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  • Writer's pictureelmarfleet

February: Angels

Updated: Feb 12, 2022

"When I'm feeling weak

And my pain walks down a one-way street

I look above

And I know I'll always be blessed with love..."

After all the emotions of December and a cold January, February brings Valentine's Day. It's not as big as Christmas and preparations aren't as extensive, but it's not just one day and even if you didn't make a big deal of it as a couple before, it's still so hard to experience as a young widow. Valentine's Day reminders seep into everyday life to remind you that the love you want, that love you had, isn't there anymore. That thought makes me feel weak and like I'm walking down a one-way street. There is nothing I can do to change it, so I try to think about the love I'm blessed with instead. Partnership love has gone so perhaps it needs to be a different love I must learn to think of and to appreciate this Valentine's Day. That's easier said than done though, because it's not what I want, and 'Valentine's Day' is everywhere.

Lockdown 2021 helped last year. Staying at home meant I avoided walking past Valentine's Day displays in shop windows, I didn't see passing strangers carrying flowers and there was no danger of overhearing conversations about people's romantic plans at the school gate. I clicked to opt out of receiving those Valentine's Day marketing emails covered in hearts and now heart-breaking words about being with "the one", and I unsubscribed from companies who didn't give that option. I watched recorded tv programmes so I could fast forward adverts and I learnt to breathe hard when any other reference broke through my well-constructed defences. It's about self-preservation and self-care. But at the same time, I don't want to avoid feeling the intensity of how much I still love Tom and how much he loved me. It's hard.

For our last February together in 2019, I put a heart shaped post-it note in Tom's and each of the boys' places for breakfast from the 1st to the 14th. Each day telling them individually one thing that I loved and adored about them, with some song lyrics thrown in too because sometimes the words of others say what my heart feels so perfectly. Tom was in hospital for four of those days. Sepsis on top of cancer - he had to cope with so much and my heart swelled even more for him. So last year, I stopped and took time again to write 14 things I really loved about Tom, just with my morning coffee for a quiet moment, in a list, in a journal. They came so easily, the quickest list to write, and they made me smile. I will do the same this year and compare them, secretly hoping something new appears - I don't like the thought that everything I must now feel for Tom has to be old, done, and finished. I'm still in love with him, my heart still beats quicker at the thought of him and I want to always feel that way. I remember reading my list last year, and feeling a warm and gentle hug in the space and silence of being without him. I ask Alexa to play Robbie Williams Angels because this year, as last, I'm loving an angel instead.

"...And as the feeling grows

She breathes flesh to my bones

And when love is dead

I'm loving angels instead..."

In 2021 I made a memory jar during February to keep me smiling after writing that list. It'll be ongoing without limit on when I can add another memory into the jar. All those little memories that push through to the front of mind encouraged by the slightest and smallest things that happen in life. Something said... something heard... something felt... Like a film, I can close my eyes and be transported somewhere else inside my mind, back to those very real memories. They are the little details and mini moments that I never want to forget. Tom, they are who you were and who we are as the love you've left behind. Memories breathe flesh to the bones of the past because I'm still loving you. Special moments in life happen when you least expect them to and by reading my memories again, I can re-experience a part of that special feeling. It's the feeling I so desperately want to have again with Tom, but cancer and death took that away from us both.

I wanted to see how the boys were doing last February so revisited Muddles, Puddles and Sunshine by Diana Crossley. It's a book of practical and sensitive support and activities for bereaved children. Half term gave us an opportunity to choose something to do from it as a family. It also gave us time to step off the hamster wheel of busy family life to reconnect to Tom and to each other. We chose to plant flower bulbs and Crossley's words reassure us that our feelings are shared by others and we're not alone in having a special person missing from our world, "Sometimes it's hard to think about the future without the person who died. Life will always be different now they have died. There will be times when you are sad, but it's still ok to have good times too." As Crossley suggests, we wrote notes to Tom, and we buried them along with our bulbs:

I wish I could tell you...

One thing I want to do when I'm older is...

A time in the future when I might miss you...

