On the morning of my late husband, Paul’s funeral, I was incredibly overwhelmed. This of course was to be expected, but it wasn’t because of the deep feeling of dread that had been cruelly inching its way up from the pit of my stomach lodging somewhere at the back of my throat. It was because, like every other day as the mother of four young children, I just had too much to do.
That Morning, I was running late, with everything. The service and the wake were meant to be held on the beach in Seattle just down the road from our house, but it had been pouring with rain and the forecast was even worse. I knew this meant that everyone would end up back at our house because it was big enough to accommodate the group.
Paul spent the last two weeks of his life at home with us, in a hospital bed set up in the living room. He always loved a good view, so in spite of the fact that he was completely unaware of his surroundings, there he was in the window overlooking The Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains. Painfully beautiful.
That Morning, the house was a mess and a crowd of people were imminent. On top of that I was still writing the eulogy, the children were hungry, all of the cereal bowls were in dirty piles in the sink or stacked on the countertop encrusted with hardened pasta from a previous dinner. Bills I was never going to be able to pay were spread all over the floor near boxes of unruly paperwork displaying numbers that mocked my future.
A day or two earlier the kids and I walked to the aptly named ‘Value Village’ for a shopping trip en masse to purchase pre-owned grieving garb with my newly acquired food stamp debit card. At the register I was told by a rude check out clerk at the top of her voice that ‘we don’t accept THAT kind of payment here’. Cue smirk and sideways glance at other customers. I tried to scrunch myself up into a little ball of widow-ness and roll out the door but instead made a flippant remark that embarrassed my oldest daughter. I wanted so badly to scream to my judgement committee ‘have you noticed that all of the clothes in this pile are black?’ But, I didn’t.
That Morning, my crumpled black bargains needed ironing. My three year old, not entirely sure of what was happening was struggling to put on her tights, my six year old had cut his own hair the day before and needed it to be evened out. When asked why, he said he just wanted to look like ‘a lawyer’ to match the receding hairline and occupation of his now deceased father, my ten year old needed a button sewn on his shirt and his trousers hemmed up and help with a poem he wanted to read at the service, my teenage daughter dreadfully burdened by the pain just needed so badly for me to be there for her, to listen, even when she wasn’t speaking.
Other family members were busy getting ready at their own houses. I was so tired. Inside and out. The emotional and physical toll hammered at my senses preventing me from thinking straight. I just couldn’t see how in the hell I was going to get it all done in time and what I really, really, really needed was for Paul to just walk through the door and help me get ready for his funeral.
Just to be clear, my multi-tasking skills are right up there. Spot on. Well worn. Top notch. I could do ten things at once long before it fell in and out of fashion. One finger on the pulse, nine fingers doing a bunch of other crap. In 1991, I was a copywriter and voice over artist for an American mid-Western cable television station. When our eldest daughter, Grace, was born, I took a short maternity leave and then she came to the studio with me until she was nine months old. She was strapped to the front of me while I recorded various commercials, her head inches from the microphone never making a peep (on the other hand, I had plenty of whingeing colleagues who clearly missed nap time on a regular basis). I was also working on my B.A. studying by the Mickey Mouse nightlight on the rare occasion that she decided to sleep.
By the time my second child, Will, came along, I was a weekly newspaper columnist and reporter for the Daily Chronicle in Dekalb, Illinois, a Chicago outpost. I worked mainly from home instructing the kids to use sign language for ‘blood’ or ‘fire’ so they could determine the right time to interrupt mommy while doing a phone interview. During that time I decided that it would be a real kick to take on an M.A., because hey I had nothing but time.
I continued writing my column after moving to London. While I was in labour with my third child, Nick, I wrote a column about writing a column while in labour (it was the only idea I could come up with in between contractions). By the time my fourth child, Belle, was born, I was carrying her in my teeth while home educating the other three children. When my fifth (I know, I know, somebody stop this woman) and youngest child, Charlie, was a baby, I was writing for a UK magazine, singing in a band, conducting a choir and the vocal coach for Felix’s School of Rock in London. I invested in a decent pair of ear defenders so he could come to work with me.
Back to That Morning. My juggling skills were frayed. Without Paul, I had to enlist the aid of my sisters, my parents, my Aunt, my brother-in-law, neighbours I barely knew and a preacher I had only just met. (I had already been visited by big-hearted friends and family who flew to my rescue from all over the world.) On the beach, speeches were made. Tears flowed. Arms clutched each other. He wasn’t there. When it was all over, a solitary, thunderous wind came out of nowhere roaring vigorously through the trees. We all looked at each other.
