Sunday, 3 September 2017

This is how it is tonight

The nights are hard, but the nights before big days are hardest. Tonight I have put a child to bed excited to dream her last dreams as a seven year old: tomorrow she will wake for the first time as an eight. Many times tomorrow she will miss him here, but the excitement and novelty of a birthday will outride her emotional anxieties. There will be presents and pancakes, school giggles and attention. There is comfort in her joy, but beside there is a huge, yawning void, a space no ribbons can fill, a hole of the saddest kind growing each year in depth and intensity. She was five when he died and that was three years ago.

I stare into this hole alone; I cannot delight in these days. It is all too sad. He is not here to share with me the joy in our daughter being eight and everything that is eight. She is so different to the girl she was the last time he saw her and yet she is exactly the same. She is not mine, she is ours, and he is ours, yet he isn’t. Birthdays leave me numb, grateful for the rhythm of the routine, I fall in with the beat and I breathe and I move, I do everything in my power to make her feel as special as she is. I know how lucky we are to have her, this creation of ours, this extraordinary child and her extraordinary sister. I know she will wish on her birthday candles for her dad to come back. Will she still wish as hard as the magic in childhood fades with age? I feel the longing to have him here with us redouble each year.

Now I assemble the presents (drum pads, a Venus fly trap), and prepare for the pancakes (Nutella of course, and strawberries). But also now I share my sorrow with the darkness of this rainy night and say Keith, my love: I wish you were here.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

I spend a great deal of my day concentrating on what I have: my health, healthy children, a safe house and a degree of security. However the irony is that I have, until recently, lost sight of the things I have lost.

It is two years since we moved to Edinburgh, almost two years since Keith died: the full complexities of loss and grief are only now visible in their intricate patterns. I grieve greatly for a career I once had and also for the people who were in it. I suppose I grieve also for moments that have passed, this is probably a normal part of growing older, but the lens of loneliness I now inhabit can’t help but magnify the loss that I feel acutely through my core. It erodes some of the hope I have within me, bit by bit, slowly, every day.

I am well aware that some of this grief I feel has been self inflicted: I have withdrawn myself from circles of support (admittedly sometimes through need to leave a physical place) and I have misplaced a great deal of friendships along the way – we as a race can all be guilty of this, over time.

I also grieve greatly for the person I was. Perhaps we all do this, as we get older. It’s hard for me to separate the natural form of things from any other – I can’t tell how much of this is purely the wisdom I’ve accrued as I head into my late thirties. I’m a much more serious person that I think I have ever been. I used to believe I shone a small amount of light in a room, now I don’t think I do that any more. I feel more mineral than organic, I don’t want to dance either, and that is very sad. Recently my dreams have been filled with faces from the past. I wonder about these people, old friends from school, university, other lives. I wonder what they would think of me now. On holiday this summer I came to a great deal of peace accepting I am unlikely to be the person I always wanted to be, doing the things I always wanted to do. Again, is that because I am lonely and widowed, a single parent with the pain of my children on my shoulders? Or has it come from growing older, accepting really that dreams and hopes are for our children? My youngest daughter told me not too long ago she had forgotten what I look like when I smile.

Fortunately I have them, my children, my healthy sparkling children who can be the jewels and silk and colour in my life. They dance and sing and dream and demand of me every day to make me feel needed and wanted enough. Around us the Edinburgh festival is exploding with standardly riotous energy, it enfolds us in its dynamism and vigour and sweat. For now we will take in as much of it as we can, and enjoy absorbing the creativity of others. Right now the best way for us to survive is to be as much as we can in the moment, focusing on what we have, and how very lucky we are to have it.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Joy in sadness

Over the course of the Christmas break Lucy Penman, a wonderful friend of mine, wrote an incredibly touching newspaper column (see below) in which she said (of my year):

"She got on with it with infinite sadness but without moaning or complaining...I'm starting 2016 with Helen's example in mind".

I have a great deal of respect for Lucy and seeing in print her respect and understanding of my situation has been quite inspirational (and helpfully reassured me that yes, I do know who my friends are). 

I see melancholy around me everywhere. Life is packed to the brim with difficulty and disappointment, loss and suffering. What helps me, is accepting that sadness. I am in a sense fortunate - I know specifically where my sadness lies. This naturally constant, regular presence; I have accepted the sadness of Keith's death as part of me, as much as I have accepted the other losses in my life that have come with it (those of love, intimacy, affection, attention, company, of the father of my children...Lucy mentions my "high-flying career: well that has gone too and I miss it desperately). I am still, in my most private moments, torn to pieces by these losses, and have written much about them here. But yet I do know I have much: my beautiful daughters, my health, wonderful friends, a roof to live under, a joy in music and a thirst for adventure. Knowing I have these priceless things makes it so much easier to cope with the rest.

This world we live in wants us to believe we're special and we deserve better, well in my experience that's just not true. We're all each living our own individual stories, but remember: we're individuals like everyone else. None of us is different or special or unique, despite what much of the world (and social media) would have you think, and my problems are no worse than anyone else's when viewed from each individual's frame of reference. Accepting this has been very hard, and granted I had something of a catalyst, but it has helped me enormously. I won't complain about the daily tribulations of life because they are what they are and we all suffer them. What I will do is try to take the moments that put some sparkle on the tribulations and focus on those. (It's worth pointing out I will change things I don't like - if a problem is fixable, why not fix it?) So as much as the kids and the housework and the minutiae of daily living can be testing on a never ending cycle, all it takes is one of my girls asking me to 'put Ryan Adams on' to push the negative emotions aside and let the positive ones blast loudly from the speakers of my soul (and kitchen).

Thanks to Lucy for being the inspiration for this piece. May I take this opportunity to wish you all a very happy and peaceful New Year.

