Monday, August 30, 2010

Sherpas and Base Camp

Today is the last Bank Holiday of the year in the UK.

These are tough days for me, even tougher than your average Sunday.

The days are gradually shortening and winter is around the corner. Another season to face without him. For some reason the thought of that makes me miss him more keenly. I can feel it more. The loss is clearer and crisper. It hurts.

It hurts physically, as well as mentally. In my heart. Deep in my heart. The heart that is as deep as a canyon these days.

My heavy heart.

Carrying it saps all my energy and takes up all my time.

It's consuming me. Overwhelming. This is such a hard battle, every single fucking day.

I'm sick of myself. I'm sick of this.

Enough already.

I know where I am on the rock face now. I'm at Base Camp and looking up at fucking Everest. And I've got to carry my heavy heart up that sheer lump of granite. Without my Sherpa. Withough my Guide. My North Star. My world. My heart.
I know that I have got to Base Camp. That took me 18 months. It's a feat accomplished that I didn't believe I was capable of in the earliest days. But I also know that somewhere between Base Camp and Camp 1, I am going to have to accept the concept of "gone" and "dead" and "forever". Acceptance. It terrifies me.

I want my Sherpa back.
My Sherpa carried my heart and made it light.
I want my Sherpa back.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The wedding of the year

My friend Karina got married yesterday. I felt so privileged to share their most precious day of days. She looked like a princess. Truly. I mean she's a very pretty girl, and I knew that she would look stunning, but even so, when she finally walked up the aisle (49 minutes late), she took my breath away. I could see her struggling not to cry with sheer emotion and my heart swelled.

The day was perfect. Well almost ... info to follow *

I loved the gospel choir singers (4 women) - they had everyone jigging in the pews (even though we were sitting down) and the priest was a real character. The whole ceremony was beautiful and moving.

* After the Church, my co-pilot Laks and I set off for the 45 minute drive to Virginia Waters for the reception (and the evening reception). Laks punched the post (zip) code in my Tom-Tom (GPS) and 45 minutes later we found ourselves in fucking Chiswick. Really. I went ballistic because I have never driven through London (believe me the outskirts are nothing like Central London for a relaxing driving experience) before, and I had no great desire to do so, always opting for the good old British Black Cab. Okay. No option. Just had to drive through and back the way we came (kind of) whilst Laks kept muttering, "I know I put in 3LS, hmmmmm, PERHAPS my finger slipped and I typed something instead of GU." My caustic response was, "yeah like SW" (for South West London). My heart was banging in my chest and all I could think of was that I couldn't phone Cliff to come rescue me.

But, you know what? I did it! Hoorah! And it provided other guests with a great deal of mirth and amusement when we told them about it. Correction. When I told them. Laks preferred not to discuss it LOL.

Okay, back to the wedding ... as I said, the day was perfect. The speeches were short, the food was delectable, the band in the evening could actually sing (and sounded GREAT), and the company I was in ... well, it's hard to explain. I just felt at home with all those "strangers" - they were "my kind of people" - and I absolutely know that Cliff would have enjoyed it as much as I did. It was great to see my friend Mel (who is on maternity leave) and her husband Elio (who entertained me with his Mr Bean impressions) and I danced quite a lot, but kept restraining myself, just holding back every now and again, you know. Because he wasn't there ...

There was only one moment when I felt the sadness come over me like a wave of lead. I'm amazed I didn't find myself lying on the floor because of it. It was so heavy. So heavy. Lead water. I glanced at Danny (Karina's Groom). He was talking to someone and had his back to me ... he was holding a bottle of something that I recognized ... perhaps a good cognac champagne ... and it was the way he was holding that bottle, the way he was holding himself. And it so reminded me of another Groom, another time, the mannerism was unmistakably the same, even though they bear no resemblance to each other. And I understood why I liked him instantly. He's a man. Men are a dying breed. I was so lucky to find one and have those 15 wonderful years.

I wish Karina those years, but tenfold.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Moving forward again

thanks to Angela for sharing her student's artwork with me




What a difference a day makes.

Another sunrise.

Having contact with other people.

Just being around people.

Being back at work.

Getting a hug (or two).

Seeing your counsellor for 40 minutes.

Seeing your closest girlfriend for an hour.

Keeping food in your body again.

Being told off for not reaching out for help.

Admitting your darkest thoughts to someone and them not looking at you as though you are crazy or seeking attention.

Helping someone else.

Being able to look back, analyze with a little objectivity and logic, and deduce that you've crossed another hurdle, ridden out another tsunami, that you are only human ....

that you haven't let your husband or yourself down.

Seeing the joy on a friend's face when you make a surprise visit.

Realizing that you are looking forward to seeing your friend get married.

Caring enough about your appearance to dye your hair and shave your legs, file your nails etc etc for the wedding of the year.

