Stepping backwards, walking forwards

Stepping backwards

So much of this grieving thing is about stepping backwards. Retracing your steps and revisiting old, familiar ground. Recalling your previously, well-trodden paths. Its focus is ‘what was’, what had been, your shared past, your memories. Whether triggered knowingly or spontaneously, either way, they spark a light that hurtingly illuminates the past.

In the olden days, before smart phones camera uploads and grieve blogs, someone like me would have sat down with shoe boxes filled with brightly coloured envelopes, each containing a set of 24 or 36 glossy 4×6 inch photos, bundled together like little memory banks, clinging to each other’s glossy front, in a block of about half a centimetre deep. This little wad would always be accompanied by a set of print negatives, machine cut into rows of 4 or 5 and gathered together in a little sub-envelope flap, in case you ever wanted reprints. And inside these little envelopes would be the bombshells of ‘what was’.

Back Before, I came home one day to find Beth had taken it upon herself to rummage through our unordered shoe box of family photos. She’d selected her preference of 4×6 prints from its randomised archive and carefully placed a timeline of her shared childhood into 2 large red photo albums. It must have taken her all day, pulling out the photos memories, selecting the ones that resonated and carefully sliding them into the little see-through plastic sleeves of the photo albums.

Instead of being pleased with her, I was annoyed with her. This was something I was planning to do myself, eventually, when I had time. And I felt like she’d picked the pictures of our family story that she wanted to tell. Despite the fact I would have done exactly the same, but from my point of view. Eventually, when I’d gotten around to it.

(I didn’t get around to it, and still haven’t. Her choices of photos sit neatly bound in the 2 red folders on our cellar head bookshelf, with the remainder of the prints still laying where they were first put, in shoe boxes, to sort out later.)

Another time, a few months After, a friend offered to send a video he had of Izzy when she was little. She was playing with his daughter in their back garden, I think he said. I instantly, hopefully politely, declined. The thought of her back then was not what I wanted to know right now. I’d only spoken to her last week, on another Facetime catch-up. I wanted to hold onto this so recent past-  her blurry face on my phone, the sound of her energetic voice, her 19-year-old self. I wasn’t ready to look back at her distant childhood past.

This is looking back. This is normal grieving. This is par for the course.

 

Walking forwards

What’s harder, much harder, is when you walk forwards, knowing that they would have, should have been there, walking with you.

Today we’re at a wedding reception in a local golf club pavilion, for local people. Each chair is covered in white elasticated cloth and adorned with a blue satin sash tied in a bow around its back. A dodgy looking covers band are setting up their instruments and sound checking for the later evening’s dancing.  A handful of little kids, overly dressed, spin unsteadily and jiggle in silly circles to the background music. The room begins to fill as evening invite guests start to arrive and form a lengthy queue at the bar.

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The problem is, Izzy should have, would have been here. After all, it’s her friend Marie who’s getting married today. It’s Izzy’s equestrian life that’s made this happen. She’s the reason we know the people sat around us, cracking jokes and fooling around in our scrubbed-up finery, drinking Gin and Tonics in the afternoon.

These are her steps that she would have made. She is her future I’m standing on.

Earlier, she’d have been hogging the bathroom and taking ages to do her hair. She’d have been in the cab with us to the registry office, checking the time. She’d have been mingling with the glammed-up guests and been clapping overly loudly and whooping in the ceremony. She’d have clinked a glass of bubbly at the golf club pavilion and got embarrassed again about me talking to her friends. She’d have dragged me and her mum to the photo booth for silly pictures. She’d have written something touching and funny in the wedding book. She’d have suggested it was time we got a cab home.

It’s times like this I find it really hard to live in the moment and be in the present and to not keep thinking ‘she should be here’, ‘she would have been here’, but that she isn’t. By my rights, she should be here, looking glamorous, laughing out loud, circling the room to talk to as many people as possible. She should be 22 now, not forever 19.

And it’s times like this I realise I’m walking her steps for her, filling the space in this world she should have filled. I’m living and breathing her future, but without her.

