Sunday, 1 November 2015

Maintaining Standards

When we moved into our current home the one luxury purchase that we allowed ourselves was a large and ever so slightly stylish dining room table. This was the house we were going to live in for the rest of our lives and we envisaged many years of entertaining large gatherings of family and friends. The rooms would be full of people we loved and admired and the walls would ring to the sound of their conversation and laughter. Now, even while the hopes and ambition mock me, that same dining room table is something of a symbol of my determination not to collapse into chaos.

Louise's death has led to a swift recalibration of my sense of achievement. When the heart and soul is ripped out of our existence one of the first things that is threatened is the veneer of order and routine that normally sustains us, nourishes our self identity. Like a ship which has broken free of its moorings stability, direction and control are lost. There is nothing to anchor us. Motivation evaporates. Purpose is destroyed. The chore of daily living becomes overwhelming. Easy everyday tasks become difficult. Difficult tasks become impossible. Essential tasks become optional. In these circumstances the real measure of success becomes not those by which we normally judge ourselves, perhaps academic achievement or career progression, but getting out of bed - or at least getting out of bed on a morning.

Some people are temperamentally well placed to deal with this, if only in the early days of bereavement, before exhaustion overwhelms them. They instinctively respond to crisis with frantic displacement activity, a need to clean, cook, wash, do anything which can mask or dislodge the pain. Louise was one of those people. I am not. My default reaction to fear, anxiety or distress is to become paralysed with listlessness. 

Even in the distant good times I muddled through life with a slight air of disorganisation. Louise provided my structure and momentum. She was practical, organised, purposeful.  Whereas I talked about doing things she did them. Adrift without her and floored by grief there was a very real danger that I would sink into a mire of apathetic helplessness.

And its true that there have been some things I'm not proud of. Going to bed in the middle of the night because I hadn't the energy to get off the sofa. Getting up in the middle of the day because I hadn't the energy to get out of bed. Arriving in work late almost every day for the first six months. Reaching the point where  most of the lights in the house were out because it was just too difficult to establish which bulbs I needed to buy and then go and and purchase them. Abandoning my daily ritual of a hot shower because it took too much effort and.......well, what was the point? Nobody was cuddling me. Nobody was sharing my space. Nobody was sharing my bed.

But while its been a constant struggle I'm still afloat. The house is still orderly, the garden, although slightly ragged around the edges, is still broadly respectable, my clothes are still clean, there is still food in the cupboards. I admit I cheat. I am grateful that I can afford to employ somebody to clean the house once a fortnight. My first independent purchase was a new dishwasher. I swallow the hefty daily parking charges and drive into work rather than waste precious sleeping time by getting up early enough to take the bus. But I'm gentle enough on myself to allow these shortcuts.

And every evening I still sit down to eat at that large dining room table. Its a desperately lonely experience. Other than climbing into an empty bed almost nothing reinforces Louise's absence more. We almost always ate dinner together no matter how late one or other, or both of us, got home from work. It was the time we talked about the day, discussed stories in the news, planned our futures. And we did so amidst a clutter of Louise's possessions. She used the table as an informal workstation and it was usually occupied with her laptop, sketchbooks and piles of course notes and BMJs. Now these signs of her existence are gone and I sit eating in isolation, alone save for my iPad. 

Yet every time that I do so is a triumph of sorts, a gesture of defiance from which I draw strength and pride. I am not taking the easy option and eating from my lap in front of the TV. I may struggle in other ways but here, and with countless similar small gestures, at least I'm maintaining some standards and self discipline. Its a token of order, normality and continuity. A sign of my determination to survive. I may be lethargic, forgetful and disorganised but I am still holding on to my sanity and self respect. Chaos is staved off for another day.

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