One of this year’s themes at the Edinburgh International Book Festival is ‘Reading the Final Chapter‘, a collection of events centered around death. This feels very well-timed for me, as much of my recent reading (and writing) has been on this topic. I appreciate the open and frank discussions that are being held. Death and grieving are nothing to be ashamed of, so why not speak about them freely?
On Sunday I went to see Richard Holloway, a well-known local writer and the former Bishop of Edinburgh (who has since left the church). I found his mix of thoughtfulness and kindness very appealing. He spoke of the importance of living in the present, rather than in the past, even as one approaches one’s own death – also good advice for the bereaved as well as everyone else, really.
Holloway declared it a tragedy to die without knowing who you were. An audience member suggested the exercise of writing your own obituary from other points of view – how would others sum up who you are? I don’t think I really know the answer to that.
Today I went to see Julia Samuel, a psychotherapist who specializes in grief counseling. Many people in the audience had gushingly positive things to say about her book Grief Works, sharing how it had helped them. She spoke in part about the history of grieving in the UK, how in the Victorian era mourning was fashionable but sex was taboo, but the reverse is true today.
I confess I’d never given much thought to how we talk about death in today’s society before Scott died. Now I’m confronted with the topic daily, never knowing when/if/how I should bring up my recent widowhood. Some people seem to be uncomfortable when I mention Scott at all, even when it’s to relate a memory that has nothing to do with his death. Part of me always wonders – am I talking about him too much? How can I make people more comfortable around me? Am I doing grief wrong? These events at the book festival haven’t relieved me of my ongoing social awkwardness, but they have definitely made me feel less alone in my grief.
I once heard a comedian (it may have been Ed Byrne) talk about how amongst comedians, the month of August is simply known as ‘Edinburgh.’ ‘What are you doing for Edinburgh?’ ‘Oh, I’ll be spending it in Florida.’ Here in Edinburgh, August often just gets called ‘the festival.’ Locals discuss their festival plans, whether or not they involve any actual time at festivals. If you’re in Edinburgh during August, the festivals will be impacting your life whether you attend them or not. They are inescapable.
This year most of my planning for August has involved preparing for a large art exhibition I’ll be putting on. (If you’ll be in town, please come see it!) It has been good to have something to work towards, a way to focus my energy in this post-Scott reality where I am still finding my feet. I’m kind of impressed with myself that I’m doing anything productive at all these days.
Purrcules was as excited about the arrival of the Book Festival programme as I was!
My favorite of all the August festivals is the Book Festival. I haven’t gotten around to acquiring any tickets yet, but I have scoured the programme and used it as inspiration for my summer reading choices. The big names (Zadie Smith, Paul Auster, Ali Smith, Alexander McCall Smith) will have sold out on the first day. (One of the things I love about Edinburgh is the around-the-block queue which forms in the wee hours on the morning the Book Festival tickets go on sale.)
I’ve spent four Augusts in Edinburgh so far. Scott was receiving chemotherapy during two of them, but even those years we managed to see a couple Fringe shows together. I will miss him most during the nightly fireworks at the end of the Tattoo, which we could see from our kitchen window. Whatever we were doing when the first booms sounded, Scott would insist we run to the window and watch them, every night of the festival.
Thirteen years ago today, Scott and I got married. We had two weddings (the second one was in Italy a year and a half later), and enjoyed the excuse to celebrate our marriage twice a year on anniversaries. It makes me happy to know we crammed in some extra celebrating while we could.
I watched the movie Other People recently. It’s the first movie I’ve watched since he died. I did most of my movie-watching with him for the past 15 years. It’s hard to settle in for one alone. Anyway, the movie’s title refers to the notion that cancer, especially the deadly kind, happens to other people. That’s me: other people.
My recent reading has been a selection of ‘widow lit’, as I have been calling it. In Joan Didion’s writing, I recognized the unhinged feeling I’ve had while trying to adjust to my new reality. From Liz McNeill Taylor I learned that I won’t be invited to dinner parties anymore because women are afraid I will try to steal their husbands. From Sheryl Sandberg I learned that society will judge me harshly if I ever start dating again (which might be a fate I avoid entirely by choosing the crazy cat lady route). So, surprise surprise, this widow thing is not all fun and games.
The household duties in our relationship mostly fell across traditional gender lines. My newly-acquired jobs include taking out the trash, cleaning the kitchen, going into the attic, driving the car, calling the roofers when the roof leaks, cleaning the bathroom, changing light bulbs, and administering all of the household IT. I’m managing reasonably well at some of them. I’m trying to just ignore the attic, but the heat wave of the past couple days has reminded me that the fans are up there, and I may want them before the summer is over. So far I have been keeping the IT afloat by occasionally turning the router off and back on again, but I’m guessing it is only a matter of time before this becomes an inadequate method for dealing with issues.
Scott was allergic to cats. It is a testament to my love for him that I was willing to forgo having a cat in order to have him all those years. The plan was for us to get a kitten after he had his new immune system installed (stem cell transplant recipients often see their allergies change). We even had a name picked out for her. One of the last things Scott said to me was, ‘Have fun with Purrcules.’