Accepting that you have lost some of your driving confidence, and it's okay to drive like an old lady for a few days.

Being reminded how in tune I still am with him and what he taught me. That I can still smile when people go back on their word, and act true to form. That I have no fear. Not really. That when people step away, that my sixth sense, or his, immediately kicks in. That I still hear and listen to his voice.

Being told that you are loved.

Smiling again. Even if it's wryly.

And with all due respect to everyone, above all, being supported throughout by your widowed friends and being astounded, once again, at just how huge their hearts are.

And being given the gift of comfort, in the form of a youtube video, by one of her oldest, dearest friends, once again, on the very day that I needed to listen to it most. Anyone who has lost someone to a stroke ... please share this with them. There are no words ...

Back at work

I'm not sure where I am on the climb anymore

Today, I may still feel weak, but I'm back at work. I have only told my boss and a close friend how I felt over the past few days and they both reminded me that the car crash and collecting Cliff's ashes and fireworks probably didn't help the situation.

As much as I didn't want to admit it, I have taken several steps back in my grief. Perhaps more than several. That's okay, at least I know now. You can deal with the truth. And I'm taking steps so that I can start to trundle forwards.

I have booked a counselling session today.

I have a dental appointment booked for the 31st.

I have arranged Cliff's first firework for September 4th.

Some friends are questioning if September 4th is too soon. I think it's actually vital for me at this stage in my grief to go ahead with it. I need the time with his closest friends. I need more closure. I need to face the fact that he isn't coming home. Ever.

Because I am still pretending. I thought I'd accepted it. But I'm not sure that I have.


Thursday, August 26, 2010

Say it how it is

OK, confession time ...

for the past four days I have been ill. A stomach bug. It's left me dehydrated, my blood sugars squiffy. Add toothache and earache into the mix ... and you are left with a woman lying on a sofa for most of that time, crying for her dead husband, pleading with him to come home.

I revisited that deep dark place for four whole days and am just crawling out of it again. Tomorrow I'll be returning to work, thankfully - back to the anchor in my life.

I feel life seeping back into my body. The same body that felt deadened to life only hours ago.

I feel sanity seeping back into my mind. The same mind that was contemplating ending it all only a few hours ago.

Looking back, it almost feels that the woman who had those dark thoughts was someone else. But I know it wasn't. It frightens me that I was so close, so ill, so alone. It stuns me, yet again, that the line between sanity and insanity is so thin, so fragile, so near.

Three things reached through to me -

My dog's eyes
My niece's text when I was wishing my parents were still alive
My friend's words on Facebook, "don't put your wishbone where your backbone should be"

These things reached me just as I was beginning to recuperate and gave me the strength to get to the shop and buy some food.

And I find myself here, writing about it, instead of the unthinkable.

Wow, he'd have been so pissed off with me. I'm going to be okay. But I need to have a support system in place in case I get ill again ...

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A poem and The Ghan

A friend emailed me this poem today. It gave me comfort and tears. I love it because it makes so much sense in this new world where I find no sense.

I carry your heart with me - I carry it in my heart.
I am never without it.
Everywhere I go, you go my dear
and whatever is done by only me is your doing my darling.
I fear no fate for you are my fate my sweet.
Your heart I carry in my heart.

Last night I dreamed that I was flying on my pillow (like a magic carpet) over Australia, looking down over the beautiful stark, changing landscape. I saw the Ghan so clearly. And remember thinking how like the Harry Potter train it was. In reality the train doesn't look like the Harry Potter train. But in my head it does ...

It felt like I had come home. Like coming to home to Cliff felt. But different. My mind is set now. I am definitely going to move there. Can you see the logo on the front of the train? They say life turns full circle ... having been born in Bahrain, it seems appropriate to move to a country whose most prominent landscape is its desert. Home.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Have I been running away?

I changed up all the foreign money in my purse this week.

Since Cliff died I have collected currency from the following countries:

France, Belgium, Germany, Holland - Euros



USA - Savannah, San Diego




In 19 months, that's quite a list, considering it's all personal travel, not business.

And I'm off to Bulgaria in October.

Think I'll conquer Africa and Canada next year.

Running away is good.

Running away is much much better than facing reality.

Isn't it?

He's home with me again

I left home this morning at 08h20 to pick up my courtesy car en route to see Malcolm in Broadstairs, who had very kindly arranged for Cliff's ashes to be placed into three mo-fo fireworks. It was a relief to exchange the Peugeot Diesel hire car for a Mini One - much more pokey, more control and less noisy. The unexpected bonus was that because I set off early'ish, the dogs thought I was going to work, and consequently didn't bark their heads off all day, culminating in me receiving a sarcastic text from my neighbours.