When I think of how much he has missed, I am engulfed with sadness. A lifetime has passed since his ended, abruptly, tragically. We were, the children and I, stunned.
I’ve missed the history we had between us, the funny little stories and private jokes, the sound of his voice, the feel of his hand in mine, the looks we exchanged when admiring one of the children, those special glances that parents give each other when they suddenly share a moment of overwhelming love and joy for the child they created together.
What he has missed is altogether different. The assumption is that the important occasions like births, weddings, birthdays, mother’s and father’s days are the tragic losses of the dearly departed and the sacred times when we mortals might catch a glimpse of their spirit. And, while I did have a very strong and very unexpected sense of him that day on the Seattle beach and one other time years later during our oldest daughter’s University graduation ceremony, my own experience is that the big events are well, rather uneventful when it comes to this issue.
What he has missed are the tiniest of moments, the barely notice-ables that are a fraction of themselves, singular in their existence, but collectively form a salient whole. The touch of a small hand, sticky fingers interlaced in mine, a wisp of fine hair across a soft cheek, the weight of a sleeping child heavy in my arms.
So many things went unnoticed before, in our old life, together. Bereavement heightened my senses. Many times over the last ten years I have quietly been in awe of exactly what I had, that he no longer did. His death made the details more visible.
They were there all along, these glorious nothings of my world. Tissues, Lego and socks on the floor. Wiping noses, bottoms, tears, and toothpaste out of the sink. Breaking up arguments. Chopping up veggies. Slicing up cheese. Worrying about money, worrying about the children, worrying about war, worrying about things I can change and things I can’t, worrying about worrying. Getting stuck in traffic. Homework, teacher meetings, packed lunches, the school run. Muddy shoes. Dirty sheets. Office politics. Being late for a meeting. Missing a deadline. Paper cuts. Stubbed toes. Broken glass. Broken promises. Broken hearts. Eating something delicious. Eating something disgusting. Drinking a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, a cup of Earl Grey tea, a glass of Shiraz. Leaving the fridge door open, the toilet seat up, the shower dripping, the lid to the milk off and the lights on. Ironing a shirt. Folding a towel. Wrapping a Christmas present. Smelling a flower. Having coffee with a friend. Dropping my phone. Losing my phone. Ringing my phone from another phone in an attempt to find my damn phone. Forgetting stuff. Remembering stuff.
This is what he has missed.
That Morning, I mistakenly, foolishly, optimistically assumed that Paul and I would begin a new supernatural, beyond-the-grave sort of existence, whereby I could ‘feel his presence’ as is always said. Over the years, I tried summoning him when I was raging with anger over his death, terrified at the future, desperately missing him, terribly sad for the grief I witnessed but could not repair in our children’s hearts, extremely pissed off at the rest of the world for seemingly, heartlessly carrying on with their lives as if the loss of his never made a ripple. I assumed that the love we shared would allow me special access to him. But, that was just not the case. I wondered over and over if the fleeting connections would be because our bond was so strong or because it was not strong enough to transcend death?
Mostly, I just felt that there was only one reality. He is simply ‘gone’.
We scattered his ashes on his beloved River Thames foreshore in London where he spent countless happy hours mudlarking, an amateur archaeologist with a remarkable eye for artefacts. After debating for ages, I carefully tipped out the essence of a man, my husband, their father. Immediately, the wind blew it back at us, little grey flecks on our hats and scarves.
Eight years after he died, I sat in a bright, white marquee watching my gorgeous oldest daughter graduate from University. It was a stormy day and as soon as we were all seated, the wind invited itself to the ceremony whipping around with fearless glee. Next to me was my second husband, Vinnie, his hand in mine as we beamed with pride. And then, like magic, the sound of the wind interrupted my thoughts and I suddenly felt Paul’s hand instead, markedly different, softer and rounder than Vin’s long, thin fingers. I stopped breathing. It was extraordinary.
He’s been gone for 3,652 days. 10 years. A decade. Quantifiable only as a specific measure of time that we all share exactly. But, to count the beautifully mundane everyday moments that constitute living would be like trying to capture the wind. Impossible.
Today while I write, a cool Australian Autumn breeze blows hard through the open window wrangling for my attention, slapping the palm tree leaves, jangling Paul's wind chime urn, displacing the papers on my desk, chilling my shoulders and warming my heart.