‘Letters To My Dead’ is an experiment in writing a fictional blog of remembrance to paint a portrait of a man approaching the end of his life.
The story will be presented as blog posts written by Patrick Donovan in remembrance of his dead and posted each Saturday.
If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll have noticed that there was no post last Saturday. I needed some time to think about what I’m doing here and why I’m doing it. I re-read the Letters To My Dead that I’ve posted so far and I realised two things: firstly each Letter is a goodbye and secondly, although she’s mentioned several times, I never used my wife’s name. I always referred to her as ‘my wife’.
That both of these things came as a surprise to me is a sign that I need to pay attention to them. Surprises like this are how my subconscious talks to me.
I’d never meant the Letters to be a goodbye. They were meant to invoke memories, to strengthen my connection with my dead and anchor me in my life. That they read like goodbyes tells me that what I was really doing wasn’t anchoring myself in the world but getting ready to let go. I’m the kind of man that a decision like that can creep up on, unnoticed, until it’s established itself as taken for granted.
Not naming my wife needed more thinking about. I always used her name. She was never ‘the Missus’ or even Mrs Patrick Donovan, she was always Ms Anne Talbot, even after we were married. So why had I subconsciously hidden her face in the Letters I’d written?
I know the answer now and it changes what this blog is about.
Anne would have had no patience with me letting go of the world and retreating into memories. Anne nurtured memories. She knew that memories, particularly shared memories, make us who we are. To her, that meant that we should take every opportunity to do things that we would enjoy remembering later. Sitting here and saying goodbye to my dead as if I was getting ready to join them is not something she’d have allowed.
So this week’s Letter, which is also the final Letter in this blog, is to Anne Talbot, who was always the anchor of my life.
It’s that day again.
Happy Anniversary, Anne.
I’ve been married to you for forty-four years today. That would have been forty-nine if you’d said yes the first time I asked you. Of course, you were only married to me for forty-two years before death did us part.
Yeah, you’re right, that was corny.
I will do better.
I miss you. You know that. I’m seventy-two, staring at seventy-three and my body isn’t ready to quit yet so I’m reconciling myself to spending my seventies alone.
Yeah, poor me.
At least I know you’re not going to give me the ‘You have to move on’ speech. Your sister, Isobel, did that already. ‘Anne would have wanted you to be happy’ she said, as if she knew better than I did what you would want for me. You would want me to be me, but the nicest version of me that I can manage.
What Isobel really meant was, ‘Get over it, Patrick so that the rest of us don’t have to feel guilty that you are still mired in grief and we are getting on with living.’
No, that’s not unkind. This is Isobel we’re talking about.
So, I haven’t moved on but I haven’t made a spectacle of my grief either. That’s the best I can do. It lets people assume that my silence means I’m content.
What have I been doing?
I’ve been waiting to find out if there is life after Anne.
You like that better? Good.
This would be so much easier if I could convince myself that there’s an afterlife and you and I are going to meet there in a few years time and be together forever, but I can’t. You’re dead and I know I’ll never see you again. I had less than fifty years with you and it wasn’t enough and I can’t get any more.
Except your ghost is still with me. Perhaps your phantom would be a better word. Like an amputee’s phantom limb. I can still feel you. I still go to lean on you. To do all the familiar things with you and every time, reality stutters, like an old film projector, and for a second or two there’s a feeling of falling in my belly, like when a lift descends too quickly, and then I’m back in a world where you’re dead and I’m not.
I know you’ll appear less often as time passes and that I’ll get used to limping and walking being the same thing, but I don’t want to banish you and I don’t want to turn you into my Belle Dame Sans Merci with me as your knight-at-arms, ‘Alone and palely loitering.’ So I’ve decided that my year is going to have three Anne Days. Today, May 1st, our Wedding Anniversary. July 10th, your birthday, and November 3rd, the day you died.
Anne Days will be just for you and me. I’ll update you on anything that’s happened since the last Anne Day and we’ll share memories, I’ll make a nice meal with a good wine and pretend that we’re sharing it. I’ll listen to the music you liked and close my eyes so I can see you dance and, at the end of the day, I’ll lie in bed, pretending you’re next to me. I’ll thank you for the day and only then will I let myself cry.
How do I know there’ll be tears?
Well, Anne Days were never going to have a happy ending, were they? I’m sad, not delusional. I know that when the day ends I’ll be alone.
So let me kick off our first Anne Day.
In preparation for today, I got my hair cut yesterday, which was a relief. After months of Lockdown, I’d started to look like I was living on the streets. I’m showered, shaved, perfumed and dressed in clean clothes. I’m presentable. That’s as good as it gets.