 

I feel Guilty when I feel Happiness

With the finger and thumb of my right hand, I unwind the white nylon thread, twisting and releasing it from the brass hook that holds the tension. After 3 or 4 turns, the string unleashes itself and sizzles up, letting the cloth window blind come tumbling down.

It’s just got dark outside.

Autumn daylight’s style is being held back by Winter’s coming nights. And the just descended blinds shield a little of the chill from the old wooden window frames, making our living room just a little bit warmer and cosier than moments before.

It’s an everyday, early evening Autumnal ritual, diligently carried out along the entirety of our bay-windowed street. Families battering down the hatches against the impending evening chill, feeling the warmth inside

As the blind descends, and I help it unfurl itself to the bottom, I stop. As I feel the warmth in the room already rising, I feel peaceful, restful. I stand, statue still for a moment. For just a moment.

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A Huskie Sledging Moment with Beth, Finland, January 2007

And I begin to sob.

I have to hold onto the window frame to steady myself, both arms outstretched. And I sob. It’s been brewing all day, it’s about time it came out. Brought on by this gentle, insignificant moment of warmth and security.

It’s about happiness, you see, and about my momentary glimpses of it. Happiness, like slits of light coming from an old, stubbornly shut window when it’s finally been pushed ajar to let in fresh air.

And so, this is my situation.

As soon as I get even a glimmer of a recognition of that feeling welling up inside me, that buzzy, weird sensation that starts somewhere in my lower abdomen or my intestines  (I was never good at biology, I barely scrapped a CSE pass) or wherever it is inside you that you feel ‘happiness’, as soon as I remember what that sensation is, I start to cry.

And right now, rendered motionless in front of our living window, stood behind the newly dropped blinds, a shadowy silhouette to passers-by, I feel… guilty.

I feel guilty.

As soon as I feel happy, as soon as I get even a glimpse of any kind of well-being washing over me, I immediately feel guilty. Like I shouldn’t. Like I’m not allowed.

It’s then I start to cry.

I’ve no idea if this is normal. Is this normal? I mean, come on, what actually IS normal? Maybe this is just a phase, a single thread in a wider, finely woven pattern? A phase, like in one of those lauded and well-circulated phases of grief, that I still wholeheartedly fail to relate to.

When did this start? Was it always there, from Day 1? Was it just that I didn’t ever feel happiness in the early days, After, to ever know what it was? Is it a step in some well known physiological process I’m not aware of? And if it is, what’s next? Is there a next?

All I know is, right now, when happiness happens upon me…when I find myself looking forward to something, when I laugh and lose myself in a joke, when I feel love, when I feel loved, when I smell dewy morning grass, when I see a crescent moon, when I’m aware of my step on soft ground, when I look in my loved ones’s eyes, when I happen to wake to see the sunrise in the window, when I glance up to see the daylight fading sky… I feel guilty.

It’s a feeling that jars, edges and pushes against this natural rush of happiness. It’s a sinking, aching, hurting sense, that I have no right, no right whatsoever, to be happy. No reason at all, none given, to be taken back to happiness.

As I write all this down, to try to explain, as I look at the words and revise them and reorder them, I know this is all stupid. Predictable. I’m obviously building up to a time when I’ll finally ‘let go’.

When I move to that scene in TV and films where grieving relatives release their loved one’s ashes over rivers and lakes, when a funeral pier burns and drifts into the ocean sunset. I’m supposed to be building up to the time when I get the courage to write my imagined ‘last conversation’ with them both. To when I can finally let them go and move on.

To some readers, it’s an achingly obvious realisation I’m sure.

You can’t grief forever.

You can’t. You’ll move on. Time heals.  It’s the same reaction, heartfelt I’m sure, from anyone who’s ever said to me ‘What would Izzy want?’, ‘What would Beth want?’.

‘Feelings welling up inside, making my soul come alive
And just a memory feels so heavenly, waking up inside of me.
We’ll get on the right track. We’ll get on the right track.

Take me back to happiness.
Take me back to happiness.’

