I meant to publish this just after Christmas, which passed without incident. I’d forgotten how to enjoy festive family time, because for the last four years its presence only enhanced the pain we were in as a family. Whether we were waiting for test results, or scans, or news of a trial which might just give my husband a bit more time, or for a mastectomy which would only afterwards determine whether my life could be saved or simply prolonged a bit, every Christmas week (when the rest of the country ground to a halt and celebrated) left us dangling in painful suspended animation. Every year, we wondered if it would be the last we’d see with our children.
But this year, it was wonderful. Quiet, calm, content… and rather than being angry for the loss of my husband (though of course the grief hit us all at times) I chose to feel grateful for the three extra stockings around the fireplace brought by the lovely New Chap and his welcome little brood. Yes, I was still waiting to be given a reconstruction date by the hospital (henceforth known as the Build-a-Boob Workshop), but even that had stopped bothering me too much. I was happy to just be alive and well.
I didn’t expect this Christmas to be so good. We did nothing. Saw very few people. We simply snuggled up for a few days, and enjoyed being together as a mixed up family with multiple teens and toddlers. I loved having New Chap and his children in the house which for so long had been the place of pain and misery, because it was brought to life again – just as a family home should be. It’s just that my definition of family has evolved since the day my husband and I bought it with our one-year-old twins in tow, full of optimism for the future (and a strong desire to get rid of the hideous dark wood and ghastly peach bathroom tiles).
Timehop kept showing me pictures from Christmases gone by. Of small boys unwrapping gifts by the fireside, with their contented Daddy still half asleep in his dressing gown, and a probably much more frazzled Mummy behind the camera; of exciting trips to Florida, South Africa and Thailand with slightly bigger boys, because the rest of the family couldn’t agree on who we should spend Christmas with, so we just took ourselves out of the equation for a few years (a tactic I can highly recommend); of more cuddles by the fireside with eight, nine, ten year old boys, desperately trying to smile. Not knowing what gift to buy for a man who was dying. A man who was wearing his dressing gown because he was too weak to get dressed.
Photos of chemo, feeding tubes and scan appointments kept cropping up. These weren’t pictures we’d ever put on social media, but photos we’d taken for fun because there are so many different ways you can model a cardboard sick bowl, and my husband was determined to try them all. There were even photos of the remains of my left boob, from a couple of years ago. I was determined to remember that, too, so I took a sneaky selfie before surgery (you’ll be pleased to hear that that didn’t go on Facebook either). As I idly scrolled through the pictures, with the New Chap reading on the sofa beside me, I realised that I remembered it all as if it was yesterday. I remembered my husband’s stoicism. His bravery. His resolve. His tumour humour. When times are tough, especially with the boys, I often refer back to him in my mind, and imagine what he’d do or say in a situation. The memory of him never fades.
I remember him vividly. I hope I always will. But I don’t remember me.
In our marriage, as with all good relationships, my husband and I grew and developed together like intertwining vines. I like to think we were both on a continuous programme of improvement, actually. I still am. The 23 year old woman who stood in church and placed a ring on her fiancé’s finger was a completely different woman from the wife who received that ring back in an envelope with his name on it (after the wholly unnecessary words “The Late”, I thought), at the age of 37. Because we’d grown together, though, I was always the right woman for him. I was always the best wife I could be. The best mum. The best friend. Not always perfect – and in fact, frequently apologised for and learned from mistakes I’d made. But the eighteen months between losing my husband and meeting someone else were shaken by the chaos of yet more cancer, and the one-titted widow with the terrible post-chemo crop, who reluctantly signed up to eHarmony to shut up her kids (who thought having a fella might stop her from crying all the time), was not the woman my husband fell in love with. I don’t remember that woman at all.
Interestingly, if online dating had been as much of a thing seventeen years ago, when my husband and I got together, we’d never have been considered compatible.
There were 25 years between us. I was a university student, and he was self-employed. He’d been successful in the past, but had hit a tough period during single parenthood, with no steady income, and had run up thousands of pounds’ worth of debt. He had grown up children, a grandchild, and two ex-wives. I was young and had always wanted children, but he’d had an irreversible vasectomy. He had left school without A Levels, and never quite finished the degree he began in his forties, but was undoubtedly the most intelligent man I’d ever met.
We’d met on a fire escape on a smoking break when we were both doing a little bit of freelancing for a local company. Friendship turned to admiration, which turned to attraction, which turned to love. It didn’t happen overnight, and no website in the world would have matched us up.
It was a rollercoaster. It took work, effort, and compromise on both sides. It wasn’t always easy, but we made it happen. We made it our marriage. We stayed married, and faithful, and loving, until the day he died. Shortly before he passed, he told me that being married to me had been the greatest privilege of his life (and that was quite a compliment from a man who’d been married so many times before). I felt the same.
For eighteen months afterwards, I felt that bond of marriage holding us together as strongly as ever. I still wear my wedding and engagement rings (but on the opposite hand now). And I wear his, too. I still do everything I can to keep his name in the conversation. I still do everything I can to bring up his beloved boys surrounded by love, good humour, and compassion, just as he would have done if he was still here.
Conversely, my relationship with the New Chap (with whom I matched 100% in every area on the tedious online quiz they make you take before you can start perving over potential partners) has been effortless from the start… but I don’t think that’s because we’re necessarily a better match (or because we’re both left-leaning atheists who don’t want any more kids). We don’t live together yet, for a start. I know enough about him – and he about me – to know that we probably wouldn’t have hit it off ten years ago, when he was last on the market (only one divorce down) and I was knee-deep in toddlers. I think we’re better people for the experiences we’ve had, and are determined to make our relationship last, because our last ones didn’t. His biggest fear is that I’ll leave him, whereas my biggest fear is that he’ll die. And we’re both committed to making sure that neither of those things happen… although, of course, married or not, I will love him in sickness and in health, until death us do part (but it had better bloody not do just yet).
When my husband used to snore in the night, I had every normal wife’s natural reaction. I wanted to pummel him in the back of the head with the bedside lamp. But, having spent eighteen months in an empty bed, pining for my husband to come back to me and snore – or fart – just once… I love to hear the sound of my new fella snoring because it means he’s alive. If he farts and rolls over, it means he’s well fed. He’s beside me. He loves me. He’s there. I wasn’t a bad wife, but losing my husband has made me a far better partner than I’ve ever been before. Having him beside me – alive and well – makes me so grateful, because the loss I’ve experienced before is so great. I know how much worse it can be.
Meanwhile, New Chap had only previously been attracted to women with blonde hair and big tits. He’s moved on from that one quite admirably. (He’s had to, really.)
I choose now to live in the moment. To enjoy the life I have, and the people in it, although a lot of the people who used to be in it have quietly disappeared. I look back at photos of my husband with love, fondness, and unwavering respect. But within those pictures of the last few Christmases I also feel so much pain that the only way for me to look now is forward. I look forward to a new year, to “our” new boobs (which will be reinstated next week, all being well. On Tuesday. Obviously, this is now being referred to as Boobie Tuesday), and a life of growing together, with new shoots appearing from our vine all the time, and hopefully at least one melon. (We won’t be having a baby, though. I no longer have the necessary equipment to feed one properly, for a start.)
We will grow together, and love each other, being anchored by the roots of past mistakes and the branches of experience. They helped us to grow to where we are now.
Love Fanny x