It was inappropriately sunny the day Steve died. As we walked home from the hospital, it was a beautifully bright May morning full of promise for the summer ahead. The sunshine signalled to me that the world had not yet been told of our loss. If it had, there would be rain. Constant, heavy rain from dark depressed skies that recognised the feelings we could not yet quite reach ourselves.
We chatted casually during that walk home. Steve might have complained that it was too hot, I surmised, and smiled. We played, as the three of us often did, 'Mini pinch', and remarked that the Mini parked by the side of the road was coloured gold and black, the colours of Steve's football team. Some recognition at least. But we were bathed in sunshine. Bathed in shock.
The day before, we had played with his grandchildren in the play park on Glasgow Green as we waited for news from the hospital. They had travelled a long way with his two daughters to be here and the sun had come out in recognition. The weather was absolutely glorious. Full of optimism. Full of hope.
Steve was in theatre. They had already removed a testicle after the infection had spread from his leg up to his groin. I wondered how I was going to tell him and whether it would make him feel less of a man. I didn't have to tell him in the end.
The day after he died, the sun was still brightly shining happily in the sky as if nothing untoward had happened; as if nothing had changed. We ate outside in the city centre after waving his daughters and grandchildren off at Glasgow Central Station. Then we walked by the Clyde. 'When your dad first came up to visit me in Glasgow,' I recalled, my arm around our 12-year-old son, 'We walked this way. It was warm then too so we had a bottle of beer or two outside then went to the Scotia Bar for a pint'. It was a happy memory and neither of us was upset. We were bathed in sunshine. Still bathed in shock.
The day we travelled from Glasgow to Wolverhampton for the funeral, however, there was torrential rain for the majority of the journey. It was not the safest of driving conditions but it was, finally, some recognition of the magnitude of our loss. The turbulence: sometimes visible and obvious as the rain in the strong winds viciously lashed against the windscreen, impotently being thrown in one direction then another; sometimes calm, the storm momentarily hidden from view, but waiting to again burst forth at a moment's notice. The turmoil: rain reflecting the tears we still weren't yet able to cry; the wind, chaotic and unsure, mirroring the uncertainty of how we were supposed to feel and act.
On the day he died, I went into the local off-licence to buy a bottle of his favourite drink so that we could raise a glass to him. I suddenly, and rather unexpectedly, burst into tears mid-way through asking for a half bottle of Famous Grouse. It was one of the few times that day I actually cried. Steve used to think it was overly expensive too. Perhaps it was just that.
In all of the photos I have from the day of the funeral we are smiling. Even at the graveside. I recall some tears earlier in the day but I also recall laughing with my step-daughter as we wheeled the coffin out from the church and back to the hearse when she remarked: 'I've got the leg haven't I?' She meant that she was on the side of his body containing his infected leg.
The one that had swelled to twice its normal size; that had wept pus continually on to the floor of A&E as we waited hours for Steve to be seen on the Friday night; the leg which was hidden under baggy joggies, hence it was only when he was finally on the ward and I pulled back the bed sheets that I had first seen it in all its horrific glory; the leg that, by the time all the family came to visit at the Intensive Care Unit, was wrapped in layers of thick bandages but yet was still managing somehow to ooze gooey bodily fluids over his hospital bed; the leg where the infection began, which subsequently spread throughout his body, that led to septic shock; the leg which had ultimately killed him by the following Wednesday morning.
Some of our family and friends had to leave the same day as the funeral, some had stayed for one night, and a few for a second. By the third night, I was on my own in the hotel. I had worried that I might feel lonely but instead it was a relief to finally get some head space after all the people; all of the repetitive 'how he died' explanations. It had happened so suddenly that a lot of people didn't even know he was in hospital.
Talking to strangers in the hotel bar about inconsequential everyday stuff was a huge relief. I was having a good craic with two random people about nothing in particular when one of them casually asked: 'So what brings you to Wolverhampton then?' 'It was my husband's funeral yesterday.' 'Oh... right.' Talk about a conversation killer. They now felt awkward; I felt awkward for their awkwardness. I wished Steve was there, mainly because he would've really enjoyed having a late night drink and a right good blether.
Sometimes it's harder when the shock wears off. I don't know when that happened exactly but I haven't seen Steve in over two and a half years and I miss him more now than ever. He appears in my dreams a lot and the theme is always the same. Steve is there but yet I know he's dead. I can't quite reach him. In some, I have at least managed to tell him how much I miss him. That's all I want to do really. Just one last meeting to tell him: 'I miss you darling. I really miss you sweetheart'. Then maybe I could let him go, although I suspect, in reality, not.
