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.

36 thoughts on “A farewell

  1. Dear Michael,
    I’m so, so sorry to hear of your loss, I can’t imagine what you’re going through. Your words are so heartbreaking and so beautiful; you write like you draw, with honesty and precision and tenderness. Sending love in this terribly difficult time x

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I am so very sorry, Michael.Your words are a beautiful reflection of Susie and an honest and truthful account of the horrors of grief and loss. You are not a grief bore – our society is guilty of sweeping grief under the carpet and expecting people to “move on”. Why should we move on? Why shouldn’t we scream and punch and cry and rage against the cruelty and unfairness of the universe? If you want to vent your fury and pain, don’t ever feel you have to hide it. And when you feel ready, there are good people here who understand what you’re going through and will welcome you back. Take good care of yourself, my friend. Rose

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Dear Michael, I was and am, simply, so very sad to hear of your loss – and can only marvel that you have somehow managed to string such eloquent words together in the midst of the blizzard. No consolatory words from us… just sending love and hopes that the pain starts to abate ‘ere long, even if only a wee bit. Cid & Phil xxx

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I am so very sorry … she sounded like she was a wonderful person. I think grieving is a very important part of coping with a death of someone you love so much. I understand where you are; this year I have lost my adored brother, my best two cousins and it’s been a real blast of unhappiness.

    Strangely, I was relieved for my brother, since he was ill with little hope of recovery and we managed to say goodbye to each other. Perhaps, easy for the dying, but very hard for us who are left behind.

    I believe in nature and its constant renewal.
    Your sunflower is a beautiful work … do more of this and I think it will help.
    Good luck! And all best wishes xx

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What a beautiful expression of your feelings Michael. Every adult has likely suffered a loss of someone they love and everyone deals with it differently. Take as long as you need and never feel that you are a grief bore. Those who love and care about you will understand. xx

    Liked by 3 people

  6. My husband died at a very young-too-soon age. Love and grief sharers came from all corners…even from far away. I buried, if you will, myself in finishing my art degree. The fiber arts instructor at university mentoring me wrote “The weaving of our lives is never finished.”

    Those beautiful words have been my saving grace even after thirty years. Love and life is never ever simple. I am quite certain, however, it is never finished…

    Sharer in your profound loss, Raye

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Bereavement words have their own wisdom, do not be afraid to share if you are moved. Blessings on your next stage of life and love for your sweet person.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Michael, I’m so sorry. Your post is heartbreaking and delivered with your trademark beauty and wisdom. Grief is so personal, but I’m sure those around you understand and won’t think you a grief bore – though there is always art if you don’t feel like talking. Until you return, I’ll be thinking of you. I hope some of the light from that lovely sunflower once again finds you soon. x

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I know you only through your insightful writing, Michael, but I am deeply saddened by your inexplicable loss. How very fortunate you were to share such a rich and beautiful love and friendship.

    I read an obituary in our local paper last summer that I clipped and glued into my journal. It was for no one I knew, but I was drawn to its photo of a tousled-hair young man with a robust smile. Perhaps its message might also appeal to you:

    “…if you would like to leave an imprint somewhere in our son’s honor, plant something that will sustain or outlive you, sing for and praise a child, rescue any creature great or small, hug your nearest and dearest, love yourself always.”

    May time and creating art and weaving words help to restore your spirit and bring you solace in coming days, Michael.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Hi Michael, I am sorry for your loss. Your love and tender thoughts have touched my heart. Susie was lucky to have you in her life. ❤️ Take the time you need to grieve. I hope you will keep creating your beautiful art as I find it can help with the pain. Hugs.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. “We are what we are given, and what has been taken away…” Another simple equation, by poet and farmer Wendell Berry. It offers a semblance of solace, but a hard reality, too. Across the miles, Michael, please know that I am sorry for your loss and the grief left in its wake. I’m also sorry, selfishly, to loose your blog. It has been one of my favorites. Your artwork and your perspective are unique and valuable and I will miss them. But for now, I wish you the time and space you need to discover your life again. I hope you are able to nurture something whole and good from the depths of your pain. Warm regards, Jean

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Michael, you have written a heartfelt and beautifully eloquent piece about a person who meant so much to you. I can’t express how sorry I am at your loss. When you feel ready to re-engage in any kind of art and writing we will be here for you. You’re never alone and I hope you can find at least a tiny comfort in that thought.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. A very moving article. I feel the pangs of your pain because what you are feeling I can relate to. Not in terms of a lover who has died, but father, mother, step-son (aged 17), and the constant reminder of an ageing body telling me this all could end any time soon for me or my wife, and if I survive her, I know what you feel now, I will feel then. It scares me and I cannot extricate myself from these thoughts, although I try to push them away when I feel good by doing things I enjoy or putting on a cheery voice. But underneath, even now, when I still have my life and my wife, there is ongoing sadness and a little scaredness. Your writing is very powerful and my thoughts are with you in hoping you can bear the pain and feel again some more joyfulness in time. Life will never be the same again though. We carry on as best we can, but each year seems to get less carefree, more worn down by the baggage we call sorrows.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. I understand now what you meant by your comment on my poem Compassionate Care. I am so sorry for your deep, deep loss. I hope that penning this post helped in some small way give you a vehicle for cherishing your memories as you move through your grief filled days. I am so glad you got to be with her and whisper to her in the end. I have been concerned for you, not seeing your posts. I have very much missed them. Take as long as you need, but do come back. Your inspiration means so much to me and it seems from the comments to many others as well. Do take care, Michael.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. That is how I want to remember you both. Finally, when her Michael came into her life, she talked like she had a future. She was happy and excited about wanting all of her small circle of folks in Rochester to know you.
    I am on the other side of the globe in Asia and have asked that a neighbor print it out for Jim Poel. We all love you for giving our Susie a respite…to come out of the rain for her constant medical issues over the past years.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I’m getting here very late, maybe too late for you to read this, but still, how unfair, how difficult, how like life to be so arbitrary and cruel. I understand the need to step back and respect that. I hope something or someone brings you a measure of peace from time to time. Maybe it will be art, art that you see and art that you make. Take care.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I sure miss your posts, your inspirational art, and corresponding with you. I know grieving takes space and I sure want to honor that need. I think of you often and send out thoughts of healing through the cosmos. Take care good friend.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Pingback: The fire inside | A Certain Line

  19. Michael, I just stumbled on this page from your link of today (5 May, 2020). I am so sorry. Your beautiful remembrance and lament remind me how tenuous our existence is. The image you included (“Sunflowers in Susie’s Vase, August 2019 (A4 sketchbook page) 2019”) says so much to me about the bright promise.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. You write astonishingly well about such a profoundly tragic time in your life. Extremely moving and I feel deeply for all that you went through and are still experiencing. Wishing you more idyllic times.

    Liked by 2 people

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