Waves, Wounds and then Scars

When you think about it, or have a reason to think about it, like I have, there’s been a lot written about grief and loss.

It gets a healthy return when you Google it or when you search on Amazon, as I did, in the early days, for books about grief. It’s a shame that an Amazon search pings you straight to the self-help section and misses out the pain expressing poetry. They’ll invent an algorithm for that at some point, I’m sure.

What I’ve learnt from ‘After’, is there’s a ton of misconceptions, clichés and supposed ‘tried and tested’ models for grief. It’s surprising really, when you think how close grief and loss is to, well, everyone, at some point or another. You’d have thought there was at least a definitive guide. A Shakespeare, a Bible, or a Koran of Grief. The best seller. The publisher’s cash cow that coins it in.

I searched in the heady, sleepless, aching, bleary-eyed early days of After, and, don’t get me wrong, I ordered and downloaded my fair share on Amazon Prime.

(As an aside, there’s a pale purple covered, standard issue book called ‘Information for the bereaved: murder or manslaughter’, written and published by the Criminal Justice System.  It was handed to us by Cagney in Week 1 – ‘you might find bits useful, at some point.’ Cagney said. It’s available exclusively from your FLO. You can’t get it on Amazon, sorry.)

So, in the midst of this searching, of my attempts to grasp onto something, some intangible, unbearable way of understanding, comes a FB message from a friend (soon to be a close friend). A quote, from a link. For me, this, quite simply, hit the nail on the head. It’s the dogs bollocks. From Day One, til now, long After, as the night rain pours outside the window of our quiet family home.

The story goes that someone posted a message on a web forum “My friend just died. I don’t know what to do.” And a reply came through. Not particularly well-worded, succinct, poetic or even well considered. Yet it’s heartfelt, honest analogy of ‘waves and scars’ shines through.

‘‘My scars are a testament to the love and the relationship that I had for and with that person. Scars are a testament to life.  And the scar tissue is stronger than the original flesh ever was.

As for grief, you’ll find it comes in waves. When the ship is first wrecked, you’re drowning, with wreckage all around you.

In the beginning, the waves are 100 feet tall and crash over you without mercy. After a while, maybe weeks, maybe months, you’ll find the waves are still 100 feet tall, but they come further apart. When they come, they still crash all over you and wipe you out.

Take it from an old guy. The waves never stop coming, and somehow you don’t really want them to. You learn that you’ll survive them.

And in between waves, there is life.’’

http://www.tickld.com/x/old-man-explains-death-and-life-to-grieving-young-man

Now, After losing Izzy and Beth, may I be so bold as to expand a little on ‘scars and waves’.

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Beth swimming, 20 February 2016

Wounds come before scars

Scars are formed from once open wounds. Without a wound, you don’t get a scar.

When a wound is inflicted, it’s shocking and red raw. You’re hit as much by the agony, as by adrenaline. Shock, confusion, disbelief, especially when it’s out of the blue, sudden, decisive, incisive, sharp.

And it’s then,  when the wound is inflicted and you look down at it and see the flesh open in front of you, that you experience your first ice cold, vital wave of grief. There’s no warning of course. No rhythm or reason for the first tidal wave of shocking, freezing cold water of unexpected, emotional dissonance that hits you square on, full on.

It’s not as though you’re stood there at a sea front or something, staring languidly into the horizon, when a wave comes in and you think, ‘ah well, to be expected really’. No, grief waves hit you hard and hardest when you least expect them. The first feels the worst, but they don’t go away, trust me.

The waves come, one after another. Each time a wave hits you, the bitter, salty water smacks against the rawest of your wound and opens it up again, just when you thought it might be beginning to heal, to close over, to whiten and soften into a scar.   But every time a wave comes it stings as raw and as callous as the first day the wound was inflicted – the first violent stab, the angry slash that unexpectedly and inexplicably sliced you open.

But wounds heal with time, right?

I’m sorry, no. I don’t want to lull you into a false sense of security, or into some Hollywood/Bollywood ending.

Sure, wounds soften and whiten and cells combine again and skin grows over, replaced by new, paler, skin with the telling signs of a gentle itch and flesh loses its red rawness.

Eventually wounds turn to scars.

