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.