A Walk On The Wild Side

Today is the second anniversary of Gail’s passing and there’s little to add to what I’ve already written. I find these significant days are ones on which I need to do something life-affirming or something I’d maybe not do if Gail were here. Consequently, I find myself in a hotel in Cheddar, Somerset having climbed the 274 steps of Jacob’s Ladder and walked the Gorge Route; a not inconsiderable 4 mile walk with steep climbs and rough walking.

Walking and thinking are good for the soul, it seems and I stopped at one point, pulled up Spotify on my phone and played ‘Sign Your Name’ and ‘You To Me Are Everything’ while admiring the stunning view.

It’s OK. It seems to work for me. It takes the weight of the day and moves it elsewhere, and I’ve been sadder and more upset at other, completely random, times. But then again, grief can slap you round the head when you’re least expecting it.

So back in the hotel I though I’d tackle the long-delayed subject of my counselling which I spoke of in To Cut A Long Story Short  and Sweet Charity. It will give me something with which to mark the anniversary.

I think part of my reticence in speaking of this is the embarrassment of what eventually brought everything to a head and ended the sessions. As mentioned previously, I’d decided that if I was going to get anything out of this exercise, it made sense to pay to see the leading Psychotherapy Counsellor available. This Counsellor – let’s call her Sarah –  a leading advocate of psycho-dynamic therapy certainly wasn’t cheap and it was made clear to me at the start that ‘all sessions needed to be paid for’. This seemed reasonable enough but I did explain that as I had my own business it wasn’t always possible for me to attend every week, but I would give at least a week’s notice should I not be able to attend, a period mirrored by Sarah should she – as happened on several occasions – not be available.

Quite how the situation arose that caused the issues, I can’t say for certain but I know if Gail could read this she’d be astonished. She was long frustrated by the sight of me getting out my cheque book and the rattle of the printer as I ran off my bank statements “Oh no, it’s not that time again, is it?” she’d say before making plans to leave the house.

You see, I’m fastidious, in an obsessive compulsive way, about checking my bank balance against my cheque book ,and have been known to sit for hours ensuring that nothing had come out of my account I wasn’t aware of, often looking for a cheque stub error – always of my own making.

Now, this attention to unimportant details – not exactly re-arranging pillows on the bed but very close – was the very thing that was taking me to the Counsellor in the first place. When she was here, Gail would end my frustration with a simple ‘Come on Fanny*, put that  down / stop doing that, we’re going out” (* Her stock phrase for when I was ‘fannying about’) but, without Gail, I’d lost that driving force in my life and I was concerned at often finding myself not being able to leave the house, bogged down in some meaningless task while something important was left.

At the time I booked the sessions, I was trying to get care arranged for my parents and I’d often delay contacting social services or speaking to the local council while I got embroiled in a pointless debate on Twitter or something. I was frustrated and helpless and I genuinely felt I needed help.

Before I explain what brought the sessions to an acrimonious end though, I should explain both the benefits and the difficulties with the sessions themselves.

Firstly, it has to be said, the benefits of just talking to someone can’t be underestimated. I’d often leave sessions feeling elated because I’d just been able to get so much off my mind. Sadly though, I realised later that much of what I’d really wanted to say had been left unsaid but I’ve come to think that is the failing with therapy; you can only reveal that much of yourself you decide to reveal.

I was then surprised by how often the sessions fell into what I perceived as cliche. Endless questions about my childhood and the fact that I’d chose to write under a pseudonym were seized upon and disassembled in a manner that I didn’t think they warranted. What certainly emphasised the issues though was that during the therapy, I lost first my Father and then my Mother. Sarah attempted to make much of this when the sessions ground to a halt, and it would be disingenuous to pretend my life unravelling in real time didn’t bring a focus to events, but the fact remained I didn’t see my issues were anything to do with those things and I started to resent the pointless returns to meaningless events as a child.

Then the silences began. The first was just after my father died in November when a conversation we’d been having came to a natural end and Sarah took to looking at a point on the floor, not speaking. At first, I wasn’t sure what was happening and wondered if I should break the silence but I wasn’t sure of the protocol. I started to inwardly panic – was this panic part of the therapy? Was this a test to see if, uncomfortable with the silence,  I would speak? I decided to say nothing and the session ended 15 minutes later. “Do you feel I should ask the questions?” Sarah asked. I felt like a schoolboy having a question fired at him by a teacher; one of those where you sense that whatever you say will prove to be the incorrect answer.

The sessions continued normally for the next few weeks and then the week before Christmas Sarah did it again, this time at the very start of the session. That look sideways at the point on the floor and I knew what was happening. Again I started to panic but decided I wasn’t going to break the silence. As anyone who has followed this blog knows, Christmas was ‘our time’. I was approaching the second festive season without Gail and I was weighed down by grief. Gail was filling my thoughts and I had no time for tedious analyst games. Time went by, the room deafened by the lack of noise. I started to just remove my mind from a situation I felt wholly uncomfortable with, and I began to drift with Gail, to talk to her, to tell her what was happening here. I could almost hear her  ‘For fuck’s sake, this is bollocks’. She was right. I realised later I’d actually fallen asleep for a good ten minutes. Then the session ended and Sarah and I  hadn’t spoken for the whole period.

By this time, I was Googling ‘Silence in Psychotherapy’ and felt I was ahead of what was expected of me. ‘The use of silence within psychotherapy for attentive listening, observation, self exploration and creating a holding environment is well documented’  I noted though the advice to the Therapist was to ensure that their client was comfortable, some finding the experience ‘frightening’ and providing a ‘horrible emptiness full of suspicion, hostility, rejection and aggressiveness, a silence which blocks progress’. I certainly concur more with the latter view.