Malcolm greeted me on his driveway and I wrapped my arms round him and gave him the biggest bear hug I could muster. Cliff bought fireworks from him for years, decades even ... and even though Malcolm was our friend's father, I believe that Cliff was friends with him. I always sensed a mutual respect between them, and Malcolm always treated Cliff as an equal (rather than as a friend of his younger son). If he was ever concerned about Mick (many moons ago) he would speak to Cliff and ask him "to have a word, because the bugger won't listen to me." In fact, I remembered today that he wasn't the only concerned parent to ask Cliff to check on an errant young adult offspring ... my Mom used to ask Cliff the same favour, she'd even ask him to check on me - for a period of approximately 5 years, starting 25 years ago ... 10 years before we got together!

I wanted to spend some time with Malcolm, primarily because he was widowed, at the age of 78 only 7 weeks ago. When I let go of him, we walked into his new house - the house that his wife only spent 2 days in before she died - and immediately asked him how he was. He answered with honesty, "not very well at all". Of course he isn't. I wasn't really asking him how he was because I remember all too clearly what those early days are like. I was simply letting him know that I wanted to listen, to hear what he had to say, and I hoped that I might be able to give him a smattering of comforting words.

He so reminded me of my own father after my Mom died, it was tugging at my heartstrings. He opened the fridge looking for a teaspoon, "because that's where the drawer was in the old house". We took our coffees into the lounge and he complimented me on my handbag, then showed me the last bag that he bought for his wife, putting it safely back in its rightful place next to her armchair, which he was sitting in, all the while stroking the fabric, patting the arms of the chair gently, as though it provided him with a tenuous link to her.

I asked him about the photos of her on display, so that he was encouraged to talk about her ... because I remember needing to talk about Cliff and what had happened - in a never ending soliloquy - as I tried to make sense of it all - to no avail. That said, vocalizing what was in my mind - the fragments of sentences that I blurted out incessantly seemed to help me at the time or at least it seemed as vital as breathing. His mind was going off at tangents and he was getting impatient with himself, and I found myself comforting him, holding his hand, telling him that all he should expect of himself during these early dark days was to breathe, to try to get up every day and get washed and dressed (or not), to sleep when he could, and eat small amounts of anything when he could stomach the thought. He nodded and told me that he had employed a good gardener, that he'd received 250 sympathy cards and had bought his Christmas Cards and got his medicine, as well as a new TV. He was going out for lunch with his very good friend, "who is still grieving for his wife after 5 years" (he added solemnly, as if resigning himself to the same fate). He shared that when the gardener was round, or someone was in the house "doing chores" that it was easier because there was noise. He shared stories about the early years with his wife and then rapidly fast-forwarded his memories to her last days. He broke as he told me that he knew she was going to die, and I continued the flow of conversation to say that it didn't matter how much time one was given to prepare, the truth is that one cannot prepare for this loss. That until they took their last breath, whilst they were alive, the horror of it, the horrible emptiness didn't take residence. He nodded, agreeing and we sat there, in a comfortable silence, holding hands. He told me that she wanted to go, and then sat there mute. This generation, especially men, aren't in the habit of crying in front of others, especially women young enough to be their daughter. I filled in the blanks and said, "She'd had enough. She wanted to go?" Yes. Yes, it is a harsh fact to swallow. That she was suffering enough to want to go, to leave him even. I managed to tell him - in a steady voice miraculously - that when Cliff was dying, during his last hour I had told him that it was okay to go, that he could go to sleep. I admitted that it broke my heart but that "if you truly love someone, their needs come before your own, in fact their needs are the only needs that exist, and that you have to love them enough to let them go." He looked at me and I knew that he and I had both shared the same heartbreaking test and passed. "Faith" I suggested, knowing they were regular church goers ... "yes, he said, and Eileen had the same faith." Good. He has another link to hold onto.

It occurred to me while I was there, that although he and Cliff were equals, friends even, my relationship with him had changed dramatically during the hour I was there. Normally he treats me like a child, pinching my cheeks, hugging me, "mwah" on the cheek ... and me being me, I lap it up. I quite like being treated like a child by some people. He was still showing paternal affection, however our conversation was steered on to a level as never before. And to my shock, I found I was the one who seemed "older", because I had 19 months over his 2 months. It felt bizarre. It felt natural. It just was. We both accepted it.

I have NO idea where this came from. Left field clearly. Or a distant and sad recollection of helping my Dad write out 200 Christmas Cards after Mom died, and having to soothe him each time he signed, "David and Maisie" in error. But I found myself offering to help Malcolm do his Christmas Cards this year. My offer was snapped up and we have a date set. October the 30th at 10h00. My duties are already agreed ... making coffee and addressing envelopes, and MAYBE ticking the names off the list. Apparently we have 270 to process :-)

It was nice to be treated as a child once more by him when he gave me the rockets, the launcher and the ashes for my locket though. He demonstrated twice, very clearly, how deep the launcher had to be buried in the ground, and he only just stopped himself from setting off one of them to ensure that I definitely understood. I found myself repeating his instructions back to him, in detail, so that he was convinced that I'd been listening. I don't take it lightly either. Cliff and I loved fireworks, and he NEVER let me set them off, not once in 15 years. I found myself visualizing lighting the first one in September ... and was relieved that in my mind, I could do it. I lit it. I watched it go up. I watched myself take a photo on my iPhone to capture the moment when I let him go, once more, free ... whoooooooooosh, bang, colour, pretty fireworks exploding across the night sky, blurred through watery eyes.

