Her scream wakes me up. It is the loudest most piercing scream I have ever heard, or ever want to.
It is alive with fear, and it comes from Elaine who is in the bed beside me.
I cannot remember the date but it was early summertime last year.
I’m wide awake in a split second, the room is totally dark.
“Oh God no, oh Mark.”
“Elaine, what is it? What’s wrong?”
“Oh Mark put the light on quick.”
I hit the switch, turn, and see Elaine sitting bolt upright beside me. She is as white as a sheet.
“What’s wrong darling tell me?”
“Oh God Mark, he was there.”
“By the side of the bed.”
“What did he want?”
“He said,” “I’ve come for you.”
“What did you say?”
“I said, I couldn’t go, I didn’t have a bagel to take with me.”
(At this point I must say that Elaine loved bagels. For a slim woman she could just stuff them down. Personally I hate the bastards. To me they are like trying to chew a dense foam ring, but she adored them. Mind you, it had to be the plain ‘New York’ ones, you couldn’t fob this girl off with supermarket own brands.)
Her bizarre statement breaks the mood, and we both giggle a little. I put my arms around her and hold her close. She is still shaking.
“It’s alright, just a dream.”
“God Mark, it was so real, he was stood right there, so vivid so solid.”
“Why a bagel?”
“I don’t know, it was all I could think to say.”
“Well I’ve heard of a few coins to pay the ferryman, perhaps you wanted a bagel to give or share instead.”
The look on her face told me she didn’t fancy sharing her bagel with anyone, let alone a robed skeleton ferryman, but I carried on.
“Tell you what, so as you’re not caught napping if anything happens I’ll make sure you have a bagel with you, for the journey, OK?”
“OK, a bagel for the journey, sounds pretty good.”
I turn out the light, and we snug back down in the dark, but it played on my mind, what if it was more than a dream?
I knew as I laid there that it was playing on her mind too.
Tuesday 5th January 2021.
It’s around 11am, Julie and I are sat at the kitchen table in what is now my-and only mine- home. Only mine because my darling wife Elaine died a few short hours ago, in Forest Holme hospice. We are sat with pens and notepads and a list is being prepared of things which have to be done.
This is the sort of situation Elaine excelled in. She was good on the phone and computer and was systematic in her approach to official things. I’ve always been more erratic, was never keen on using the phone and had only sent a handful of emails in my life, prior to Elaine going into the hospice.
A steep learning curve lies ahead, though strangely, I’ll find all that I’m going to need is at hand or finds its way to me.
Julie wisely advises me not to start phoning banks ETC today, but just try and get through each moment and start tomorrow with the official stuff. I gladly agree.
Elaine left instructions for Julie to announce her death on her (Elaine’s) Facebook page, so Julie starts to draft out a simple notice to tell the social media world that Elaine has gone.
The phone rings for the first time today. Its Poole hospital calling.
Forest Holme does not have a mortuary so Elaine has been taken the short distance to the main hospital where, once the paperwork is completed she can be collected by the Woodland Burial people.
The lady who calls asks if I am satisfied that all was done for Elaine that could have been, or have I any complaints.
Far from it. I believe her treatment in the hospice right up to her death was second to none. Their aid and compassion to me was also superb.
She then asks; “Is it true, I’m reading here that she had been battling cancer for the last thirty years?”
“Yes, that’s correct.” I reply.
“She must truly have been a very strong woman, quite remarkable, what courage.”
I feel very proud, so many people are incredulous of the fact of Elaine’s tenacity in the face of such deadly odds. I believe her refusal to let it beat her down kept her alive, and us together for so many extra years.
Julie has completed the Facebook announcement, we read it through together, its right first time.
I have to register Elaine’s death which must be done at Poole but due to the lockdown can only be done over the phone. So I ring and a call-back appointment is arranged for 2pm.
Thank goodness Elaine had set-up files for our official documents ETC, it makes things a lot easier now to find the relevant information that is needed. But to be perfectly frank, Julie is taking the lead here and guiding me with carefully placed suggestions as I really am in a daze of disbelief at the enormity of this situation.
Elaine’s death is duly registered, it is a painless process, and Julie takes her leave of me mid-afternoon.
Mike turns up shortly after Julie has left.
He has been my best and closest friend for many years now. I first met Mike in the 80’s through my then oldest friend, Ian who sadly died in 1991, aged just 33, of cancer. It was the year Elaine was first diagnosed. They used to swap notes on the illness and treatments.
Mike and I bonded over a mutual love of classic cars, history and putting the world to rights over a cooked breakfast or beer. I would trust him with my life.
I admit to Mike that I don’t just feel lost without Elaine, but I also feel afraid, afraid for myself as to what happens now. How the hell do I cope without the one I love now that she has gone.
His advice is simple and solid, but his words don’t come sugar-coated.
“It’s one step at a time, one minute, one hour, one day just small achievements and you’ll get there. It’s not going to be easy Mark and it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets any better, and it will never fully be over. Your life will adjust to live alongside what you feel, but it will always be there.”
He looks straight at me but I make no reply so he continues; “But you will get through it mate. I’ll help you, so will Julie, Bob and others, don’t lose sight of that, you aren’t alone even if it does feel like it right now.”
