A year ago I welcomed 2014, with a mix of hope and trepidation, at our home in Glasgow. We had returned the day before from spending Christmas in Norfolk with my parents and our attention now turned to our prospects for the impending year. On Hogmanay a young couple came to view our house, which had been on the market for more than four months and was now the main obstacle to our long-held ambition of moving to the Netherlands. With a fair wind, we would be celebrating the next New Year in our new house in The Hague.
Magteld had developed a troubling, nagging cough that, but for her medical history, would probably have been dismissed as a mild flu. On Hallowe’en she had been to hospital for her six-month check-up and been told there was no sign of her cancer having returned. Early in December she had taken a card and chocolates to the staff on the chemotherapy wing who had nursed her through her treatment just 12 months earlier. She was saying her goodbyes to her friends and colleagues in Glasgow, in preparation for the anticipated move. Remembering how she was then, so vibrant, considerate and full of hope, it seems unthinkable that she would live just five more months.
Her cough grew worse during our stay in Norfolk. Occasionally Magteld would retch up speckles of blood. She blamed the draughtiness of my parents’ house, the winter colds that thrived in the damp west of Scotland climate, the stress of being told again and again that our house was “in the wrong area”. Once it was gone, she could look forward again. Sometimes it subsided for a few hours and she would sit in a chair and declare defiantly: “My cough is gone.” But never for long, and it became harder to banish the thought that there was something more sinister at work. It’s easy to wonder why, when she saw the doctor in early December, she didn’t press harder for a scan. At the same time I can understand Magteld’s reluctance to have her worst fears confirmed. Who desires to peek into the abyss when a new branch of life is dangling tantalisingly overhead, drenched in sunlight?
The young couple who visited on Hogmanay came back a week later, and shortly afterwards we’d agreed a price for the house. In the meantime Magteld went back to the doctor and had the scan. On a Monday morning in late January we were in an estate agent’s office celebrating the sale, which finally cleared the way for our epic voyage. Things started to move rapidly now: she would go to The Hague on a house-hunting mission in February, I would organise the removal van and ferry journey, and on April 25th – less than three months away – we would be on deck toasting our new life.
But we couldn’t move as fast as the cancer. Magteld would not catch that ferry, and by the time April 25th came by she would be living in a hospice and confined to a wheelchair, having undergone an emergency course of radiotherapy to stave off the tumours that were erupting up and down her spine. The day after we sold the house, her doctor told her that the scan had revealed ‘quite a few lesions’. Within a few weeks, the bad news was confirmed: her cancer was back, and would kill her, probably within a year. Her oncologist took me to one side and warned me that our life together in The Hague, which we had been planning for months and thinking about for years, may only extend to a few weeks. And so it proved.
I was warned that the first Christmas spent without Magteld would be tough. In the event I celebrated it warmly among her wider family: her parents, two sisters, their husbands and six children running the place ragged. Thirteen of us in total, and though the absence of the fourteenth cast a shadow, the house was full of life. Compared to that, the end of the year is a far more brutal milestone. The topography of our lives 12 months ago is unrecognisable now. Magteld’s health deteriorated with bewildering speed in her last five months. She submitted herself to two courses of radiotherapy and a new round of chemotherapy – which, cruelly, alleviated the symptoms of her cancer by reducing the inflammation in her lungs, but couldn’t tackle the cause. In every purported dawn was the glow of a nuclear explosion. Yet the more she went backwards, the more determined she was to look forwards. Right up until the final week of her life, when she was trying to walk again with the support of a zimmer frame. I’ve drawn on that spirit in the seven months since in tacking the challenges of living in a strange city, in a foreign country, where the children and I have both had to settle into new routines of life, school, and work. And it’s an attitude that will, I hope, continue to guide us and give us strength through 2015.
I came across this summary of grief recently in an interview with the Dutch poet Pieter Boskma: “Immediately after the death of a loved one, grief is a kind of friend: so long as the grief is there, the departed is still close by. Your grief connects you with him or her. Later on grief becomes an enemy that forms an obstacle to new happiness and a new life. Until one morning you have to say to yourself: it’s over now, it’s time to make a new start. It’s an illness that you can only cure yourself.”
