A farewell

Sunflowers in Susie’s Vase, August 2019 (A4 sketchbook page) 2019

“Every love story is a potential grief story.” Julian Barnes, Levels of Life

“This was meant to be.” That’s what we believed.

Susie and I had known each other for 15 years, first as colleagues, then as friends. We’d found ourselves in oddly romantic situations on business trips – a moonlight walk on Venice Beach, watching the snow fall on 5th Avenue from a room full of Rembrandts at the Frick Collection – but we both had other commitments and we lived 3,000 miles apart.

Then she became seriously ill. We met in a favourite bar in Rochester NY during her treatment. This once athletic woman looked pale and thin, her cheeks sunken, her eyes tired from medical interventions. When we hugged goodbye her body felt like a fragile bird’s inside her winter coat. I felt sure I wouldn’t see her again.

Then the wheels turned and the machinery moved. Susie survived, she put on weight and returned to work. My relationship in England collapsed and my company decided I should spend extended periods in the U.S. Now there was nothing to stop us being more than friends. “This was meant to be.”

My days in the U.S. were full of marketing plans, sales forecasts, strategy meetings, forward planning. Evenings and weekends were ours: a trip to Sodus Point on Lake Ontario, a B&B in Canandaigua, a weekend in the Adirondacks, Christmas in Michigan, New Year in Chicago. We were unbearably cute: holding hands while watching TV, cooking together, sitting on the porch reading and drawing. Most of all, we embraced this wonderful and unexpected love.

In September she came to England. We were talking about getting married and living in Yorkshire, a part of the country she loved. We stayed with friends in Paris and Cambridge, visited Versailles and Kettle’s Yard. We went to Evensong in St George’s Chapel on her final night before her flight back to Rochester. It was an idyllic time and the two weeks passed too quickly – we wouldn’t see each other again until December.

The following weekend we Skyped as usual but she seemed weary and in pain. That night her parents took her to A&E and were told that she had an infection that her immune system – still weakened from her illness three years earlier – couldn’t fight. I flew to the U.S. and arrived in time to whisper something in her ear before she died.

Before she died…

Her family are fortunate enough to share Susie’s religious faith, something I can only glimpse through a half-opened door. Instead, I try to find meaning in C.S. Lewis and Julian Barnes: “You tell me ‘she goes on.’ But my heart and body are crying out, come back, come back. Be a circle touching my circle on the plane of Nature,” Lewis wrote. His rage is refreshing in a world of consolation.

Lewis and Barnes remind me that I’m not alone in this, but their grief is not mine and they can only vaguely signal a path through it. My former father-in-law recently lost his wife after sixty years of marriage. Yesterday I met someone whose wife had died of cancer some years ago and his partner of a similar disease a few months ago. They both carry on, even though, as Barnes tells us, “what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there – this may not be mathematically possible but it is emotionally.” We are diminished by the death of a loved one: our hopes and joys are taken as well. We carry on though, with our empty hearts and our futures full of blank spaces where the loved person should have been, and, as Lewis writes, ‘there is spread over everything a vague sense of wrongness, of something amiss.’

So I lie low and wait for the acute pain to become a chronic ache, trying not to become a grief bore to those around me. One friend who knew Susie even longer than I has taken the full force of my despair and stood up to it well, but I don’t feel I can impose that on everyone. Cutting back to essentials means that I’ll have to leave this blog for the foreseeable future: I feel it’ll be some time before I can engage with my fellow bloggers and even longer before I have anything to say which isn’t about loss.

In the meantime, I long for a picture-book heaven where, in future, I’ll find Susie again, sitting under a tree in a landscape reminiscent of the Cotswolds in my mind’s eye, probably reading Adam Bede, and we’ll hug and kiss and everything will be as it was for the rest of time.

I’ll leave you with an interesting thought from C.S. Lewis which he mentions in his book, A Grief Observed: “They tell me [she] is happy now, they tell me she is at peace. What makes them so sure of this?…Why are they so sure that all anguish ends with death? More than half the Christian world and millions in the East believe otherwise…Why should the separation (if nothing else) which so agonises the lover who is left behind be painless to the lover who departs?”

So forgive my absence for however long it takes, Susie and I need to grieve her passing together.

For those of you who are interested, here is an obituary compiled by her family, and here a beautifully moving tribute from one of her nieces.