Planting on a breakthrough sunny morning gave me time to check in with how each of the boys were doing and these sentence starters guided me into their thoughts and concerns in a way I'd not done before. There are so many questions, and I believe that the more we think and talk about Tom, the stronger we become. I don't know the answers to all their questions but I do know that their daddy would want them to be kind and to always consider the feelings of others in all that they do. I also know that his love for them was unconditional and that they were enough. I take such strength in knowing that about how I loved Tom and how he loved me. We were enough for each other - physically, emotionally and mentally enough. I want the boys to feel that too - they are enough. The actor Adrian Scarborough's answer to the question: What would you like to leave your children? in Q&A (The Guardian Saturday magazine, 12.2.22) gets it right with, "self-confidence and my wife." I think Tom would have said something like that too. I felt so secure in my feelings for Tom that I knew he would look out for me and that I mattered, as Robbie writes, "Whether I'm right or wrong". That matters, it mattered then, and it matters so much now. It's the inner strength from which now I take my steps forward. I am certainly more afraid to fall now, and I am more unfiltered with him missing from my life, but alongside that vulnerability, I also feel more open to others. I know that I see more, hear more and feel more than before. I know more.

"...And through it all she offers me protection

A lot of love and affection

Whether I'm right or wrong

And down the waterfall

Wherever it may take me

I know that life won't break me

When I come to call, she won't forsake me

I'm loving angels instead..."

One of my very favourite older children's books is Skellig by David Almond. Daniel and I re-read it together and we discuss angels. We like the idea that shoulder blades are, "where your wings were, and where they'll grow again." The book deals with the theme of death and loss right from the start and I like the way the author writes about the confusion felt after personal loss, when life goes on around you as if nothing has happened and you just must learn how to cope, to ride its wave. It's W.H. Auden's moment, "Stop all the clocks", and I know how that feels: how can everything just keep going on when my whole world has been pulled away from me? Almond writes as his main character, Michael, "Loads had happened to me, but school stayed just the same." Michael is anxious about his seriously ill baby sister and is making his first journey to school from his new home having just found a strange creature/man in his structurally unstable garage. He wants to stand up and tell everyone all the things that's happening for him because they feel so big... but he doesn't. He can't. I know that paralysis and the feeling that it would take too much energy to say even one word. Exhaustion keeps us quiet, and I have felt it drain my body so that all I have left is heaviness. Feeling itself can sometimes feel like too much. These are the moments when we feel so much that we become numb, and if that doesn't make sense to you then know that you are lucky because it will make sense to so many, those who know how this grief feels. Almond says that in that moment, Michael wisely realises that you can never tell just by looking at others, "what they were thinking or what was happening in their lives". After Tom died, I created a new family motto for myself and the boys, to help us to cope with moments like that or when grief kicks you suddenly that little bit harder than usual. I wanted to give the boys some armour and Be Brave, Be Kind seemed to fit. Like a mantra - stop, breathe, think and then be kind. Kind to others because they don't mean you harm and are often oblivious to how they've made you feel; they're just not thinking about your loss as you are. As Michael points out, they too may have something happening in their lives. And be kind, perhaps more importantly, to yourself.

Mina is a brilliantly unique character in Skellig whom Daniel and I both like. She is being home schooled which today's children won't see as the unusual detail Almond meant it when he first wrote his book in the late 1990s. She is a free thinker and it's refreshing to read about her openness and how she often sees things differently to others'. She has a keen and deep interest in the world around her coming from hours spent watching, observing and drawing it from her backyard or up a tree. She sees life as it is, and tells Michael, "Sometimes we just have to accept there are things we can't know. Why is your sister ill? Why did my father die?" One of her many purposes in the book is to help Michael see the world in the same open and yet accepting way, and I am reminded of Tom's words throughout his time living with cancer, "It is what it is". I know that's the truth, but it hurts and I know that it always will.

There's a beautiful image at the end of Skellig when Mina stoops down to stroke the cat, Michael notes that for one second, he was sure he saw, "the ghostly image of her wings". Angels can walk among us too and they make all the difference when you are grieving. So, this Valentine's Day of 2022, I will think of Tom and write my list of 14 things I still love about him. I may choose to read a memory from my memory jar or perhaps add one to it when I think of Valentine's Days gone before. I will plant more flower bulbs with notes to Tom from the boys and me, I hope for another breakthrough sunny day when we can feel his sunshine on our faces. Two and a half years on, I think I'll be in a better place to be able to have some answers to the boys' questions. I'm learning to see the image of wings from the shoulder blades of those around me who will be able to help my boys and who will be honoured to have been asked. So, I will also think of those who stand by me, holding me and supporting me and my boys in our grief. The angels who walk beside us. That's the love I will think of because for Valentine's Day...

"...I'm loving angels instead."

Robbie Williams

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