Boskma covered the terrain of grief meticulously in his 2010 collection Doodsbloei (Death’s Bloom), which followed the death of his wife two years earlier, when Boskma was 52 and his wife 50. Fifty-two is a young age to be widowed (not as absurdly young as 39, but still a good few decades ahead of schedule), and Boskma’s description of the shock and aftermath seems pretty much spot-on. By my reckoning I’m still in the second stage, when the light from behind is fading but the light ahead is still distant and vague. It’s an unforgiving, barren stage, when the loss starts to gnaw at the heart and a sense of limbo takes hold: one chapter of your life is over but there is no sign of the next one beginning.
Occasionally I’ve thought about trying to date again, but the idea gives me the jitters. I don’t want to meet the kind of woman who unabashedly asks why there’s a ring on my third finger. But the alternative is even more dreadful: someone who sees the ring and blanks it. Because then we’re locked into a cat-and-mouse game in which she’s wondering why I’m dating with a wedding ring on, and I’m wondering why she hasn’t remarked on it, because she can’t possibly have overlooked it. I’m not ready to have either of those conversations, because both of them orbit the pitiful truth that I’m still in love with my dead wife.
I don’t know what I want from a relationship anyway. First I’d have to find someone with space in their lives for me and my two demanding children. That whittles down the field somewhat. I’m in no rush to marry again, but equally I don’t fancy 40 years in the wilderness. I could pretend I don’t miss sex, but I’d be a rotten liar. (Though if that was the only problem it wouldn’t be hard to fix, living as I do in a well-serviced city in the Netherlands.) I remember the last time with Magteld with needle-sharp precision: where we were, how we lay, what time of the morning it was, the weather outside as we held each other in the rain-scarred moonlight. But even when sex was too awkward and painful for Magteld, we still found ways to share intimate moments. And it’s the intimacy I miss, really. Waking at three in the morning and feeling an empty space where your beloved is meant to be. A warm and gently breathing presence in the darkness, or a soothing face in the dawn light. I realised recently that I still change the pillows on both sides when I make the bed up and put both cases in the washing machine, even the clean one. I can sleep beside an empty space, but not a void.
What is intimacy, really? I’d define it as the capacity to share the things we’d normally hide. The internet has created all kinds of new ways to connect with strangers from all over the world. I’ve known people online – other writers, in the main – for years without ever meeting them. We share a common interest, laugh and commiserate together, have long, probing conversations – sometimes over the course of several days – and occasionally fall out bitterly. It’s hard to distinguish from friendship, but is it the real thing? The sociologist Sherry Turkle warned in her TED talk ‘Connected, But Alone?’ of the danger of technology ‘cleaning up’ our relationships and dictating how we interact: “Technology appeals to us most where we are most vulnerable. And we are vulnerable. We’re lonely, but we’re afraid of intimacy. And so from social networks to sociable robots, we’re designing technologies that will give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.”
There is certainly a danger that real, awkward, messy relationships are being squeezed out by sanitised ‘virtual’ ones. Everyone has a perfect family life on Facebook; everyone’s Twitter feed is garnished with witty barbs; everyone on LinkedIn is teetering on the precipice of a career breakthrough. But that’s only part of the story. The internet has made it possible for communities of real people to form in virtual space, unencumbered by geographical distance. When Magteld was sick with cancer she started blogging about it. And by blogging, she opened herself up to a wide, disparate community of cancer patients both close by and further afield. The internet allowed these people to share their experiences – which were sometimes not just messy, but downright brutal and horrific – unmediated, in a way that would have been impossible before social media came along. When she moved to The Hague in April she already knew people in her new city that she shared a close bond with: one of them even visited her in the hospice. This was very far from the experience of someone living in an isolated ‘virtual bubble’ or being starved of intimacy or friendship.
