THIS LIFE: 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