Closing the book on a life not lived
Twenty years ago I was oblivious to the hurricane of grief that was about to sweep me up and keep me spinning for the next two or three years. Twenty years ago my best friend died on her placement year in Angers, France. Two days later the university chaplain called me out of the student newspaper office where we were putting together the next issue, pints at elbows, all cares a world away.
It was one of those gorgeous February days that nature throws at you just before she covers you in freezing grey dampness for another six weeks. Warm enough that even I had bare arms (I am generally dressed like a pass-the-parcel, in at least four layers of clothing, unless it’s summer, when I’ll strip down to two). The sky had enough blue for a Navy’s worth of sailors’ trousers. It was a small campus, but the two-minute walk from the Guild to John Plant’s office seemed to take a lifetime. I had no idea what he was going to say, only that it couldn’t be good.
We stood on the concrete balcony outside his office, him double-checking that I was H’s friend, before breaking the news that she had killed herself two days beforehand.
Some things feel like they have been branded into my memory: the scratchy texture of the bricks beneath my fingers; the crimson berries on the leafless tree next to the balcony; the incongruous clear blue sky over the city; the dead weight in my chest and the tears that I thought I would never be able to stop falling.
I think I stayed in shock for the next six weeks. I carried the grief for a lot longer than that; unable or unwilling to let it go for the next couple of years. I can’t tell you exactly when I put it down and started to properly heal, though the memory of the moment is almost as clear as the one on John Plant’s balcony.
It was, not uncoincidentally I believe, another unseasonably warm February day. The sky was as clear as it had been on February 21, 1994, but not such a startling shade of blue. My sheltered garden was a suntrap and I was weeding and planting in a short-sleeved T-shirt. And I knew I had to find a way forward without the weight of my grief, that I would be causing myself irreparable damage if I didn’t let go of the pain before many more weeks passed.
And that was that. I’d be a liar if I said I never shed another tear for H. There have been many, many moments when I’ve missed her. But while watching our friends marry and have children – not to mention getting married and having my own child, turning 30 and then 40 without her – have all been marked with both joy and a little melancholy, H was no longer the ghost at the feast.
Now I have to face up to the fact that I have been missing her for twenty years. She has been dead almost as long as she was alive for goodness sake. This really should be the last time I share her tragedy with you. This is the closing of the book – leaving me to do no more than run a finger down its spine every February 19th.
Sleep well darling girl, I miss you.