In January, father of four Steve Dempsey lost his wife to cancer. In his new weekly column, he writes about life after saying goodbye
My friend and I talk about the past. We talk about dead spouses — that’s something we share. We talk about what they leave behind and how the memory of them changes. She explained to me how they can be transformed in our minds.
Over time, she told me, they can revert back to the non-sick versions of themselves. The people we knew before the diseases, accidents or whatever happened to take them away. We discard the memories of them in their illness and retain the images of the people we first fell in love with.
Maybe it’s a trick. Maybe it’s an evolutionary safety net that keeps us moving forward and stops us from dwelling on the negative. Memory erases some — not all — of the bad stuff. It winds the clock back to a better time. Maybe it’s a kind of healing.
I remember when I first met my wife. Before children, before mortgages and weddings and the complications and responsibilities we accept from life. I remember a freezing winter day. It got dark early and began to snow. We had no money and nowhere to be but with each other. We froze ourselves half to death. And I remember how the snow landed on her hair and eyelashes.
I remember our honeymoon in the south of France. We walked through fields of sunflowers to an abandoned villa on top of a hill. We felt like we’d travelled back in time as we watched the heavy red sun go down.
I remember our first house. It needed a lot of work, but we did it together. I remember stripping paint and the sweet smell of the steamer. We pulled up lino and old newspapers to find that the newsprint had stained the floorboards. The headlines, the cartoons and the photos had been transferred to the wood. I remember the excitement of owning something as big as a house together.
I remember our first child being born. The midwife had different-sized pupils like David Bowie. A student doctor came in to ask if he could observe the birth and my wife roared at him to get out. He fled. We laughed about that a lot.
If I have to, I can remember the cancer too. The doctor saying “it’s treatable, not curable”. That phrase really stuck with me. Another doctor two months later at the start of December saying she may not make Christmas.
I guess it’s important to still keep the awful memories too — they remind me how lucky I am to have made a home and a family with someone. Even if that person is gone
I remember how our bedroom became the room she would fade away in, the kidney failure, holding hands silently near the end — with small snippets of conversation between all the sleep.
I remember the drugs, the stats, the warm fuzzy feeling of the nephrostomy bags. I remember the wonderful hospice staff who came into our lives and then went away again. I remember telling the children she was going to die. That’s not a memory anyone should have.
I guess it’s important to still keep these memories — the awful ones, I mean. They remind me how lucky I am to have made a home and a family with someone. Even if that person is gone. They remind me of my duty to four boys who are growing up without a mother. They remind me how precarious our daily lives are.
They remind me that we should take everything life has to offer. Grab it. Don’t let go. Turn it upside down and shake the change loose from its pockets. Keep shaking. Don’t stop.
These difficult memories remind me that every sadness contains a sweetness. And these sad, sweet memories can be shared. They have to be shared.
That’s what we talk about when we talk about grief, my friend and I. We share sadness and sweetness and look for some meaning in it all. Somehow — and I really don’t know how — we always end up laughing.
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