And then my mum died in early January and the ‘how do you feel about that?’ questions came. My head was all over the place by this time and I seized on the one thing my mum’s passing had enabled me to do; a holiday I’d booked to Egypt that I’d thought I’d have to cancel, could now go ahead with mum’s funeral taking place when I returned.

By the time I’d got back we just had time to have the funeral before the COVID pandemic became world news and it was obvious I wouldn’t be able to take up any more sessions. Sarah offered me a Skype session but I wasn’t going to do that and made it clear that if there were no face to face sessions then I wouldn’t be continuing.

Sarah reluctantly agreed and gave me the invoice for the past month; a month in which I’d missed three sessions due to my trip to Egypt, the only one held being the day after the funeral. I queried the bill at first as I though there was a mistake. And then the full magnitude of it struck me. When I’d read ‘all sessions must be paid for’ I’d seen exactly that; a ‘session’ being an hour in the Centre with Sarah. But that wasn’t what it meant. In fact, a session was every Tuesday from the first one held back in October right up to the start of the pandemic! This didn’t include those that Sarah cancelled – about three – but that just made it worse.

And that’s where the aforementioned embarrassment came in. After years of driving Gail to distraction with my fiscal obsession, I’d abandoned it when I’d most needed it. The situation with my parents and, in truth, the extra money that had come my way as I’d gained first my father’s estate and then my mother’s meant I just hadn’t bothered checking the bill and adding up the weeks. In fact I’d paid for about five or so sessions I’d never actually had as well as the two silent ones. I was mortified, angry (with myself certainly) but also with the whole scenario and, in all honesty, with Sarah too.

I made it quite clear to Sarah that I believed that the wording of the document I’d agreed too was ambivalent to say the least, and it wouldn’t have done any harm to emphasise that by ‘sessions’ she’d actually meant weeks even if there were no sessions. Her response? ‘You seem to be angry with me for some reason’.

That was back in March and I’ve not heard from Sarah since. She wanted me to have  a closing session but I pointed out that I didn’t think that would be beneficial for either of us. I don’t believe I got anything from the whole experience bar an initial surge at getting things out, but I’m fully aware in over three months I never touched on the very issues. that had driven me to try therapy in the first place.

The whole experience had been a dispiriting exercise; a waste of time but, more importantly, a colossal waste of money. I would have felt uncomfortable had I paid for all the sessions but the fact I paid for not being there and for the interminable silences just makes me all the more frustrated.

A suitable case for treatment? As Gail would have said ‘That’ll larn ya’

G_Flatford Mill


A Very Merry Unbirthday

Bad news here, I’m afraid.

Twenty-two months in and the pain is no better; in many ways it’s worse. I apologise for anyone visiting this site and looking for stories of a quick fix, but I can only sadly say there isn’t any.

I know, it’s crap isn’t it? Sorry. You can claim your refund at the box office.

Today was the second of Gail’s birthday’s she has missed, a kind of Unbirthday if you like or, as a similarly grieving friend neatly put it, an Anniversary birthday. I like that and have adopted it.

As I’ve mentioned before, there is nothing you can do with these days. You can’t ignore them – or at least, I can’t – but you can’t really celebrate them either.

Up until today I’ve practised diversion therapy; I’ve either been away for the event or I’ve organised something life-affirming or something I’ve always wanted to try. Stuck in COVID19 lockdown though, it was depressing to see how many things I did this time last year that are unavailable to me this. I could get to London still, but the restaurants are closed, so are the bars, the hotels and even the church. I couldn’t even light a candle today.

Not that that would have been an issue as I’d decided to leave the country instead. I’d booked a short break in Porto but Coronavirus put paid to that though, and I was left twisting in the wind, trying to decide what to do.

The problem was that the dark pit was looming and I knew I had to get out, so I did. I even put her ashes in the car, something I know a lot of people baulk at but she specifically said she wanted to remain with me, so I just can’t get my head round to treating them like a pile of dust. If she wanted to be with me then that’s her, which, strictly speaking, it is anyway, even if some are uncomfortable with the idea.

Anyway, when we first lived together we moved into a new flat in a place called Southend – a coastal town in Essex for those unacquainted – and that was where I went back to today. Our flat was handily placed, not in a great area in terms of silence or salubriousness, but useful for a ten-minute walk that took you down to the sea in one direction, the town shopping in another and – important factor here – a rather lovely park in another.

Gail loved this park and could often be found there on a warm afternoon or a summer evening. Sometimes she’s ring me from work and say ‘Guess where I am?’ and it was usually the park – although there was a really nice pub (sadly long gone) in the other direction! Surprisingly, I found our old flat was empty and I was able to peer in through the window. Seeing the flat exactly as I saw it when we went to view it together another lifetime ago seemed heart achingly poignant. To make things worse as I tried to move away I found the branches I’d leaned over that were covering the lower half of the wall  were actually thorn’s. It took me several minutes to unpick myself. To see the real irony of this, you’ll have to do some homework.

I’ll leave it with you.

After I went down to the park; a place where Gail spent many hours, sitting reading on a bench, feeding the duck or – on a really good day – watching the Terrapins that came to bask on the side of the lake. She had names of all of these and would often ring me at work to tell me ‘they’re here’ meaning I would know instantly where she was. I loved the childlike excitement she got from seeing these creatures and  I wondered if I might be lucky enough to see them. I needn’t have worried. The terrapins had obviously entered their own breeding program since the days we frequented the park and I counted nearly a dozen including some small ones. She’d have loved it.

