In February 2014 my husband of 11 years and 360 days died. Matt was 39, I was 37 and our twins were 6. On that very ordinary day of the February 6th, my husband died in his consulting room in his own medical clinic.
My final text message to him was "please text me every hour so I know you are ok" in response to knowing he was booked for a CT scan at 2 that day as he had been experiencing shortness of breath the night before. When he didn't call me on the hour, I called his clinic to check in, only to be told he had been found in his consulting room in full cardiac arrest. I made it to the clinic within 40 minutes, in time to see the paramedics still desperately trying to save him. But having been married to a doctor for 11 years I knew already that there was no hope. They only transport you to hospital when you are stable and 40 minutes is a very long time...
The rest of 2014 was a blur. Though at the time I felt like I was coping fine, looking back I realize that I spent that year playing a live action version of pin the tail on the donkey. Life was haphazard. I was relearning how to live. Mostly I was just trying to stay afloat.
In 2015 I felt more conscious. Despite being busier and more tired than ever before I was also somehow more awake. Awake equally to possibilities as to pain; to opportunity as to the bleakness of a life turned on its head. And now? Now the idea of stepping out of my comfort zone to make the most of every day is never far from my mind... No regrets.
So I run. But not necessarily away from things. I quit my job (a job I mostly loved) to follow a dream. I went tree surfing to try and conquer my fear of heights, and ended up laughing more than I'd laughed in a year when we fell on our asses at the end of the course.
Nowadays I don't always choose the rational, practical option and I try not to overthink things. Cynicism and sarcasm have been replaced by meditation and yoga and I sometimes find myself smirking during the shavasana at what I can imagine Matt would think of it if only he knew!
There's a certain kind of irony actually that the extreme cynicism in my personality which Matt was first attracted to in me seems to have (mostly) died with him. I used to question everything, analyze all options, immediately discount anything new or strange. And whilst I'll never be a hippie and I'll never not be a list-maker, I've unquestionably changed. I know because my old friends (including the one on the yoga mat next to me) regularly ask me who the hell I am now.
Things that used to stress me are now minor inconveniences. A broken foot is a cause for bemusement rather than anger. Hiking to the top of a mountain sounds like a challenge instead of the start of a bad joke. If my house is slightly messy when people come over I shrug my shoulders -- there's no one to unnecessarily yell at about it anyway even if I wanted to. I am the only one responsible for the crumbs on the floor or the unwashed dishes and its liberating and lonely at the same time.
In the last year I've also started to make a conscious effort to look up. Not because I think I will see Matt in the sky, but because there is so much beauty that is so easy to miss when we are always looking straight ahead, or (worse) down... The tops of trees when we usually look at the trunks or branches. The clouds of course. Even, bizarrely, the second stories of old buildings in the local shopping strip. They're gorgeous. Who knew? If I was 20 years younger I'd start an Instagram movement #lookup. If I was 20 years younger I'd do a lot of things.
Of course there are things that despite my efforts I haven't managed to change about myself... I'm not always patient with the kids or as present as I should be. Nor can I say that I have learned how to suffer fools. I'm still too much of a worrier especially when it comes to the kids safety and I'm still too attached to my phone. I've also continued to eat way too much peanut butter...
with a spoon... from the jar.
But maybe having a list of things to challenge oneself with -- an anti-bucket list perhaps -- is what living is all about? I often think about how my husband and I spent so many nights with me watching bad TV and him in the study working til late in the night. I can't tell you how much I regret those nights now. And so I intend in 2016 to continue to walk this new path; to try to conquer my fear of flying, maybe run a half marathon (eek), to make a tangible difference to the life of at least one disadvantaged person and to pursue and hopefully conquer other currently unimagined challenges that will present themselves along the way.
But I'll also take the time to stop, to check in and make sure these things are truly how I want to be spending the precious days and moments of my life. Because if there's one thing I've learned it's that Ferris Bueller was right -- life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
I still think about Matt every day, sometimes every hour. So many things remind me of him. I guess you can't spend so many years of your life with someone and not have a memory that can relate to every place, moment and idea. Today I was reminded of him because of a carrot stick. Yep... But it could just have easily been a thousand other things. The spot at my children's school where we had our last family photo just a few days before his death. A movie theatre, which reminds me of our second date when he took me to see an amazing play, which reminds me of the show we missed in NYC because I got the date wrong, which reminds me that those two weeks in NYC six months before he died were the happiest I'd seen him other than when our kids were born. The rain reminds me of our wedding. But so does the sun. Just holding my phone reminds me how he refused to get a mobile til about two years after they became ubiquitous. Birkenstocks. A Coke sign. Salted caramel anything.You get the picture... The memories are everywhere. Sometimes direct. Sometimes tangential. But everywhere.
I have no doubt I'll always miss Matt, but as I contemplate a third year without him I can also feel the memories becoming more surreal... Kind of like vague childhood memories that you aren't sure are real or just based on a photograph... Because there's no one to corroborate my memory of "the memories" I sometimes wonder if they are real. If any of it was real. And then I see the kids' faces and I know that not only was it real, but that I need to remember everything in sharp detail to be able to give them even just the faintest sense of the fun, cheeky, sometimes crazy, often sulky, always stubborn, incredible father he was.
I joke about the silver linings -- he doesn't get a say anymore about whether I buy more decorative cushions and there's no one to do a late night 7/11 snack run. But of course there are more dark clouds than silver linings. I've never liked the dark.
Sometimes I wonder if the changes in me are permanent. Will there come a point where I revert to the pre-widowhood Fiona and turn sarcastic and fearful and closed? Is this new me in fact just a distraction from the reality of what has happened; an elaborate scheme in which denial is the main game and I'm both the queen and the pawn? Do we young widows who talk about wanting to live a life with no regrets and challenging ourselves to make the most of the gift of every heartbeat... Are we actually just building a wall of distraction and false courage to hide behind because facing the true light of day is too damn hard?
But does it matter? If distraction and denial and dark humor get us through the next hour or day or year maybe that's ok. Because the truth is nobody knows what tomorrow will bring. A day which begins in an ordinary way can end with the extraordinary. And whilst I've learned that this is true for the worst days in our lives it can also, I'm sure, be true for the best. Onwards.
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at email@example.com.