Given that my Mother has had early onset Alzheimer for the past eight years, and that I have known it was terminal for five years, I spend a lot of time thinking about grief.
Grief is one of the high priests of emotions along with love, sadness and joy that can irrevocably change a person. My eight year relationship with grief has changed me, making me more stoic. When you find your bathmat stained by your Mother’s urine which has turned electric blue because of her tablets you have to harden your heart. The alternative is personal ruin.
There was a time during my second year at university when it seemed that my grief, my failure to cope with what was happening to my Mother, was going to overwhelm me. I wanted to drop out of university and felt that any activity other than lying in bed was useless. But I pulled myself together and started to write, started to run regularly, and started to try things out. If I hadn’t been able to clench my jaw and get on with things I would not have been able to carry on living successfully and productively.
Grief is a capricious, tempestuous, unpredictable beautiful woman. For some reason she has chosen you. She wafts into your life with her bewitching, terrible beauty and stays with you. There is something primal and overwhelming about grief in the same way that unadulterated beauty can be.
I was going out with a girl for a while whose beauty I idealised and when I first started seeing her my brain would scramble and my whole body would just yearn. I would feel like lying on the floor or climbing a tree or having a fight. It didn’t work out, but I sometimes remember that breathless, bewildered feeling when I first sat next to her and saw her pale little hands clasping her bag when my grief comes strutting into my room in and poleaxes me.
When you are busy doing the things you love she walks alongside you and you hold hands and swing your arms. She smiles at you, and you smile at her, and you think to yourself ‘yes, she’s mine, all mine, and what does that say about me?’ You walk around, your stride clipped and purposeful, your back straight, your chin high, and you stare people in the eye, challenging them, ‘I bet you don’t know this feeling, I bet you have no idea,’ and people stare back at you, slightly frightened, sensing something different and disconcerting about you. On these days you feel invincible and you tell yourself ‘if I can live with this mad, beautiful, terrifying woman then I can do anything I want,’ and you feel that it defines you and you have a wry smile in all your interactions.
Grief, when isolated on its own by a busy and full life can actually add because it sets you apart from other people. ‘I’m really alive, aren’t I? I’m experiencing something,’ you tell yourself. However, when it is combined with other negative emotions, perhaps rejection, or regret, or loneliness, then you feel the payback.
A couple of weekends ago I went out on the pull. It was going well and I was talking to lots of different attractive women when I got too drunk, and passed over the threshold from earnest and charming to weird and stare-y. I knew this and there was nothing I could do, and all my attempts at initiating conversation turned into slurred questions into unreceptive ears followed by a pleading smile. I felt despondent and images of my Mother’s crooked back and wringing hands played in my head.
The next morning I awoke and I was being smothered, and I lay there for an hour going through my Tinder and feeling sad. Finally, I got up and cleaned my flat and talked to my friend and felt the hot suggestion of tears which I shoved back down to the pit of my stomach. I got on with my day and on the way to my tutoring I was cycling through Hyde Park when I started punching the air and whooping because she was now in a little pull-along wagon looking childish and impotent, smiling sheepishly. ‘Fuck you,’ I said, ‘I win.’
I went to see Mum that day and she burst into tears when I saw her and she looked old but it didn’t matter. I absorbed it. We went out for a drink with my older sister to celebrate my 24th Birthday and Mum had no idea, really, of what that meant, but it didn’t matter. I had managed to visit her and I had won.