I can’t believe that it is two years already since my wonderful husband died after falling from cliffs. It all still seems so close. How can it be that that amount of time has passed?
This morning I took flowers to the cemetery where my husband’s ashes are; pink and orange chrysanthemums. He wasn’t one to stick to dull shades and they reminded me of the colours of some of the shirts and jumpers that he used to wear. After arranging the flowers, cleaning the stone and standing in the drizzle thinking for a while, I drove to the headland where he died. It was sill cloudy and drizzling heavily, unlike two years ago when it was a lovely sunny day; perfect for taking photos. After parking the car I walked up the pathway, carrying the roses and rose petals that I had picked, from my garden, earlier in the morning. No one was around as I walked towards the cliffs. Soon after my husband’s death a gate was put near the end of the path leading to the cliffs. It says ‘Danger of Falling’ and is padlocked shut. Last year I climbed over the gate but this year I decided it was easier to climb the rocks at the side of the gate and go around. Once past the gate I climbed up the rocky track that leads over a rocky outcrop then drops down towards the cliff edge. Last year my son was with me. This year I was completely alone.
My husband and I used to love this place. We used to think it was one of the most beautiful places along the coast. This morning I felt almost scared as I walked closer to the edge. Walking near any cliffs is quite difficult for me know. They frighten me and yet at the same time have a strange draw. Once I had got as close to the edge that my husband fell from as I could, I placed the lovely yellow roses that I had cut earlier onto the rocks. I then scattered the red and white rose petals that I had gathered over the cliff edge. I stood for a while in the increasingly heavy drizzle with thoughts of my lovely husband, the life we had had together and what had happened going through my head. I will never know exactly what happened that day and I still find it hard to believe that it could have happened. How could he have just gone out one day with his camera and never come home?
For a long time I was just trying to get through what was left of my life whilst constantly missing the person that was the centre of it. Over the last few months, although I haven’t written anything, I have been trying to live the new life that I have. I’ve learnt that I can still have a future; something that seemed impossible last year. There is a lot to be happy about in my new life but it is always underpinned with a sadness that constantly underlies everything. There is never a day when I don’t think about what happened and it is still painful but I suppose I just accept that now as something that will always be there; an integral part of my life. It has all been brought back very strongly recently because of someone else going missing from a local cliff path; someone who I had actually met a few times. After extensive searches her body was found in the sea by fisherman over a week later. The circumstances are different in some ways but knowing what her family must be going through brought my experience of twenty one months ago right back to the forefront of my mind.
In trying to live my new life one of the things I have had to process is where I go with my art. I have written before about how difficult it has been to carry on. My artwork was so strongly related to the coast of the island on which I live. The coast is still spectacular and I do still go for walks along it but it no longer holds the joy for me that it did. There is now a more dark and sinister beauty about it. The other day when I was walking with a friend we went to a part that I have never walked to before. There were very sheer drops close to the pathway in one particular place. I felt an almost overwhelming pull to the edge whilst at the same time being afraid to leave the path. I have and am sure will continue producing artwork relating to the coast but portraying the joy of the place no longer works in the same way for me and maybe I need to think about embracing and reflecting the darker side of it in some way.
In the meantime I have started working on a series of abstracts. These are a form of therapy and are in many ways a reflection of what has happened in my life. They involve painting and printing, destroying, stitching and recreating the surface into something that works in a different way to the surface that I started with. They are intuitive, reflective and reactionary and involve a lot of random, chance elements as well as those that are decisive choices. I am enjoying producing these works as they allow me total freedom to interact with the surface in a way that is impossible with more representational work as well as, and more importantly, being a way of expressing my emotions and processing my thoughts. I create a surface or surfaces which work and that I like. I then destroy their harmony in a reactionary way with paint and scissors. I am then left with something that is in pieces and no longer works. I then have to recreate what is left into some new kind of harmony. Many of my choices in this are an instant, intuitive reaction to what is in front of me whilst some are more considered.
I have learnt over the last year that I can survive, I can still have a future and that I can still be creative. I also think I am a much more empathetic person than I ever was before. Living on a small island it was difficult to find the support that I needed at the beginning and I didn’t know anyone who had lost someone very close to them in similar circumstances so I ended up reading a lot about grief and other people’s experiences on the internet. This was important for me. What I read helped me to feel less alone. It enabled me to understand and to process my thoughts and emotions better in the knowledge of what others had experienced. At times I found articles that so closely expressed what I was feeling that I shared them on Facebook in the hope that those close to me would read them and be able to understand better what I was going though. I know that some people did and it did make a difference.
