I woke up this morning with a swirl of numbers in my head. Today would have been my first husband’s 61st birthday; he died at 36, when I was 31, our kids 3 and 6. I knew him from the age of 14, 43 years ago, my first love. These vast numbers seem unbelievable. Surreal. It’s like remembering a past life, yet some days feels like yesterday. Grief is a very strange thing.
Anyone who has lost a loved one understands how anniversaries like birthdays sit in the subconscious, all but forgotten until a week or two before they’re due, when they start prickling, nudging their way up through the layers of years into the conscious mind, still able to pack one hell of a punch, as if arrived at unexpectedly. An ambush of emotions.
Milestones have the same effect. A child reaching 21, or marrying, or achieving something wonderful, or having a child of their own. Though the pain may have dulled, the loss sits like a parrot on my shoulder, whispering in my ear, reminding me of The Absence and of the quantum shifts in my life since that fateful day.
He died in a boating accident, off the east coast of the North Island. Earlier this year I visited a friend who lives near Castlepoint, a place we used to visit in our camper van when the kids were very small. I hadn’t been back there since, until this recent visit; thought I’d be okay. But as we approached the coast, and the vastness of the ocean opened up, dread overtook me. I felt sick and horribly confronted. Found I couldn’t look out to sea without a doleful clanging in my head. It took me all my strength not to pack it in and run.
There are times I see someone who looks like him — or my mother, father, sister, friend, or someone else I’ve loved and lost — and the jolt is tangible. In the first few years I’d dream that he returned, a situation fraught with guilt for having carried on living a life without him. Yet, of course, we, the ones left behind, have all survived and carried on; what other choice is there? And (with the knowledge of hindsight) there have been gifts from this as well: heightened compassion, an appreciation of every joyful moment, a sense of making the most of every day, and (perhaps most of all) an understanding that nothing matters more than investing in honest loving relationships with those around us. I feel grateful for these lessons and grateful for the love of those who helped us through that darkest of times. Without the presence of darkness it is not possible to truly appreciate the light.