Happiness by Crooked Man (2016)

Purple Rain, for sure.

‘I only wanted to see you…
Bathing in the purple rain’

It’s the refrain that gets me. The perpetual guitar refrain, the chord sequences, repeated over and over. I barely listen to the lyrics tbh.

I was well aware Beth would periodically plunder my CD collection.

It was either via a candid ‘Can I borrow this?’, usually when I was in the room at the same time, or more often when I’d find a disc missing, (as a former meticulous CD collector, I instinctively knew when one of my many was astray) or when I wanted to listen to something and she’d fess up and say  ‘ah, yes, think that’s in my room…’.

She was a squirreler of music, a hoarder of tunes. She’d hunt and gather from multiple sources, illegal download, dad’s CD collection, whatever. Decades didn’t define her collection, neither did musical genre. She liked what she liked, and she assembled and compiled it so.

For sure, I knew she listened to Prince and I knew she had a think for 80’s power ballads. But then, Before, it wasn’t like the tune was a thing for me and her (not like seeing Mr Hudson together many times or missing out on The XX in Leeds, because it was a Sunday night and I couldn’t be arsed). It didn’t resonate or resound. It wasn’t a thing, Before.

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But now, After, for sure it is.

Today, I’m in the gym, where I’ve not been for a while. In the middle of my ridiculous routine, over the communal speakers, the 80s playlist shifts to Purple Rain. It’s background music at first, and then, I dunno, a couple of minutes in, maybe more, an icy wave smacks my face. I have to stop what I’m doing, because I’m shuddering. I rest my hands on my knees and I close my eyes and well up. Refrain, refrain. It’s the refrain.

Maybe it’s the sadness and some kind of hope, combined. The Purple Rain of some adorable lost love. The bitter sweet nuance of something intimate, deeply human, that’s inexplicably gone awry and set adrift.

You know, the funniest thing is, when you’ve lost 2 kids, you have to do this all over again, for the other. There’s no ‘2 for the price of 1’.

But this one’s for you Bethy.  I miss you so much.

The Secret Life of a Zoo

From the single digit days well into the teens, there was a constant stream of people visiting the house.

During the day, it was anonymous, uniformed couriers arriving with signed-for or simply handed-over flowers. Our regular postie came twice a day, bearing envelopes of condolence. One day, as she delivered another bundle, she stopped and said, ‘I’m sorry’.

After work hours, it was friends, familiar or long lost, that would appear on the door step, shuffling awkwardly, bearing their flowers. Occasionally I’d be the one to open the door. They’d stand there, ashen-face, staring at me. Sometimes they’d remain in a state of fearful shock, or sometimes they’d burst into floods of tears.

And, in the first few days, in that first, news worthy weekend, it would be journalists who’d come knocking. ‘They understood, no really, they did really understand. They just wondered if we’d possibly like to talk. To make a statement’.

On Day 1, The Sun arrived home before I did.

The house began to well up with flowers. After the mantle and heath was filled, then the kitchen, even the hallway and stairs. Everywhere, in our Before tidy house, there were bundles of flowers. Every day, Trace’s closest friends would arrive with begged, stolen or borrowed vases and make careful arrangements of the old and add the new arrivals. We’d be handed the notes and cards that came attached to each.  Later, we put them all in a box. Saving them for? For later, I guess.

And as the flowers came into our lives, so our familiar family evening TV routine abruptly stopped.

We watched nothing. Nothing at all. In the days that turned to weeks (whilst I continued to count days) our TV sat, black and silent, in its corner.  Given it had been such the centre of attention, I’m sure it was sulking.

Over that first weekend we avoided the news completely, but not consciously. We just didn’t watch the news. Consequently, I have literally no idea of the media coverage that first weekend, Day 2 and 3, Saturday 27th February 2016 and Sunday 28th February 2016.

Then, one night, as the After days turned to double digits, someone picked up the dusty remote and put the TV on. Purely and simply to gain some glimmer, some semblance of normality.  After all, TV had been our family antiseptic to any day’s scrapes and scratches.

