I had to complete a staff survey at work this week. There were the usual questions on satisfaction with pay and rewards and understanding of corporate priorities, but as I came to the personal section my heart sank. I knew what was coming next. I used to fret about the age category I fell into, helplessly observing my relentless march towards middle age. But now I dread responding to the inevitable questions on marital status. Sure enough here it was; Married or Single? A brutal binary choice. Black or white. But I no longer live in a binary world and the only colour I see is grey. Nothing is simple any longer, not even whether I am married.
I am one of those people, perhaps unusual amongst men, who was born to be married. I always knew that I would only find my ultimate fulfilment within an established and stable long term relationship. I was confident that I would be a good husband. But ironically my problem was that the worthy but dull qualities which made me so suitable for that role, those of steadiness, loyalty, unselfishness and compassion, were not necessarily the type that attracts a partner in the first instance. As a consequence what seemed to come so easily to others took me much longer to find. I searched for that special woman for 25 years, putting aside my innate shyness to suffer the indignities, insults and rejections of serial internet dating.
And then along came Louise. I could never quite believe my good fortune to have met somebody who gave me absolutely everything that I was looking for and a lot more that I hadn’t dared dream of besides. While we certainly faced challenges together during Louise's periodic episodes of depression and anxiety ours was an unusually happy, giving and gentle relationship. Not once in our 4 ½ years together did we have an argument and the only occasion on which voices were raised was when, very near the end, she suggested that I might be better off if she were dead. We had built an enduring relationship, one which matured beyond the unsustainable excitement of the early days to reach a point of genuine and deep understanding of each other, one in which we were able to anticipate each others needs, accept and embrace each others foibles, love unconditionally. It took time and hard work but we were a proper grown up couple, individuals still to be sure but part also of a new joint living organism - 'Us'- in which we were inextricably interlinked at every level.
But no sooner did I manage to clamber to the top of the mountain than I found myself swept back to the bottom again, barely having had time to pause to enjoy the view. When Louise died so too did 'Us'. I mourn for this as I do for her. I am categorised as 'single' once more. That is undeniably how both the law and society now sees me. I am free of all marital obligations. There would be no legal impediment to me marrying again tomorrow. I am tied to nobody but this is not freedom. It means nobody knows me intimately.
I find this sudden and involuntary adjustment to my status difficult to absorb. It cuts me to the core to have to identify myself as single because I don’t relate to that identity. To do so seems like a rejection of Louise. It also makes me feel something of a failure. Alone at 46. In any case, Louise and I never fell out of love, never wanted to part. There was no decree absolute, no rejection or dissolution of our union. She remains, in my heart, mind and memory my wife. 'Till death us do part' is the only marriage vow that I wilfully ignore.
I still think of myself as being one half of a couple. I continue to use the plural pronouns 'we' and 'our'. This is sometimes unconscious but generally I do so deliberately, despite the odd looks it provokes. It would be unthinkable to refer to 'my house' or 'my bedroom', as if I was shutting Louise out of my life, denying her continuing presence. Its unnatural not to text home to inform Louise that I'm delayed or working late. I am surprised whenever I find myself thinking about an invitation or a minor change to the house and realise that I must make the decision myself without the need to confer with her. Above all, I feel guilty whenever I think about a possible future with another woman, as if I am committing an infidelity.
My wedding ring was always symbolically important to me from the outset of our marriage. I wanted to shout from the rooftops to tell the world that I belonged to Louise. Now its significance is redoubled as proof of the continuation of the emotional ties. I continue to wear it, with immense pride. Louise's own wedding band sits next to it, on my only finger small enough to fit it. In this way we are together always. Even when I cut my finger recently I couldn't bring myself to take the ring off for just a few seconds to clean the wound. The symbolism of its removal would have been too painful. If I am ever lucky enough to one day find love again both rings will simply transfer to my right hand. I will never hide the fact of our marriage or love.
The photos of our wedding day perform a similar function, precious proof that our 4 1/2 years together were not simply a figment of my imagination. One of the small details of Louise's end that I struggle with is the fact that in a grotesque juxtaposition of memories and events she died against a backdrop of our wedding photos, pictures capturing the happiest moments of our lives.
I go out of my way to avoid having to face the question of my marital status wherever I can. I dread innocent casual enquiries from strangers about my domestic circumstances because I have no ready answer to the simple question; 'are you married?' Changing the details of my next of kin on my employers HR system was one of the more emotionally challenging of the multitude of painful bureaucratic tasks that follow in the wake of death. The amendment was just a few key strokes - my sister shares the same name as Louise - but it signified a brutal transformation of my universe.
In the early days I agonised about how I would refer to Louise in conversation. Clearly the formula 'ex-wife' would be entirely inappropriate with its connotation of divorce - little upsets the widow(er) more than its clumsy usage. So I have to settle for 'late wife' but even this implies something that is in the past whereas our marriage is still alive in everything but the strictly legalistic sense and the inconvenient absence of Louise's physical presence. Whether we call it marriage or not, I am still yours Louise and you are still mine.