieces do start to fit together, which in itself feels bizarre and at times overwhelming.
I had picked You’ve Got A Friend as ‘my’ song for JS’s funeral, and here I was, four years later, sitting in a theatre next to GGHW, living a life which bears little resemblance to my life pre-JS’s death, but one which is rich and good in ways that I could never have imagined in the months after it. And yet, for all the good times now, there will always be strands of sadness running through my life. The continuing challenge is how to live with those feelings and not let them overwhelm me. The Grief Monster is always circling, waiting for his chance to strike.
The longer I live and the more life experiences I have – good and bad – the more I understand the metaphor of life being like a tapestry. The front of the tapestry is the face we present to the world: the stitches have a regular form and shape, the design contained within the structure of the canvas. The back of the tapestry tells a different story through its jumble of frayed, tangled and knotted threads. Whilst we are alive ‘our’ tapestry is a work in progress: sometimes the stitches already laid down in a design we know and love become torn, disrupted and damaged. At first it seems hopeless, as if the tapestry is ripped beyond repair, but eventually, painstakingly, stitch-by-stitch, the canvas is restored. People look at the restored tapestry and exclaim that they wouldn’t know the difference, that the way the old stitches blend with the new is remarkable, seamless. The owner of the tapestry, the person for whom each stitch represents a moment of their life, understands that the tapestry is forever altered, that the back of the tapestry with its textile scars and uneven stitches bears witness to the changes.
At the end of our lives, perhaps we can stand back and look at the entire tapestry from the front, take in its rich colours and patterns and textures and appreciate all that went in to making it such a work of astonishing beauty. At the end, perhaps all the knots and tangled and frayed threads will make sense. At the end, perhaps we will see the bigger picture.
Until then, it’s all just rather bizarre.