A young widowed father opening up about living with loss
This is a guest post by Anya Hayes
Anya first got in touch with me after seeing my son in the park with his grandmother. She recognised him from his pictures on the blog and wanted to say hello. She told me about how her best friend had died some years ago under horrific circumstances, which sounded all too familiar. ‘Do you know my friend Hannah by any chance?’ I asked her, positive that I’d heard her heartbreaking story before. It turned out that I had. We chatted over email some more and Anya, a Pilates instructor and writer, invited me to practice with her to help with my London Marathon training. Some weeks later I was talking to one of my wife’s best friends and she told me that she practiced Pilates near to where I live. ‘Your instructor isn’t called Anya, is she?’ I asked – our paths had crossed again. It wasn’t until some time later that it struck me that they had both lost a best friend without even knowing that about each other. In this guest post Anya talks about losing her best friend, Zoë.
Zoë was my best friend from school, and was – is – one of my favourite people in my life. She was part of my formative life times, my sidekick through embarrassments and awkward traumas of late teens and early 20s, my confidante and my partner in crime.
When we were about 21, we encountered the roadblock that happens to many best friends – we fancied the same boy. The fact that he seemed to like each of us equally, as if we were the same person, brought forth a period when I felt that I needed to break away from what we called the ‘Zoë and Anya monster’. I had no separate identity away from my best friend/Siamese twin; Zoë-and-Anya, Anya-and-Zoë. So I briefly began to pull back from her, going to nights out without asking her along, maintaining a bit of silence in between communication. I felt I needed to carve myself a unique me away from her, rather than feeling that maybe Zoë was a cooler, more fun version of me and that I would always be eclipsed by her shining light. And when she died, this seemed like a peculiarly decadent and foolish thing to have ever done, as now I am forever without her.
Zoë died in a sudden and strange way, in a DIY accident in her house in Brixton. It was 5th November 2004, Bonfire Night, an evening for frivolities, socialising and fireworks. On this particular Friday night, we were each separately having a dull evening in on our own. I was watching crappy TV while Zoë had decided to make some home improvements. What if I had just suggested going round and keeping her company? What if I had simply called her and distracted her from the task in hand with a long proper chat, with laughs and life musings (I remember once at university we broke all records by being on the phone for nearly 3 hours)? What if…? Zoë was wearing a floaty scarf, as she often used to do, and didn’t think to remove it before picking up her drill. Her scarf got caught up in the drill bit and what followed happened far too quickly for her to change the outcome.
I’ll never forget finding out that she had died, the exact moment frozen in time. Zoë’s phone was misplaced in the melee of her boyfriend tragically discovering what had happened when he got home that night. Because of this a lot of us didn’t find out what had happened until the Monday when everyone’s numbers had been tracked down, in a domino trail of horrific news. A mutual school friend emailed me at work, simply saying, ‘Call me when you get this email.’ She was a lawyer who never ever had time to email or chat at work, so a shiver of premonition of some sort of bad news ran through me. I had to go into a regular Monday morning meeting, though, so I put the shiver to one side and carried on with my normal life for the last time. I called her when I got back to my desk. She matter of factly said, without preamble, ‘Um… Zoë has died.’ I swallowed the words, replayed the oblique sentence a couple of times in my head, and spoke the only response that finally arrived in my brain: ‘You’re joking?’ There was nothing else to say. You can’t be serious. Zoë can’t have died, that’s ridiculous. What the f*ck??!!?
The next few days and weeks were a complete blur, which sounds so clichéd, but there is no better way of describing it. It’s sort of like walking knee-deep through sticky treacly mud. A hazy bubble of meeting friends and hunkering down with Zoë’s family, of offering comfort to each other, of tears, of drinking, of utter disbelief. I remember mostly being numbed by this total disbelief for a long time. Being in situations such as on the bus or tube and looking at all the commuters around me and the general hubbub of London life and thinking, It’s so EASY to be alive. All of these people are alive without any problem. How can Zoë not be alive any more? How is it possible, in an instant, for a whole life to be gone?
She’s still 28, but we’ve all long-since had our 30th birthday parties and travelled well along the road to the next major milestone. Weddings and babies have been had. My life is completely different now; there is so much that Zoë doesn’t know. I imagine sitting down with her in our favourite pub and catching her up on the last nine years. I visualise her dramatic intakes of breath, woops of delight and clapping of hands at the various parts of the narrative that unfolded after she left. I often wonder what her take would be on various things that have happened; I imagine her input on my life decisions. She once told me that my craving for sushi when hungover was absolutely appropriate because ‘Jesus and the government would advise that you to eat fish to make you feel better.’ I miss those sage pearls of wisdom in my life.
Zoë was the only person I knew out of our contemporaries who was doing exactly what she wanted to do with her life before she died. Three years earlier, she left her humdrum job and decided to go back to art school to study costume design. She became a student in London again at 25 years old, when everyone else’s careers were burgeoning and money had begun to be a major deciding factor in life’s twists and turns. It had a huge impact on her finances and friendships, but it was something that she was brilliant at and loved, and that she finally had the courage to jump in and commit to. She graduated the summer before she died, with a beautifully impressive final show at Wimbledon School of Art. She had projects in the offing and a sparkly spring in her step. When she died, I consciously decided to channel my ‘inner Zoë’ from then on, to try to create some positive force to move forward with. I had an epiphany at a yoga and Pilates retreat in Thailand. I decided to train as a Pilates teacher and follow a passion, as she had. And that, happily, is now my job. It’s a bugger that Zoë never got to know how hugely and positively she influenced that life change for me.
Grief is like a forest fire: it sears through you, razes you to the ground, alters your landscape forever. In my experience, the rawness of losing someone close disappears with time – the intensity of grief goes away and is dulled, almost like layers of snow softly piling on top of it, waiting to be thawed in an instant by a memory, an image, a scent. A new landscape inevitably emerges, the irrevocable force of life continuing.
Zoë’s still a very big influence on my life; she’s still present in her absence. I probably talk about her more than is considered ‘normal’ nine years on since her death. There are moments where I feel like Zoë is the only person who would totally get what I was thinking or laughing about. I miss her joyful cackle, her fun that used to so easily rub off on me, her empathy and her memory. There must be a hundred memories of our friendship that have escaped me but that she would easily be able to recount – she was uncanny, scary in her ability to remember absolutely everything, even down to the most irrelevant of anecdotes. I miss the ‘Anya and Zoë monster’.
On the morning of the day Zoë died, I witnessed an accident where a boy ran into the road and was hit by a car (the mum in me shudders all the more now at the thought). On the bus on my way to work I sent Zoë and a few others a text saying ‘Just saw a boy hit by a car. Take care of yourself, you’re very special to me.’ Those were actually the last words that she heard from me. She responded later that morning: ‘Oh no hope you’re OK poor boy lots of love speak soon xxx.’ I was busy at work and thought I’d get a chance to reply or give her a call later. Sadly I never made the time.