There is something about a cold morning that makes it impossible to think about doing anything apart from laying in bed, curled up under the duvet, and hitting that snooze button. It was a Tuesday morning so for most people, the sound of an alarm would mean that the purpose of life was about to commence. A job, children, perhaps a partner. Thanks to how life had turned out in the past year I had neither of those things. I had neither a husband, thanks to multiple organ failures as a result of complications from cancer. I had no children because they were never part of my plan in life. And I had no job because my company had been involved in a merger and it had been concluded that having two Heads of Marketing was rather an extravagant spend and that I was going to be let go with a sizeable gratuity. Still, as a force of habit, I had let the alarms stay, but I was beginning to regret it as I stared outside the window at the cold, dull, gloomy Kettering morning.
I slowly propped myself up and sighed, thinking about my agenda for the day. It had been a week since I had been unemployed, so I rather thought a break from work would be forthcoming. It was different from when my husband Patrick had died, and yet somehow completely the same. Of course, Patrick had been a huge part of my life. He was my husband, the love of my life. I had fought against my supremely brown, Desi parents to be with him. My extended family had severed all ties with me for fear of their children turning out to be like me, fraternising with white people. I had defied all Desi expectations. I hadn’t studied Economics or Medicine or Dentistry or Law at University. I had studied Media Studies and I had gone away to Norwich to do this, as far away from ‘my people’ as possible. Predictably, I had met Patrick at University and my parents had concluded that sending me away to University away from home had been the reason that I had brought the shame of a white husband to the family. Perhaps Birmingham or London or even Leicester where my extended family lived would have been a better choice. I would have found a decent Punjabi boy, perhaps a Doctor or someone from Economics well on his way to a grad scheme with a reputed firm would have wooed me. But alas, I had found true love with an Englishman. The sadness about him being English had been far above the joy of me finding true love. They had eventually made their peace with me and my choices but I had forever been labeled as the black sheep of the family. The weak link. The Fredo, if you will.
So, of course, losing Patrick had been the worst thing imaginable. I had known it was coming, but that it came so early was cruel. He had so much to live for. He was so loved. Dying at the age of forty-four had been perhaps the most selfish thing he had ever done. What was I going to do without him? I had never imagined a life without him. Twenty-four years of friendship and love had been rendered moot. The day of his funeral saw not only the burial of Patrick James Miller but also the burial of everything that the twenty-four years of our lives together had represented. He was gone. Just like that. Nothing compares to the pain of holding a loved one while they breathe their last. I had been sure that my life would be nothing after Patrick, because I had only ever truly started living when I met Patrick. Take away the essence of my life and what am I left with? An existence.
But life went on. Days passed, then weeks. Depression, anxiety, chronic nausea from anxiety, panic attacks-terms that I had looked at in the Mental Health Awareness brochures at work had come to life for me. The simplest things could trigger a panic attack. Every time I hung up a call on my mobile and saw that Patrick was the most dialed number on my phone, I could feel my breath getting caught in my throat as if something was blocking my windpipe and I kept trying to breathe but couldn’t. Every time I turned in my sleep onto his side of the bed, his permanent scent would wake me up and tears would take over and sleep would no longer be my friend.
Eventually, his name didn’t show up on my phone. His scent went away. I felt guilty that these small remains were slowly diminishing even further, so I kept dialing his number so his name would never be at the bottom of the list. But nobody answered. I kept sniffing the bottle of his aftershave, my eyes closed, imagining that he was around. That maybe the scent would overpower me just as much as it did when he would kiss me. But he would never kiss me again. And where I could slowly be recovering, I kept getting caught even deeper in the quicksand that was his memory.
But at least I had work to turn to. The most obvious solution for me and the least favourite amongst therapists the world over. Where my therapist wanted me to embrace the pain and fear I was holding on to, my mind was diverting itself towards work at all possible times. My therapist, a lovely lady called Barbara, wanted me to talk about how I felt lonely or scared that I would always be alone, or even how much I missed Patrick. But my solution was to immerse myself in work, work well until after everyone else had left the office, and cry when no one was watching. Barbara wanted to be my friend. She wanted me to say out loud everything that I was feeling. But what could I even say? That life was unfair and I had learnt that firsthand? I knew he was gone and won’t come back. The nature of cancer is such that it prepares you for a possible end. It is also a bit of a bastard-quite a bit of a bastard, actually- because it makes you believe that the patient might be getting better, but really, it’s just a trick meant to fool you. So, while I had known the end would come, I hadn’t known that it would come when it did. Despite that, I had accepted that Patrick was not coming back. I had accepted that perhaps I will never sleep without a cry. Perhaps my best friend was going to be a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. I was a widow. A forty-four-year-old widow. Having a bottle of wine for a best friend was not only going to be acceptable for my widow status but also forthcoming for the mid-life crisis that was looming on the horizon.
