Saturday, 19 January 2008

An article on Grief

C J Edwards - 10th January 1991

It had been a mistake putting that mirror up in the office. Originally he'd put it there to check his hair when he came in in the morning. In the old days he couldn't have cared less about his hair. If it was a bit out of place people could take it or leave it, as they could take him or leave him. No doubt he'd check it some time during the morning when he went to the gents and until then 'people' could lump it. But this was not the old days. He needed the confidence boost that checking his hair in the mirror gave him each morning as he entered his office.
The problem was that there were occasions, and today had been one on them, when he caught a glimpse of himself in it as he crossed the office from his desk. As he did so there'd be a split second when he failed to recognize himself, when he thought 'who is that chap?' The realisation that it was him with grey in his beard and lines upon his face was always a bit stark, a real downer. OK, so he was now in his early forties but that was no excuse for the tired look in the depths of his eyes or for the extra few pounds of pressure he had to apply to errant face muscles to pull his mouth into a smile.

"You're never fully dressed without a smile" the Disc Jockey had been ramming home to the audience over the radio that morning. Well, hell, he thought -as he listened to the semi-moronic drivel that interspersed the news items -I guess I'm naked most days! It was easy to ascribe most of his fatigue and world-weariness to pain. And so he did on those occasions when the world caught him without his mask. After all, he was in pain from the moment he woke up (or more frequently was woken up by Junior) to when he finally subsided into unconsciousness late at night. Pain from a molar (one of his six surviving teeth) as the upper denture pressed on it; pain from gall stones which occasionally took an agonising stroll; pain from the migraine that made him bang his head against the wall; pain from a broken toe or absent kneecap. There was always something to supplement the over-riding pain from the unidentified neck problem which had made pain-killers his best friends for many years now. No, not pain-killers, he'd long since resolved not to call them that after concluding pain-relievers was more appropriate. "Not to be taken more frequently than every four hours and only eight a day." How he watched the clock. Damn, only two and a half hours since the last lot. Another hour and a half to go. Life was measured in four hour spans and if Junior kept him up at night there was the added problem of choosing whether to overdose that day or have one hell of an evening without them.

Pain could also take the fall for his irritability. "You must have the patience of Saint," said his secretary on hearing of another crashingly disturbed night thanks to his the two year old with an allergy to sleep. Tell that to my wife and son, he thought. They caught the brunt of the morning after's ranting and raving about being unable to tie his sons shoelaces. Numb fingers, a curious by-product of whatever the unidentified neck problem might be.

But if physical pain was an accomplice, an accessory before and after the fact, it wasn't the culprit. Deep down he knew the real pain was nothing muscular or nerve-related. It was what the Victorians would have quaintly described as a broken heart. He'd spent thirty-odd years wondering if he had the capacity to love as others loved, or seemed to. One failed marriage had left him a Saturday parent to two girls under eight and a Sunday son to parents in their seventies. When he found his Grandmother dead his lack of emotion only re-inforced his view that he was, to use a P G Wodehouse phrase, a 'cold sort of fish'.

He got used to the single life and its blessed freedoms whilst feeling guilty if he went for a leisurely drive on his own that he hadn't got the girls chattering in the back of the car or his parents (who liked nothing better than an hour in the country) sitting with him at the water's edge. Typical Libra - always wanting to please too many people too often and always failing to reach this impossible target.

Then, just to shatter the illusion of stability, he fell in love. A son was born. Money was a problem (maintenance being a one way street to a bottomless pit), the flat was a bit small for three... but as a whole God was in his Heaven and all was right with the World. At five weeks his son had an operation, a minor thing to the medical profession but a heart-stopping day or two to adoring parents. At eleven weeks and six days the doctors pronounced him fully recovered - "You've a fine healthy boy there" they told his wife at 11 am. By 2 pm he was on a life-support machine and by 8 pm he was another cot death statistic for the Liverpool Area Health Authority. 'In 1987 this butterfly outlived 1,530 apparently healthy babies' says the cot death poster on the wall. His son was one and gone.

The first year after David had died he kept a diary. A journal of a journey through grief, in grief, around grief, under grief but never over grief. A sort of A to Z of how to suffer.

The second year he'd stopped writing. Things were black but not so wet and sticky black as they had been. The urgency had gone from the search for either an answer or relief. By contrast his wife was drowning more in the second year where previously her head had been kept above the water by some raw instinct for survival. Another son, the sleepless Junior, was born before the first's anniversary. A joy to both his parents but the innocence of parenthood had dissipated long before his arrival. Every sneeze became a life-threatening illness in her eyes while he semi-symipathetically mocked her about it - then lay awake as she tossed and turned in enviable if unsatisfactory sleep. Should he be, or appear, so blase. Perhaps that sneeze, that cry, that cough was different to its predecessor, A baby monitor became best friend and constant bleeping companion.

Then into year three - another milestone along the track where every yard forced forward against the wind is countered by a foot back. The mountain summit, death, still seeming a long way off. Occasional writings satisfied his need to cry from the heart. A need hidden from all but a very few precious friends (and they bereft themselves) since day one when the generally expected and hoped for stiff upper lip of masculinity was applied with instant glue. Befriending newly-bereaved parents had become an ironic or perhaps logical outlet for the need to make something positive from life's experiences.

Into year four, and now he was nearly into year five. Such a long time, such a short time. And his general air and bearing lied to others about the normality of this happily married man with fine son, daughters to be proud of (every other week-end), big house, two cars, good job and a study full of books.

But the mirror doesn't lie

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