Can you get a nice by-product from something horrible? You certainly can! But the conflicting emotions can sit uneasily on you.
Just before Christmas, some really good friends asked me over to their house on Boxing Day. I initially thought I was going to make an excuse – I couldn’t see any way I could better cope by going out on a day on which I traditionally stayed home – but I eventually relented and said yes.
Now this invitation may not sound particularly unusual; you might like to think friends would realise your situation on your first Christmas after you’ve lost your wife and offer you some company, but in fact circumstances made me see this another way, and that was because of several individual factors that made up an odd whole.
To explain: Firstly, the friends had initially been work colleagues who’d I’d worked with nearly 35 years earlier. In fact, I’d known them so long ago that they had visited my first wife and I at our then home on several occasions. You sometimes lose friends when you go through a divorce as people don’t like to feel they have to choose a side, these were decidedly ‘my’ friends though, and we stayed in touch over the years.
These friends had subsequently met Gail, but our friendship beyond that had evolved into one of those text, Facebook and Christmas card exchange type of relationships. In fact, I’d never visited the home they had shared for over 30 years and they’d never visited Gail and I in our last home of 16 years. Prior to July 2018 I’d be hard-pressed to say when we last saw each other.
Yet, after Gail died these friends kept in constant touch, offering support and condolences and, in one of those ironies that only strike you afterwards, made their first visit to Colchester when they attended Gail’s funeral. I wouldn’t have expected them to come nor would I have thought badly of them for a moment if they hadn’t attended (Funeral invitations tend to be open house), but they did take the time to support me and I was overwhelmed to see them.
Nevertheless, the fact remained that, had Gail been alive at Christmas 2018, there is absolutely no way we would have visited these friends nor would they have come to ours. Apart from a Christmas card and a possible Facebook post there would have been no communication at all. And that’s sad. Sad because I know we would have enjoyed each others company enormously and, certainly on our part, it would have been nice to spend some time with someone with an extended family who we barely saw. When you’re grieving you view these as wasted opportunities… Actually, wind that back – grieving has nothing to do with it barring forcing you to look at it in a different way – it is indubitably, a wasted opportunity.
In a parallel universe, one where Gail recovered, I know we would have certainly spent that Boxing Day at home on our own because that is what we did. You see, Gail and I were a particularly odd unit. Individually, Gail was always the life and soul, very gregarious, fun to be around and the type of person regarded as good company. I’m quieter, more reserved, but I like good conversation and I like to find out about people. Together though – and we know this because we were told – some people found us too close and intense. It’s hard to say why this was as we didn’t set out to create anything; it’ s just we continually sparked and bounced off each other in our own bubble – an odd couple – and some found it strangely intimidating.
But here I was on Boxing Day in South London playing card games and generally making merry with my friends, their four adult children and their respective partners and, though like most things tinged with sadness and regret, I thoroughly enjoyed myself and felt better for getting out. In fact – and here’s the rub – if I could eradicate the fact Gail wasn’t there to share it, then it might have been one of the more memorable and enjoyable Boxing Day’s I’ve ever had.
And there is is; that most unpalatable of facts. Asked about Boxing Day 2018, I can tell you what I was doing, who I was doing it with, how much I enjoyed it and how emotional it was. Ask about any other years and I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what happened or distinguish one from the other.
Perhaps this is what people mean when they talk about ‘moving on’? I’d say Gail and I had a good life and did most of what we wanted within our budget but grief has certainly made me feel the weight of lost opportunities – some I never knew I’d even lost!
Perhaps I’m overthinking this though – it wouldn’t be the first time! – missed opportunities are inevitable when you’re leading another life and others are bound to view an individual differently from a couple. Perhaps it’s more about making assumptions; not getting in touch with old friends because you think they may not want to hear from you when actually they would be only too pleased.
Probably, for sanity’s sake, it’s better to view this from another viewpoint and consider that it’s the staggering kindness of others when you’re going through torment that can really make you re-evaluate everything you thought you knew about people.