There is a metaphor for grief – I didn’t come up with it, but it’s a good one: a ball in a box, bouncing around constantly and hitting the sides. Each time it hits the side, it causes pain. As time passes, the grief does not disappear, but it gets smaller as it bounces around. When it catches on the side of the box, it hurts just as much as it ever did, but as time goes by, it catches less often. Which makes it more painful when it does come.
I had a moment like that the other week when I heard a Simon and Garfunkel song we used to listen to, about friends who grew up together, growing old together. This year has been peppered with such events. They are gunshot wounds, moments captured inside me like scenes in a film.
In October last year Leo sent me a message. It’s spread, she said, to my liver. My prognosis is not what I thought. I don’t want to talk about it yet. That night I danced to a song I’d heard on the radio as I dropped the kids off, and I packed to go visit my mother, and I was crying while I danced. A few days later I started a new relationship – not the best timing. A few weeks later I took my mother to see her goddaughter for what we knew would be the last time and Leo tore into my mother for, essentially, having a longer timeline ahead of her and using it unwisely. Bang. Another gunshot.
I drove to see Leo on Boxing Day. Her family all there, her father frail, her mother unchanged. I had not seen them in decades. I was en route from one thing to another and I squandered that time, I did not appreciate it, and really that was the last normal time. I arranged to stay overnight a few weeks later, but I couldn’t – I had been at a party and someone there had gone into isolation. I couldn’t pass COVID onto Leo – it would have killed her.
The world closed down, we locked ourselves away. We messaged occasionally. We arranged to speak on the phone but she wasn’t feeling well.
Out of the blue she called, early in my work day. I knew it was serious, for her to phone out of the blue. The tumours are pressing on my lungs, she said. I don’t have long. I won’t make the end of lockdown. Fuck covid, she said.
Incoherent, I stumbled on with my day, blasting honesty at anyone who spoke to me. That weekend I flouted the rules. This was essential travel. I hugged people who weren’t in my household. I left the square mile I’d existed in for weeks, and I drove a weird route, thinking there would be roadblocks. I arrived late. She was tired. We talked. And talked.
And I still didn’t get it. She wanted me to lie on the bed beside her the last time we had seen each other. It seemed too intimate. But now, she was uncomfortable to have anyone near her.
I went back a couple of weeks later. Come on Sunday, she said. I had a time slot; she had another visitor later. Only Leo could die so competently, stage-managing everyone. I arrived as the nurse did, and made small talk, and then I went into her room and by God we said goodbye. I mean, really, really said goodbye in a way few people ever do. We were honest, we were able to say that we loved each other and that we had been good friends to each other. She could barely speak by this stage, her voice quiet and high because of the tumours. At one point she coughed so horribly I thought she would throw up. It was heartbreaking and essential and ridiculously cruel.
I hugged her and waved goodbye and I knew, deep down, that that was it. I drove home, numb, and I was numb for the next day and the next until her daughter called me to say her mother had died.
For a moment I thought she was talking of Leo’s mother. Leo could not be dead. It was absurd. She was too young, it was May, the sun was shining.
The next few days were just as numb, and then I was given a decision. I could watch the funeral on the internet or I could go in person. I felt privileged. Forty-four years is a long time to be friends, even if there have been gaps. This was the first person outside of my family for whom I had felt love. To lose someone you grew up with – to say it hurts is not even the right word. When the ball hits the side of the box, it is as if I am pierced.
I went to the socially distanced funeral, and it was one of the most awful things I have ever experienced.
I wasn’t ready, in any way. I was dressed wrongly, for the hot weather of the day before. I stood two metres apart from people I grew up with and next to strangers. Her sister was so like her, I wanted to shout out, did you ever notice you are identical? And, can you stop doing that? And yet the reason we were all there was an absence.
The funeral should have been a huge, evangelical party. The vicar was one of her closest friends, she had so many colleagues and was a major organizer in the church. But the event felt perfunctory. Too many people tried to view online, and the streaming failed. And I, allowed to be there, was not present. How could I be? There was a grey felt ribboned box which epitomized the way I had never understood Leo’s taste, which could not possibly hold her body, and songs that I did not get, and people I did not know. Her daughter fell apart in someone’s else’s arms and I walked out and there were people who in ordinary circumstances I could have relaxed into, over several hours, until we could speak of her – but we had been told not to, and the ushers were watching us beadily. I blurted, at her daughter’s best friend and at her son’s father, that I had to go before I hugged someone or hit someone. Even when saying it, I knew it was not what I wanted to say, but words had failed me. And then I went to the car and shut the door and I didn’t know what to do, almost felt I could go back and couldn’t go back and then I bawled and howled and keened, wiped the snot across my face and shouted and wept. For about fifteen minutes I absolutely lost my mind.
When I came to, someone was knocking on the car door. I fell into her little brother’s arms and I was offered a social event but as I drove there I realized this:
I was alone.
Grief is the ultimate and most lonely thing, because the relationship you are grieving is one no-one in the world can understand.
And I had to deal with it on my own.
I spent the evening eating and watching ‘Withnail and I,’ because that would at least take my mind off having run like a coward from the pain, from showing my pain, from not being able to deal with the pain of others.
There will be a memorial. Next year, perhaps. I will say something then. I don’t know what.
When we used to cross the country to see each other, we wrote letters. People did, in those days. I found those letters, and I read some, on the day of her funeral. And I realized I had not listened to her. She loved me, and valued me, and I was a hit-and-miss sort of friend. Maybe she was too, but there were hints of damage through those letters, in among the wild behaviour of her teens. What happened, in those half-hinted, dark moments on an African beach? What happened to that boy she saw for years? I will never know.
We did not become friends by accident. We used each other, to escape from things in our lives – I saw that, a decade or more ago. She was my sister. A woman utterly in love with her work and with her God. An older soul than me in some ways, and yet so much simpler. I was overcomplicating life.
A few days after the funeral, a moment of bliss came upon me while I was meditating. I was grieving, a relationship was coming to an end and the world skittering out of my control, I was alone and struggling and trying to handle what I could, and something came upon me and told me that within me was a still centre of happiness, which nothing could ever take away. I don’t know where it came from, but it transformed my lockdown, and although I feel survivor guilt every time I see the invite to her living wake on my mantlepiece, I also know what I have to do. Which is to be alive, and to breathe, and to listen, and to live each wonderful moment as it comes.
For which, Leo, if you sent that message, or arranged for it to be sent, I thank you.