The internet hasn’t made us frightened of intimacy: we always were. It’s just given us new places to hide. We’re legitimately wary of investing the kind of trust needed to build a lasting, mutually nourishing relationship because of the potential for things to go wrong. I fear intimacy far less than I fear loss, but intimacy carries with it the risk of loss and pain. And so we have constructed a ziggurat of ostensibly safer alternatives. After I turned 30 I realised that at some point I’d stopped making friends and started networking. Instead of hanging out in bars and typing numbers into my mobile phone, I frequented the kind of events where everyone leaves with a clutch of business cards stuffed into their wallet. People don’t meet at these events for love or friendship – though that’s sometimes a side-effect – but to find people they can do business with. It’s an altogether less intimate arena. At the same time, the process of meeting people recreationally becomes increasingly formalised: if you haven’t found love yet, you’re encouraged to join a dating site or go to ‘speed dating’ evenings, so that your recalcitrant love life is cordoned off in a ‘safe zone’ and doesn’t impinge on more serious matters, like your career.
I don’t have any personal experience of speed dating, but it seems to be at one end of a spectrum of technologies that has accelerated and institutionalised the ways we form relationships. Dating websites are driven by algorithms that try to match people, on the same principle by which Amazon tries to identify the right food processor for your kitchen. The same trend is visible offline: an advert in a newspaper magazine for a matching service pledges a “guaranteed number of contacts” and an intakegesprek (introductory interview), reducing the business of finding love to a jobs fair. The internet, however, has created all kinds of new possibilities in the realm of human interaction, from Craigslist ads to bloggers’ conferences. It has made it easier to share private information publicly, reflecting and shaping the confessional age we live in (which is far from a bad thing, incidentally, if you compare, for example, how rape victims were expected to respond to their ordeal 50 years ago with today). The challenge is to distinguish the genuine, lasting and substantial friendships from the fake, fleeting and superficial.
Often when we’re burdened by stress we mistake it for hunger and end up bingeing on the wrong foods – craving a short, sharp energy rush rather than healthy, slow-burning nutrition. Similarly, when we’re feeling lonely and isolated we’re drawn towards easy-access, superficial relationships when what we really need is intimacy. It’s not a phenomenon that arrived with the internet: soap actors talk of receiving long, heartfelt letters from fans about their personal crises, presumably because there’s nobody in their close circles they can engage with. Anyone who’s spent serious amounts of time on Twitter will know how easy it is to become obsessed with increasing your number of followers, retweets or replies. There is the danger of being sucked into a kind of relationship pornography that provides relief, but no satisfaction. But at the same time the internet offers private spaces – email, chatrooms, direct messaging – where more intimate and sincere friendships can be cultivated away from the spotlight. Magteld found people through her blogging who would otherwise have been invisible to her. Technology doesn’t have to be oppressive: we just have to become smarter at using it and develop more sophisticated forms of human interaction rather than constantly succumb to the pull of the ‘like’ button.
Not long after Magteld died a friend observed that I was lucky to have experienced true love, even if only for a short time. Our marriage wasn’t idyllic and went through several difficult phases, but we were lucky enough to enjoy times of real love and intimacy, even when confronted with the worst possible scenario. Looking back, I can draw a lot of comfort from that. Grief can be an obstacle, as Pieter Boskma puts it, but it can also be a corrective to the urge to restore what has been lost too hastily. An obstacle is a place to stop, think and negotiate the next stage of the journey. I’m in no hurry to make a new start: I don’t want to accept the kind of fast-track companionship that douses the loneliness but doesn’t nourish the heart. Frankly, I’d rather hang out on Facebook with people I know I have something in common with. Meantime, I’ll continue to value my friends, online and offline, for who they are: people I can connect with, even across a raging sea, sometimes superficially, sometimes more intimately. With one caveat: you can get pretty close to people on the internet, but you can’t fall in love. Not properly. For that you have to engage with the real world. And I can’t put it off for ever.
What would she think of us, I often wonder, as we meander through our daily routine. Get up; shower; breakfast; boys get dressed as I make the sandwiches and pack the school bags. A rota in the kitchen keeps me straight on what gym kit is needed. Then brush teeth, climb on the bikes and off we pedal, warmed by the morning sun. I like to think Magteld would be pleasantly surprised at how, since the summer holidays, these rituals have become almost automatic. She worried openly about how I would tackle the task of bringing up the boys, especially when it came to their schooling, a job she approached with the firm resolve of a farmer preparing to wring his chickens’ necks. And I could hardly complain or feign indignation, because I worried about it even more.