I sat for several hours on the bench, having lunch and just watching the lake. The distraction almost worked but floundered on the difficulty of extending the day further. Although lockdown had eased, there was still nowhere to go after, our favourite Greek restaurant was still closed and the seafront coned off to stop people parking. There was nothing to do other than come home and face what I know will be a difficult evening.


In fact, it turned out to be far worse than anything I’d imagined.

I’d being feeling unsteady about the anniversary for a couple of days prior to the park visit, but put it down to just the rising tension of the expectation of the day. Afterwards I saw it for what it was, realising I’d had a full meltdown. During that time,  I was either on the verge of tears or actually sobbing, I was utterly depressed. It was the only time since the previous January, when I wished I could have called my mum.

I talked it through with a few souls who understood but I was extremely low for well over a week. This was more than a general sadness or realisation that all the things I wanted I could never have again. This was dark and dangerous depression and I would say, in retrospect, that I was as low as at any point since Gail passed.

There’s nothing else I can say about it but, in terms of the reason for writing about this whole horrible experience it’s worth remembering that there’s no time-limit on even the smallest part of grief.

Sweet Charity

All charities are suffering under the Coronavirus lockdown, so it was no great surprise when I got an urgent appeal through from the Hospice who provided counselling to me last year.

I’m happy to help obviously and I have several large bags of clothes they can have too when this madness ends. In the short term though, they have suffered a devastating loss of income recently and I feel it’s only right to donate, particularly as the six sessions I had with this Hospice were completely free. The centre helps people facing incurable illness and bereavement, providing support for them, their families, friends and carers, visiting them in their homes and providing 24/7 advice and care. It would be churlish not to support them.

That being the case though, it’s quite difficult to write about my own experiences with them. Having tried Psychotherapy after, I was asked on one occasion by my Counsellor there  ‘What did I expect to get from the sessions?’ and I found it hard to answer. In essence I suppose, I expected to get something I wasn’t expecting; some insight into bereavement that I hadn’t considered, something that might make it easier for me. In real terms, of course, this meant I couldn’t truthfully answer the question; how I could describe what I wanted when I didn’t know what was on offer? Frankly, six months after I’m still really not sure what I made of it.

I’ve spoken of the circumstances of what happened in Cut A Long Story  and in terms of fairness I need to deal with the two sessions separately. So the charity first: Well, in real terms, this just seemed like to somewhere to go for a chat and talk about Gail with someone who had never met her. I felt like I spent the six weeks explaining why she was important to me but didn’t get any further than that.

When I’ve seen therapy depicted on TV or in books, the therapist usually asks pertinent questions designed to encourage the patient (is that what I would be? ) to open up and expand on things they may have difficult confronting. But my Counsellor didn’t seem to say anything and I found the whole transaction emotionally draining (Or is that the point perhaps?). I feel I should have something to show for the experience but other than a poignant memory of the sessions themselves, I can’t seem to recollect anything said either way. To be perfectly honest, at the barrel of a gun I couldn’t even tell you the name of the woman I spoke to for six weeks. That may be my failing, of course. Who can say?

There must be more to doing the job than just listening though or surely everyone could do it? I didn’t feel it was enough to pick up on what I was saying and feed back the usual platitudes that you hear when you’re grieving; I’d heard them all and I needed more but wasn’t sure what I needed more of.

My overriding feeling about grief counselling was it was somewhere to talk about Gail for six hours in that difficult period leading up to Christmas. It was nice to talk about her and I did get upset and release some pent-up emotion during it, gulping back air and swallowing something hard and jagged on occasion, but I never released the wracking sobs and tears of frustration I felt inside. I did get some immediate relief – a slightly euphoric feel just after leaving – but it didn’t last long and I become frustrated by what I wasn’t saying.

Perhaps I spoke too much? I have wondered. At a party last New Year someone was talking to me about Gail and then suddenly stopped, held a hand against their throat and whispered “I’m so sorry, do you mind if I talk about her?”. The dramatic gesture made me laugh and I had to explain that talking about her wasn’t the issue, it was NOT talking about her that caused me problems. So perhaps that’s it? The counsellor maybe didn’t get a word in or thought it best to allow me to keep talking? I don’t know.

In many ways I’d have quite like to have got some appraisal at the end. You know the type of thing: ‘This gentleman obviously loved his wife but seems to have had trouble recognising his failure in dealing with her illness and I sense his feelings of loss mask inadequacies in his own life’ or something like that.

So, helping out an admirable establishment at  a time of crisis? That’s fine. But hand on heart I would have to say I would have been very upset if I’d actually paid for the sessions.

Which brings me to Psychotherapy.

To Cut A Long Story Short

As I said at the start of it all, this is a blog about grief. Something to find and dip into, think about perhaps, dismiss, laugh at, cry over, love or plain hate. Whatever you get or don’t get from it isn’t supposed to impact on anything else; it’s not date-stamped with reference to the outside world.

Having said all that I need to place a reference here.

Regular visitors to this site may have become confused by some posts appearing in the timeline where they hadn’t been previously, while other posts have appeared and then been deleted. I feel the need to explain.

Following the Vinny blog in October, I wrote nothing else for over five months until a blog I entitled ‘A Reason To Feel – Part One’ (for reasons I will explain later ) that has subsequently been deleted. This blog explained why I hadn’t written anything and why I had, effectively, gone against my own protestations about blogs that only went on for a year and then ended; as if grief only had a shelf life of twelve months.