But salty, icy waves still smack you and push at your scars as they try to heal. And the scar feels as though its ready and willing to open up again as fresh as the first ever day.

And you look down at yourself and you see your wounds slowly, slowly becoming scars. They are there, always, a constant reminder of the cause of the pain that was inflicted upon you.

‘Look…’, you pull up you sleeve, you lift up your shirt, ‘Here’s my scars. Where’s yours?’

“And in between waves, there is life.”

Promise

Hi.

I know, I know, sorry, I’ve not properly talked. Just, well, I find it hard, you know what I’m like.

Just a quick one really, to say hi.

And well, to say, I promise to write my conversation with you both. Soon, promise. Hope you understand – it’s not an easy thing for me to do. I know you’ll have a few choice words for me. Haha.

So look, little finger promise. I’ll do it.

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Last selfie, 25 February 2016

I know where you are Beth, so you first. Sos Iz, don’t get all sister competitive. Love you both.

So speak soon. Ok?

Promise. xx

The Thin Veneer (Not Completely There)

There’s telling signs, if truth be told. Scratch the surface and they’ll emerge. Signs and symptoms that reveal, on inspection, that, well, I’m not completely there.

There’s the mark of eczema on my right angle – hard to spot, I admit. It’s been there since Izzy and Beth died. Ignored at first, then red raw and soar, my GP gave me some cream. The cream keeps it at bay, but it’s there. Not going away. A stress sign of a mind and a being who’s well, not completely there.

There’s the momentary awkward pause when I meet new people or get to know people I don’t know so well. ‘You have kids?’ A stumble of past and present tenses, stuttered diction. A sign of confusion, a reaction of who to tell and who to not tell. Because it’s awkward to confront someone who’s well, not completely there.

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There’s then the moment when someone spots it. The stumble over a phrase or a mention of who I am in a presentation. I don’t see it, I don’t clock the fumble, the momentary pause, but, later, someone tells me that they did. They saw it. An open wound, not healed or even scarred, or tattooed. Still, a year and a half After, an open wound that reveals, in a split second that I’m, not completely there.

Then there’s the tears and the weeping, the stinging eyes and streaming nose in public. Full frontal, no holes bared. On the tube, in a car, walking along a street, at an event, sat at the back. And it goes unnoticed. No one looks up, no one notices there’s a person there, over there, that’s not completely there.

Underground Tidal Wave

After a night of fitful sleep, an early start and an important 9am pitch meeting, I was stood in a stale aired London underground carriage.

I balanced myself as evenly as I could, mindful these days more than ever of my posture and back. I consciously relaxed my shoulders. I was mildly aware I was thirsty and needed a gulp of water, but couldn’t be bothered to pull yesterday’s lukewarm water bottle from my bag on my back.

The carriage was quiet for mid week, mid morning. Plenty of vacant seats, but with only 2, maybe 3 stops max before I get off, I chose to stand. To think through the next meeting. Ahead of schedule, that was a good thing. Take the opportunity to call the office when I get overground, before heading to reception. Or maybe wait til I get to reception?

I glanced vacantly around the half empty carriage. I noticed the little girl first.

Odd, kids are back at school now. She was sat sideways leaning into her dad sat next to her. She must have been about 8 or 10 maybe. Her fair hair was tied loosely back and strands of her fringe framed a red, swollen eye and the early signs of a bruise on her cheek bone. She had two stickers on her lightweight raincoat, both announced to the world how brave she’d been at hospital today.

Her dad was sat slumped, comfortable, in a blue business suit and blue raincoat, its collar caught inside itself, as though he’d pulled it on nonchalantly or too quickly to straighten it. He loosely held onto a brown leather briefcase resting on the floor between his knees.

The scenario was simple enough. Girl gets into scrape at school, school phones dad, dad rushes from work, collects girl, takes her to hospital for a check-up. Nothing serious, a few tests, lights in her eyes, temperature taken, precautionary warnings and then released back into the world, adorned with both bravery stickers.

But it was the way they were talking that got me.

He sat looking forward, nodding, listening, she, sat on her side, facing him, looking intently at him, talking, telling him a story, the events of the day perhaps. It was like a conversation between two adults, rather than father and daughter. A mutual respect and comfortableness about them both, how they interacted and talked casually, easily. Relaxed in each other’s company, maybe their sharing of the scare of the scrape had brought them that bit closer still. A scrape they’d recall later in the day and later in life, a shared moment of anxiety turned to togetherness.

