It’s hard to know how to start this, really. In retrospect, I will say that last week was the worst of my life. At the time, though, it was just weird: intense, devastating, exhausting.
I spent seven days ricocheting between my own home, my parents’ home and my aunt and uncle’s house: driving frantically up and down the A1, calling in childcare favours left, right and centre; turning a determinedly blind eye to the fact that No3 wasn’t tremendously well; having a mini breakdown in No2’s consultant appointment (for her hearing, with a softly spoken Irish doctor with a handlebar moustache, who even I couldn’t understand clearly) when the need for surgery was announced and explained in more detail than I could cope with; bursting into tears with my own GP when she didn’t dismiss an ongoing niggle as I’d hoped.
My eldest’s tooth fell out midweek, and in all the commotion and confusion, the tooth fairy didn’t come that night. Then she didn’t come the night after, either, having arrived home after 11 just in time to subside tearfully into the bath, with wine. Finally, after a complicated explanation (No1 is a contradictory mix of credulity and cynicism) involving problems with fairy GPS and a notice stuck to a bedroom window, she came and order was restored to his world at least.
You know, life.
None of these things really burst through that awful, absorbing bubble that swells around a tragedy. Real life, for those few days, was holding hands, wrapping arms around family in shock and grief, making endless cups of tea and washing up dishes as if it could bring back the one thing they wanted. Murmured conversations about practicalities; numb, surreal discussions involving words that almost sounded laughable in their out-of-place-ness for our gorgeous, laughing boy, so full of life. Always, always the ache. There was a comfort, of sorts, in proximity; a simple, wordless craving for physical contact and togetherness that made the time I spent back at home feel, ridiculously, like a kind of betrayal, no matter how much I needed to see my own babies. Life was reduced to stark essentials: love, closeness and family vivid and urgent; everything else a monotone blur behind the smoky screen of loss.
Through the sadness, I was inspired, exalted. I had clear visions of a better, truer life. No more prevarication, no more treading time through faintly grumpy days, waiting, always waiting, for just one next thing which would make everything a bit easier. I would live in tribute to my cousin and his family. Carpe diem.
So, at the weekend, on a glorious early autumn morning, we packed up the car and we set out for a special family day. A walk, a picnic, ice cream, a visit to a favourite castle. Fun and togetherness, cherishing each other and making precious memories.
Unfortunately, the children weren’t on message. They didn’t want to walk. They didn’t like the picnic. The grass was damp and their shoes were wet and they were bored. They sulked and grumped and huffed till, after a near miss in the gift shop, we gave up and drove home, silent and seething and minus ice cream. And, probably in large part because everything was all still so raw and so very, very sad, I overreacted. How dare they not realise that this was supposed to be profound and life-affirming? That this was my version of the bit of the film where the uplifting music plays, the soul swells, and the colours fade out; lessons learned, life improved, happily (or better) ever after? But of course life isn’t a film, any more than I am Robin Williams.
My cousin’s death is only peripherally my loss. Though I may sigh immediately after, I can laugh again, just as I can feel interest and anger in things beyond my home again, just as everyday frustrations and occupations creep in again. I don’t want to. I want to be back with my family, holding hands, talking, remembering. But I can, and I have to.
In the midst of death, we are in life, and alongside (or even perhaps more than) the momentous, life is in the small, the humdrum, the everyday.
Or so says the tooth fairy.