Many years ago, I knew a woman whose aunt and uncle would suddenly yell out in mid-conversation, ‘DIN!’ whereupon one of them would rush out of the room or the house or wherever they happened to be. I only heard about this strange behaviour, I never actually witnessed it, but for years before JS died we often used to yell at each other ‘DIN!’ and then jump up and scurry off.
DIN stands for ‘Do It Now!’ in other words, don’t just say that you want to see that play or visit that restaurant or phone that friend; book the theatre now, organise a meal out now, phone your friend now whilst you can, unless of course it’s 2am, in which case you’re allowed to defer your DIN-ing to a more sociable hour.
JS and I were both very much DIN people; JS never sat still and I bounced around like Tigger on speed. I look back and feel amazed and exhausted at just how much we packed into our lives whilst working full-time, running several different businesses. And then JS drowned, and I had neither the energy nor the inclination to do much, let alone do it straight away.
Not everyone who is bereaved has this inertia. My friend, Renée (who I called CC – Camden Chick – in the blog) spent four terrible years supporting her husband, Robert, through terminal cancer. By the time Robert died towards the end of 2010, though exhausted and flattened by grief, Renée was determined to make the most of her life. We went shopping, we sat in cafes, we went to the theatre, I drove my car far too fast over speed bumps through Islington which made her laugh so much, I did it again, on purpose, both of us screaming like teenage girls on a rollercoaster. When JS died, Renée rang me in Barbados to tell me that she was organising a plane ticket and would come to my rescue. If I didn’t want her there, she’d organise it for someone else, anybody, all I had to do was give her the passenger’s name. I thanked her and told her that my brother was already booked on a flight. Back in London, she was there for me straightaway, organising champagne and cake at her house with her friend, a woman whose husband had been murdered. It was kind of her, but I remember sitting in her lovely house in Camden feeling absolutely shell-shocked.
I wrote about this bleak period and how Renée eventually found new love with a man who lost his wife to cancer, in a blog post called Women In Love which was written on the 25th October, 2011, eight months after JS died on the 27th February that year, and almost a year since Robert died.
Our friendship went back decades and JS knew Renée for years before me. She was a loyal, kind and supportive friend, but she could also be infuriating. I lost count of the times she would flounce out of a restaurant because someone near her was smoking, we’d been given a bad table or she hated the food. Her dietary requirements were legendary and ever changing. I remember once ringing her up a few days before her and Robert were due to come to our house for dinner to check that she ate monkfish (she didn’t eat meat) and was told she did, that she loved it. Sitting down to eat, she announced that she had now given up fish and would only eat steamed low-carb vegetables with no butter. Robert went puce and practically collapsed onto his plate, I was very close to flinging the monkfish medallions at her, but JS, ever the elegant host, opened more wine and suggested everyone had plenty to drink and that Robert’s car should be left at ours to be collected the next day.
After I started seeing Gorgeous Grey-Haired widower, Renée would lecture me on the importance of wearing glamorous sleepwear, once marching me away from the display of tartan pyjamas I was eyeing up and steering me towards wispy little things that would barely cover my bum. In Fenwicks, she demanded that the sales assistant at the Estee Lauder counter sorted me out with a decent coloured lipstick (‘You look ill without it.’) and berated me for giving up Pilates (she was a devotee who exercised every morning). Sometimes, she was such a force of nature, she could be absolutely exhausting, but she was never, ever, boring.
Never the most sociable of people, when I moved out of London in August 2013, I isolated myself even further from my old life. Partly this was because it felt such an effort to get on a train, but also because I felt I’d made a terrible mistake leaving the love of my life (London) and I couldn’t bear to visit and then leave again as if I was now a tourist. At Kings Cross, I’d look at the 390 bus which would take me towards Highgate and past Renée’s house, and feel bereft that I wasn’t getting on it. I still do. I should never have left London, but that’s for another time.
I saw Renée and we kept in touch, but sporadically. Many times she left the ball in my court and I failed to lob it back, making excuses, cancelling lunches. A few months ago, she rang me and left me a message on my phone saying that we didn’t have to have lunch or anything, but could I just let her know that I was OK and happy. I wrote her name on my list of things to do, a reminder to ring her back. I didn’t, but I was going to. I was going to ring her to arrange to take her to lunch at which I’d give her a copy of my book, show her the chapter about her and her name in the back of the book, tell her how much I appreciated her support not just after JS died, but always. We’d drink champagne and laugh and reminisce about our lives, gossip about work colleagues we knew, talk about the theatre, art, good restaurants.
I got swamped with the book, with publicity, with all the brouhaha surrounding its launch, but that was OK, because Renée’s name was still on my list, so I wouldn’t forget to ring her. I’d do it when I’d got BBC Breakfast out of the way and the article in the Daily Express was published which would mean lots more messages to deal with. But I would return her call. She’d understand how busy I’d been. She’d been a hot-shot at Disney before running her own business. She knew all about working hard.
On Tuesday evening, I got a message from her stepson to say that suddenly and unexpectedly, Renée had died.
All those times I intended to ring her, to meet her, I didn’t. Now, it’s too late. That chance has gone forever. Given what happened to me and to the hundreds of people I have met through blogging on Planet Grief, each of us living every day with the knowledge (and the fear) that life can end in an instant, why did I just jot her name down in my notebook to deal with another day? Why didn’t I pick up the phone and ring her? What arrogance that I really thought that I could dictate the timetable of life, that when I was ready, when I’d cleared the ‘important’ stuff from my life, I could just pick up where I’d left off, in my own time.
Why didn’t I Do It Now?