I'd been trying all summer to leave work early enough to enable me to catch some Friday evening cricket at The Oval and now I had finally managed to do so. Sitting bathed in the mid summer sunshine, absorbing the laughter and high spirits of 23,000 spectators all around me, out to enjoy themselves at the start of that rarest of things, a sizzling hot weekend, I was overcome by a sense of liberation, even elation. 18 months almost to the day since Louise's death, my head was clear of the constant churn of thoughts that has occupied it for so long now. The tinnitus of grief had abated. In that moment, at least, I was relaxed and happy. More than that; I no longer felt such a separation from those around me. Their world was, once more, mine too. I could enjoy it as they were. It felt like a profound re-connection with normality.
Moments like this are still rare. The acute stage of grief, the cripplingly intense sorrow, has passed but only to be replaced by its secondary characteristics which perhaps have more in common with depression. While I'm no longer bereft, no longer in the darkest of places, the sadness is still never far away and I'm utterly listless, unable to summon the enthusiasm for very much, nor even able to maintain the energy which somehow propelled me through the first year. The landscape generally appears as flat as the Suffolk countryside Louise and I cycled through in that last impossibly happy summer together. Day follows day and I go through the motions.
I remain diminished. I am acutely aware that I have not yet regained my normal capacity for family, work or play, nor my resilience. I declined to pursue a once in a lifetime career opportunity because I knew that in my present condition I wouldn't be able to do myself justice. I feel my age in a way that I never have before owing to the loss of the stimulus and energy provided by Louise, who was nearly five years younger than me chronologically and decades younger in terms of spirit, and I'm uncomfortably aware of the loss of social class and status that I acquired through my association with her.
I'm also more conscious of my loneliness at this point. Understandably and inevitably, the support offered in the early days dries up and the inequality of grief which allows others to move on with their lives while I lag behind, still caught up in the day to day consequences of Louise's loss, becomes ever more apparent. Social invitations which would have come to us as a couple don't come to me as an individual. The phone rarely rings. Once the front door closes behind me after work evenings tend to take on a monotonously predictable solitary form.
Most of all, the realisation has dawned that the future I clung on to during that first year, one in which I would find love again, doesn't automatically fall in to place according to schedule. The disappointments and indignities of several months of internet dating remind me that a new relationship, one capable of bringing me equal happiness, may not arrive quickly, if it does at all.
Louise's death and my widowhood are therefore still the defining features of me, the event and the state which determine almost everything about the way in which I live and the prism through which I see the world. Even as I sat processing the strange lightness of being at the Oval I found myself watching a young couple in front of me, frustrated that the man wasn't responding to his partners attempts to cuddle up to him. I couldn't help myself from thinking that he might regret it one day - that next summer, or perhaps the summer after, she might not be here and he will be wishing with all his heart for nothing more than one more chance to hold her tight.
However, in many respects this second year of my new existence feels very different to the first. I've long since learnt not to utter the phrase 'time is a great healer' to the newly widowed because its such a cliche that it can't help but sound vacuous. I vividly remember how much I myself resented hearing it from others in the very early days. The pain and hurt is so great that something as trivial as time can surely never overcome it. But......it can and does.
Time provides the comfort of distance. The events of last year seem to belong to another life, another person. They are never more than seconds away from the forefront of my mind, recalled dozens of times a day, but they feel even more unreal than ever. My mind struggles desperately to try and understand what has happened, that Louise has died, and still can't do so. I am used now to her absence but have come to accept that I will never be able to process her death.
That distance also means that the signs of Louise's presence in the house, which have provided me with so much comfort and seemed so normal, are now beginning to feel incongruous. Her bedside cabinet remains exactly as it was the day she died - the photos, books and hand lotions all untouched. I've barely given it a second thought but the other day it hit me with a stunning blow. It now seemed not in place but out of place, a relic from another world. It is slowly becoming easier to envisage moving, or even disposing of, some of her less significant possessions.
The rawness fades. I find that I can smile and laugh. Once or twice I have even found myself about to burst into a song around the house, before checking myself, as if unsure whether it would still at this point be disrespectful, the sign of a bad and unloving widower. I am more easily caught up in other things, slowly returning to my old interests, even beginning, hesitantly, to pick up books again. In recent weeks I have finally found myself working the same long hours in the office as I did before, even if without the same attention span - my mind still wanders after the shortest of periods of concentration. My life is growing around the loss. I meet up with other young widows not for therapy any longer, but simply the social aspects. For all of the frustrations of internet dating the very fact that I feel ready for another relationship demonstrates that I am now in a very different place to last year.
Things are undeniably better. Not all right, not back to the way they were. That will never be possible again. But much easier than the early days. I know that I have made so much progress. This blog is as good an indicator as any of the arc of grief and loss, and not just in the content but the frequency of posts and the style of writing. In the first weeks and months I felt the need to write almost every day. I had to do so to purge myself of the thoughts catapulting around my head. And when I wrote it was in an urgent, staccato manner. A written expression of a scream of pain. But now I no longer need to write. Or rarely so. Rather than a release it's become a chore. Something else that I feel that I need to do but am just too tired to make time for. The posts are much less frequent, calmer and more reflective. I'm all written out. Soon, maybe not just yet, but soon, it will be time to stop.
This reflects a broader sense of emotional stabilisation. Every so often my armour plating is still pierced by an arrow which strikes to the heart, causing breathless pain, but it's increasingly rare. And even when it does happen the tears, which used to come so readily, now don't come, won't come, at all. Sometimes I wish that they would because I know that there is still an ocean of them inside, trying to find a way out. As time goes by my response to the trauma of Louise's death becomes increasingly inarticulate, as if it is necessary to shrink from the memories in order to achieve that stability. My mind is attempting to lock safely away anything which might hurt me - and it is largely succeeding.
A battle, then, is underway between the long tail of grief on the one side and hope and renewal on the other. It is fiercely fought and the ascendancy can swing from day to day, even moment to moment. As I sat this afternoon in the cool shade of the trees where Louise's ashes were scattered, marking a second empty birthday without her, I found myself enveloped yet again in the familiar darkness of mourning, concerned only with what has been lost. It was easy to forget the gains that have been made. The greater momentum, however, surely lies with the spirit of that July evening at The Oval. It will be light which eventually prevails. Louise would allow nothing else.