Elaine was always one for getting things done and sorted well in advance, so as to be ready for the event if and when it should occur.
I’m not certain she was always like this. I suspect it was the possibility, or probability, of recurring cancer that got her thinking this way. But certainly in later life she was big on making lists, and was always pleased when something was accomplished and a line could be drawn through it.
A few weeks before she went into the hospice I noticed the words- Contact Jane Arnold-on a list, on Elaine’s desk.
Other things got crossed off but this name remained, so I asked one day, “Who is Jane Arnold?”
Elaine explained that Jane was a friend from the Vintage Fair days, who also happened to be a professional funeral celebrant.
Though we had most of Elaine’s future funeral well sorted, we had nobody to take the actual service, until Elaine thought of Jane. She wanted to ask me if it would be a good idea to get her over for a meeting, but she hadn’t yet plucked-up the courage to ask my opinion.
I figured if it helped Elaine it must be a good thing, so I readily agreed, and Jane was duly contacted.
I’ll be careful here, as I know Jane reads the blog, but I liked her and knew she was right, as soon as we met.
Both Elaine and I wanted someone to preside over her service who was professional, yet human with it, but not austere or pious. Someone with a foot in each camp of respect and humour but understanding of the fact that humour and fear go hand in hand.
Jane ticked all the boxes.
She was enthusiastic and humorous when it was called for, taking her leads from us. But at all times she was totally professional with an obvious care and a real love for her work.
We met on the Friday before Christmas, and none of the three of us realised just how fast things were now going to start moving. Elaine would be back in hospital that very afternoon, and by Monday afternoon she was in the hospice.
I remain deeply grateful that Jane’s name got crossed off that list.
Tuesday 5th January 2021.
It’s a few minutes after 8am and I’m looking down at the body of my wife on the hospice bed.
Elaine passed away- whatever that means- just seconds ago, while I cried and held her hand. Now I’m stood but I’m not aware of having done so, I just am.
The tears have stopped, abruptly, suddenly, just stopped. Like a tap cut off in mid flow.
There’s a coldness, not in the room, but inside me. It’s spreading quickly, as winter frost does on a pane of glass, but there are no pretty patterns here.
All I can see is the bed and Elaine, so still, unnaturally still. Nothing else exists in my world right now, just the scene before me.
But there is something else, inside, deep inside, there’s something talking to me. A flat sexless voice that’s gradually getting louder.
“How’s it come to this? Why? Why Elaine? Why your wife, didn’t she do enough, try hard enough? What’s she ever done to deserve this fucking room and this end?”
“What about all the rotten selfish grasping self- serving bastards there are on this planet, you know some of them for Christs sake, why aren’t they here dead on the bed instead of Elaine, or their bloody wives. Where’s the sodding justice in this? WHY THE HELL CAN’T………”
I guess each of us has a limit, a point where we are pushed so hard by others or events, that we simply snap. We don’t mean to or want to, it just happens and regret nearly always follows.
With me though there is a less distinct edge. I have known for a long time that there is a point within me that it’s not a good idea for anyone, or even myself, to venture beyond, but right now it’s just been kicked off a fucking cliff straight in front of me.
With all reason rapidly disintegrating, my minds become the landscape of Hiroshima.
I am aware, inside of me, of a ‘reaching back’, back to something normally too far away to touch. It’s not the body, more the spirit and it goes far further than this lifetime.
Back, back to something ancient and feral, not evil, it knows no allegiance, but its madness is rising faster within than I can check it.
Its voice is in my head now and it whispers convincingly of rage of fury and blind mindless hatred.
It’s Clare, I had completely forgotten. It seems I’ve been stood here for ages, but really it’s only been the few seconds that it has taken her to come round the bed to be near my side.
“Mark, I’m so sorry, I’m so very sorry, we all loved her.”
Her gentle words fell the demon with a single stroke, and it falls forgotten into the void inside of me.
“Mark I have to tell the others and get some help in here, will you be alright if I leave for a few minutes?”
“Yes, yes I’ll be OK, you do what you have to Clare.” (Where did that calm voice come from?)
“Are you sure? Do you want me to leave the door open?”
“No close the door and please don’t worry, I’m alright.”
She hurries out pulling the door shut behind her. Fuck the world it can keep its nose out of here for the next few minutes.
Again I look down at Elaine. There is no anger now, just sadness, a deep impenetrable well of sadness that is heavy, vast and impossibly silent. At its centre is what’s left of my heart.
I notice her right eye is still partially open, so I brush my fingers gently downwards against her eyelid, closing away that beautiful blue iris from the world forever.
She looks so small. She always was very petite. Only five feet and a few inches tall and never overweight. But what she lacked in stature she made up for in presence and personality, and she had a big heart.
Don’t get me wrong, she was no saint. Elaine could be as stubborn as a mule at times and she had the unfortunate habit ( to which she fully admitted ) of engaging her mouth three seconds before engaging her brain.
She could easily upset others by telling them the truth, as she saw it, whether they wished to hear it or not. But it was always with the best of intensions, she hated losing friends.
She possessed a wicked sense of humour, dark and sometimes merciless, but nearly always self-depreciating. She would not want to be the cause of embarrassment to others.
If Elaine saw someone slip on a banana skin in the street, she would laugh.
But she would then be the first there to help them up. Then drive them home, make them a cup of tea and feed their cat, and the next day she would return with a cake she’d baked to cheer them up.
That was Elaine, that was my wife.
