An evening of many tears, and much shaking, and this:

Until he died I didn’t realise he was mortal.

I did, of course, know that at some point he would die. I expected – with nine years between us – to be the one left alone. But I associated ‘mortality’ with age and that, in my mind, was so far ahead of us that it had no real weight.

Now it has a weight, a heft, that is dragging me down. I feel it; any sense of lightness has gone. Mortality has become a leaden anchor on my life. (Others have known this before me; I needed to learn it for myself.)

That doesn’t – not for me, not yet – make life more precious. What it makes it is more serious, more important, heavier. I was told early on that the petty would fall away. That’s my growing experience. I’m no Romantic, so I won’t savour thoughts of heavier death to intensify my experience of life, won’t crush its grape against my palate for wine. Nor will I chant, as a medieval Christian, that in the midst of life we are in death. But I can understand why both, weightily, importantly, have been said.

(Pic is Regent’s Park in tonight’s dusk.)

I’ve been thinking about bravery and about curiosity – the former because I’m more in need of it than I ever have been; the latter because it was a characteristic of Matthew’s. I started off musing on them separately. I’m now convinced they are two sides of the same coin.

There will be some among you who immediately comment that I am brave. Thank you. But in many ways I’m not. I endure. I stand up and go on again. Both of those have an element of bravery. But my sort of bravery tends to be dependent on closing my emotions down, putting my guard up, getting all my defence mechanisms in place – and then stepping out into the cold, hard world. That mode of bravery is at the expense of what therapists have repeatedly encouraged me to call self-compassion; it can also be at the expense of taking joy in life. There are reasons for that behaviour on my part, and those are not the point. The point is that my particular pattern only takes me so far.

Matthew had less of the push-on-regardless type of bravery than I do. What he had in abundance (what spurred him on) was curiosity – a willingness to open himself to the world, a delight in new people, new places, new thoughts, new experiences. His curiosity could be infuriating: he had to look at every single restaurant menu in a new town before deciding on a place to eat; he tried to read every book review, and hoarded unread literary magazines for years in case there might be something in them he didn’t want to miss. But his curiosity was a fount of enjoyment and a revelling in the richness of the world.

Just today my world does not feel rich or warm. I am deep in the post-adrenal crash that was – apparently – inevitable given what I succeeded in getting through between August and November. I don’t regret how I got through that period. I’m proud of the services we put together for Matthew, and every ounce of energy it took to honour him was worth it a thousand times. But it came at a cost, and I’m paying it now. (Maybe also it is the cost of love.)

There’s a way out of this place which I’ve taken many times before. That way is to stand up as soon as I can stand, and to move forwards whatever it takes. I will need to do some of that. But it will be easier if as I stand and move I am aware of the richness of the world around me, if I absorb the kindness coming my way, if I’m curious about what life is bringing, and if I see novelty as I go. With curiosity about myself more compassion may come as well.

That’s the goal. But in the meantime here is Matthew on a summer evening in Salzburg, taking an inordinate amount of time to order, because he was reading the whole of the wine list, line by line.

In the first days and weeks after Matthew died I wrote down memories of him obsessively, terrified they were already fading, desperately trying to hold onto all of him and knowing that so much was already lost. I wrote down turns of phrase, physical habits, the sound of his voice in different contexts, how he and I spoke to each other when no-one else was around. I wrote what his forehead and lips felt like when I kissed him when he was alive, and also after he was dead.

I’m glad I wrote down all of that, and I will come back to those pages in time. But at the moment they are too painful to touch. I’m too scared of my emotions to open up those files. More comforting currently is the smooth-edged monumental picture of Matthew which we created through the memorial service, a picture not of untrue perfection, but one nonetheless necessarily simplified and consciously shaped. That was the nature of the setting and a consequence of merely three merely seven-minute tributes; but it was also a long way from the messiness of a whole life.

I’ve listened to that service over and over again. It is rich, and it is grand, and it is also not just about Matthew but about everyone who was there, and about all the other people who were not there but whom Matthew touched over twenty-five years of teaching and forty-eight of life. It is a preservation, as though in amber, of all we could fit in of his life. Unlike my memories, that recording will hold its detail, and it is also at a level of intimacy which my emotions can currently bear.

As it happens, Matthew regularly wore a pair of amber cuff links, given to him by one of his closest friends. The same friend gave me an amber bracelet for my birthday on Wednesday. I’m wearing it for the first time today.

There was an initial phase of grief in which I was cocooned from the world. I could cry whenever my eyes welled up, curl up wherever my limbs started to curl. In that phase I wore Matthew’s clothes and spent time with his body. My own body was in shock. A small core of people fed me and took me for walks and organised to get Matthew home.

The first opening up came when we held the funeral. That was a shift from five people around me to fifty. The sense of love was enormous. The grief was different too. I swung between numbness and a despair that came with wailing. But I had more control than in the first few days.

Exactly a month after Matthew died I went back to work. I have cried in the office, but only once or twice. Mostly I’m not consciously holding back tears. Mostly working is a distraction. I do not forget for a moment that Matthew is dead, but there are other questions pulling at my brain as well. I’ve been in the office more than my doctor wanted, so that I didn’t have to be on my own.

Now at nearly ten weeks there is an underlying sadness to everything I do, but I’m largely back in my old weekday routines. That is, I am capable of turning up in person everywhere I am meant to turn up. Except in therapy sessions the wailing has gone. Instead the physicality is back. I’m feeling sudden grasps of my breath when I think I’m going to die and a physical pain in my chest as though my heart has stopped.