Over a year after Steve's death, I was at the funeral of a distant relative. She was in an open coffin and as I looked at her I desperately wanted it to be Steve lying there so I could say one last goodbye. Maybe a wee peck on his forehead, an 'I love you darling' and a final 'Goodbye'. This struck me as odd because, notwithstanding that he would still be dead, I hadn't felt like that when I had actually said goodbye to him.
We had agreed as a family to switch off the life support machines; his vital signs gradually faded, diminishing until the last signs of life ebbed away and he was finally, and officially, medically dead. The hospital staff subsequently took out the breathing tubes and removed various wires, then laid him out in a presentable fashion for us to say our goodbyes. I felt very strongly then that he was no longer there. His body was there, and it looked like Steve – although not in his best light I have to say – but he had left some time ago.
Earlier that morning, having fallen asleep in a room within the ICU that the family had been allocated, I had a very vivid dream that he was walking along the corridor towards me as I was going back down to the ward. 'Where you going darling?' I said as he looked straight through me. I blocked his way as he tried to walk past and attempted again to get his attention: 'Where you going? Darling?' He was much younger, like when we first met.
He didn't meet my eye but moved to the side in another attempt to get past as I again blocked his way: 'Darling? Don't go, I'll look after you'. Just at that point, I was awoken by my step-daughter telling me that we should go immediately back to the ward, his blood pressure had dropped again and things were not looking good. That's when I think he left. Officially, he died an hour later, but when I looked at his lifeless body and said goodbye, I intuitively felt that he was already long gone.
So time goes on. Without him. But he's always there at the same time, at least in my thoughts. If a news item refers to a year, say 2014, I will think: 'Steve was alive then for another three years'. If I look at a photograph from 10 years ago, it will occur to me to work out that Steve had, at that point, seven and a half years left to live. In some ways, it seems a funny thing to think because he had in fact been alive for 53 years. I had shared nearly 15 of them with him, nearly 14 as his wife.
Previously, I always looked forward to welcoming in a new year, coming, as it does, with that sense of optimism and blind hope for the year ahead. One of my step-daughters stated that she was glad to see the back of 2017 because it had been a horrible year. I am sure a lot of people feel the same about any given year in which a loved one has died. For me, however, I didn't welcome the arrival of 2018 because I was leaving Steve behind in 2017. He would never see another new year, not this one nor any subsequent ones. We had welcomed in 2017 together and now I was leaving it without him. Forever.
Now I don't always embrace sunny days. I wonder sometimes if I am, instead, embracing the pain. When I first heard the Lewis Capaldi song, Someone You Loved
, I cried buckets. I could just imagine Steve looking at me perplexed and asking: 'What you crying for?' as he did whenever I cried at a sad film or television drama.
'And you're not here to get me through it all.' Exactly. That's it exactly. I need Steve by my side to get me through this. To laugh about it even. 'Yeah, Natalie had the leg! It was funny, you know what she's like. The funeral? Yeah, we all wore Wolves tops darling, even my dad! You know he knows nothing about football well, he was talking to Phil Parkes in The Pilot and he hadn't a clue who he was!'
But I still listened again. And gret. And again. And gret more. Seems a bit masochistic I suppose but actually I think the tears were cathartic. So then, for good measure, I learnt it on the piano. I barely play the piano, and I certainly can't sing as well as Lewis Capaldi, but it was just something I felt compelled to do. The neighbours probably think it's the only song I know but they're mistaken. I can also play Against All Odds
by Phil Collins. Given that Steve was on life support, that song was written, it appeared to me, just for us:
How can I just let you walk away, just let you leave without a trace, when I stand here taking every breath with you... How can you just walk away from me when all I can do is watch you leave... And you coming back to me is against all odds.
It took me forever to learn because, notwithstanding my lack of piano playing skills, the first hundred or so times I played it, I could only get part way through before breaking down in tears. But I got there eventually, and I can now play it all the way through, at least most of the time, without greeting. It does seem a funny thing to learn a song – and play it approximately five times every day for a year or so – that makes you cry, but I think it really helped. Sorry neighbours.
On 7 May 2018, there was a celebration party in West Park, Wolverhampton, for the newly promoted Wolverhampton Wanderers. The team were there, hundreds, maybe thousands, of Wolves fans were there, and we were there.
But Steve wasn't there.
It was a gloriously hot bank holiday Monday and we were bathed in sunshine. It was also Steve's birthday and only three days before the first anniversary of his death. Something wrong somewhere. But perhaps, this time, it was appropriately sunny. The sun had come out for the bank holiday. For Wolverhampton Wanderers.
And for Steve.