Slowly, Barbara made me realise that life wouldn’t always be like that. Nothing in this world is permanent- the loss of Patrick had taught me that anyway. So where people were transient, so was emotion. Time would heal all wounds- all I needed to do was be patient. I could focus on work, but I was advised not to use it as an escape mechanism. But I continued to ignore that piece of advice. Why should I go home on time? What am I trying to maintain a work-life balance for? And as luck would have it, my hard work did not go unnoticed and I got promoted into the Senior Leadership Team. Patrick would have been proud.
Work became the source of my joy and my lifeline. I had neither the time nor the energy to cry. I had started going out with colleagues when they asked me to join them at the pub on weekends on Friday nights. I joined Book Clubs, the local gym, the tennis club. I kept myself busy- all through the recommendations from my colleagues. There was much to be thankful for.
And then nearly a year later, I was no longer needed. I really thought I would lose my shit when I found out why I had been asked to meet the CEO in a private meeting outside of our weekly one-to-ones. Losing Patrick wasn’t unfair enough, now I have to be unemployed too? But I didn’t. Well, not as much as I would have expected myself to. I was upset, but I understood why I was let go. There was a reason. Unlike when Patrick was taken away from me by the cruel grasp of death. And yet losing my job and my husband had left me with a sense of emptiness that nothing could fill.
‘You should have had kids when you could have’, Mum and Dad had repeatedly said. ‘They would have provided you with a purpose.’
The last thing a widow needs to hear is what she should have done while her partner was still alive.
‘I never wanted kids’, I had said glumly. ‘We were going to get a German Shepherd’.
I thought about getting a dog several times. A large one like a German Shepherd or a Husky, not a plaything. Having said that, all dogs are cute, even pugs, with their ugly little noses that make them look like they had an accident with a deceptively clean French window. Someone I could play with, who would sit quietly and listen to me. Not offer advice on what I should have done in the past to not be alone in the present. And definitely not talk to me about getting married again.
‘But it might be good for you!’ an Aunt had said, a week after Patrick’s funeral. ‘God has given you a chance to find yourself a nice husband. Just like your sister found Ranjit.’
‘I had that chance, Aunty and I found Patrick and we were happy’, I had snapped. ‘Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to wait until Patrick’s body is cold to talk about marrying again.’
Never had a nice thing to say about my Patrick and yet here she was, talking to me about how God was giving me a chance to redeem myself. Surely, if God had chances to hand out willy-nilly, He’d hand them to people to not die instead of killing someone innocent just so I could get a second, clearly ‘better’ husband, as my Aunts saw it?
Presently, I made myself a cup of tea and warmed up some milk to pour onto my Weetabix, the only good thing to come out of Kettering. Well, that and Peep Show. I chuckled as I thought about how my sister, Lily, and I would joke about this as kids, wanting to move out of the ‘shitshow’ that was Kettering. In the end, life had turned out fine in Kettering. Well, minus Patrick dying. But I was slowly recovering from the loss. And I would get over the loss of my job too. I wasn’t young, I knew, but I was talented and I could find something else soon enough. Feeling a sense of positivity in my mind, I sat down with my breakfast and a copy of the Times. Just as I sat down though, the landline rang with fervour.
That’s odd, I thought. Who even knows I have a landline?
‘Hello?’ I answered a few seconds later.
‘Hello?’ I heard the sound of Lily on the phone. ‘Sheila?’ she said.
There was an instant drowning sensation in my stomach, the one that accompanies the sound of your sister crying on the phone.
‘Lily, what’s the matter?’ I said, my heart beating faster.
‘It’s Ranjit’, she said, sobbing into the phone. ‘He’s dead.’
I was breathing much faster than I had been doing a few seconds earlier and my heart was slowly crawling up into my throat and dangerously close to erupting out of my mouth. There it was again- anxiety and nausea.
‘What are you saying, Lily?’ I said, aware that I was starting to sound almost hysterical.
‘He’s gone’, Lily sobbed. ‘He had a heart attack. He didn’t make it.’