The fact was I’d been undergoing grief and psychotherapy counselling during this period and, frankly without even thinking about it, it had somehow dulled my appetite for writing about things. This is pretty surprising – astonishing even! – considering what had happened to me personally during that period. Then COVID19 appeared and the world turned upside-down.

I tried re-editing  ‘A Reason To Feel – Part One’ numerous times but it become a mess, mainly because what I was trying to explain was a precis version of an event that shapes everyone’s life – the death of your parents. I eventually decided that, for my own peace of mind even if for no other reason, I needed to go back and re-live the six months where I hadn’t been writing and insert them into the blog in chronological order.

Once I’d started writing again, I felt awful about what I had missed, as I  covered the death of my father; the brief period when my mum was a widow before she followed my dad just six weeks later, my second Christmas without Gail and my failed attempt to change things, and then my visit to Egypt to cope with the triumvirate of Valentine’s, what would have been (was?) our 16th Wedding Anniversary and my birthday.

Why this should be the case is something I am still struggling through, and it’s significant that this hiatus in my writing should coincide with a six month period of counselling. It’s also significant that the cessation of counselling – due initially to the COVID19 lockdown – should open up the blockage.

Whatever, I think it’s important in terms of why I started this blog, in processing my grief and getting counselling, to let anyone interested know how it affected me and to understand that the previous four blogs to this were written months after they occurred.

So: about counselling.

A month or so after I lost Gail, I thought I’d contact a local charity to find out about grief counselling. They were solidly booked up but said they would add me to their waiting list. Not knowing what else to do, I turned more to social media and found the support I got there helped me, and I began to dovetail it all with this blog.

Fourteen months later and urged on by some people I knew and some I didn’t, I began thinking perhaps I should really consider counselling again; not necessarily to directly help with the grief aspect – although that was still prevalent – but also because what I knew to be my worst excesses, kept in check by Gail when she was here, had now lost their natural barrier. I feared for where my head was going. Not having heard from the local charity still, I set about finding some other support. I didn’t have to go far.

In the town centre is one of the country’s leading private counselling & psychotherapy centres; a centre that conducts its own national workshops and seminars and whose own counsellors provide expert advice to other practitioners around the country. Also a place I’d already visited a few years back – but I’ll park that for the time being if you don’t mind. I rang and was given a list of available counsellors.

Now I’m not lighting cigars with fivers here but I figured I could afford to budget a certain amount of money to this exercise and, working on an estimated number of sessions, decided I could – and should – pay to see the leading Psychotherapy Counsellor available. This Counsellor, a leading advocate of psycho-dynamic therapy – a word so improbable it shows up as an error in my dictionary – was not cheap, but I didn’t want to waste time and money seeing someone who didn’t help and then regret it later.

Inevitably of course, as happens in these things, the day after I booked my first session, I got a call from the local charity to say that a place had come up in their grief counselling and did I want to take it? I decided to run both together and see what transpired.

I began both sessions in early October explaining in both how the grief over the loss of Gail ran parallel with an unwanted resentment that my elderly parents were alive while my wife wasn’t. Outside of this and in exactly the same way that I had been doing since losing Gail a year earlier, I was still nominally running my business – although I had cut work back to an average of 2/3 days a week – while caring for my parents; trying to juggle the myriad of things to put in place to provide them with social care in their home and visiting them as regularly as I could to make sure they had everything they needed.

Then about four weeks after I started counselling, my father died. I was too busy dealing with funeral arrangements, trying to sort out all the complexities of  contacting everyone, dealing with banks, Solicitors etc while – pretty unsuccessfully – consoling my mother (The temptation to say “See I told you what it’s like” was overwhelming but successfully resisted), to think how this would reflect in the counselling, but I realised six months later this must have been fascinating to see this development in my personal circumstances in what might be described as ‘real time’.

I’d barely got through my second Christmas without Gail and the first without my father – my mother suffering the cruelty of the first Christmas alone; something  I afterwards wished she hadn’t had to tolerate given what was to happen – when my mum went into hospital. She was taken in on New Year’s Day, came out briefly for a few days then went back in and never returned home, passing away in the second week of January barely six weeks after my father.

My charity grief counselling had covered my father dying, but the maximum six sessions finished just before Christmas. The centre counselling continued however and ended acrimoniously – and yes! I’ll cover this later too – when the lockdown for Coronavirus occurred in March and I was asked to continue session via Skype – something I wasn’t prepared to entertain.

So this is where we are now; six months from the start of counselling with one lot of sessions completed and the other nominally continuing (although I’ve decided I won’t return) during which I’ve lost both of my parents and am now in solitary isolation from a threat the world hasn’t seen the like of in over a century.

So plenty of time to think and write, I guess. And catch up.


Walk Like An Egyptian (16th Wedding Anniversary)

I covered the difficult time of our Anniversary, Valentine’s Day and my birthday with a trip to Egypt including three nights in Cairo and a journey on the Nile from Luxor to Aswan. It was part of my rough life plan – I loath the term ‘bucket list’ – to do what I might not have done had Gail been here. I took a virtual version of her with me everywhere anyway, so I didn’t feel alone. Well, I did – but you know what I mean.

I’d booked this trip the previous summer and after my father died was concerned at how my mum would cope if I was away for ten days. That concern deepened later however as, with her ailing health during early January, I thought I’d have to cancel the whole trip. My mum was adamant that I must go though; telling a nurse ‘I need to get well. My son has a holiday booked and he needs to go to Egypt as always wanted to go with his wife’. Not strictly true – Gail hadn’t shown any desire to go to Egypt (I thought anyway) – but it was nice to hear my mum thinking about me at a time when she was critically ill, fighting for her own life and when should have had other things on her mind.