Helen X

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Notes from normality

My imagination has served me well over this past year. 

I imagine to escape, to push my sadness to happy. Rarely this year until now have I imagined Keith is still alive but recently I am doing it more and more. Christmas, I suppose. I imagine he is here to put his arms around me and tell me it's ok, it's going to be ok, that I'm doing a really good job, that the kids will be ok. Will they be OK? Right now they're not ok. I imagine him telling me about what he feels about everything, Gary Neville, Syria, Labour, us getting stuck at the top of the big wheel on a cold Saturday night. I imagine how proud he is of my girls learning Christmas songs on the keyboard, Florence reading, Darcey singing in the choir. I imagine how worried he is about them both, about Darcey's terrible anger, about the effectiveness or not of their counselling. I imagine his opinion on my choice of wallpaper, my haircut, my therapy, telling me to not be so hard on myself every time I fuck up with the kids. It is endless.

People tell me I need to move on. 

Then when that becomes too painful I push myself the other way to save my heart from breaking even further, into the grand realm of fantasy. It is a wonderful wonderful place. Music helps get me there. What if this song were written for me, if the singer is singing to me, because I am the
 reason for the song? It would be nice to mean something again. Can I be the centre of attention, the value, the other half. Christmas. The weight of it hangs heavy like the scent of cinnamon and cloves. The most wonderful time of the year, yes of course. Kids are ferociously excited, embracing my love of tinsel and fairy lights, but: what do you want for Christmas? I want Daddy. 

The New Year approaches and with it the need to keep going, planning, coping. Constant self help, assessment, introspection, analysis. An awful lot of work in progress. 

The girls get older. I will find further reserves of energy to adapt to their changing needs. Mummy I know you care but I don't feel cared for. I would feel more cared for if you smiled more. Why are you angry all of the time? What's for dinner?

When I do see beauty it is sharper than ever. The equal and opposite reaction to experiencing deep pain. There is so much beauty in the whole sense of the word. Acceptance and perspective are the grand words I continue to hold onto and take into 2016. Also integrity: the only colour is transparency. Truth, however difficult that may be. Time and life are too precious to flail around in superficiality. Life can be beautiful without filters. Reality may be sharper and more brutally exposed, but that delivers that word perspective again. Perspective brings depth, depth acts as a prism, splitting life into colours, and then you can see beauty. Try it; when it becomes too painful just take a hit of music and imagination. Those are the best filters.

For the record he would love my wallpaper.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015


Take a breath, take a deep breath, we are almost at eleven months and fast approaching the first anniversary of the day Keith died.

My anger is astonishing. Surprising and overwhelming. I am furious. Furious for me and for my kids. My eldest, seven and a half, suffering a desperately sad swell of emotion as she watched her sister turn six without her father there to see. 

I really really really really miss him

I really want him to come back

It's not fair that other people have a dad and we don't

It's so long ago since I saw him

There's nothing that can make me feel like he's here

There is nothing here that has been healed by time, it oppresses itself upon her, memories slipping, voices fading. There's no comfort to give so I cry on her shoulder, letting her turn the tables to look after me, bring me cuddly toys and glasses of water. She is less violent now, but more sad - am I supposed to choose which I prefer? She sees that the world has been thrown around the sun and we are back where it started, a year ago, in autumn, when the leaves were turning and we were wearing boots and scarves. She is worried what we might do on the day Keith died, she brings it up, not me. More able to grasp time now she is a year older. And I think, good grief, was she really only six? Her sadness makes me seethe, her childhood spoiled by this rotting event. This sort of sadness should never be present in a child. 

I am sick and I am angry as I move from one fog to the next. I am angry for the career and the people and the futures that I had and now haven't. The feeling that the edges of my character have been rubbed away so I lack definition or form. The pure unadulterated pain for my children and the ignorant, clumsy manner with which I manage it. I am sick of trying to see the bright side, the things I have and the ways, all the ways in which we could be worse off. I am given adjectives designed to flatter and empower, but I am not courageous or brave or strong. I am lost in a maze of discarded dreams and basic survival taking the path that opens up before me in the least courageous way possible. My eldest describes her anger as though she has flames in her throat; well mine are in every cell, burning low, dark, and constant.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015


I feel sick. I feel sick at the end of every day now, my digestive system battered by stress, my body the victim of unwanted change. There are internal and external signs, marks made and left as if to be read at a future date, like the rings of a tree trunk, a sort of physiological archaeology.  The sickness fuels the anger, the anger the sadness, and we are back forever in a position of working, working hard at fixing, solving, changing, just trying to make it all better.

I am taken by surprise by a photograph: of the past, before the cancer. And here now, I have my very own moment of stark clarity, that those moments, since forgotten, were of a time so foreign, so full of a joy, of minor tribulations and niggles and disagreements, so full of everything and nothing at the same time, and never, ever again, to feel as I felt in that photo.

The feeling that this is the southern most point, that the low can't be lower, that the daily fight through acres of this confronting pressure must get milder, that really there must be a corner soon, a lifting of something, a change that enables, an end to the sickness.

To look at my children, fighting their own dark and difficult fight. The eldest almost completely despondent, saved thankfully by the simplest of childlike pleasures: animals, paint, cartoons. The youngest fuelled by affection, soaking it through every pore, with a love for the world that can wash my heart clean.

But: there is a core around me and in me that is my concrete foundation. The people. Here, there, close, far. Some I know well, some barely at all; I am excited, about all of them, I can see hope in the future because of them, and I think we all have a place. No great complex expectations, only joyous, positive anticipation. I have realised some of my value. 

Because of my children and the people I will not wither. I would miss too much; and then, really, when all is said and done, quite what would have been the point of it all.