A dear friend sent me a poem at the weekend. Technically, she re-sent it, she had shared it with me soon after Steve died, so the words were familiar, and yet the second I started to read them, the fragile skin I have so painfully grown over the depthless well of tears inside me fell apart, and I cried and cried.
It has been 220 days since Steve died. I have no idea how I have survived 220 days without him. To all intents and purposes, I am ‘doing well’. I keep being told this. I have no idea against what I am being measured. There isn’t anything to measure how I’m doing against.
The me who I was when Steve was alive died with him. Of course it did. Everything changed in that moment. And in the hours and days and weeks that followed him dying, I changed too. I have no idea who I actually am now. On the surface, I look and sound like the old me. A wearier, older, sadder me, but there’s enough of me left to be reassuring to others.
I can function now, I’m working, writing, doing admin, sorting invoices, attending meetings, giving people advice, doing what I have always done. But to be honest, I don’t know what else to do with myself. If I didn’t distract myself with work, or with looking after the children, or with doing the shopping and cooking and cleaning that needs doing, the weight on my shoulders and in my heart would drown me.
For a brief time, being involved with the National Covid Memorial Wall caught me up in a feeling of purpose. Being proactive and doing something for other people really helped turn me away from my pain, and my involvement with the campaign group continues to buoy me. I’ve been asked to be part of a sub-group working on government support for people bereaved by covid, and that is really important to me, I will throw myself into it and have already secured support for our efforts from some of the leading people in the field of complicated grief and bereavement.
Acting as one of the media spokespeople for the group is good for me too, and I will happily speak to journalists when I’m asked to. All this is positive, helpful stuff. But the yawning emptiness inside me, beside me, stretching ahead of me – it never goes away. And as the community and impact of the wall has ebbed away as the weeks go by, the temporary lift that it gave me slips away with it.
Nobody told me that the days would get harder. Grindingly, relentlessly harder. I suppose that the trauma and shock of the aftermath of Steve’s death was such that telling me such a truth would have been cruel. I’m not sure I could have borne it in those early, mad, broken days. It was enough just to get through each day in one piece, I couldn’t think ahead more than a few hours. I just lived for the moment, like a recovering alcoholic, one day at a time.
I continue to do so, I think. It seems the safest way, in these crazy uncertain times, with roadmaps and variants and insane government decisions. I’m double vaccinated now, so I’m as safe as I can be, but the invisible threat of the virus and the suffocating, choking cruelty of the glass lungs it causes continue to dog my thoughts. I shan’t be doing any socialising any time soon.
To be honest, I don’t feel like I’ll ever want to socialise again. My circle of friends is small, I’ve never been a great keeper of friends, and once I found Steve, he was all I needed. We just loved being together, all of the time, and didn’t need anyone else’s company. Both of us could do a good job of being sociable, he more than me, but we were never happier than when we were alone together, at home. And now I’m alone, at home, and he’s gone. Just typing the words makes me hold my breath.
My shoulders are tense and tight, all the time, unless I consciously make myself relax them. What has happened to me happens to countless thousands of people every year, how on earth did I not realise that so many people are walking around weighed down by the invisible leaden heaviness of being left behind, trying to live without the person who made life worth living?
I miss him so, so much. He was my best friend. My absolute best friend. The person who loved me so much. He knew me completely, as I did him – we saw each other in a way nobody had ever seen me, nor I them. It was such a wonderful, wonderful thing to be known and seen and adored. He didn’t proclaim it publicly, not until we married last year – but that was ok. He had reasons for being circumspect about how he felt about me to the rest of the world.
But I knew, with a knowing that was instant and ancient and visceral and unquestioning, I knew he loved me utterly, as I did him. He used to describe us as one entity split into two beings – I am you, and you are me. I got that, it described how I felt too. We had grown and entwined ourselves into one, over the years, but from the start, we had recognised ourselves in each other.
Seven months have passed. Seven months since my heart was ripped from my body and broken into a million pieces. I try, now and then, to remember that last, precious, irreplaceable hour as he lay dying. I remember that I knew at the time that I needed to try and etch everything in my mind so I would remember, but of course I have forgotten much. I held his hand and didn’t let go, not for a second, I remember that.