As it happened, it made no difference. My mum died in the second week of January and, although it made it a bit tight to organise a funeral – something I eventually decided to postpone until I’d returned – it meant  not only could I go on my trip as planned, I needed to go somewhere to help me over the past two months.

Then something interesting happened. About, about six weeks after my mum died and two weeks after I’d returned from Egypt, I was going through a box of letters and keepsakes that I’d kept of Gail’s and I found a ‘promise’ that we’d made to each other in 1988 that we’d never kept. I’d completely forgotten about it and it made me sit up.

Gail Promise

Only after I found this did I  remember the conversation and the agreement. We’d never kept it because, at the time we were due to meet, I was living with my then wife and Gail had married someone else a year earlier. I know I remembered the promise on that day in 1990 though; I wished I’d found this earlier so I could have discussed it with her, but I was also blissfully happy that I’d eventually got to see the Sphinx even if I was late by almost thirty years and wearing jeans and a Clash T-shirt instead.

It was a bit frustrating I’d not found it before I left, but it was a blessing in other ways. I know what I’m like. Had I found the note before I would surely have dressed as she wanted and fought Egyptian guards as I battled to stand at the base of a Sphinx you can now only see from a distance.

Still, on our Anniversary, I visited the Temple of Isis on Philae; Isis being the God of death, healing and rebirth, this seemed hugely appropriate.

With no time to have my mum’s funeral before I left for Egypt, the whole holiday hung against the backdrop of having one within a week of my return. I know my mum would have been happy I’d gone though, and I know she wouldn’t have wanted me to cancel so I could bring her funeral forward. In many ways the trip became a celebration of both the lives of Gail and my mum.

Elsewhere on social media I posted a photo that I’d found amongst my Mother’s things; a picture I hadn’t even seen before, of me and Gail at our wedding. There seemed a decent symmetry in this and I find these things seem to help me.

Fourteen years for you Pet, sixteen for me…and counting? We didn’t make a decision to finish it – as if! –  that disease decided it for us. As long as I’m around though I’ll continue to count until I hear again your first words to me. “Hello, it’s me again” .

Happy Anniversary Pet, from the banks of the Nile to wherever you are. X

Gail didn’t want a ‘boring’ wedding cake. She wanted a Barbie. When I went to pick it up I found the local Baker who we’d asked to  make it beside herself as we ‘hadn’t told her the age of the little girl’ for her to ice on the cake. Her face when I told her not to worry as it was for a wedding is something I will never forget. My guess is she tells the story to this day.

17th January 2020: Doris

I knew my mum was approaching the end of her life as the hospital were able to tell me that she had ’48 hours at best’. I spent the last night with her at her bedside, assuming I was to eventually be there for a loved ones final moments.

When morning came and she was still OK I decided I needed to go home, get refreshed, grab a few hours sleep and get back for later that day, assuming I would almost certainly need to spend another night with her. Of course, I could have slept a few hours in my parents home, just a fifteen minute drive away but I couldn’t stay in the house, let alone sleep in it. It had always made me feel uncomfortable – one for the Counselling sessions there! – and I needed to see my cats. Buzz, Ziggy and Gus in my own environment  and lose a little of that hospital feeling.

Considering I knew the odds of my mum passing while I was doing a 90 odd mile round trip were pretty good, you’d think I might have made a better attempt at saying goodbye to my mum. Of course, I didn’t because I was ‘only’ going home for a few hours; I’d have time for that when I got back. I was convinced that – as we’re often told – people slip away in the early hours.

I got the call at 4 pm. A couple of her friends from church had dropped in to see Doris and she’d slipped away while they were there, so quietly even the Nurse hadn’t realised at first.

My thoughts about that whole six week period from my dad passing to my mum following are muddled and confused. Once we had  gotten through my dad’s  funeral in late November we were both faced with that inexorable slide towards Christmas. I still have my own struggles with the festive period and warned my mum I could do little more than sympathise. She had already been hospitalised on one occasion before Christmas, and on New Year’s Day she became very breathless and I had to call out the ambulance although they let her out after an initial assessment. Then on the day we were scheduled to scatter my dad’s ashes, I had to call out the ambulance again and she was taken in and kept in. She never came out. Passing away just six weeks after my father.

During those weeks I knew my mum needed consoling and did the best that I could, but I’d needed something from my parents after Gail went and I hadn’t found what I needed from either of them.

Worse, on occasion, they – my mum in particular – had been particularly thoughtless and insensitive. “You need to pull yourself together” and “Why don’t you just bundle up all her clothes and take them to a charity shop?” were just two statements from my mum that will always remain with me.

Of course, I wasn’t going to use my father’s death to score some unsavoury points or make a cutting “Well, I told you what it was like” remark but I did find it hard to listen as my mum tried to make sense of that thing you can never make sense of. I also found it odd she found no solace in the faith she had practised so studiously for her whole life. If her belief was to be of any benefit to her, surely it had to be now? I found some of her words to me at this time so carefully chosen though, I did wonder occasionally if she’d come to realise what I’d gone – WAS going through still – and regretted how she’d behaved previously. I’ll never know.

All I can say is the difficulty I’ve experienced with my parents my whole life have pretty much covered every second of the conversations I’ve had  with my Counsellor, but everything still remain nebulous and strangely prosaic. Back in the summer before my dad had died, my mum had said to me one day “Your dad really misses Gail a lot. He sees something on TV and says ‘Oh Gail would’ve loved that, wouldn’t she?’ “.

