Time. Time and space and dates and days.
Right now, I am finding these measures all bent out of shape. My perception is warped by profound events that I have experienced since the last post I wrote for the blog, in September.
But I can see a thread that binds the dates and days, and stretches through time, bringing the past into sharp focus, and blurring recent days into an age ago.
November 3rd, 2010
I was the manager of the largest woodland burial ground in the UK. A beautiful place that I had been part of since before planning permission was granted. I loved it there. We had created an ofrenda, an altar, for Dia de los Muertos – the Day of the Dead – in the stunning Woodland Hall.
On the altar on November 3rd that year, the day after the Day of the Dead, were many photos and offerings to those who had died. Among the photos were pictures of my partner Steve’s parents, who had both died earlier that year. He had brought the photos there and placed them himself, among the colourful gifts and food and offerings.
The ofrenda, before the photos and offerings were placed.
November 3rd, 2012
I was asleep in our flat. I heard Steve’s voice calling my name. It was pitch black. The flat was on fire, and Steve had woken to the sound of the smoke alarm. He had seen the living room ablaze, and tried to put the fire out, before stumbling to the front door to get a breath of air through the acrid black smoke. The door slammed shut behind him. Somehow, he broke down the door and felt his way along the walls towards the bedroom, shouting my name. He kept calling until I woke into the thick choking smoke and fumbled my way towards his voice. I can hear him now, calling urgently ‘Just come to my voice, keep coming’. His lungs were burned with the amount of smoke he inhaled, calling and calling me. He was in hospital for five days. He saved my life.
We kept the clock from the living room that had melted in the heat to remind us always of how lucky we were to be alive. And from then on, we celebrated November 3rd as our joint birthday. The day we should have died.
November 3rd, 2020
I sit in the Woodland Hall. The same beautiful building that I had watched being created and lovingly built by Graham Brown and his team, all those years before.
This year, on November 3rd, the day after the Day of the Dead, there was no ofrenda in the Woodland Hall. Instead, before me was the coffin, draped in the flag of the Metropolitan Police, containing the body of my darling man.
He had died from Covid-19 on October 18th. The day before his birthday. Three weeks after our wedding day. He had been living with cancer for two years and had been told it was terminal earlier in the summer. Immediately after his divorce was finalised, we had booked a wedding, at the first possible opportunity. It was the happiest of days. And the last day he was well. Three days later he tested positive for Covid.
Time shifts and stretches and contracts. The past crashes back and imposes itself on the present. The man I love, the man who had spent so many sunlit days in that woodland with me, the man who has been the centre of my world for so long, is dead. Everything has changed.
I have much to write about the extraordinary experience I have been through.
About being given a terminal diagnosis. About facing mortality full on, fearlessly and bravely. About the complexity of anticipatory grief. About pain and suffering and sadness and worry. About the unbelievable gift of planning a funeral together, before illness sweeps you up into a blur of anxiety and worry about pain relief and equipment and aids. About death during a pandemic. About knowing that when you made the phone call for help, you would be setting in motion an unbearable parting. About having to isolate when you have tested positive and being alone and going almost mad with despair at being apart from the one person you need to be with. About the relief of being allowed to visit him but despair at the knowledge that the reason for this was because he was going to die. About sitting vigil with your soulmate as they journey through their last hours. About the similarity of being at a deathbed with being in a labour ward, as the moment of death / birth approaches. About watching death steal across the face of the man who is part of my soul. About the extraordinary transformational power of a good funeral. About navigating social distancing when you’ve been bereaved and when all you want is to be comforted in the arms of your friends.
There is so much to write. But I need to let time give me the perspective. Right now, it’s too new. It’s just three weeks since he died. It feels like a lifetime.
I just wanted to let readers of the blog know the reason for the GFG’s recent silence, at such a profound time for our society. And to tell you that it is possible to have the most perfect, perfect funeral – even when it seems everything is against it.
I will forever be grateful to Lucy Coulbert, of The Individual Funeral Company, who cared for Steve and for me as if we were her own. And to Isabel Russo, who wove together the most beautiful authentic ceremony, navigating sensitive family dynamics and an extraordinary number of swear words. And to Colin Liddell, Louise Winter, Shaun Foulds, Rachel Wallace, Suzie Wight, Ian Franklin, Alex Meaden, the Blue Knights – and everyone else who helped make Steve’s presence so vivid, and his funeral so extraordinary.
The film of the entire funeral can be watched here – and just a reminder, there is a not-insignificant amount of profanity involved, just as Steve wanted.