Sorting out the boys’ schools took up much of the last months of Magteld’s life. On top of emigrating and adjusting to classes in their second language, both have the extra challenge of being on the autism spectrum. She secured a place for our younger son at the local primary school after meeting the headmaster. But his older brother needed more specialised instruction. Over several nights the two of us sat at the kitchen table, Magteld in her wheelchair, and ploughed through a mountain of multiple-choice forms designed to evaluate his strengths and weaknesses. And then we waited. The day after she died, the phone rang. It was the school phoning with the news that he had been granted a place.
That was the good news. The bad news, I discovered in a meeting the next day, was that he couldn’t start until the new school year in September. By then he would have gone five months without any education or the habit of getting up for school in the morning (I had made a point of taking both boys out on the morning school run every day, for exactly this reason). I asked myself: what would Magteld do? And the answer was plain: she’d have put her foot down. So I said: “In that case, we have a problem,” and explained, patiently, in my best Dutch, that sitting about the house for five months, abruptly deprived of his native Dutch-speaking parent, was no path to progress. For good measure I cited an email from the education department, whom I’d been in touch with the previous week, that supported my position that he should be found a place before the summer holiday.
There was a brief pause. The teacher picked up the phone, spoke briefly to a colleague, and a minute later our son had a place in class after the Whitsun holiday the following week. I was happy. Not just for his sake, but because I had finished a job that she started months earlier, in a manner she would surely have approved of.
There was one more issue. The school was nearly two miles from home, so too close for us to be considered for bus transport. We’d have to make our own way. The easiest option was to go by bike, were it not for the minor detail that our son had never learned to ride one. I hatched a plan. It seemed at once logical and wildly optimistic. Magteld and I had hired a nanny, who was due to start the following Tuesday. Her first task would be to help our son learn to ride a bike in a week. On the Monday I took both boys out on their bikes, along the cycleway, the younger propped up by stabilisers. But the side wheels dragged and scraped and held him back, while the resultant outbursts of rage stopped me from concentrating on his brother. On the Tuesday we tried again, on the pavement outside the house, with the new childminder and without the younger brother in tow. Asking an autistic child with poor co-ordination to learn a new skill in a couple of days with the help of an untested stranger may seem like a desperate and daring enterprise, and in many ways it was. But some instinct told me it would work. And the stars must have been in alignment that day, because within half an hour our son was pedalling up and down the pavement unassisted, roaring with delight as he did so. And the next Monday, after a few more days’ practice, we set off for school on our bikes, through the traffic, and covered the mile and a half to the dunes in little over 10 minutes.
What would she think of us? At such moments I dare to think she would be proud of how we’ve kept going as a truncated family of three. The survival tricks we’ve picked up, the rhythm of our days. Occasionally I’ve had to tackle the uncomfortable proposition that some things are easier now. There’s no longer any wearying discussion of whose turn it should be to cook or take the boys to bed or take the bins out. In the past there were plenty of days when neither of us fancied the job, and both tried to pass it off or argue that it was the other person’s turn, and the result was that whoever eventually took it on set about it steeped in resentment. All wasteful ado about nothing, I think ruefully, because only in Magteld’s absence have I come to realise how wretched and trivial these altercations are.
Sadness, too, tinted the experience of seeing one of Magteld’s ambitions – helping our son to learn to ride a bike, a rite of passage for Dutch children – achieved by someone else. But she would have chastised me for such sentimental melancholy – it’s about him, not you. Nevertheless, I spent the summer ticking off the items on her wish list: joining the folksy celebrations that mark the new herring season (vlaggetjesdag) in Scheveningen, or going on a camping trip to Zeeland. It was easier than trying to think for myself, and besides we were in her home country now. What better guide could we have?
Late in August I sat outside our tent in Zeeland, clutching a book in one hand and a glass of beer in the other, watching the children revel in the freedom of the open flat space, and contemplated once again the question that thrums in the recesses of my mind like the note of a ship’s engine seven decks below: if she could see us now, what would she think?
