Suddenly all was quiet. No intake of breath, just stillness and silence. Not moving I let realisation sink in.
Slowly I pushed back my chair and stood up; the man to my right stood and moved to wrap his arms around my shoulders and he wept. He held me close and both our bodies shook with the depth of his sobbing. I was numb, unable to shed tears; it was not the time to give way to my emotions. There would be plenty of time for tears, a whole lifetime; I had work to do first.
Canon J released me from his grip and I realised he looked exhausted, a true friend and caring pastor who despite a busy parish and wider church commitments, found time for almost daily visits in the difficult days, months and years of illness. The door opened and a nurse stepped into the room. She touched my arm and spoke quietly for a few minutes. Her patient of nine weeks suffered no more.
Having almost lived at the Hospice for the nine weeks, the last three spent day and night in the chair beside Jack’s bed, I knew the routine. We moved to the room set aside for patient’s families and tea/coffee was brought to us. The phone was on the table waiting…..
I had to make the most difficult phone call of my lifetime, to tell Elly that her Dad the light of her life had died. Elly was at University in Scotland facing 2nd year exams. In the previous six months we had several scares that the end was close and she travelled forward and back across the Irish Sea. The last time she came and stayed three weeks but Jack, levelled and lingered. In his lucid moments he kept asking why she was not at school, and this distressed him. It was a very difficult time for her and we talked it through. It could go on for weeks, months even, or it might be a matter of days nobody knew. She wanted to be at home with her dad and me and yet if she missed any more time the year would have to be repeated. Elly made her decision and having said her goodbyes she returned to Scotland and study. We spoke twice a day but she knew I would not ask her to return until the funeral. That time was now.
In the previous weeks I spent long hours alone by the bedside as Jack slept. His only living blood relations apart from Elly were two cousins and their families in Co Durham in England and I had no relations in Northern Ireland, so visitors were few. Knowing I was facing the inevitable, I used my time to make preparations. One day I paid a visit to the undertaker and made all the arrangements for the funeral, leaving me with just a phone call to set things in motion when the time came.
I made lists.
I wrote down the name and telephone number of everyone that needed to be contacted. I sub-divided these and arranged with my siblings who they would contact for me.
I wrote a potted history of Jack’s life.
I wrote details for the funeral service, hymns and prayers and suggestions of who to ask to do the readings.
I wrote a non urgent list of people to be notified e.g. the GP, district nurse, the bank, pension providers, utility suppliers, and noted things to be cancelled like passport, driving licence etc.
I decided what clothes I would need for the funeral, polished my shoes and left them all ready in my wardrobe. I made up beds for whoever might be staying over and washed all the extra china in readiness for a houseful of callers.
Once the lists were completed the notebook was put away in the bedside locker and not touched again until needed.
Early that morning it was obvious I would not be staying in this room much longer, so I packed our few belongings into the fold up travel bag that I kept in the locker. The idea of walking out of the building with a plastic carrier marked Patients Belongings in bold print gave me the creeps.
The phone calls were made; I said my final farewell to Jack and had a quiet word of thanks to the staff, then out into cold sunshine to find my car at the door warmed up with the engine running. Working on automatic pilot not knowing how the remainder of the day would go I remembered thinking it was days since I had a proper meal, it was now lunchtime so I called at a restaurant on my way home and had a solid meal. That gave me the energy to keep going and deal with what ever the day threw at me.
When I pulled up in my drive the undertaker was waiting for me. He had all the details that I had given him. In Northern Ireland, unlike the South of Ireland, a death must be registered before a grave can be opened or a cremation booked. Since this was a Saturday we could only provisionally book the church etc. The Registrars office would not open until Monday morning and as next-of-kin, that visit was down to me.
Elly phoned with arrangements of her arrival and two of my brothers came to be here for her when she reached these shores.
The next couple of days were a blur of constant visitors. Someone did my food shopping for me and my good friend & neighbour Liz who, at that time was in remission from cancer, appeared in my kitchen a couple of minutes after any visitor crossed my threshold she made tea & coffee and cleared up after it, before disappearing the way she came. The funeral & cremation went as planned and everyone returned to get on with their lives.
Elly went back to face her exams and we continued to talk every day.
I had to learn to eat, sleep, grieve, talk and interact normally with people again. It was a slow process. Three weeks and the general phone calls stopped. It was not that people stopped caring, oh no, they were over the shock and getting on with their lives. My journey was only beginning….
I realised at noon one day that I was sitting tearful still in my Pj’s, I gave myself a severe lecture, weeping was doing me no good, it was wallowing and I was insulting Jack’s memory. Behaviour like this was not his way. No matter what life threw at him, he picked himself up, dusted himself down, and got on with life! I would learn to do the same. I had a shower, did the hair and put on a face. I set a goal to walk up the town and back. Alas, the first person I met was a vestry member of the church! “Look at you all dressed up!” she said. She made me feel like a painted Tart! Inside I was screaming – ‘Jack died not me’ – I ended the conversation as quickly and politely as I could and moved on.
You think that was bad! Within the first five weeks of widowhood I was asked or told:
“I suppose you will be going home now”? Yes in these parts that is a question! The questioner was not referring to the home I lived in with Jack for all our married life, No the ‘home’ referred to was DUBLIN!
“Will you get married again”? Come on! Jack’s ashes were hardly cooled.
You will need to go out to work now? I did go back to work, but that was for my sanity, to fill in hours and to have the opportunity to interact with people.
“I know exactly how you feel!” This came from a lady who while standing in front of me had her arm linked through her husbands!!!
“I know exactly how you feel, my dog died last week!” OK I understand that people become attached to their pets, but Jack was no dog, he was a wonderful caring and loving soul mate!
I slowly picked up the pieces and went back to work. Over time I became a charity volunteer, joined a rambling club, travelled and made new friends. I went to the theatre and Concerts I entertained and went out for meals, it was not the life I chose but I always wore a smile. Going home to an empty house is difficult, no welcoming voice or smile and no hug of welcome. I find it most difficult when I have happy news to share and nobody to share it with.
Alas the hand of fate struck once more, and my health problems prevent me from working. I am out of the flow so can easily be bypassed. My friends do still fit me in every couple of months, pity they all want to do something in the same week! I make the best of my lot because all around me are people with a bigger cross to bear.
Today on the tenth anniversary of Jacks death, I will raise a glass to his memory and count all the blessings that knowing and loving him brought to my life.