It’s just over a month now since Magteld went away. Thirty-eight days that have gone by in such a haze that I often suspect time has gone haywire. The house that the boys and I moved in to nine weeks ago is already packed with history: the two weeks we spent going back and forth to the hospice, the two weeks we lived here as a family and celebrated Euan’s birthday, and the last five weeks, when we’ve had to cope with the shock and aftermath of Magteld’s abrupt departure.
I say ‘went away’ in the absence of any more suitable words. She died, obviously, but that fails to cover the impact of her loss. The day she died, when the boys and I stood by her hospital bed and watched her take her last breaths, seems etched in history, already distant, like a picture in a school textbook. The frantic days afterwards, of arranging the cremation and writing and translating eulogies, and drinking prosecco in the sunshine in the back garden, in keeping with her last orders: all this too is locked away in the past. But in other ways she is still present. I still leave her half of the bed unoccupied; there are three dressing gowns hanging by the door (Magteld had a summer and a winter one) and drawers full of her clothes; her shoes lined up neatly on the floor, her jewellery in a box on her bedside cabinet, next to her iPad and the books she will never finish. None of it has had time to gather dust.
This staged withdrawal is in many ways the hardest thing to deal with. It defies reconciliation. A few weeks ago I chucked a punnet of mushrooms out of the fridge and realised I’d bought them the last time we went to the supermarket together. How did these mushrooms manage to last longer than my wife? I wondered as I flung them furiously into the bin. Every time I call a bank or a utility company or a government office to tell them what’s happened I come off the phone dazed and exhausted by the sheer effort of articulating the words: she died. I tick boxes marked ‘one-parent family’ and ‘widowed’ and shove the papers in the envelope in haste, before the grief becomes endemic.
It’s commonly observed that death is not an event but a process. Like an earthquake: there is the immediate impact, the chaos and disruption, followed by a long, grinding process of recovery. Grief is always there, lapping at the shoreline and occasionally breaking through in waves before retreating just as quickly. The need to let go clashes with the urge to resist anything that offers proof of finality: I cannot entirely banish the absurd idea that I should keep her possessions in order, ready for the day when she strolls back in the door, a bemused smile on her face, and asks: “Where did you think I’d gone?”
The first things to go were the last to arrive: the wheelchair and Zimmer frame she was given just before leaving Glasgow, which meant that, curiously, nobody who knew her in Scotland ever saw her in the chair, while those who met her during her short time in The Hague had never seen her out of it. Only a month earlier we had gone to Edinburgh, for our copper wedding anniversary, and walked for nearly two miles through the city’s crooked streets. Hard as it might sound, I hated her disability. I despised what the cancer had reduced her to so swiftly: a cracked caricature of a healthy young woman who couldn’t get out of bed or use the toilet without assistance. And I can say it because she hated it too, and our shared loathing mutated into some fearful rows. On the first night she stayed in our house – Magteld’s house, the gorgeous, spacious apartment she found for us – we woke in the middle of the night and fought like cat and dog. It escalated to the point that she started hitting me with her arms, by now so crippled by cancer that she couldn’t raise them above the elbow. I remember the desperate, awful, pathetic (in the true sense) slaps, but I can’t for the life of me remember what the argument was about, and that only deepens my shame. Is this the start of the process of forgetting? And is that why I find it so hard to say goodbye to her clothes and shoes?
I came across a book lately: Klaas ten Holt’s The Complete Widower, by a Dutch newspaper columnist who lost his wife to cancer and wrote about the aftermath. (You could call it fate: I call it the human instinct to seek order in chaos. But let’s not quibble: the important thing is I bought it.) In one of the first entries Ten Holt describes how he has to fight the urge to call up the first woman he can think of “in the hope that she’ll stay with me and keep me from this debilitating loneliness”. I was reassured by that, because all through Magteld’s illness, and especially in the days after she died, I often felt like jumping into the arms of the nearest female friend and pleading with her to take me away from all this horror. And I can see how that could be misinterpreted. Even now that I know she will never again complete the other half of our bed, it feels like a betrayal. Even though she said to me, a few months before she died, that I deserved to be loved. Yes, really: my dying wife, in her final months, was trying to ease the pain of living. That’s another reason why I can never replace her.