Last weekend I was sitting out in my garden, drinking coffee in a T-shirt and shorts. The sky was a vivid blue speckled with fine clouds and the temperature had languidly risen above 20 degrees for a third successive day. It was October. And my thoughts drifted inescapably towards the peculiar relationship the Dutch have with their weather.
There’s a website called Stuff Dutch People Like that’s a bible for new arrivals trying to negotiate the quirks of Dutch customs: the Byzantine birthday rituals, the lethal staircases, the mystifying things they spread on their sandwiches. But one major omission from the list is “pretending it’s cold”. As soon as the mercury dips below 21 degrees for longer than five minutes the Dutch dust down their puffer jackets and cycling waterproofs, head for the nearest cafe and huddle around mugs of hot chocolate with marshmallows, planning their next Mediterranean break, while the Scots and Norwegians look on in bemusement.
When I arrived in The Hague in April I spent a week with my in-laws at a beachside chalet while the builders put the finishing touches to the house. One afternoon I went out to the patio with a cup of coffee. It was maybe 18 degrees, a few podgy clouds were making a half-hearted attempt to conceal the sun and a gentle breeze was wafting over the dunes – the kind that might inspire a newspaper to drift up from the table momentarily before settling down wearily, like an old dog reacting to a scuffling at the door. But my mother-in-law greeted my announcement that I was going outside as if I was stepping onto the deck of a ship in a force 10 gale. When I suggested it was fine weather she declared: “There’s a cold wind”, pulled her arms around herself and scrunched up her face in a parody of someone battling to carry their groceries home on a blustery February night in Shetland.
A few weeks later I met my next-door neighbour for the first time. After introducing himself he said almost immediately, unprompted: “Well, you can’t have moved here for the weather.” This was odd, because one of the things I was looking forward to about moving to the Netherlands was the long summers and frequent sunshine. And so it proved. Since early May I’ve been taking the children to school by bike every morning, and in all that time I’ve been in danger of getting wet about three times.
In Glasgow shorts and T-shirts were things that came out for holidays and went straight back in the drawer once the fortnight’s respite was over; here they serve as standard school-run wear before and after the summer holiday. In The Hague it’s a disaster if the sun doesn’t show for three days, a phenomenon which in Scotland is known as a decent July. Once when I lived in Glasgow, in the middle of an unusually tepid summer, the TV reported that the mercury had soared to 27 degrees for the first time in four years. The Dutch are scandalised if it hasn’t hit 25 by May.
And the statistics back me up. Over the course of the year The Hague basks in more than 1800 hours of sunshine – that’s nearly 50% more than Glasgow manages (1280). The average temperature in August is nearly 3 degrees higher (22.3 degrees to 18.5). To be fair, Scotland’s best months are usually May and June, after which the rain arrives, just in time for the school holidays, and continues to pelt down until mid-March.
Granted, the west coast of the Netherlands sees a fair bit more rainfall than its Scottish counterpart – 828mm per year compared to 668. But again there’s a key difference. Rain in the Netherlands falls in concentrated bursts – sometimes extreme enough to cause major flooding – after which the skies clear and the pavements are usually dry within an hour. Scottish rain can linger for weeks at a time, as persistent and irritating as a swarm of midges. Dutch rain, typically, is more efficient. It comes in fast, puts in a heavy shift and then clears out.
Moreover, there are little clues that the weather isn’t quite as unforgiving as the locals would have you believe. If you look at an aerial shot of a Dutch city you’ll see that every available scrap of roof space is crammed with potted plants, sunloungers, candles on sticks and miniature sheds. In Scotland anyone who regarded the top of their house as a suitable place for recreation and entertainment would be committed to a psychiatric institution, if the wind didn’t take care of them first. Dutch houses are also equipped with zonwering: colossal shades overhanging the giant upstairs windows that are diligently lowered at the first hint of sunshine. Because the one national pastime that marks the Dutch out even more than pretending it’s too cold is pretending it’s too hot. As soon as the temperature juts above 24 degrees for longer than five minutes the Dutch pull on their vests and shorts, crank down the zonwering and sit about drinking iced tea, planning their next skiing holiday, while the Spaniards and Australians look on in bemusement.