I bought some flowers to brighten the place up. There wasn’t much of a choice and I don’t have your talent for making them look like a still life but they’re cheerful and they remind me of the small things that you did that made our home more than a building with stuff in it.
Let’s sit at the dining table. It was always easier to talk there. I’ll have some coffee and tell you what I’ve been up to.
Like most people our age, I’ve spent the last year hiding from the COVID-19 virus. If you’d still been here, you and I would have been Sheltering in our own Social Bubble. I haven’t gone anywhere, done anything, or seen anyone.
Yes, it was sort of a relief at first, It felt like an appropriate quiet, so soon after your death. It was Audenesque in a ‘Stop All The Clocks’ way. But now it’s gone on for too long and it’s not clear when it will end. Talk about a metaphor for my life.
Sorry, I couldn’t resist that.
Someone sent me a link to an article where a psychologist tried to give a name to what people are feeling. I call it the Pandemic Blues (wouldn’t that make a great song?). He called it ‘Languishing’.
Yes, I thought it was odd too. To me, to languish is to weaken and fade and is usually a precursor to death. Of course, I could also see it as languishing in prison, existing but being miserable about it. Being a psychologist, he felt free to ignore the etymology and define it as a state between ‘Well-being and depression.’ I was going to sneer at the concept because psychologists always assume that well-being is something stable rather than a temporary moment of balance, like riding a unicycle, then it struck me that I’d been languishing in the way he defined it for most of the past two years since your death.
Right after your death, I didn’t languish I grieved, and not in the English way, with dignity and a stiff upper lip, focused on making everyone else feel better, but in the Biblical ‘wailing and gnashing of teeth’ too-embarrassing-for-anyone-to-look-at way.
That stopped being a daily thing after a while, although it would come back and bite me again at the most unexpected times. After that, I languished.
The thing is, I expected to die first. This languishing thing should have been your problem, not mine. We were supposed to spend our seventies together, travelling and relaxing and reading books, then I was supposed to die in my sleep, a happy man.
No, I know I never told you that. Of course, I didn’t tell you that. It was crass and selfish. I can be like that sometimes but I try to keep it to myself.
Anyway, you died first, I wailed and then languished and now I’m having our first Anne Day.
Where did the idea come from? Well, I started to write Letters To My Dead and this was supposed to be one of those Letters.
Of course, you weren’t the first person I wrote to. You were the last person I wanted to acknowledge was really dead. Anyway, after I’d written a few letters, I realised that the dead person I most wanted to speak to was you. I tried writing a letter to you last week and it didn’t work, I threw it away. It didn’t work because it sounded like a goodbye, like closing a book and putting it on a shelf, like an ending. It made me face the truth: while I’m alive, you and I will not end. I won’t allow it.
So you don’t get a Letter. You get Anne Days. We get Anne Days.
And Anne Days are about revisiting our memories. Short memories, like postcards to us from the people we used to be.
It’s our Wedding Anniversary, so the memory I want to share is of a wedding but it’s Isobel’s wedding, not ours.
I knew that would make you smile. You’re already pitying me, aren’t you? Because I was so out of my depth that day. A working-class lad like me at a posh Cambridge wedding. Not even Cambridge but Granchester. The same church Rupert ‘And is there still honey for tea?’ Brooke wrote that poem about. I was lost.
I’d half expected you to be lost too. After all, your younger sister, only twenty-two years old, was getting married and you were twenty-eight, an old maid by my family’s standards, and all you had was me and a small flat in Manchester where we lived in sin. Isobel was marrying her Mr Darcy, OK he was more like Mr Bingley and he was six years older than her but he was wealthy, had been to Cambridge and did something lucrative in The City.
You weren’t phased at all. You were magnificent. Even when Isobel put you in the ugliest bridesmaid dress I’d ever seen.
Later, I understood that you’d never wanted what Isobel had. You wanted what you had: a career as a University Librarian, a home in a real city and me.
I wasn’t sure about the ‘me’ part at the time. I mean, you had me, I just didn’t know if you’d keep me. Yes, we lived together, but three years earlier, when I’d asked you to marry me, you’d said you were quite happy with how things were. I’d promised to ask you again, every year until you said yes. You’d told me not to be so dreary and that you’d let me know if you changed your mind.
I’d swallowed it down because I still couldn’t believe my luck at being with you. That was something that never changed.
Don’t raise an eyebrow at me like that. I’m being romantic here. OK, it did change. Eventually, I came to believe in my luck and be grateful for it. Is that better? Good.
Anyway, back to the memory, It had been a long day, The wedding had been a spectacle but one I felt out of place in. I was wearing a new suit that you’d bought for me at Gieves and Hawkes. It was the poshest thing I’d ever worn and I looked like someone else in it. I hadn’t wanted to wear it but you’d said that if you had to dress as a bridesmaid, I had to make an effort. Then you’d said ‘Anyway, it’s a nice suit but it’s still off the peg.’ I hadn’t realised what that meant until I saw met the other guests and saw that their suits were made to measure.