His encouragement certainly does help, but after he leaves I’m alone with two cats and my thoughts in the home I shared with Elaine for 27 years and my brain will not allow in the fact that she is not coming home again.
I stay up as late as possible as I fear going to bed alone. But shortly after turning out the light I am totally overwhelmed with emotion. Grief, fear, anger all of it wells up and I cry and curse myself to sleep.
Waking up is even worse, as I am forced to remember she is still dead and I have to carry on living.
The next few days continue much in the same vein. It’s pointless here trying to list all the contacts and calls that had to be made and dealt with. Anyone reading who has had to deal with a similar situation will know exactly what I went through. Anyone who hasn’t, well count yourself damn lucky.
Both Julie and Mike were over each day up to the weekend, and their help and support was simply invaluable. Still I feel all the time like I’m wading through treacle and am surrounded by a very dense fog.
The focal point for me is to get the funeral sorted and over with, I can see nothing, absolutely nothing, beyond this goal.
I feel neither dead nor alive. I am in some God awful limbo land of disbelief sprinkled with fear and anger. I don’t realise that the real grief has yet to hit home. When it does, I soon learn the difference.
Monday 11th January, 10am.
I have a meeting at the Woodland burial site just outside of Wimborne.
Because of the covid lockdown situation Elaine’s funeral cannot go ahead exactly as we had planned. We are to be limited to just twenty mourners and there will be no wake of tea and cakes afterwards, as she had wanted.
Elaine’s body will ‘rest’ at the main burial premises about 15 miles away near Christchurch, and she is to be brought directly to Wimborne on the morning of the funeral, which is set for the 19th of January.
Our original plan was for her to come home to the Lodge before her burial, and to stay there the night with me. She wanted to lie in state on the kitchen table, the one we had sat around so many times, even before we were officially together.
Then she wanted to go to the burial ground either in a horse drawn cart or in the back of our old pick-up truck, maybe with me driving. None of this was now allowed due to the emergency regulations. I have to admit, I think it made things easier on me.
I have brought some items with me for her to be dressed in. She never did decide what clothes to be buried in, so the decision is mine.
Elaine often got up early to sit and write at her computer still in her pyjamas and dressing gown. So I have brought along some of her favourite jim-jams and an extra silky vest top to go underneath (she hated being cold). Also I’ve got her woolly ‘Rudolph’ socks, a cheap present I gave her at Christmas 2019, which she just loved.
It is arranged that I can see her in three days’ time.
Thursday 14th January.
I’m driving through a housing estate to join a semi unmade road leading into a large wooded area. The track ends at a modern glass and wood building low and sprawling, which sits contented in its surroundings. I’m here to see my wife for the last time.
There’s no one about as I park-up and just two other cars are here, looking lonely in a corner of their own. There is a little birdsong, but otherwise everything is quiet and still. It reminds me of a country churchyard where nature often seems subdued and reverent.
I find the entrance and am greeted inside by a smartly dressed young woman who asks; “Have you come to see Elaine?”
I reply yes, and she asks me to sit and wait for a colleague to come out and collect me. Everything is hushed tones and I’m nervously tempted to laugh out loud. I know that this is just the sort of thing that Elaine would be thinking.
Soon another woman arrives and respectfully asks me to follow her outside.
She leads around the building, through a side gate with thick bushes either side, to a wood and glass door which is the outside entrance to a small room where the body of my love is lying.
My guide unlocks the door then leaves me, asking that I close it behind me and let them know when I go.
I am now alone with Elaine for the very last time.
Her coffin is wicker and lined with a cream coloured hessian- like material. It is bigger than I had thought. It occurs to me that she might not have fitted too well on the kitchen table after all. She has on her pyjamas and I check that her wedding ring is present.
Then I touch her cheek.
Nothing on this mortal earth is as cold as one who has been dead a while. Even ice or frozen marble do not come close.
The cold seeps into my fingers.
I have brought with me a few things to go with her.
An old green t-shirt of mine, from when we first met. Elaine had requested it to go in with her a while ago and told me where she kept it. I thought it long lost or thrown out, I had no idea she had held on to it.
Next a lock of my hair, I snipped some of hers to go with me. Then my mother’s wedding ring that was returned to me after my sister had died.
Elaine and mum got on very well, and I’m sure she would be OK that her precious little platinum band was safe with her daughter in law. What use in my keeping it, hidden in a drawer only to be lost when I die.
In Elaine’s fingers I put a lime green rubber bracelet, on it is inscribed; Relaxed & Forward.
Quite some time ago Elaine’s friend Anna Blake had sent her three of these, two blue and a green one. I wear one of the blue ones on my right wrist. Elaine attached the green one to Bruce’s head collar. On the morning he died I found it in his stable, snapped through. I kept it, stuck it back together but never told Elaine. I knew what I would do with it in the event of her death and here it is.
Then I place in our anniversary card from Julie and John, and another she had given Elaine in the hospice. I wrote a note too, what it said is between my wife and me.
Last of all, a bagel, in a paper bag tucked out of sight by her side.
She can keep it for herself, or if he’s really lucky, she’ll share it with the ferryman.
To be continued…