The problem was, as soon as the programme information faded, recalls and reminders flooded in. Every programme we watched was bathed in aching memories, each theme tune an incisive trigger for tears, for pangs of stomach-churning remembering. Of them both, sat on the sofa, with a TV supper or a takeaway. Of their yelps of laughter or grunts of dismay when they wanted to watch something else. Of their constant nattering and quips. Of their messaging whilst watching. ‘I AM watching! …What’d he say?’.

No one in our little extended cloud of a family of closest and newly found friends could stomach TV.  For me, it felt like I was, for a few precious, forgetful seconds, riding the crest of a wave that would then violently pull me under, making me grasp for air and gulp in salty sea water.

I suppose you’d call this ‘shock’. The immediate after effects of traumatic bereavement. One thing was for sure, I wasn’t ready for Saturday night primetime, for comedy quizzes or Sunday night costume dramas.

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Izzy’s photo of her last TV night in, 9th January 2016

Then one evening, whilst someone was casually flipping through channels of the never ending listings of agonising reminders, we happened upon ‘The Secret Life of the Zoo’.

It came with no memory recall. No heart aching triggers. It was new. It was about animals and people looking after animals. It was a quiet sort of programme, meandering gently between stories of zoo keepers and their care for their beloved creatures.

And so, we watched. We sat, we curled-up, a ragbag collection of numb bodies and fragile minds, stretched out on the living room floor or ensconced amongst sofa cushions. We watched in silence. We watched, glad that, for a few precious moments, we were somewhere else, somewhere that wasn’t here.

 

A Sleeping Dream

I found myself in a house, familiar yet strangely unfamiliar. Like a mash-up all of the houses I’ve ever lived in, rolled into one. The house was quiet. Seemingly unoccupied.

I wandered into the living room. I came across the abandoned debris of a TV dinner. I tidied up the dishes.

I walked upstairs into a study. A cross between my own house’s small study space and the larger attic room of my childhood – stretched out, combined, morphed into one.

Izzy came down the stairs from a room upstairs somewhere (I guess the attic rooms of Molly and Beth’s bedrooms) and joined me in the study. She was little, maybe 5 or 6. She was clutching an enlarged, elongated chocolate snack. Something like one of those chocolate assortments you get at Christmas.

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There, in the room, was the cream Habitat chair of my childhood. The same chair where, in a previous dream, Beth had sat, sowing and waiting.

‘Can I sleep here tonight?’ Izzy asked.

It seemed an odd request. Why would she want to sleep on a small chair that wasn’t even big enough to allow her to lie out. She’d have to sleep sat up.

Nevertheless I lifted her into the chair and sat her there. As I did so I asked her ‘Why?’

‘Because’ she replied ‘I’ll be closer to Beth.’

I pulled a duvet from somewhere and wrapped it around her, drowsy and snug.

Revisiting the Central Library, Sheffield

I was 20 years old, touching 21.

Back then, I had floppy, wavy hair, cut shorter at the back, left long and deliberately dishevelled at the front. It was the beginnings of a bob that I’d begin to grow out that Summer. In those heady days, I wore just one, solitary pair of battered, brown DM shoes, perpetually accompanied by baggy 501s. I favoured plain, loose fitting tee-shirts, under a creamy, beige oversized hoodie – bought once, worn a thousand times over.

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This year, this time, was the tail-end of my arts degree, of living and learning about life in Newcastle Upon Tyne. My degree was mostly practical (Izzy would call it a ‘mickey mouse degree’) but that, would occasionally, involve writing essays. These assignments were mostly on social theory and the arts, and we were actively encouraged to write about aspects of arts and culture that we felt, as young, politically and socially minded students were relevant. It was a time of ‘relevance’. It was, after all, the 80s.

This time, February/March 1988, it was the biggy – my end of third year dissertation. The culmination of at least a year of ‘community arts practice’ (don’t ask) and of three whole years spent on a degree when there were degrees that allowed you to soul search and find the references for what you thought was relevant. And when they were paid for by the Government.