I knew my dad loved Gail and I knew he missed her too, but what I couldn’t understand – and this will explain the complexity of dealing with my parents – was why I was being told how my dad felt by my mum in proxy. Why didn’t he tell me? Or both tell me? I’d have loved to have heard what they’d seen on TV that reminded them of her. I needed that. Not a pretence that nothing had happened and she’d just gone out of the room.

Some may find it strange that I’d already decided I needed to go forward with my plans to volunteer for Christmas, leaving my mum home alone on Christmas Day. I was aware I was becoming the Son to my Mother in avoiding those difficult conversations, but I couldn’t bring her to my home for Christmas as she couldn’t have got up the stairs, and I wasn’t going to stay with her for the reasons mentioned previously.

Fortunately, perhaps because I was volunteering to help those less well-off, perhaps because my mum wanted to be on her own anyway (I knew I had the previous Christmas), not seeing her on the day itself didn’t seem to be an issue to her. I’d seen her on the way up to the hotel on the 23rd and saw her on my return on the 26th so, in many ways, I’d seen her more over the Christmas period than I’d done for many a long year.

Beyond the festive period, there was some tentative talk with my mum about ‘difficulties’ I had with my father ‘when I was younger’ but she seemed reluctant to say too much about it beyond that. Mainly the six weeks between the two deaths was spent with all that practical stuff that I seem to excel at. It might be the old Project Managing skills I had years ago, but give me something to sort out and it gets sorted out with ribbons on.

Doris – or Doll as I cheekily called her –  watched as I emptied and dumped most of the shed, ignoring my dad’s last wishes which told me to ‘get some wood and nails and hammer the door shut’. This joke from beyond the grave certainly showcased Bert’s warped sense of humour, but was impractical in reality and more annoyingly it was a job that could just have easily been done five years before, had he not been too stubborn to let me do it.

Ultimately though, sad as it obviously was, my feeling was that in only spending six weeks without my father, my mum had avoided grief that, approaching her 90th year she just didn’t need. Months later, of course, COVID19 had rocked the world and everything was on lockdown and I felt even more certain that she’d chosen her time well.

The fact remains though, that I’d lost my wife, both my parents and my eldest cat in less than eighteen months. And if you’ve not got pets and uncomfortable with me mentioning my cat alongside the other deaths perhaps this is the time to admit something.

I cried after losing Morris in August and didn’t cry again until the following April – Easter Sunday to be exact – a full eight months later during which I’d attended the funerals of both my parents and shed not one tear.

A suitable case for treatment, I think.

My mum and Gail dancing at our wedding. A photo I’d not see before and found in my mum’s things after she died.

Christmas Tears

A second Christmas without Gail and I’d decided 12 months earlier that I was going to do something different. In my whole life I’d never, ever, not been at home on Christmas Day and that was about to change. This year I was going to volunteer.

Every year, when I attended the Carols for Shoppers concert at St James’s Church in Piccadilly they always spoke about their Christmas Day service and the fact they had their own Christmas dinner after, in which they opened their doors to anyone who had nowhere to go or who was alone for the holiest of days.

I wasn’t in the former category as I have a very nice home, but I suppose I could claim to be in the second category although conversely, I didn’t see myself like that. No, what appealed to me was that they were looking for volunteers to prepare, cook, wait on tables and feed those who came into the church. Perhaps comb the West End looking for homeless who could be provided with a meal.

Gail and I always visited London on Christmas Eve. The 24th of December was our day and going to the West End  was our thing. In the previous few years though, we’d questioned why we spent the best part of the day waking up, getting out and travelling to the West End. Why not just be there? So part of our later Christmas tradition was to stay overnight in a top hotel on the 23rd, wake up where we wanted to be on the 24th and spend the day in the City. We’d have a late afternoon / early evening meal and then travel back home to be in our own house on Christmas Day. It was magical.

My first Christmas without Gail had resulted in me staying in a hotel that I’d booked the previous January when she’d still been alive (Christmas Lights) but I didn’t want to stay in the same place as it would remind me of that first Christmas without her and I knew I couldn’t stay in any hotels we’d stayed in previously. However, there were enough top class hotels in the W1 area for me to choose from, I would stay in one close to the church, get there early on Christmas morning, prepare dinner, go to the service (I’m not religious I should point out but I just like church – particularly at Christmas) and then spend Christmas night drinking brandy and reliving tales of bygone years in a sort of oak-panelled, plush velvet emporium with no-one else but some visiting tourists and a suave barman, dutifully serving bar snacks and bon mots, as I stare disconsolately at a Dickensian style log fire. I have a vivid imagination. It doesn’t always serve me well.

Now to be fair, the hotel I’d stayed in that first Christmas and most certainly the last one I’d stayed in with Gail could reasonably have provided what I wanted for Christmas night. Sadly, although listed as one of the best hotels in the area; the one I actually  chose was bereft of Christmas magic. In fact, shorn of the large tree in the lobby and the people coming in wrapped up with gloves, hats and scarves, the hotel probably looked the same in June. The bar was uninspiring and lacked atmosphere. Worse though – and I didn’t even know this was a thing – it closed in the evening.

The day started well enough though. I’d worried that there might not be any Christmas magic; any of that Christmas Tree feeling. The atmosphere was great in the church though and it felt like being a member of  a secret club (Not that I know what that’s like, of course!) Everyone was there and pulling together, joking and keeping each other’s spirits up. I peeled enough spuds for a battalion and then started on the parsnips getting enough on to cook to allow me to attend the Christmas Day service without any anxiety. After, I helped put out the tables, laid them and began bringing the food up and waiting on tables. Many of the congregation stayed after the service with others, homeless or just looking for somewhere to spend the afternoon, came in after. Many had travelled miles – often walking – to get there.

