I heard the knock at the door at 4:33 in the morning, struggling to lumber down the unfamiliar stairs I went to open it, wearing sleep, carefully negotiating a very pregnant bump and a foggy sense of purpose; I knew I should be hurrying, but I stood and gathered myself for what was on the other side.
My husband, the adult.
That sounds ridiculous, he was 29 when I left his side earlier the evening before, and he was only a mere eight hours older now. He was so different; stood next to his father and brother – both the younger men were flanking their father and guiding him into the home he knew so well. As though guiding a blind man into an unfamiliar place for the first time.
‘Why are you here?’ As soon as I said it, I knew why, it was written over all three men’s faces and I could barely believe my stupidity.
‘She’s gone.’ My husband, spokesperson.
‘But it’s too soon…’ Again, I wanted to kick myself. In all our years together it’s usually he who speaks insensitively, without thinking. Obviously it was too soon; every doctor we’d spoken to in the last six months had said this and in the quiet horror written on my father in law’s face – it was abundantly clear – the worst had happened.
A few months previous to this dark November, pre-dawn morning, I was sat on a bench a mere 20 feet from that front door, with a woman I didn’t know I was going to lose. We’d had a lovely July day me and her. We’d rested, we’d had a short walk to the doctor’s office. We’d manoeuvred her awkward leg, I’d remembered her PIN number when she’d forgotten, whilst at the checkout in the shop she’d managed to get to for the first time in what felt like a long time. It was late afternoon, my son played on the sunny lawn with a child’s golf set, we watched, quietly observing under a fluffy blanket which was shared over our knees.
‘I’ve not got a good feeling about all this. I don’t think it’s going to be ok.’
‘Don’t say that… you’ve made so much progress in these last few weeks! Your strength is good, your walking is improving – you’re doing so well!’
‘It’s not right though, I’m not right, I just know it.’
And with that, a creeping sense of doom arrived in the pit of my stomach and stayed. It grew, like the cancer she was unknowingly battling against. It grew until it consumed me, threatened to suffocate all of us until that dark November morning when it detonated, white, burning horror in the back of my throat decimating our previous life. There would always be before. And now everything is after.
They say time heals, the first year is the hardest; that grief is different for everyone – but sometimes I feel like that’s rubbish, complete nonsense. It doesn’t heal, time dulls. It makes the heart feel less raw, but it doesn’t heal. No new sensation replaces the gaping hole, the chasm left behind by the one who is no longer around. My father in law survived the first year quite well, with the dogged determination to honour his beloved wife in coping, proving he could do it, milestone after milestone… and grief affects everyone in the same way – it’s awful; just awful.
Only four weeks after my husband lost his mum, he welcomed a daughter into the world. In his new adult form, he held my hand and spoke for me, comforted me, laughed with me, to get me through that 34 hour endurance test. Like her Grandma left this world, our little girl arrived quietly, without drama in a dimly lit room witnessed by a kindly midwife who had arrived for shift just 30 minutes earlier. Our girl was noisy, despite her demure entrance. She screamed the place down for the first 30 minutes of her life.
Those photos of those first few hours haunt me. Looking in on that quiet time again, where we rejoiced her safe arrival, named her and wept over the significance of our choice. The kindly midwife sat and rocked our daughter to sleep, while for the first time, my husband poured out the details and horror of the last 6 months. He told her, from start to finish – that first seizure, which we feared was a stroke. The rehabilitation, the hope, the repeat seizures, the return visits to hospital, the shrugged shoulders, the waiting. The death of a darling grandmother in the middle of the chaos. Silently and gracefully leaving us, bowing out and leaving a hole that no amount of cups of tea and exquisite pastry could fill. Then there were the family days, the planning of the wedding of the brother he adores, the laughter, the ‘sorting out’ of everyone before the inevitable, painful – no that’s not the right word – gut wrenching, agonising, bile tasting news, that brought us to where we were at that moment.
She sat and listened to him, patiently and respectfully taking in the tragedy of a family she’d never met. It was the first time I’d heard him tell the story. Looking in on my own life and hearing my usually shy and reserved husband share such personal details, I felt as though I barely knew what he’d gone through. The worry about how his Dad was going to cope, about how he was going to cope himself. The fears of missing supporting his Dad if I had had the baby early, the worry about being away from me, in case I needed him, the worry of missing the birth of his daughter. The grief poured out of him and seemed to empty him.
He stayed like that for a while. Going through the motions; work, nappies, family, stories, visits… relentless. But over time, things started to creep up on him. A funny remark from our son, a smile from our daughter, an evening out with friends. He stopped hiding his grief with vacant smiles and remarks about the weather and instead, he wore it. He talked about his Mum while maintaining eye contact. He laughed properly, yet gave himself days to feel dreadful. He put his soul into his children and they soaked it up like a sponge.
What emerged from that tiny baby whose arrival marked the ‘after’ of losing his Mum, was a girl who had fun written on her face from day one. A mischievous glint, never far away, this girl was sent to heal the lot of us.
She still does.