The odd thing about all this is that in winter the Netherlands gets properly cold. Most Januaries the canals freeze over and the rooftops reverberate to the sound of Dutchmen rooting around in their sheds in search of their long-lost skates. (If you think Dutch bikes are the terror of the highway, incidentally, wait until you’ve seen them out skating.) Every couple of years it gets so bitterly cold that the country spends weeks in the grip of a near-mythical event known as the Elfstedentocht (Eleven Cities Tour), a mass skating marathon, last staged in 1995, that depends on the province of Friesland living up to its name. Only when the ice along the entire 200km route is 15cm thick can the race go ahead. Hence winter news bulletins are often given over to shots of lycra-clad middle-aged men pulling measuring rods out of the ice and scrutinising them as if they contained the formula for eternal life. Competing in the Elfstedentocht is the Everest of Dutch sporting achievements and, like scaling Everest, chiefly involves trying not to freeze to death in a hostile snowbound terrain. The most famous race was in 1963, when 10,000 people set out in the silvery pre-dawn gloom but just 69 finished. On the plus side, sales of hot chocolate and marshmallows went through the roof.
My doctor asks if I’m coping. I say yes but I don’t really know. I get up in the morning, take the kids to school on time, keep myself fed and watered, drink in moderation and go running a couple of times a week. None of it feels arduous or overbearing. But Magteld’s absence envelops me like a cocoon and puts the wider world at a distance.
To begin with I was surprised by how easy it was to keep going. Just before the World Cup I went to interview a former Dutch footballer. We sat and chatted pleasantly for an hour, and just before the end I mentioned that my wife had recently died. Quite casually, the way you’d comment on the changing of the seasons or a new one-way traffic system. This was two weeks after Magteld had died, which might, in hindsight, explain his slightly startled reaction. But at that point the finality of losing her hadn’t kicked in. The raw shock had scabbed over: I was no longer waking up in the middle of the night in helpless floods of tears or standing in the supermarket willing the cucumbers to divert me from an attack of grief. The shadow of her last moments was no longer burned on the inside of my eyelids. But the memories of her last days were still warm and nourishing.
After the initial shock came a sense of enveloping numbness. I didn’t read a book for months: even when I mustered the energy to pick one up, my mind refused to take up the thread of the story. I could flip back through the pages and not recognise a single word. Outside events seemed to occupy a different universe. In June nearly 300 people died when a plane was shot out of the sky. The Netherlands declared a day of mourning. I bought a Dutch flag and hung it from my front door at half-mast, like everyone else in my street. On the television a line of limousines glided up the centre lane of the motorway like a giant black caterpillar. Still none of it seemed real. Other family members had the same sensation of living with the dimmers down. It was more akin to surviving – getting up in the morning and following the path, drone-like, to bedtime.
Four months later some things are still too daunting to face – a kitchen cupboard is piled up with cancer medicine and her handbags sit gathering dust in a plastic crate in the bedroom. Conflicting impulses are at work: the need to build a new life versus guilt at neglecting the old one. Sometimes I manage to stay busy for a full day working and running the house, then realise with a shock that I haven’t thought about her once. And that fills me with shame and remorse, because she doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. She deserves to be here, filling the empty chair at the end of the table.
Yet the past isn’t the hardest thing to cope with. What really intimidates me is the future. How was I supposed to raise two children on the autism spectrum, in a new country? How do I shoulder on the bureaucratic burden of their education and development, a task that Magteld had embraced with a strength of will and purpose that surprised even those closest to her? And how do I handle all this without losing myself in the process – how can I live, work and socialise as a single father and widow? In short, how do you rebuild after an earthquake?
Take dating. I’ve tried to envisage it once or twice, but having known Magteld since we were teenagers, it fills me with terror. (What am I supposed to put on a dating profile anyway? We should probably go back to your place: mine’s covered in pictures of a dead woman.) And isn’t dating for the over-40s the domain of divorcees and the serially disappointed? I don’t feel equipped to handle a long conversation about somebody else’s ex, or face the suspicion that I’m comparing a living person with a hallowed memory. But the alternative prospect, a half-life of solitude, is even more dreadful.