She despised wasting time. Constantly coming up with new ideas, she was always on the go, as much that is as the cancer would allow, or the treatments for it. But she never complained about her lot. There was no “why me” with Elaine. It was more “why not me” with her, and she hated it when people moaned on about their own health issues, especially the petty ones.
Here was someone who despite all the shit flying off the fan in her direction, managed a full life in far less than full circumstances.
Many a person, and I include myself, would have sunk under the burden that she endured. The constant threat of unstoppable cancer and an early death, endless treatments to try and prevent this, which in their own right poisoned her body, all conspired to extract a heavy price for her survival.
She was and is the bravest person I have ever known.
I look around the room. Are you there? In the corner maybe, or perhaps by the outside door.
You could be by my side, invisible, unheard, watching.
You know the secrets now, the veil has lifted for you. The universe, God, how and why, but you can’t tell me.
Though you could be by my side the distance between us is immeasurable, and we never wanted anything to come between us. Only death has managed to do this, and even it can’t part us forever. Nothing and no one else ever did, or ever will.
Is what you believed in true Elaine? As this life has ended for you do you now remember that there have been others before? Were we together then? Will we be again in some distant future?
Although Elaine was born into a Jewish family she didn’t really hold too much with organised religions.
She thought that each contained a piece of the puzzle and that if people got hope and comfort from their own beliefs, then that had to be a good thing. Though she had no time for the self-righteous and falsely pious who look down on those who do not share their views.
Elaine believed more in a benign, all knowing and loving universe, being the God figure, and that the spirit of it is in us, and all things around us, in nature and the world in general.
She, like myself, had come to see life as a continuous circle. A cycle where each individual keeps coming back to learn more and more, though for what reason and purpose we could never guess.
Elaine was unshakeable that we had been together before and would be again. I hope she was right.
Voices outside the door break my thoughts and Clare returns with another nurse. Their sadness is not forced but is genuine and felt.
I move to the outside door and open it up. The rush of cold air is like a kiss from the new morning and is most welcome.
Outside the day is bright and I breathe in as deeply as I can, enjoying the physical presence of the air in my lungs.
I feel guilty, guilty, that I’m still alive while Elaine is not.
The guilt of the survivor I suppose, unjustified, but guilt nonetheless.
Stepping back into the room I’m told there will be forms for me to complete and other formalities to sort, but that everything can be done to suit me at my own pace.
There has been a shift in priorities. The attention is now more on me rather than Elaine. It’s a crown that sits heavy on my head.
I collect my phone and go outside, it’s time to start letting the world know what has happened. The private moments are over, at least for now, and I call Julie first.
She knows by my calling at this hour what has occurred before I can tell her, and the heartbreak is evident in her voice. She tells me to hang on and that she will soon be with me, as her home is only a few minutes’ drive away.
Thank you Elaine, you certainly did know how to choose a best friend.
Next I call my best pal Mike. He’s not at home. I don’t want to call his mobile, his fondness for Elaine goes very deep, as did hers for him, and if he happens to be driving, well you get the picture.
I ring Colin, Elaine’s brother, we have been in constant contact. I know he is expecting this call but it doesn’t make it any easier.
Then I call Jane Arnold, the sorrow in her voice is real, she tells me to call the Woodland Burial people straight away, and she will contact them herself later on. I do so, and am re-assured by their response to my questions and I feel both Elaine and I are going to be in good hands.
I am so glad now that we did all this groundwork beforehand, to try and organise things from scratch, at this time, would be beyond me.
A couple more brief calls and then I get through to Mike. He too was expecting this but the devastation is obvious in his words. He’ll see me at home later, and I know I’m going to need him like never before.
I’m bloody lucky to have a friend of his quality, they don’t grow on trees.
Julie arrives and we look at each other and tearfully embrace, nothing needs to be said.
The nurses remove Elaine’s earrings and are going to take off her wedding ring when I stop them.
Some years previously Elaine had said,” You’ll want to keep my wedding ring if I die won’t you Mark?”
“No”, was my reply, and for a second or two she looked crestfallen.
Then I explained that she would always be my wife, even in death, so the ring will stay with her. I don’t want it just gathering dust in a draw then ending up on some other finger after I’m gone.
She was very pleased with this, and my wedding ring from her will be with me when I’m laid beside her at last.
Julie and I pack-up both Elaine’s things and my own. It’s a thankless task but it has to be done so we just get on with it.
I’m reminded of times when Elaine and I had been away and would pack up our room on the final morning. We liked going away but returning home together was always fun too. This time going home won’t be fun, and the fact is nothing is going to be the same for me ever again. I know this, but am nowhere even close to grasping the enormity of it.
Once everything’s in the car and the final paperwork is sorted, it’s time to say goodbye to Forest Holme.
I give a last kiss to Elaine. I know that it’s just her body I’m leaving, she’s already gone, but I feel a bit like Judas leaving her there. In truth I am completely numb.
The drive home is uneventful and quick, Julie follows a few minutes behind me.
Back at the Lodge all feels alien and empty. So many things still exactly as she left them, and she’ll never move them again.
The Christmas tree and decorations, witnesses to so much happiness and joy over the years, look embarrassed to be seen, but there’s nowhere to hide.
Julie arrives close behind me and I stop thinking and make us both coffee. Sitting down beside her at the kitchen table she asks if I’ve got a notebook or writing pad, so I fetch both.
As I sit back down Julie takes out a pen, opens the notebook then looks at me and says;
“Right Mark, it’s time to start making a list.”
To be continued…