It was a long day, most of it spent under a tent, that everyone called a marque, in your parents’ huge garden. I’d barely seen you except at the Wedding Breakfast which was really a three-course dinner, when we were at the same table but not seated next to each other. Apparently, that would have been poor form. I’d started to retreat into myself by the time the sun was setting. I was sitting alone at one of the abandoned tables in the marquee, realising that I’d known you’d come from money but that I’d never understood what money meant and wondering what your parents saw when they visited our flat in Manchester.
No, I’m can’t hear violins playing. I’m trying to share a moment here and the moment is just about to begin. Patience. Please.
This is one of my best and strongest memories. The kind you know is true but not necessarily accurate. It’s like a moment lit by lightning, sharply defined but strangely coloured.
It begins with your feet. They were naked when they came into my downcast field of vision. You took my hand.
‘What happened to your shoes?’, I said.
You didn’t answer, you just said, ‘Come with me’ dragged me to my feet and pulled me towards the house.
The party was still going on. Your mother and father were slow-dancing together. Isobel had literally ridden off into the sunset but the guests had settled in for the long haul.
You started to run, still holding my hand, so I had to keep up.
Then we were in our bedroom. The first time we’d stayed at your parents’ house I’d been amazed when they’d put us in the same room. My parents would never have done that. You took it for granted. ‘They know we live together, Patrick’ was all you’d said.
Now we were back in the room. I was out of breath from running up the stairs. You hadn’t switched the lights on. In my memory, you’re lit by moonlight as you turn your back to me and say, ‘Get me out of this dress.’ I fumbled with the fastening and you said ‘Sod it. Just rip it open. I’m never wearing this thing again anyway.’
It turned out bodice-ripping wasn’t as easy as it’s made out to be but I managed. You stepped out of the dress, turned towards me, rapidly stripped naked. I just stood there, watching you in the moonlight. ‘That’s better,’ you said. Then you stepped closer and took me in your hand so firmly I gasped. You grinned and said, ‘Much better’.
I should have folded you in my arms, kissed you and said something romantic. I just stood there. You were naked and I was fully clothed and in a suit that didn’t feel like it was really mine. It felt unreal. Good but unreal.
Your hands moved up over my shirt, pushing my jacket off. I reached for my belt but you said, ‘Leave the rest on’ and pulled me by my belt to the bed.
I’m sure you remember the rest. I do. It was one of those rare occasions when my brain let my body take over and my body wisely decided that you were in charge. That image of you above me, eyes closed, body swaying, your sweat gleaming in the moonlight, is one of the treasures of my life.
But it’s not the core of the memory. That came next.
We were both naked now and I was on the edge of sleep. Your hand was on my belly, your thigh was across mine and I was so sated, all I felt was comfortable and you said, ‘I’ve changed my mind’. I thought, ‘It’s a bit bloody late for that.’ Thankfully, I didn’t say it. I just mumbled, ‘About what?’
‘About letting you propose to me.’
‘Huh?’ I said, struggling to catch up.
You grabbed my chin and turned my face towards you.
‘You can ask me now.’
I took hold of your wrist, kissed your hand and said, ‘Why have you changed your mind?’
‘Does it matter?’
‘Because today, Isobel had the wedding that should have been mine. She was happy. My parents were happy. It all looked wonderful. And I couldn’t wait for it to be over. I wanted to be free of it. I wanted to be with you.’
‘That doesn’t make a lot of sense. If you hated the wedding, why do you want to get married?’
‘The wedding isn’t important. The wedding can be something simple, in a registry office. The marriage is important. When we’re together, I feel free to be me. I want people to know that that freedom is permanent.’
I was awake now. Really awake. You were offering me something I’d wanted for a long time. But I needed to be sure.
So I said, ‘Well, I can’t do it now. I’ll have to ask your father’s permission first.’
And you hit me and I knew everything was going to be all right. So I rolled you over. Took my weight on my elbows and said, ‘Anne Talbot, will you marry me?. Your answer was unambiguous.
I know. That memory has been polished a bit. I’ve visited it often. But it’s still true.
What now? Well, let’s just sit together for a bit, in silence. I always loved that we were able to be together without needing words to make us comfortable. Besides, after a memory like that, I’m exhausted.
Next time? Well, next time we’ll try something more recent. Maybe that last holiday we had in Croatia. But that’s for another day. For now, let’s just be together.
I love you Anne. I always will.
i’m closing this blog now. Thank you, Reader, for following it. It helped me do what I needed to do and it was good to have company while I did it.