I met and spoke to some lovely people; heard some tragic stories. I was thanked for my efforts by one Gentleman who asked why I’d offered to volunteer and was I going home after? I told him I wasn’t and I told him about Gail. He looked at me with sympathy before adding ‘I know how you feel. I lost my wife in October. Now I want to die’. It broke me up. I had to hurry away with a pile of plates to distract myself.

There was plenty to clear away, of course and the tables were moved and chairs put away while the Vicar – who’d started on a wonderfully poignant menu of carols and Christmas tunes on the piano – soon moved to Abba and Simon & Garfunkel hits. Everyone joined in and the gnawing pit of self-pity in my stomach began to feel a little less-hollow. The fact is though – although not a big drinker – I missed a glass or two of wine. And the Christmas dinner, superbly cooked and presented, wasn’t what Gail would have prepared. In truth, it wasn’t what I’d managed to cook myself the previous year either.

And then it was 4pm. It was getting dark, everything was away and it was time to usher out the stragglers and the lock the church up. Everyone was going home for their ‘other’ Christmas Day, so we said our goodbyes and I went back to the hotel.

It was there that the new-style Christmas Day I had prepared for – the one so many said was a wonderful and admirable thing to do – fell apart. I sat awkwardly on the bed trying to be entertained by Christmas Night TV desperately missing my Cats and feeling bad that they were having Christmas Day without me.

I couldn’t bail out. I had travelled up two days before by train so I couldn’t get home. I missed the house I’d shared with Gail. I missed her decorations that I’d put up again. I missed being with someone who loved me. I was disconsolate. I forced myself out and onto the streets, to Leicester Square where it looked as it did any other night of the year. But there’s a limit to what you can do in that area on your own, and wandering away from the bright lights and the tourists or locals meant empty streets and a desperate feeling of ennui.

I longed for it to be over and for it to be Boxing Day. Trains ran on the 26th and I could get home. I went back to hotel, drank too many glasses of wine and fell asleep on the bed, when I woke up Christmas night had gone so I went back to sleep to ease the pain.

The irony was the very thing I had gained from helping others had robbed me of the only thing that was keeping me sane – being at home with my memories of Gail and Christmases past. It seemed cruel that helping in the church and attending a religious ceremony on the holiest of days had precipitated me being at one of my lowest ebbs. If I volunteer again – and with the best will in the world I’m not sure I can – I will at least pay the exorbitant price to park my car so I can go home.

As it was my memories of my second Christmas without the love of my life are hideously painful. I didn’t think I could miss Gail any more than I did. I was apparently wrong.

My Christmas Gail tribute in her dressing area. I know she’d have been impressed by this

3rd November 2019: Albert

Sunday 3rd November 2019: this was the day my father died.

I say ‘this was’ rather than ‘today’ or ‘yesterday’  because, for reasons I still don’t fully understand, I either didn’t feel the need to record it at the time or didn’t want to. I’m writing this over five months later but putting it into date order on this blog because otherwise it makes no sense.

Although he was 91, quite frail and at that age you could expect things to go from one state to another very quickly, my father’s passing was nonetheless a bit of a shock. The day before he passed he was perfectly well.  I was going to football and I’d intended on dropping into my parents before going on to the ground. I’d told them I would be coming, but I later decided I didn’t want to see them. In time-honoured fashion, I lied and didn’t tell them this; instead I said I’d decided not to go to football, even though I did.

I got a phone call shortly after 8 am on the Sunday morning from my mother telling me my dad had complained he didn’t feel well after a bad night and he’d asked her to call the ambulance. This was significant as my dad hated ‘making a fuss’ and must have felt something was wrong. I told her I’d leave straight away and go to the hospital. I didn’t.

Why I didn’t is part of something bigger; something I can neither easily explain or want to attempt to explain. Suffice to say that the inability to actually do something and then lie about it is one of the reasons I’d eventually decided, a month or so earlier, that I should get some counselling. Of course, I’d had nothing like the death of my father to talk about in the previous weeks but, over the course of the following months, I was to work out all the things I was worried about in real-time. I’d imagine it’s a Psychotherapist’s dream.

On that Sunday morning, Gail would have told me off for ‘fannying around’. She’d have been right as usual. I was. I had a shower, made breakfast, fed the cats all at a leisurely pace  and – well, what exactly? – I have no idea but I bet it involved looking at my PC. Look! Who an I kidding? I KNOW it involved looking at my PC.

About two and a half hours after I got the call, I was leaving the house and had got as far as starting the car and pulling out into my road when a neighbour of my mum’s rung to ask if I’d left yet. “I’m on way”. I didn’t say I hadn’t even got out of first gear yet but I wasn’t exactly lying either.

I’d got barely ten miles down the road when my mum rung to tell me the hospital had called and my dad had died.

I was intending to stop at Starbucks for a coffee and I did just that. One of those things you do that you wonder about after. The man responsible for bringing me into the world had just left it and I was in ordering a latte and a doughnut less than five minutes later. Did I choke the words out? Hold onto the counter to stop the world from spinning? No, I just did what I’d done all the dozens of times I visited that establishment before; paid, thanked them and took my coffee. At times like that, it’s like you’re watching yourself in a film; everything in the scene looks mundane but you know something is going to dramatically happen in the next because you’ve seen the trailer.