Like the post-earthquake city, I can rebuild, but the old maps are useless. Needs and priorities have shifted with the landscape. Magteld’s memory is imprinted on my heart: I need to make space for it, tend and preserve it, without letting it grow rampant. Her constant presence is not always comforting. Will she be a guardian or a ghoul – a reassuring presence or a reproachful one? Recently I was buying clothes for the children and her voice resounded so forcefully in my head (“no, don’t buy those, they’ll look awful”) that I had to check myself from turning to reply. Yet in the end it probably helped me make better choices.
I miss her, in part, because I need her. It’s something you tend to undervalue in a relationship. Until she was seriously ill neither of us realised how intricately entwined our lives were. And only when she died did I realise how much I depended on her. To be honest, I’m still finding out. It’s a big adjustment, but I’m coping. At least I think I am.
Magteld had ambitions right until the end. On a shelf in my living room is a double box set of the last series of Breaking Bad, still wrapped in its cellophane. I’d ordered it on the final Friday, blissfully unaware her life had just over 72 hours left to run, and looked forward to watching it with her the next week, once she had recovered from her first round of a new chemotherapy regime.
We watched Breaking Bad at the rate of one episode a night. Perhaps it seems odd for a terminal cancer patient to become engrossed in a drama with a terminal cancer patient as its protagonist, but TV drama was one of her great passions, and one she could still enjoy in her wheelchair. She’d considered writing a blog about what it was like to follow Walter White’s Icarus-like rise from the point of view of someone with cancer, but time was against her. As an observer of both, I saw parallels between the progress of Walt’s illness and his burgeoning career as a drug dealer: a rampant aberration that consumed him from within, changed him essentially and ravaged his life.
When Magteld’s cancer returned in January she made it plain she had no interest in her prognosis. It was the only piece of information she refused. She gorged herself on the details of her illness, possible treatments and their side effects. She knew the chances of her surviving for long were small, but refused to think in those terms. What she feared most, I think, was fear itself: we talked a lot about the future, and how uncertain it had become, and always came back to the point that the worst possible outcome would be to linger for years, paralysed by the dread that her end was imminent. We didn’t know how much time she had left, but we knew how we wanted to fill it: with walks on the beach, glasses of Prosecco at Scheveningen pier, perhaps a trip in a camper van to the more picturesque corners of the Netherlands – a last summer filled with golden memories. As it turned out, even those hopes evaporated before they could hit the ground. But they were a source of strength while we had them.
Only once did she dwell on the impending eternal blackness – quite unexpectedly, as we sat having coffee in Glasgow. She accompanied the question with a disarming smile, as if she’d just asked me to pass the sugar. I wondered later how much time she spent thinking about it, and what conclusions she came to, and why she didn’t share them more openly. Was she afraid to give form to her fears, or was her instinct to protect us from the raw horror of it? Neither of us was religious or saw any merit in deathbed conversions. I maintained the best approach was to concentrate on living a good life so that if any god showed up for the final reckoning I could make a plea in mitigation. That was about as reflective as we got.
She knew, too, how she wanted to see out her last moments, with me and the boys at her bedside, once the rest of her family had been dismissed. She spent her first weeks in The Hague in a hospice, because she was too weak to live in our house. Generally a hospice is the final stop on life’s journey, but she saw it as a place to gather strength. She spent her waking hours at her writing desk, organising the children’s new schools, or chatting with the volunteers, so that by the time I first saw her, a week later, she could give me chapter and verse on all her new companions. And after five weeks she discharged herself from the hospice and moved into the house she had found for us, three months earlier, when she was still able to climb the stairs.
The end arrived with such blunt speed that we almost missed it. But even in her last hours her determination was undiminished. The duty nurse happened to have a supplementary training as a Reiki therapist and offered Magteld an energising massage. Despite her weakness Magteld shook her head vigorously. At lunchtime she was in a hospital bed, wearing an oxygen mask and breathing coarsely, but alert and responsive. I told her father to take our eldest son home to have a break. Home was only 15 minutes away and she seemed stable. But soon afterwards Magteld began going downhill rapidly. She sent her parents away with another shake of her head. I came in and asked if I should fetch the boys. She looked up and nodded limply. I realised later that the look in her eyes, for the first time, was one of resignation tinged with horror. She knew.