So I had to get one. I thought I was going to wait a bit longer, but a visiting friend convinced me that now was the time. It’s kitten season, after all. Say hello to Purrcules Mulligan (she needs no introduction).
Many sources of advice for the recently widowed suggest getting a pet. Having something to take care of and talk to can help keep one from sliding too far down into the pit of despair. While Scott was sick, I constantly reminded myself to keep myself healthy so that I was able to take care of him to the best of my abilities. After he died, that motivation for self-care went away. I’m not entirely sure what has kept me going since then, to be honest. Shock and adrenaline, maybe. And some little part of my brain that is convinced that there is a reason to go on.
But I digress. This post is about a kitten! Such an adorable ball of fluff. Distractingly adorable, actually – I have a hard time getting any work done these days, what with her sitting around being cute and all. The fact that she likes to wake up with the sun (before 4am these days) and play with any exposed body part is also not helping. But when I come home and find her here waiting for me, or when I sit on the sofa and she jumps up to sit on my shoulder and snuggle my neck, I know getting her was a good idea.
Scott died in April.
Last November we headed to Glasgow for the stem cell transplant that was supposed to cure his relapsed leukemia. I rented a little flat near the hospital so I could be close by. The first month or so went well. Then the complications and side-effects kicked in, nothing terribly serious at the time, but they kept him in the hospital through the holidays, then through January, February, March. Sometime in late March, things took a turn for the serious, for the life-threatening. We rallied, full of determination. He died anyway. I came home to Edinburgh exhausted, heartbroken, widowed.
For those terrible last weeks of Scott’s life and the first weeks after his death, I was surrounded by friends and family who helped me get through the immediate hurdles of life. Feeding myself, registering the death, arranging a cremation. It was all so much.
Now I’m trying to figure out what comes next. I’m learning how to be a widow (it’s not something they teach you in school). I’m discovering my new habits, the habits of widow-me. What do I cook for dinner? What time do I go to bed? How often do I see friends? Even little things seem different.
I am so grateful for the years I had with Scott. Just scrolling back through this blog is a wonderful reminder of some of the fun and adventure we shared. We lived in five countries together, and traveled to many more. We ate, drank, hiked, skied, sledded, wandered, zip-lined. We loved each other, and our life together, very much. I am so lucky to have had him.
Remember back when Brexit was our biggest problem? Yeah, I miss those days. A few weeks after the referendum shock, we received news that made us forget all about Nigel and his bus. After three years in remission, Scott’s leukemia has come back.
So here we are again, life revolving around rounds of chemo, infections, and hospital stays. Enjoying the days he feels well, and getting through the ones when he doesn’t. The big difference is that this go-round will include a stem cell transplant, if and when a matching donor can be found.
I’ll post updates occasionally here on the blog, possibly mixed in with some other posts about fun stuff we’ve been up to over the past year or so (since there are still many tales that I haven’t gotten around to telling). There probably won’t be much in the way of news until a donor is found and we are assigned a transplant date. The transplant will occur in Glasgow, which will be an interesting change of scenery, I suppose.
If you happen to be moved to action by this news, there are a couple ways you could help Scott and other folks effected by leukemia:
- Donate blood. Scott gets a lot of it these days.
- Sign up to be a potential stem cell donor. It is really easy and you could potentially save a life. The procedure is different in each country and depending on which registry, but a quick google should let you know what to do in your place of residence. In the UK you can sign up here and in the US here.
- Buy some art. Through the end of 2016 I’ll be donating at least 10% of all my art sales to charities which support leukemia research and patients. You can shop online here.
A huge thank you to everyone who has supported us in ways big and small. We couldn’t do this without you.
When he found out he wasn’t going to be going to work anymore for a while, Scott decided he needed to dye his hair purple. He’s bald now, but looks forward to returning to the purple again someday.
I’ve lived in the EU for a third of my life. I’ve always dreamed of the day when I’ll have my very own EU passport. Unfortunately, it now looks like that day may never come. You see, I’m being dragged out of the EU against my will. It’s possible that I’ll be doing a little kicking and screaming along the way. Continue reading
One of my many sketches of Edinburgh Castle
I was amazed to realize we’ve now been in Scotland for longer than we lived in Switzerland or Italy. I mean, our first year here was so strange that it almost doesn’t count. And the past two years have had a different quality about them, as well – a combination of “WTF just happened to us?”, “Yay, everything’s fabulous!”, and “What if it comes back?”. But the longer we live here, the easier it becomes to separate the Edinburgh experience from the leukemia experience. These days we have a lot of acquaintances here who don’t know Scott was ever sick. We’re just two regular old American expats in Edinburgh, two among many. Continue reading
I have kind of fallen in love with the Edinburgh International Book Festival this year. In addition to hosting lots of interesting book-themed events, it’s a charming place to hang out, to meet friends for a drink. Browsing the onsite bookstore Continue reading
This year I am diving head-first into the Edinburgh International Book Festival, just one of the many festivals going on in the city this month. Conveniently self-contained on Charlotte Square in New Town, the Book Festival grounds consist of several theaters, a big book shop, a couple of bars and cafes, and lots of lovely outdoor seating (some of it covered, perfect on a drizzly day). Continue reading