However, stuck in my upon Tyne, Summerhill Terrace student house, I was perpetually, never-endingly cold. It was not proving a good place to sit and write. And the Newcastle Poly library just didn’t cut it for me (I now blame the brutalist 60s concrete for this cognitive dissonance). So I decided, in order to get the job done, to get this final furlong finished, and typed up by my mum, I needed to return home to Sheffield, for a few precious weeks of solitary confinement. The quiet suburbia of my family home and the loft room that, through my teenage years I called my own, would be the perfect place to put the damn dissertation to bed.

At first, I made progress, don’t get me wrong. I laid out all my research material on the floor around me. I organised and prioritised my reference papers and images (it was about photography, but again, let’s leave it at that). I scribbled pencil notes and I constructed my thinking. But, I had to admit, I found myself spending more time staring out of the loft room window, watching suburban life pass by beneath me, than clocking up the required word count.

So, one day, I gathered all my papers together and I caught the bus into town. I climbed the stone stairs of Sheffield’s central library on Surrey Street, found a seat at a large, communal table, and spread myself out.

The hushed aroma of book shelves and bound journals must have helped. The lofty ambitions of fellow students, alluding to the Victorian ceilings of the municipal library must also have helped. And the fact that I was in public, that I couldn’t put my feet up on the desk, or start drawing, or fidgeting , or yawning, also contributed, alot.

FYI, I got a First. We’re a family of Firsts. Izzy, as I made it clear to her, on numerous occasions, had a lot to live up to, as she started her degree.

And now, I’m 53, touching 54.

It’s February 2019, and I find myself again, needing a place to concentrate, needing somewhere to go to get the job done.

Now, I need to bring 3 years of thinking and rethinking, 3 years of ruminating, of intense researching, followed by months of stalling and avoiding. 3 years of deep, deep soul searching. 3 years of missing and longing and crying. 3 years, all to bear, on one solitary, well-rounded, rational, considered statement – preferably no more than a page of A4, ideally no more than 2.

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So later this week, I’m going to catch the bus into town again. I’m going to climb the stone stairs to Sheffield’s central library on Surrey Street, for the first time since I was 21.   I’ll pull out the beige folders wrapped with rubber bands, and lay out the evidence and the reports, some 200 odd pages.

And I’m going to fire up my Macbook, and I’m going to begin to write.

For Beth and Izzy, forever young.

This is Our Life Now (Christmas #3)

The heights and descents, the ebbs and  flows. The prints and negatives, the sunrise and fall.

The now everyday contradictions and the things I’m convinced I’ll cope with nicely.
The ‘No problems’, the ‘Nothing to see heres’.

These things often turn out to be,
The things that stab and jab and burn and land the hardest, splice the deepest.  They spike and surge and blister up. Opening cavernously, unexpectedly, unashamedly.

Like today’s tsunami, after an undetected under ocean volcanic eruption.
Rising from hidden ancient platonic plates, to cut and divide and devastate everyday lives.

I mean, after all, it’s only a quiet lunchtime drink with some of Izzy’s old school friends.
The ones that remain to this day, framed by her bedside, a group selfie lovingly encased, cherishingly placed.

And later in the day, a visit from her childhood friend, her Nandos and Nachos best buddy, now here with her beloved son and family in tow.

And as the midday breeze chills to an early evening Winter freeze,
I find that I can’t stop crying.

Every tiny, gentle gesture, every knowing expression, every familiar tone, every knowing glance. Every laughed at memory, every iPhone photo recall. Every overheard minor chord change and lyrical turn of phrase.

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These spark and ignite more salt water teardrops, bitter warm, running down my face.  I sit in Waitrose carpark, waiting, as Nick Cave sings to me.
My shivers and shudders turn to common cold like symptoms.
My bow strains, my frown forges, as my consciousness, still, near 3 years on, strives to make some sick sense of this.

Later, in the evening, alone in our PJs, half way up the stairs, Trace and I hold each other.

And she says, ‘This is our life now.’