Then suddenly the carriage shook with a violent thundering crash as a tidal wave of water came flooding in from the adjourning carriage door, gushing in through the air vents, the weight of the water forcing open the main carriage doors. The ice cold salty water hit me from the side, smacking against my face and pushing me sideways as it replaced the stagnant underground air with murky, leaden liquid.

I lifted my head in a vain attempt to keep my head above the water and to prevent my tears, but to avail. I closed my eyes tight, my salted tears mixing in with the waves of icy, bitter water of memories and recall.

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On a mid morning Northern line tube to London Bridge, a middle-aged man was seen crying.

Bethy

I felt you last night.

I came looking for you. I had a shower upstairs and after, I waited for you. I sat in your room and waited for you. Willing you there. And then I cried.

Then later when we stumbled upon Rita Ora in the Live Lounge, you were laying on the green sofa asking ‘How old’s Rita Ora?’ and I said ’24.’ and you said ‘Cow.’ And we all laughed because you’re 24 too. And then I cried.

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Then a little later I tried to find Bladerunner in amongst the DVDs and I thought you might have ‘borrowed’ it. But I couldn’t ask you. And then I weep.

I felt you last night, Bethy.

Day One – Learning to Breathe

It wasn’t a usual Sunday by any standards, but we’d made a pact to ‘do things’ whilst Beth and Izzy were away.

What with the house empty, no commitments, no ties, no set Sunday routines for a while at least; we were set free to rediscover old things, to discover new hobbies, to find things to laugh about and tell them about when they came home – our tiny new life experiences to show we’d not just sat at home waiting for them to return.

Thus, we found ourselves at our inaugural Hot Yoga class. It’s what you do (please don’t judge).

Kited out in our black and grey fitness gear (nothing too tight mind) we found ourselves sat in a somewhat lukewarm room facing a wall length mirror – like a dance studio, but without the slender and the agile, instead, sat on mats with a handful of similarly attired hot yoga virgins.  We sat, with no under certain trepidation, in muted uncomfortable, shuffling stiff jointed silence as we collectively waiting for proceedings to begin.

The Hot Yoga tutor arrived – with a breezy ease, but with that edgy unease of a tutor with new students. She elegantly sat cross legged with her yoga shaped back to the wall mirror to start the class. My first thought: Why’s it not Hot? This is Hot Yoga, isn’t it? She started the class with an enthusiastic ‘hello!’ and an ice breaker (pardon the heating pun) exercise asking each one of us who we were and why we’d come.

So it began, in lukewarm lycra, and so it remained.  The temperature never rose beyond tepid for the next hour or so. It transpires your first Hot Yoga class is less about sweating and stretching, more about thinking and attuning yourself. The thermoset stays where it is, and you have think about your posture and positioning, think about your purpose in doing this and think about and practice your breathing. Lots of breathing.

Lots of talking about breathing, breathing in, breathing out. What’s happening to your chest as you breathe? Can you slow your breathes out? Can you extend your breathes in? Can you feel your lungs, your diaphragm, your posture changing?

And so it ended, with us rolling our mats away, swigging water, despite not being in the least bit thirsty, and leaving the Hot Yoga studio without a sweat mark to write home about. I, for one, I said in the car home, was not going back.

 

Roll forward 2 weeks.

The Phone Call. The phone call that marked Before and After.

(If you’re new to this laugh-a-minute grief blog please read  ‘An Accidental Soundtrack to Grief (Part 1)

A jolting shot in my chest.

Did my heart actually stop? The air was tangible, it always is in any confined space, more so in this stale Virgin train carriage, but now, it was closing in. Thinning, then thickening air. Rapid, shorter than usual breathes through my nose.

I shut down my Macbook.

Think. Think. THINK. Do, must do. Do. No, no, no no. Not true. Not true. No. Need to think, Now. Think. I close the foldaway beige plastic table. Do. Do. What? Call Maiya? Text? Shit, I don’t have her number. Ask Trace. Got her number. Blurred now. What? Some guy claims. ..it’s a mistake, obviously. No. No. Need air. Can’t sit. James? I need to text him.