I haven’t written anything for a while. The summer and autumn seem to have run away with me and now it’s nearly Christmas. Life has been very busy. I went away for a bit to stay with some lovely friends, who I have known for many years, and now live in Spain. When I came back my sons and their girlfriends came to stay for a while, which was great. I went away to Edinburgh for a few days with my sister and then a couple of weekends later to stay with my youngest son and his girlfriend in London. A few weeks later I went away again. This time to Brazil where I travelled out into the Pantanal, looking for jaguars and other wildlife. In between all of the trips away I have been out and about walking with friends, trying to keep up with the gardening and some artwork that I needed to finish for exhibitions. All in all I haven’t had much time to collect my thoughts and put anything down in writing.
Thinking back now, over the last 17 months, I have come such a long way. The last few months seem to have been a bit of a turning point for me. Overall I have been in a much better place since the beginning of July following the anniversary of my husband’s death. That doesn’t mean that I don’t still feel overwhelmingly sad at times but I have started to look forward to and enjoy things again. I feel more able to talk to people and no longer have the constant feeling that I am separated from the rest of the world. I am naturally fairly quiet and reserved and in my past life enjoyed nothing more than staying in and getting on with my artwork or gardening. We had a fairly quiet social life with family and a small circle of friends, we enjoyed travelling and we enjoyed each other’s company at home. In my new life I am certainly a far more social person than I have ever been and I like that.
There is one important piece of advice that I took on board early on in this widowhood journey. It is: accept every invitation. I have done this from the beginning. I often didn’t feel like going out and I didn’t look forward to things but I made myself go because I found that even though it didn’t take away the despair I was feeling, I always felt a lot better than if I stayed at home on my own. I have renewed many friendships from my past and made new friends. I am so grateful to all of the people who have kept in touch with me over the past months and got me out of the house. Despite the fact that nothing will ever be as it was before, I enjoy the social life I now have.
My output of artwork has definitely suffered. I have kept up with the things that I needed to complete because of commitments but I haven’t been motivated to do more and the work routine that I had developed has gone completely out of the window. Hopefully my inspiration and desire to create will eventually return to what it was. Being in the house alone, working or doing anything else, for any length of time is still very hard. For now I am just trying to do what makes me feel the happiest.
Yesterday, on the anniversary of his death, I went back to the spot where my husband fell. One of my sons and his girlfriend are staying with me for a few days so they came too. We took roses from the garden and my son and I scattered the petals close to the edge of the cliff whilst we thought our own thoughts about a wonderful husband and father who we miss so much. Both of us too scared to go near enough to the edge to scatter the petals down the cliff, which had been my intention. I didn’t cry. I don’t seem able to cry any more. The crying seems to stay inside and I live with a constant, intense, overwhelming feeling of sadness.
The place is still beautiful but I no longer feel the joy about it that I did when we used to walk there together looking at and taking photos of the wonderful views. This area of the cliffs used to be easily accessible but now there is a padlocked gate with a sign saying ‘Danger of falling’. Earlier in the week before he died we had had such a lovely time there walking in the sun. I had been so happy with the photos that I had taken. One in particular sticks in my mind of cobweb covered heather. The light and the colours on that day were bright and uplifting. Not so yesterday under the overcast sky. When we first visited this place several years ago we had talked about what a lovely place it would be to scatter our ashes. I don’t remember why the subject came up. Why was it that on our last visit there together that I felt compelled to ask if he would still like his ashes scattered here? His answer was that he thought he would prefer them to be at our local cemetery. I still keep wondering why I felt I had to ask that question on that day, little knowing that a few days later he would be dead.
Earlier in the day we had taken red roses to the cemetery. Red roses were what he always gave me on special occasions such as our wedding anniversary.
July is a month I used to love. Summer, good weather, BBQs and as a teacher the prospect of the start of the long Summer holidays. This year I have approached July with a sense of dread. A year ago today my husband went out of the door and never came back and I was never allowed to see him again. It was a Friday when he left never to return. I can’t believe that I have lived through that long without him. It all still feels so recent -The Friday evening when he didn’t return and my phone call to the police. Then the seemingly endless wait for any news that followed. Another phone call to the police when I was put through to an inspector who told me that a lot had been happening and he would send someone around right away. Sitting with the two policemen, feeling numb and terrified waiting for news from the search teams -This could not really be happening.
His car had been found, his rucksack had been found and later on in the evening his camera was found half way down the cliff, but no sign of my husband. The land and sea search teams had to stop when darkness fell but then a helicopter from France came over to extend the search and continued until the fuel was used up. Once the search had ended for the night the two police officers left, saying that they would be back in the morning when the search would resume. I was told that I could have an hour in which to contact my sons before a missing person announcement was put onto social media. How do you tell your sons who are on the other side of the world that their father has gone missing and is probably no longer alive?
My sister arrived at some point so that I wouldn’t be alone overnight and my brother-in-law who had come round earlier in the evening left. Then a sleepless night was followed by the continuation of the nightmare the next day.
