Death in a digital age is a funny old business. On Facebook Memories, a photograph has just flashed up to tell me that three years ago today, we were on a family day out to Liverpool, which we all enjoyed, save for the gnawing feeling in my stomach that my husband’s difficulty swallowing was not good news. Two years ago this week, or so it tells me, our little family was on a wonderful holiday, which we’d booked to celebrate our wild assumption that the whole shitty cancer thing was behind us. One year ago this week, my husband was lying in a hospice bed in our sitting room, dying.
Messages, wall posts and photographs have popped back up on my phone from this day last year. We’d told our wider circle of friends, through Facebook, a few days after my husband had been given a couple of weeks left to live, that his time was limited. As the days went on, his needs became greater and nobody expected us to reply to every message, but it was simply lovely to sit quietly together and read them. Of course, the outpouring of love and good memories was wonderful and heartwarming, which made my husband – who wasn’t up to seeing anyone in person – feel loved and treasured. He was a great communicator, and social media had become his platform, throughout his illness, to be himself – a place where nobody knew he was ill; where he could still be a man and not a cancer victim; where nobody stopped him to cock their head to one side, stroke his left arm, furrow their brow, and ask him how he was doing.
Once he’d been sent home from hospital, my husband and I rolled up our sleeves and started the Death Admin process. Writing letters to loved ones, seeing the few people he chose to see, winding down the business, realising it was just after the 1st April so he’d timed his retirement pretty well, but was going to take his Goddamned dividend because he may as well have it as not. It would pay for his funeral. Deciding not to reply to the text message from the stupid bastard cancer hospital who’d kicked him out late on Friday night, with his last breaths of life lingering inside a bottle of oxygen, asking him to rate their service. Cunts. Realising, once all the letters had been written, the passwords to everything noted, and the last calls made, that there was nothing left to say to each other at all. Not because we’d finally run out of words, but because everything that needed to be said, had been said before.
I sat and wondered if there was anything I needed to ask him, but couldn’t think of anything, and there was no nagging feeling of doubt. I also decided that the lumpiness I’d noticed within my left breast was a secret he didn’t need to share. His mind needed to be free and at peace. When he needed something, he asked for it. I tried to keep his bed tidy and comfortable. The boys lent him their favourite bedding, covered in London Underground maps. He was a pain in the arse with his medication. He kept taking off his oxygen tube. He needed a bloody good shave. He started to drink from a sippy cup. But, he always had his trademark jolly t-shirt to wear, and his watch, and his wedding ring. And a very thin friend lent him some pyjama bottoms which didn’t slide off what was left of his arse.
We took a few photos of him with the boys, which weren’t shared on Facebook because they were too private. I didn’t want people to remember him like that, and in some ways I wish we weren’t able to, either. Once our friends on social media became aware of his impending death, photos and memories were shared all over our walls, which brought him to life again, and captured his spirit, even as the body holding that spirit ebbed away.
When my husband had died, I became incredibly protective of his body. I insisted he went to be cared for by an undertaker who had been his friend. I took the best, most outrageously jolly shirt I could find to dress him in, along with his best trousers, socks and underpants. His friend rang to tell me that he was ready. Ready for what, I wondered. I went to see him, to sit with him, but asked his friend not to remove his coffin lid. Over the day or two since he’d died, I’d seen so many wonderful, lively, remarkable photographs and recordings of my husband in his heyday – healthy, happy, and full of life – that I couldn’t bear to go back to the memory of the thin, bald, weak shadow of a man inside that coffin. I knew they’d drained him of fluid and filled him back up again – it’s why they’d asked for a photograph to make sure they could push his beautiful pouting lips and high cheekbones back into place – and I couldn’t handle the thought of them doing it wrong, and never being able to unsee his cold, dead, fucked-about-with face. So, I sat with his coffin, with his name on the lid, in a tiny little room named after some ghastly racecourse or other, decorated with an awful floral border, a dense carpet, and artificial flowers. And I wept. Then, I wondered if the dense carpet was there to break the fall in case the coffin fell off its perch. I looked at the shape of the coffin and hoped to God his broad shoulders weren’t too tightly packed in there and that he had room for manoeuvre. I couldn’t bear the thought of him being uncomfortable. I couldn’t bear the thought of him being dead.
I wonder if I’ll ever forgive myself for not wanting to see him after he’d died. Those wonderful pictures of him, healthy and well – and, actually, far too bloody fat at times – took me back so suddenly and so instantly to a happier time, that it seemed pointless remembering the person he’d become – the person he hated to look at in the mirror. Cancer was in that coffin, but the memories, the soul, the beauty of the man – well, they were all over social media. They were in the little device in my pocket that I could pick up any time and look at. But, as the months have marched on since, the further back I have to scroll to find him. And, once I’ve found him, I still have to scroll past the skinniness, the oxygen mask, the shit final holiday, the four months of wearing the hideous grey hoodie which was the only thing he could find to keep himself warm enough. (He was right. It’s bloody lovely. I wear it so he can hug my bald head and body as the chemo knocks the heat out of me, too.)
Almost 365 days on, I have to scroll a long way back to find him now. I scroll through his Facebook wall to find his own postings. I scroll through my phone to find pictures of him from happier times. I have to scroll past our days out, our stupid dog, my bald head and wig selection process, snaps of my left tit in various states of disrepair, our boys in their new school uniforms, our first summer holiday as a threesome, our boys on their last day of primary school, more stupid bloody dog, visits to Great Granny, a charity run for sodding cancer, family weddings, fucking Fathers’ Day, meals out, the boys’ 11th birthday, trips to the football, his funeral flowers reworked by the local hospice to give their patients a boost, his coffin, flowers and more flowers adorning our home, and him, with his treasured boys, cuddled up in bed. And back, and back, until we find some happiness again.
This time last year, my husband was dying, but he was still my husband. His hands held ours, and we were a family. Late tomorrow, this time last year, my husband will have died, which takes him another step further away from us. But, as I scroll back, I realise we have made some memories since he left us. Some new ones. There are some happy times in there, but all tinged with an aching loss that one person is missing from the picture, and we can’t simply photoshop him back in again. He isn’t even here to take photographs of me in chemo chairs balancing sick bowls on my head, even though it’s tradition. But maybe it’s time for a new tradition. Maybe I have to accept that, one day, we will have taken more photographs without him, than with him.
It’s almost 365 days, and 768 photographs, since I held his beautiful hands. But I can still scroll back with my fingers, for as long as it takes, just to touch his hand once more.