THIS LIFE: FIONA O’BRIEN

Irish Daily Mail - YOU - - CONTENTS - By Fiona O’Brien

I USED TO LOVE hot cross buns. They were a sta­ple on the shop­ping list, a con­stant in the kitchen, wait­ing only for the whis­tle of a boil­ing ket­tle and a dol­lop of soft but­ter to be en­joyed in all their spicy, sticky sweet­ness. But lately they’ve lost their ap­peal.

It was my part­ner Sean who ex­tolled their virtues and, won over by his en­thu­si­asm, I came to love them too.

But on 1 April last year, Sean died – sud­denly and un­ex­pect­edly. I found him dead in bed, peace­ful, ly­ing on his side, an arm thrown across his shoul­der, watch and glasses by the bed­side ta­ble. He might have been asleep.

And in the space of one of those heart­beats that can change your life, a chap­ter of mine ended.

By ex­tra­or­di­nary co­in­ci­dence my late fa­ther also dropped dead on that very day, some 39 years pre­vi­ously. Back then, en­sconced in board­ing school, I had no idea of what was ahead of me, of how this event would shape my life. This time around I was in no doubt.

In the foggy haze of shock, be­wil­der­ment and grief that fol­lowed, I won­dered at the sig­nif­i­cance that on April Fools’ Day the two most im­por­tant men in my life would depart sud­denly and with­out warn­ing. I like to think it had some­thing to do with our ex­cel­lent sense of hu­mour.

The months that fol­lowed after Sean’s death were a learn­ing curve, not only nav­i­gat­ing my own be­reave­ment, but ac­cept­ing how oth­ers re­acted. I dis­cov­ered that some peo­ple I as­sumed I could rely on, van­ished. Oth­ers – sur­pris­ing and un­ex­pected – were kind­ness it­self. I learned that not be­ing mar­ried, and not hav­ing chil­dren of my own had a sig­nif­i­cant bear­ing on how oth­ers in­ter­preted my loss. ‘You’ll be fine, you’ll meet some­one else...’ ‘It’s good you don’t have chil­dren to worry about...’ ‘It’s great you have your work to throw your­self into...’ were just a few of the well-in­ten­tioned com­ments meant to con­sole me.

That I am not tech­ni­cally a wi­dow does not lessen my grief. Not hav­ing chil­dren has been a source of great sad­ness to me, but I make light of it, put a good face on, as you do. As for work, I could barely get through the day, let alone at­tempt any writ­ing.

Panic at­tacks that had di­min­ished – I suf­fered from them long be­fore they be­came fash­ion­able – resur­faced with a vengeance and re­newed vigour. Just walk­ing the dogs was a gar­gan­tuan task, al­beit a vi­tal one. Driv­ing, for a time, be­came all but im­pos­si­ble. The ex­haus­tion of grief was over­whelm­ing.

Then surely, as I had been warned, the anger sur­faced.

An old friend glee­fully re­lated an in­ci­dent in­tended to pro­voke me - then shook her head dis­ap­prov­ingly at my sub­se­quent erup­tion. ‘Fiona,’ she said sagely, ‘you re­ally need to let go of this anger... it’s so bad for you... and it’s very bad for me...’ I’m sure she was right, but that same woman went sail­ing back to her hus­band and chil­dren. Sean was barely dead three weeks. I wanted to stick an axe in her head.

An ac­quain­tance cornered me in the su­per­mar­ket, re­gal­ing me with how dif­fi­cult a 70-year-old woman she knew (with hus­band, chil­dren, and grand­chil­dren) was find­ing the death of her 98year-old fa­ther. While los­ing a par­ent at any age is deeply up­set­ting, when I sug­gested per­haps an el­e­ment of ‘happy re­lease’ in this case, given the man’s age, de­pen­dency, and ir­repara­bly de­te­ri­o­rat­ing health, she said crossly, ‘Oh, no, Fiona. There’s a void there, a very big void...’

Re­ally? This same woman had never once, on many op­por­tune oc­ca­sions, asked me how I was do­ing, how I was cop­ing.

If Brid­get Jones sug­gested that sin­gle­tons have ‘scales’, per­haps newly be­reaved sin­gle­tons have prick­les, like hedge­hogs – and for much the same rea­son. I didn’t want to be an­gry – the grief alone was hard enough to man­age. I missed Sean des­per­ately (I still do) and, mad though this sounds, I wor­ried about him. Where was he? We hadn’t had a chance to say good­bye. I begged and prayed for a sign to let me know he was al­right...

It hap­pened at dawn one Satur­day morn­ing – my phone beeped. As I reached for it and read the text, my breath caught. ‘Sean is on hol­i­days,’ it said, sim­ply – the num­ber was un­known. On in­ves­ti­ga­tion, the sen­der turned out to be a hair sa­lon I had never set foot in. They didn’t have my num­ber, and when I rang them later to en­quire, no one called Sean worked there.

The cyn­i­cal among you will say there is a plau­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion for re­ceiv­ing that text, but I have never had any com­mu­ni­ca­tion from them be­fore or since. I am con­vinced that mes­sage was Sean’s way of let­ting me know he is some­where safe and happy. And just like that, the anger left me.

So here’s to new beginnings, and cake. I won’t dis­solve in a pud­dle of tears if you ask me how I’m do­ing. But just hold the hot cross buns.

The Sum­mer Vis­i­tors by FIona O’Brien is pub­lished by Ha­chette and out now

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