Two police officers arrived during the morning to tell me that a French fishing boat had spotted a body several miles of the coast. Eventually I was told that the body had been brought to shore and that although it seemed certain that it was him, it was too badly damaged to be identified by me. I had to provide artefacts that would carry his DNA in case he could not be identified by his dental records.
I was then given an hour to contact my sons again before a media report was put out saying that the search had been called off. The police wanted to do this quickly as so many people had been in touch asking whether they could help with the search. At that point one of my sons could not be contacted as he was on a flight from New Zealand to Hong Kong. I left a message for him to get in touch with me as soon as he arrived and before doing anything else. Of course he looked at Facebook on arrival and found himself alone at a strange airport with the news that his father’s body had been found. My other son who didn’t have quite as far to travel was with me by that time and spent a lot of time talking to his brother over the following few hours until he boarded his next flight. I was in such a state talking to me just made it worse.
All of this and everything that followed is all still so clear in my mind that it feels like it was yesterday. The endless pain, the sobbing, the numbness, the anxiety, the fear, the not wanting to be here, the disbelief, the what ifs. How can it be a year already?
I have just got back from an evening out at a concert in a very beautiful setting, overlooking the sea. Last year I was there with my husband. We took a picnic and had a lovely time eating, enjoying a glass of wine, listening to the music and watching the sunset. I didn’t know then that a week later he would be dead. When a friend invited me to go along with her and a group of her friends this year, I had very mixed feelings about going but I decided early in the year that I would accept all invitations. I have also tried to make sure that I go back to places that we went to together and even the place that he died. I didn’t want there to be any no go areas. So I went along. I’m pleased that I went. The company and the music were good and for the first time in a year I felt that maybe he was up there somewhere. Until now it has just felt like he walked out of the door and was gone. Maybe it was the couple of glasses of wine and the music but it has lifted my spirits after a really bad start to the day.
Last night I went to bed listening to the UK referendum. I started to feel uneasy when I heard the results from Newcastle and Sunderland but decided I had better go to sleep as I had to set up for Open Studios in the morning. I woke again before 5.00am and turned on the radio to hear the horrific news that the leave side to all intents and purposes had won. Depression set in for the rest of the day. I could go on about it but probably not now. It’s not that I even had a vote. I live in the British Isles but not the UK. This, though, is a bad day for us all and a backward step for the UK. I did manage to set up my work for Open Studios in a lovely National trust property on the coast. I found it quite hard to hold myself together at times but did get through it. Last year when I exhibited at this same venue my lovely husband was there to help me get everything set up.
To most people the link between the words widow and art may seem tenuous and that is certainly what my eldest son thought when I mentioned to him that I was starting this blog. To me now, however they are inextricably linked. A widow, much as I don’t want it to be, is what I am. It defines everything in my life now -my relationships with family and friends and everything I do. It is etched into my being like an open wound. Art has always been part of my being. I have been compelled to create things since I was very young. Many people have said to me over the last few months that my art must help and maybe it would in different circumstances. Certainly it has helped me through stressful times in the past. The circumstances of my husband’s death, though, make it very difficult to continue my art in the same way. How can I enjoy creating something which has always been a celebration of the beauty and diversity of the coast around my island home, when that is precisely the thing that cost my husband his life?
I have hundreds of photos of places all around the coast taken whilst we were out walking. No longer when I look at them do they remind me of a beautiful place and inspire me to create. Now they simply remind me that I will never again experience those lovely walks with my husband and they make me feel sad. Friends have said to me that I need to take new photos that don’t make me feel this way and I have taken a few but taking photos creates sadness in itself. My husband died taking photos with a camera that I gave him for Christmas. Taking photos was an enjoyable activity that we did together but now I will be taking them alone and how can I feel the joy in that?
I also can’t help feeling that if it hadn’t been for my involvement with local art, I would have been out with my husband that afternoon. We probably wouldn’t even have been on that particular cliff as we had walked there earlier that week. He only went back because he hadn’t taken his camera with him on that occasion. I had stayed at home as a favour to a couple of other artists who needed some of their artwork photographed for a projection gallery to be held in the autumn. When it came to it I was unable to attend the event because it was too closely tied to my husband’s death and the ‘What ifs?’ that were continually going through my mind at that time.
It’s not that I haven’t produced any work at all over the last eleven months. I have finished off things that I had already started. I completed one which was very hard because it was looking down from the top of a cliff, but I’m the type of person that always finishes what I have started. I completed some small abstract pieces and a demonstration piece that I started for a workshop that I ran in March. I started and completed a landscape that I was committed to making for a series of exhibitions and two seascapes, inspired by a lonely walk along the beach at sunset, and also needed for exhibitions but now I seem unable to make myself work on anything.
Art is part of who I am but to some degree I feel that my involvement with it is a contributory factor in what happened. How do I reconcile that? Can I possibly continue? Will my art evolve into something new? What will be left of me if not?