A few years ago, I read on Facebook that a woman named Desreen – a beautiful woman, though that’s probably irrelevant – had been knocked over and killed after leaving my auntie’s brother’s house. Her two-year-old son was with her, along with her husband. It’s a loose connection, but because I know and love someone who’d met her personally, I’ve read her husband’s Life As A Widower blog with interest and sympathy, never imagining that one day I’d be widowed too. Although my husband died in much less tragic circumstances, the end result is the same. A dead spouse. A new widow. A child or two to bring up alone, alongside the grief. A whole load of shit to shovel through the tears. I could say the same things to Ben Brooks-Dutton as people say to me. You’re brave. You’re amazing. I don’t know how you do it. And all the while, no doubt, like me, he’ll be grateful for the support, glad that he can release some of the pressure in his head by pouring words onto a page, and he’ll think, but I don’t really have any other choice.
One of Mr Brooks-Dutton’s articles resonated me with me recently, but probably not for the reasons he’d intended it to. It wasn’t long after my husband had died, and I saw that one of his blogs had been shared by WAY – a charity I’d joined fairly early on, for moral support. I was drowning under a pile of probate, trying to work out what the fuck I needed to do with the mortgage and the business, making spreadsheets of what I had to earn in order to survive, and sorting out which car I could afford to keep and which I’d have to sell. My husband had made it all pretty easy – he didn’t really have any savings (apart from the ISA we’d half-heartedly been stashing bits of cash into, in a vague attempt to reduce the mortgage capital when the time came) but he’d written a will and a letter of wishes, and things were as straightforward as they could have been. Nonetheless, it was still a nightmare for a grieving simpleton like me, who’s never really been all that interested in money or investments. We once thought we’d be clever, and invested my husband’s rather pitiful pension with a stockbroker. It was 2008. I probably don’t need to tell you the rest. In my life, I’ve gone from ordinary, to homeless, to comparatively rich, but the amount of cash in my pocket has never really determined how I feel about being me. I’d be lying if I said that losing the house doesn’t concern me, though, especially when we’ve already lost the one thing that money can’t buy. But it’s not everything, because we’ve already lost the one thing that money can’t buy.
Ben Brooks-Dutton had written about the concept of Love Insurance – and why, if you love your family, it’s important to take out an insurance policy to look after them in death as well as in life, as we don’t ever know what’s around the corner. (Actually, even when we’ve known what’s around the corner for two years, we don’t really know at all. We simply turn around and walk in the other direction, until we hit the final wall and it tears us to pieces anyway.)
I totally understand his point. When I was 26 and had just given birth to twins, we took out a policy which would see the mortgage paid off and my husband and boys looked after, should anything happen to me. My husband was older than me, you see. 25 years older (but not in his head.) Taking out insurance in your twenties is cheap, affordable, and something I’d encourage everyone to do as a matter of course. It’s just one of those essential life expenses, even if you don’t yet have a family.
We investigated a joint policy, and baulked (or laughed – I can’t quite remember) when they told us it would cost around £500 per month for a 52-year-old ex-smoker with cancer running through the heart of his family. He did have a few policies anyway, bought to pay off old mortgages from years ago, but they had been due to run out before too long, and having already had two divorces under his belt, his finances had never been quite straight. My husband had been a practically professional smoker for about 30 years. A joint cigarette break on the fire escape at work had brought us together in the first place, so we owed our entire relationship to Marlboro Lights, even though we’d both quit when the boys were on their way.
That £500 per month didn’t seem affordable at the time, and probably wasn’t. We shopped around, couldn’t find it cheaper, and decided not to bother.
My husband was the greatest Fuck-It Merchant on the planet. He wasn’t completely reckless or a total spendthrift (hello, we had an ISA!) but money burned a hole in his pocket. He enjoyed what he had, and loved to share it about. His inherent generosity towards the people he loved was one of the many things I found attractive about him. He never planned to retire, and if he had, at 25 years his junior I’d have been his pension anyway. We’d already decided that we didn’t like the local private school anywhere near as much as we liked the local state school (frankly, we were both a bit too left-wing to seriously consider it,) and justified every holiday with the fact that we would all learn more from seeing the world at first hand than our little boys would, stuck inside an expensive classroom.
That £500 per month (added to the theoretical thousands we were saving on school fees) paid for us to take our little boys all over the world – to the Pyramids of Giza, to tree houses in the national parks of South Africa, via Glastonbury Festival, the Acropolis of Athens, and sleeper trains through Thailand (that one almost ended in divorce.) Our kids have bartered for fake footy kits in Turkey, kayaked along the shores of Lake Garda, swum with turtles in Barbados, and picked out street jewellery in Tunisia. We’ve also done Disneyland at Christmas – I mean, come on. It can’t all be as wholesome as fuck. Our boys have no problem navigating an airport, but show them a bus and they probably won’t even know which side of the road to stand on to catch the bloody thing, but everything in time.
I’m glad that, when he died, I had hundreds of photographs of my husband in places all over the world, standing with his boys. They are smiling, and cuddling, and full of life. Even when he was dying. Especially when he was dying. The pride and love and happiness in that man’s face shines through, as it does in his children’s. I’m glad that we couldn’t choose which single memory summed him up the best, and in the end went for a montage of photographs to use in the order of service at his funeral.
Now that I’m the sole breadwinner, I won’t be stupid with money. I was always the more sensible one, anyway. Without a cushion, it’ll be a bumpy ride, but if those boys aren’t incentive enough to keep our business running now that it’s spluttering along at half the power, I don’t know what is. What would I do if we’d taken out that life insurance and now I didn’t have to work? Sit in our paid-for house and remember all those amazing times when we’d stayed at home, working? Meet friends for coffee? My friends all work full-time anyway. I need a push, and I’ve bloody well got it. I won’t fail. I can’t afford to.
Our age gap is unusual, and every family must do what they need to. I recognise that the sudden death of a young woman like Desreen is completely different from the expected death of a near-retired man, except perhaps inside the heads of the young kids they leave behind. Many young widowed parents and their children can only live as full a life as possible, because they’d taken out cover, and I’m glad Desreen was able to give her family that unwanted but nonetheless useful gift.
We chose life ensurance over life insurance. My husband hasn’t left us destitute – he’s left us with skills, with options, and with few regrets – except for the things we never got around to doing. He hasn’t left our kids with piles of money. He’s left them with the world on a plate, and with enough deposits in their memory banks to make them millionaires.
Love Fanny x