I went straight to the hospital and saw my father. He’d apparently slipped away quietly, he’d been sitting up and talking earlier, then he’d laid down, gone to sleep and not woken up. It seemed a good way to go. I asked to see him, said goodbye, kissed him on the forehead, thanked him for everything he’d done for me, took his effects and left and went to see my mum. Before leaving I asked what time he had passed and was told it was just after 11 am. I could have left home in plenty of time and been there when he’d died but, like Gail, I’d found other inconsequential things to do.

I dreaded seeing my mum. I knew exactly what she was going through, recognised the emotions, the incredulity and the lack of understanding. I was horribly aware that she was going to experience the same emotions that she’d completely failed to see in my circumstances and I wouldn’t even be able to say ‘So NOW you know what it’s like!’

I also realised that, in other ways, I wouldn’t fully grasp what she was experiencing. My mother and father had known each other for over 70 years; grown old together. He’d lived a staggering 35 years longer than Gail and he had spent it all with my mother. But in that recognition, there was a burning truth.

Because even at the point of one of the most significant moments in anybody’s life – the one where you lose your own parents – here I was just equating everything  back to Gail and my own grief.

With my father leaving behind my mother – a woman he had been married to for an incredible 69 years – things became very hard very quickly. My mum couldn’t really function without my dad and, as she struggled, I set about trying to do the things that you’re forced to do at these times; arranging the funeral, contacting the relevant people, trying to put Widow’s pensions in place and a myriad of other things. My mum – bless her – wasn’t able to do much more than sit and look at his empty chair.

As I discovered with Gail, and I was to tragically revisit again six weeks later, these times following a death can be seen as part of a  project. I actually get solace from them. A sense I was getting on and doing things and – something I vaguely recognised from the evening when I’d walked home after Gail’s funeral – that nice feeling you get when you’ve  done something for someone who could no longer thank you and instinctively know that, if they could, they would be appreciative of your efforts.

But emotion? No nothing. I never cried once at my fathers passing, nor at the funeral and nothing since, never even felt a lump in my throat and that’s not in a manly ‘I can handle this’ way either. I simply didn’t feel anything and I didn’t know why that was; all that I was aware of is this relationship with my parents would almost certainly form the basis of my therapy sessions in the coming months.

And did it!

IMG_2381 (2)

A Long Short Journey

September 20th 2018 – In a year of days I won’t forget this is not a day I’ll ever forget. This completely floored me and reading again it floors me still.

I mean I’m not really smart, but I think I’m reasonably intelligent. I can explain the double-slit experiment in Quantum Physics well enough, I can train someone on Windows, string a decent sentence together, but I don’t understand Brexit; but then no-one understands Brexit.

So why in God’s name did I get funeral ashes so wrong? I always thought they were a token; a gesture of the person who had gone. They didn’t give you the actual ashes of the deceased, I’d assumed. I’d often wondered why people got so concerned about where those ashes were to go, I mean it’s just a symbol really, isn’t it?.

Recent events have taught me otherwise of course, but nothing prepared me for today. I bought a frame for one of Gail’s photos then I collected Gail’s ashes from the Funeral Directors. What a life journey that short trip was.

Because, though they are certainly ashes, they aren’t really either. This is Gail. This is the woman who I adored and worshipped since I met her in 1987, a woman I would happily swap places with now. A person who regularly and literally – in the proper sense of the world – took my breath away with her beauty. She’s now in a box. A fucking box. A green box 6″x 8″x 5″. It’s heavier than I’d have thought, but this is her regardless. All that’s left of that woman who could stop a conversation at twenty feet when she entered a room. A box I have my hand on as I write this, so she knows how desperate and fucking desolate I feel.

I have a juxtapose; the picture in one hand of how she was, the only thing left of that beautiful, vibrant woman in my right. Friedrich Nietzsche was wrong: what doesn’t kill you doesn’t make you stronger. It makes you weaker, it eats at you, it destroys your very soul and reduces life to just existing.

I’ve learnt a lot about myself today. I’ve learnt I’ve not got the strength of mind nor body to cope with this living hell.

The Return Of The Mysterious Black Cat

On 13th September I had to go in for an operation. Keyhole surgery; You don’t need to know what it was but it was related to Gail’s illness as I did it trying to help her out of the bath in her closing months. ‘Nuff said.

I needed someone to keep an eye on me for the weekend so my best mate Paul came and stayed for the weekend. Then this happened.

The Return of the Loony Widowed Facebook Poster

I’ll be honest, this one freaked me out a little.

Best mate Paul is staying and helping look after me for the weekend. I’m in a bit of pain so he went to investigate some caterwauling from upstairs. Strange cat Puffy – see previous post – had somehow gotten into the house (no windows were open so he must have walked in the patio doors right past me) and was confronting Buzz, Gus and Ziggy on my landing. Paul thought Puffy was one of mine, till I explained, intervened and opened the bathroom window so the now friendly intruder could escape.

Two hours later, I was sitting on the settee when I heard a thump from upstairs in the bathroom; the sound of a cat jumping in. “You better not be coming in again, Puffy” I called from where I was sat in my lounge.

My phone, which was sat on the opposite arm of the settee and which I’d not been using, and which I have never talked to in the three years I’ve had it (I don’t even know how to turn voice recognition on), suddenly burst into life – making Paul and I both jump – playing PUFF Daddy’s Sting-sampled ‘I’ll Be Watching You’. Puzzled, I picked up the phone and a window had opened with the lyrics on view “Every day I wake up / I hope I’m dreamin’ / I can’t believe this shit / Can’t believe you ain’t here.”

Explainable in an unlikely way, I know, but we both admitted to getting goosebumps on this one. Another chapter slots into place…

The mysterious Puffy – The cat returned in May the following year before disappearing again.