A story of grief by a man and a boy
‘Make sure you look after yourself too’, people keep telling me.
Perhaps it’s something I’ve never really done all that well. Sure, I exercise and I eat more healthily than lots of people my age, but I’ve always been a person who preferred to look after others. I’m what you might call me ‘a pleaser’.
So I’m probably finding it difficult to look after myself because I’m no longer looking after Desreen. I’ve suddenly realised that she was the driving force behind our well-being. Her optimism, enthusiasm and determination to make us both the the best versions of ourselves possible, made quinoa taste good. It made us enjoy drinking white leaf tea, which has no flavour. It made me get out of bed at 6am to make hot water with lemon to kick start our digestive systems, make smoothies from scratch and prepare breakfast and lunch for us both, because we couldn’t buy the kind of food we should be eating by work. All things that would make my body feel better right now but that don’t make sense without my wife. Things that sometimes knocked me sick but that I could still stomach because, without even knowing it at the time, every mouthful was taken with love.
But looking after myself the way I once did comes with no sense of reward. No one marvels at my ability to turn organic almonds into lactose free ‘milk’ and it simply can’t be worth doing that kind of shit without the promise of a prize. I don’t even get the guarantee of a good wedding at the end of my liquid-based miracles.
But the rewards I used to receive were never spoken nor spent, they were simply given. The brush of a arm as she would lean in to steal something from the chopping board. The unnecessary but unavoidable urge to squeeze me into the kitchen units as she walked past (as if our kitchen only accommodated the width of one person). A kiss out of nowhere. Bumping into one another in a rush but then taking the time to slow things down for a hug.
All gone now.
This only really occurred to me last week. Doubtless intimacy sounds like the most obvious outcome of the loss of a wife, but when your brain protects your mental state by only issuing this trickle of understanding a little at a time, it can take ‘obvious’ a while to catch up.
It came as someone innocently and perhaps accidentally brushed my arm. It sent a shiver down my spine. I realised that I hadn’t been touched for months. Hugged, yes. Smothered in kisses by my son, constantly. But brushed or bumped without apology in the way only the person with whom you share your life, your body may, no. My head finally told my heart it was over.
Yesterday I decided I’d try to look after myself. I booked a massage, mostly just to force me to lie down for an hour without any distractions. The truth is I can’t really stand it when strangers poke and prod me, but I’d pay almost anything for a little rest right now.
But I left feeling nothing. No sense of relief. No sense of release. The emotional and psychical pain didn’t shift from what my wife would have called, ‘a good rub down’, a cheeky grin spread across her face.
As I lay on the table in the middle of a softly lit room, I fell asleep. I’d usually have paid attention to the technique so I could practice it on my wife, but with no point I just let myself go under. It was such a light sleep that I couldn’t decide if I was dreaming or speaking. I kept almost apologising to the masseuse for talking too much about my feelings and then realising it was unlikely I’d reveal so much to someone who I’d never met, at least not in person. It also struck me that even if I had, I wasn’t actually sorry, just very British.
But the light dreams were so hard on my soul even the most gifted hands couldn’t have softened the soreness.
Suddenly, lying on that table relaxed in an unfamiliar room and covered in towels, I was Desreen the last time I ever saw her, shrouded in the chapel of rest. I talked through a thousand feelings without actually saying a word. I left in silence.
And then, turning from alternative to retail therapy, I realised that this lost intimacy and sense of personal reward has also stolen my ability to reach even the most simple judgments. Holding a jacket I would usually have just bought with little thought, I was paralysed by indecision, wondering whether my wife would approve.
This is something that is happening more and more. Would she have chosen this or that? What would she do?
Reality tells me her approval has never been less relevant than it is now, ‘yet still never more so’, says my heart.