It’s the memorial service on Monday. The orders of service have gone to print. I don’t know who will be able to make it, or how I will feel. I do know that somehow we’ll get through.

There is, unsurprisingly, a progression in grief. At its most basic it is a progression in time: it is one day since he died, a week, a month. Tomorrow it will be seven weeks. (That means incidentally that seven weeks ago today my darling Matthew was still alive and driving towards a dinner with friends in Chamonix, and that is knowledge almost too much to bear.)

So time. Through its progression the edges of my grief are softening. I do not believe that. My grief still feels raw. (I know that other people’s does as well.) But – looking objectively – I am not crying as much as I was in those first days. I am sleeping better, able to concentrate more, can do more over the course of a day.

That softening is kindly. Time has a cruelty as well. Time makes events recede, takes Matthew away from me into the past (forces me, with guilt, to walk away from him into the future). On 1st September I was in a month that Matthew did not get the chance to see. The season now has changed: this autumn will never see him, nor the coming winter, nor the spring.

And time is brushing away as well at my memories. As early as day one I was scared I was forgetting him. Kind people told me I wasn’t, that I’d never forget him, that I couldn’t. ‘He’ll always be with you,’ they said, and they were right.

But I was right as well. Because with every passing minute, hour, day, week Matthew is less clear in my mind. What ‘remembering’ meant to me in those first days, what the remembering I yearned for was, was the ability to recall him so vividly in every one of my senses that it was as though he was standing there in the room, laughing, putting his arms around me, making plans for the next day. That was what I wanted and already on day one it was impossible. I wanted a level of remembering that allowed me to deny reality. I still want that. And every day as my senses are not reprimed by his presence the vividness of my memory is getting further away. I want him back. He’s not coming back. In that sense there’s no more to say.

But I ran the park run this morning (he would have loved that); had brunch with friends (he would have done that as well); and today I’ll read and write and see more friends, and time will continue its softening and its blurring in tandem. That’s it. That’s the way it goes.

A few years ago as part of my post-breakdown recovery I deliberately tested my ability to build helpful new neural networks which improved my mood. The exercise I used was this: every time I stepped onto a Tube platform (usually several times a day), I looked at when the train was due and if it was approaching told myself I was grateful not to have to wait, and if there was a wait told myself I was grateful to have time to get the the right place on the platform. After about a month that thinking became automatic, and since then I have not got stressed while waiting on the Tube; the gratitude pops up automatically, regardless of the situation. I then extended it to other situations, and that was what made my life get better. But above all it was an exercise in changing automatic thoughts.

Since Matthew died I observe my brain going through an analogous process. I think automatically of him every few minutes, and for the first days that is all my brain did. But now each mini Matthew thought is followed by another automatic thought that says he’s dead. That’s not a deliberate practice, but it’s real. At some point the ‘must tell Matthew’ thoughts will arrive simultaneously with the knowledge he is dead, and later still they will be preceded by that awareness, will arrive already coloured by that irreversible fact. I’m dreading that day. Unfortunately this one’s not under my control. So I’m trying deliberately to add gratitude thoughts to the chain: Matthew would like to know that – and he’s dead – and I’m so grateful for all the time that I had with him.

I’m wondering how I feel about mountains having lost eight friends in the Himalaya in May and now my darling beloved Matthew as well as the consequence of a climbing accident.

A mountaineer friend experienced in death as well as climbing said to me back in July that the mountains give more than they ever take. I told Matthew that and he strongly agreed.

But now as a simple equation that statement doesn’t work. Matthew was (is) my central point, my tether to the world as I know it, and having that torn away changes everything. The worst thing that could possibly have happened to me has happened. How can the mountains, much though he loved them, still give more than they take?

And yet.

I was in the hills on Tuesday and found them beautiful, vast, solid, reassuring. I walked in the Alps in the days after Matthew’s death and there was joy in the height, the views, the sense of physical exertion. Today I’ve been to the climbing wall for the first time and still, as before, I find the concentration hard climbing requires distracts my brain from this catastrophe even if only briefly.

So the plan is to keep my fitness up, to keep hard-earned finger strength, to continue to train muscle memory for technique, and, when the time is right, to be back in the mountains not just to walk, run and ski, but also in due course to climb. And then to see whether or not it’s what I want.

Not the best of weeks

I tell myself it’s like being California. Being relaxed sunny California hit by an earthquake. There’s little or no warning. The subterranean shift is catastrophic. There is shaking and destruction for an initial few hours; then a brief pause in which I hope it is over. There are the aftershocks that come in waves, but which slowly settle to mere wobbles. Eventually the rubble is still, help has arrived, and the wearying, depressing, hopeful rebuilding can begin.

Somehow an external metaphor helps.

Last week was a really good one. One of the best in my seven years post-breakdown. All was going well: work, relationships, energy levels, happiness, writing.

Then suddenly it wasn’t. Continue reading “Not the best of weeks”

My Perfect Feminist Storm

I’m late to the party on feminism. Obviously I’ve never believed in inequality. Of course I’ve always nominally been a feminist. Yet only this week have I realised that by being born a woman I’m on the losing side of life. (Yes, I know I have other privileges.)

It’s taken me thirty-eight years. I simply haven’t seen it till now.

Largely because I avoided the issue.

In my teens I was apart from the crowd, too deep in depression to be part of the feminine stereotypes that went with being sixteen. And academically I was way ahead of both girls and boys; there was no sense that boys had it easier. Continue reading “My Perfect Feminist Storm”