A story of grief by a man and a boy
In June 1997 a journalist called Mary Schmich published a column in the Chicago Tribune entitled ‘Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young‘. I was at university when the column started being circulated. If my memory serves me correctly someone gave me a printed copy; at the time email wasn’t that mainstream and Facebook hadn’t even been invented yet. Two years after the article was first published it became the basis for a well known music single called ‘Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)’ by Baz Luhrmann. Over the years I’ve forgotten all but five of the words Schmich wrote: ‘Keep your old love letters’. For some reason they always stayed with me, and, since the first time I read her article, I remember finding it really difficult to let go of any letters, notes, cards or silly scribblings given to me by any of my friends and loved ones.
I’ve got a box full of memories that I reach for whenever I want to remember happy times gone by. There are letters (remember them?) my best friends wrote me to keep in touch when I was at university in Spain; drunken notes scrawled on nights out, which feature little drawings to illustrate jokes that were told; letters from old employers; lovingly written cards from my parents; crudely written cards from my pals; autographs from celebrities I’ve met through work ranging from David Beckham (he needs to introduction) to Suzanne Shaw (she was in Hear’Say); and love letters, silly notes and every single birthday, Christmas, anniversary and Valentine’s Day card that my wife, Desreen, ever gave me.
At her funeral last November the vicar who married us spoke of a card that he had received from Desreen just weeks before her death. She didn’t send it for any particular reason other than to let him know how the three of us were getting on. She did this kind of thing often. My grandma would call to thank me for a card that I had no idea had been sent. On one occasion she even ordered a courier to hand deliver me a Valentine’s Day card, which depicted an intimate lesbian embrace. She loved to show people that she cared but what she liked even more was to make them laugh. And I spent the eight years we were together in stitches.
This morning I decided to take a little look through my box of memories and came across the last Christmas card she ever gave me. When I looked inside it a part of me felt like she was back in the room. She had a big personality and she had a knack for showing it through everything she did, from decorating our home to writing a short note. In just twenty-five words she managed to display her love, her humour, her optimism and her playful nature. It made me miss her so much but it also made me realise how important it is to make and safeguard great memories. There’s something about the power and depth of the considered written word over its often rushed electronic equivalent. I’ll display that final Christmas card from my wife every year for the rest of my life but I’m unlikely to hang an email she sent me on the wall.
On Friday night I completed the final edit of my forthcoming book. During the process of writing it, which has seen me live life in a heavy haze of grief, I’ve been really rather dismissive of the whole thing. I’ve seen both the blog and the book as little more than reactions of my own grief, almost things that just needed to be done for the sake of my son’s future understanding of what has gone on. But giving myself the time to think deeply about Desreen today made me realise that the book runs much deeper than that. Without even realising it at the time, I suppose I’ve been able to safeguard another set of memories that Jackson and I can revisit for the rest of our lives. Of course some of them will be tough to return to, but having read through the copy again, which I appear to have written almost unconsciously over the past year, I now appreciate that so much of it is a love letter to my wife. She left so many behind for me and I now I find myself honoured to be able to return the gesture in her memory.