I remember that I played him his favourite piece of music using my phone, so that he would have it in his mind as he approached the precipice of death. The theme tune from ‘Out of Africa’. He couldn’t watch the film without crying; when he heard the music, it always made him cry. He spent his early years in Africa, and the film and the music resonated with those early memories of the sunshine and sounds and scents and languages of his childhood.
I chose the track to play when his coffin was carried into his funeral ceremony, and I have heard it only twice since then. It played on the radio as I walked into the living room on my 60th birthday, after being made to wait at the foot of the stairs by my daughters, just I had used to make them wait when they were young. The second time was 6 months to the day after he died; it came on the radio just as we were about to leave the house to go to the woods to visit his grave.
Both times, I cried. We all cried.
I remember telling him how incredible he was, how happy he made me, how much I loved him, how much he was loved by so many people, what a wonderful, wonderful man he was. I remember asking him if he had any regrets, and how he shook his head. I remember him looking up towards the corner of the room and me asking him if he could see someone there and him nodding, and me asking if it was his parents, and him nodding again, and me telling him that they had come to get him, their golden boy, and that it was ok to go with them.
I remember me telling him that he had the heart of a lion, and that he was the best and the bravest person I had ever known. I remember telling him he had to promise to be there for me when I died, and that he must try and let me know if he was still with me and around me after he had gone. I remember telling him that he could let go now, that he didn’t need to keep struggling, that everything would be ok, that I would be ok, that his children would be ok. I remember just trying to surround him with love.
And I remember the moment when he went. The moment that my gorgeous man died in front of me. The moment that he was gone, and his empty shell of a body lay where a millisecond before he had been. That moment will stay with me for the rest of my life.
I’ve often tried to go over that hour in my mind, hoping I will remember more. There must have been so much more, I talked and talked to him for an hour, between the nurses leaving us alone, and me opening the door and asking someone to come in and verify that he had died. I know there’s so much I have forgotten. One of the first times I really let myself go back to that hour and try and really think back to what I said and how it felt was just a few days after his funeral, three weeks exactly after he had died.
I was walking the dog, thinking and thinking and trying so hard to remember. It was November, and there were leaves on the ground. I remembered the bit of me telling him he had the heart of a lion as I walked, and AT THAT EXACT MOMENT, as I thought that thought, there in front of me, laying in the leaves on the path, was a toy plastic lion.
I picked him up and brought him home and he has sat in front of the photo of Steve and me on our wedding day ever since.
There have been a lot of things that have happened since Steve died. Call them coincidences if you will, but I’m not so sure. White feathers litter my path when I’m walking and thinking about him – where do they all come from? I was walking on the golf course one evening, thinking, of course, about him, and there was one white feather after another on the grass. I said out loud, ‘I’m sick of these bloody white feathers all the time’ and instantly, as clear as a bell, I heard Steve’s voice in my head, saying ‘I gave you a f***ing lion for f***s sake – what more do you want?’ Laughing out loud on your own could easily be taken as a sign of madness, but I stood and laughed and laughed that night.
Are these the signs I asked for? I don’t know. I think they might be, but I don’t know. The one person who I would be talking to about whether I was making myself believe in something that didn’t exist is gone, so I’m left wondering on my own. Nobody knows the answer to this existential question. My thoughts go round and round – where are you? WHERE ARE YOU???
Ultimately, it doesn’t make any difference. He is gone. I am here. I have lost him. I have to be me without him. I don’t know how to do that, but I just have to keep going. One day, I’ll work out who I am now.
I have commissioned a memorial for his grave. It has a carving of a lion, standing on top of the plaque, which has a Swahili phrase on it.
In the film Out of Africa, a love story like no other, the lions come to lay on Denys’s grave.
It feels like the circle has come complete.
When I die I want your hands on my eyes:
I want the light and the wheat of your beloved hands
to pass their freshness over me one more time
to feel the smoothness that changed my destiny.
I want you to live while I wait for you, asleep,
I want for your ears to go on hearing the wind,
for you to smell the sea that we loved together
and for you to go on walking the sand where we walked.
I want for what I love to go on living
and as for you I loved you and sang you above everything,
for that, go on flowering, flowery one,
So that you reach all that my love orders for you,
so that my shadow passes through your hair,
so that they know by this the reason for my song.