Grief is cyclical, I keep reading. The first year is the worst, a succession of broken milestones – the first birthday without her, the first anniversary without her, the first Christmas… and so on. But it doesn’t come in cycles so much as waves, building up on the horizon before crashing and surging towards you, leaving you breathless and disoriented.
The hardest emotion to deal with in the beginning was not anguish or grief, but relief. The fear that had been my companion for a year and a half was suddenly gone. The night Magteld died was the first time in months that I managed a full night’s sleep. I had come to dread every twitch and murmur from the other side of the bed, fearing it would be the start of the end. The last weeks of her life were a blur of mundane chores: making breakfast, pouring water, fetching medication, lifting her into the wheelchair, lifting her out of the wheelchair, helping her into the bathroom. Getting up three times a night to fetch water, or medicines, or the pear ice-creams that she devoured, a dozen a day, to soothe her throat. And all the time that lurking awareness that this was the better option.
The relief I felt on waking that morning dissolved into guilt, which aggravated the sense of devastation. The end had come, suddenly and violently, yet I was still here, and the boys were sleeping upstairs, and life just went on, on a kind of autopilot: wake up, coffee, breakfast, school, a bit of shopping, a bit of typing, a bit of TV (it helped that the World Cup was on), a sketchy thought now and again in the direction of work.
After a while I noticed people were drifting back to their old lives. Their work, their friends and their families. It was good to watch them find solace in their familiar routines. But at the same time I was deeply, madly jealous, because that option was closed to me. My old life was Magteld. I couldn’t go back to it. I had to somehow devise a new one, even though I barely had the energy to plan a trip to the supermarket. Her illness had given me a premonition of old age: the frailty, the fear, the exhaustion, the experience of witnessing someone’s strength and vitality ebb away. Cancer had enslaved us. But her absence triggered a devastating sense of isolation. If I’d felt helpless before, it was nothing compared to the looming vortex that threatened to sweep me away now.
A few weeks later I was taking some packing boxes out to the recycling bins. I’d almost finished feeding the crushed cardboard into the container when an elderly man appeared beside me in a rage. He spluttered that the bin I was using was a private container he shared with the local hardware store, and not for general use. As I stammered an apology, he wagged his finger and accused me of deliberately flouting the rules. I picked my dignity off the floor, hauled the cardboard out of the container and took it home.
At first I was baffled and enraged. But as I thought about it, I started to understand the old man’s point of view. I knew what it was like to sit indoors for hours on end, wrestling with mortality, feeling misunderstood, isolated and vulnerable. I realised how daunting it must be to watch the world go by and know that it is totally oblivious to your pain. And feeling at the same time the terror of succumbing to it. To hear in the echo of every footstep the dread that someone might come along tomorrow and decide I could no longer cope. How easy it must be to fall into a downward spiral of bitterness and hostility, where every encounter with a stranger is weighed in terms of its potential to humiliate you.
David Attenborough once said old age is not for cissies. I believe him. It’s not a pretty place that we’re all heading for. After reflecting on this, I went to the florist around the corner and bought the old man a plant as a neighbourly gesture. I included a note with a brief but polite apology. The next morning the doorbell rang. It was the old man, wearing a warm, effusive smile that transformed him. It was only then that I realised I had acted out of solidarity. We were, after all, both single men in the second half of life, trying to keep one step ahead of fate.