I hung on for half an hour while my father-in-law performed an about turn. Then I led our younger son into the room. Magteld’s eyes were closed, her head tilted back, her mouth open. The dials and gauges all told the same story: the end was closing in like an offshore storm. I panicked. I had sent our son away just at the moment when she had decreed he should be with her. Her breathing became more laboured and slow until it was a gurgle. Spit bubbles formed between her lips. She was drowning in her own phlegm.
Her breathing stopped. Just then the curtain billowed open and our elder son appeared. I shouted at her: “He’s here.” And Magteld summoned the energy to suck in two more shallow, rasping breaths. Her eyelids flickered. “She’s looking,” whispered the nurse. And then, her final wish made good, she fell still.
Grief is cyclical, I keep reading. The first year is the worst, a succession of broken milestones – the first birthday without her, the first anniversary without her, the first Christmas… and so on. But it doesn’t come in cycles so much as waves, building up on the horizon before crashing and surging towards you, leaving you breathless and disoriented.
The hardest emotion to deal with in the beginning was not anguish or grief, but relief. The fear that had been my companion for a year and a half was suddenly gone. The night Magteld died was the first time in months that I managed a full night’s sleep. I had come to dread every twitch and murmur from the other side of the bed, fearing it would be the start of the end. The last weeks of her life were a blur of mundane chores: making breakfast, pouring water, fetching medication, lifting her into the wheelchair, lifting her out of the wheelchair, helping her into the bathroom. Getting up three times a night to fetch water, or medicines, or the pear ice-creams that she devoured, a dozen a day, to soothe her throat. And all the time that lurking awareness that this was the better option.
The relief I felt on waking that morning dissolved into guilt, which aggravated the sense of devastation. The end had come, suddenly and violently, yet I was still here, and the boys were sleeping upstairs, and life just went on, on a kind of autopilot: wake up, coffee, breakfast, school, a bit of shopping, a bit of typing, a bit of TV (it helped that the World Cup was on), a sketchy thought now and again in the direction of work.
After a while I noticed people were drifting back to their old lives. Their work, their friends and their families. It was good to watch them find solace in their familiar routines. But at the same time I was deeply, madly jealous, because that option was closed to me. My old life was Magteld. I couldn’t go back to it. I had to somehow devise a new one, even though I barely had the energy to plan a trip to the supermarket. Her illness had given me a premonition of old age: the frailty, the fear, the exhaustion, the experience of witnessing someone’s strength and vitality ebb away. Cancer had enslaved us. But her absence triggered a devastating sense of isolation. If I’d felt helpless before, it was nothing compared to the looming vortex that threatened to sweep me away now.
A few weeks later I was taking some packing boxes out to the recycling bins. I’d almost finished feeding the crushed cardboard into the container when an elderly man appeared beside me in a rage. He spluttered that the bin I was using was a private container he shared with the local hardware store, and not for general use. As I stammered an apology, he wagged his finger and accused me of deliberately flouting the rules. I picked my dignity off the floor, hauled the cardboard out of the container and took it home.
At first I was baffled and enraged. But as I thought about it, I started to understand the old man’s point of view. I knew what it was like to sit indoors for hours on end, wrestling with mortality, feeling misunderstood, isolated and vulnerable. I realised how daunting it must be to watch the world go by and know that it is totally oblivious to your pain. And feeling at the same time the terror of succumbing to it. To hear in the echo of every footstep the dread that someone might come along tomorrow and decide I could no longer cope. How easy it must be to fall into a downward spiral of bitterness and hostility, where every encounter with a stranger is weighed in terms of its potential to humiliate you.
David Attenborough once said old age is not for cissies. I believe him. It’s not a pretty place that we’re all heading for. After reflecting on this, I went to the florist around the corner and bought the old man a plant as a neighbourly gesture. I included a note with a brief but polite apology. The next morning the doorbell rang. It was the old man, wearing a warm, effusive smile that transformed him. It was only then that I realised I had acted out of solidarity. We were, after all, both single men in the second half of life, trying to keep one step ahead of fate.