And breathe.

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Izzy’s phone, Friday 26 February 2016, 03:25

And there it was. I needed to breathe. I needed to learn how to breathe again. I HAD to breathe. So I breathed in and gulped in air and I stood up. I packed my rucksack and managed to get myself out of the carriage. Somehow the vestibule seemed a more sensible place to be. Here at least I couldn’t be seen by commuters or fellow train travellers.

I breathed and I stood and I paced. I breathed in fresher, but not fresh air – Virgin train windows don’t open. I paced. I made a conscious effort to breathe, in, out, in, out. Deep as I could.

I needed to think. No. No. NO. No. Ripping, surging panic welling up inside my chest. I paced up and down the tiny space between the toilet door and the carriage door. I waited. I was waiting. I was trying to think. THINK. Breathe.

Plan, do. Cancel meetings. Text: I’m sorry I can’t make it, something’s come up, be in touch, DS.

No. No. NO. Move, shift from one foot to other. Breathe. Breathe.

At some point I remember standing on Platform 11C at Leeds train station waiting for the first train back. I still remember every time I’m there.

Think, THINK. No, no, NO. Need to speak to Maiya. I call Maiya. I speak. I have a blurred conversation. ‘No, I’ll deal with this Maiya. There’s been a mistake. Send me his number. There’s been a mistake.’

Text. ‘James, I’m David Squire the father of Beth and Izzy. It sounds like we need to talk! Can I call u on this number in half an hour plz? Best David.’ Send.

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Izzy’s phone, Friday 26 February 2016, 03:21

I don’t recall a single minute of the 40-50 minutes of the train back from Leeds to Sheffield. Yorkshire passed me by.

But at least I’d breathed. I must have breathed, because I got a call from Trace when I was walking across the concourse at Sheffield station. ‘The Police are here. They’ll pick you up. They don’t think you should drive.’

I got into Mario and I called James. I left a message on his phone. His UK phone. No good.

I ignored the Police’s advice. I drove Mario home.

And that was how After began.

 

An evening capital walk

I was walking. Walking along an average English capital street. A street that, over the years of business trips and overnight stays in boutique, then budget hotels had become surprising familiar to me. Me, a Northern boy, born and bred, familiar with the capital’s zones. Who’d have thought.

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It was late. Late-ish, but not that late. I’d had some decent wine. Hungarian, I think the waiter had said. I’d parted, with a heart-felt hug and a kiss, from my friend and supper companion. I was on my way back to my budget hotel.

I made an automated turn from the main vein, with its new red buses, its gliding Bentleys turning into side streets and its myriad of minimalist fixers, shabby commuter and wobbling Boris bikes navigating zoned-out office workers and post-shopping hipsters.

I crossed to a quieter street running parallel to the main vein. Quieter. Nicer. A couple sat on a pedestrianised, architect conceived marble feature bench. Actually, maybe they were late night workers, office cleaners, taking a break. I passed them, and then a frantic office worker brushed past me, late for the tube or a last train or a date.

Quieter now, quieter and still. A barrier divided the corporate sponsored paving stones from the old and now resurfaced, rediscovered cobbles of an ancient East End side street, once, no doubt a major thoroughfare.

Then I stopped and I stood still. And I looked at my feet.

And the cobbles softened, and I felt an unease, a loss of balance, as the cobbles started to melt like hot butter, leaving me standing but sinking into something soft and unstable. I felt noticeable layers through my trainers, like tree-rings denoting centuries of time, as my feet sank, lower, inch by inch, melting into the night-lit street.

There was no heat or smell, like molten iron being worked in a fire, no perceptible change in temperature in the late evening air. No physiological hint that the world was melting right under my feet.

I stood and swayed gently, trying to balance myself,  now ankle deep in the cobble stones.

I didn’t think to try to escape, to shift one foot and put my weight on the other, to pull that foot up and out, to plant it on firmer ground and to pull the other foot out.

No. There was something in my head and in the cool evening London air that said, no, let go. This is my fate. I’m sinking. Let me sink. I want to sink.

So I stood, my weight balanced evenly over both feet, as I slid lower, at an steady pace and with a steady heartbeat, into the layers of historical earth that lay under the cobblestones.

I closed my eyes.