Malcolm asked me what my plans were for the fireworks, and I explained that the first one was for friends, and that I'd invited Cliff's ex and her children to come along (because they had stayed away from the funeral - unfortunately at the time I assumed they would attend and didn't get in touch to specifically invite them).

A grin spreads right across his face and he states, "Your husband was a one-man army." I laugh my head off. I laugh from my stomach. Throw my head back in abject glee and delight. "I love that you said that, thank you," I respond, with a grin to match his.

The second rocket, I explained, was reserved for family alone, and as planned, when the house renovations are complete, I'll make some of Cliff's cocktails, faithfully following his recipes that I captured down on paper over the years, accompanied by a barbie. Each of us will have a Chinese lantern to let off, if inclined ... and the opportunity to write on the lanterns with a message - starbound. I have also visualized this scenario, and am confident that the firework itself will be viewed by all of us through blurry eyes ... but we won't be maudlin. There will be laughter, shared memories, and plenty of blow-up beds to crash on when alcohol gets the better of us.

The third rocket is for one of Cliff's closest and oldest friends - Roy - who was abroad on the day of the funeral. I love the man, as did Cliff. He's a man's man through and through. Yet ... he still hasn't managed to read the entire Eulogy, because each time he attempts to, he gets so upset. I'm looking forward to his return home because I can share things with him that I can't tell anyone else. And it feels as though my baba is here when I'm with Roy. I guess they share a code of ethics, morals, standards ... not to mention secrets, to which I was privy.

Malcolm had even got one of his pyrotechnicians to sieve out a tiny amount of the finest ashes so that I can funnel them into my locket. One side houses a rose petal from his wreath and hair. The other compartment is empty. I'll add them tomorrow hopefully. Or not. In my own time.

Which leaves a tiny teeny amount of ashes. Those will be scattered in Stockbury by Steve (Cliff's big brother) and I, because as little boys they lived there with a lovely couple that fostered them when Cliff was only 3 years old. The couple are long dead, but it felt right. It still does.

So that's the plan.

Surprisingly it hasn't altered from my original plans.
He will be free in our old hometown, and our new home here. I will carry him in my locket into my future, wherever I go.

This is our thing - Cliff's and mine - to be honest. Fireworks. Any excuse - Nov 5th, wedding anniversary, NYE, Xmas, Birthdays, good news, moving house, just because, our rottweiler's birthday even (yes really, he loved them too). Just as a viking burial was entirely appropriate for my beautiful strong husband, so is sending his ashes up to the stars in an adrenaline-fuelled rocket. I know beyond any shadow of doubt that he'd approve.

But I have to admit that this is personal. Ours. Mine now. I ensured that the funeral took account of everyone's feelings and love for Cliff. We all lost him. Not just me. It was so important to me at the time that I "did the right thing". I obsessed over the minutiae. No regrets.

These fireworks, these ashes though - are my tribute to Cliff. It's my way of saying goodbye to him. In my own sweet time. Over a period of months, almost a year actually. Little by little of what remains of my big bear of a man. I've earned the right to do what I want, the way I want, with the people who we love and who are important to us. I'm not following any etiquette or rules ... he was mine. My husband. My baba. My world. My best friend. No apologies.

I so need that one final night out with his mates. As Boo. Without a care in the world. Once more. A taste of him. A last chance at craziness and fun.

The sky is the limit, baba, as ever.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Flies and angels in ointment

I'm coping, you know?
I trundle along, day by day, feeling fairly secure in the little world that I have created for myself since Cliff died. In fact the world, that thanks to Cliff, that I could create for myself.
Sometimes I pat myself on the back for doing pretty well.
That is, until there is a fly in the ointment ...
it doesn't take a lot.
And then it - whatever it is - just magnifies his death, my grief, my insecurities and idiosyncracies. It makes me wobble, panic, and sometimes spiral downwards.
This time "it" is my car crash and the aftermath of paperwork that has been borne out of it. I don't know what the hell I am doing, and even though I manage paperwork all day long at work, for some reason at home, I get a complete mental block.
All week I've had that "flight or fight" feeling.
I know that I won't rest easy till I get my car back, the insurance is settled and I know I can afford all the bills that go along with "it". That said, I have been helped along the way by three angels; Afzal at my brokers, Tony at the body shop and Steve at BMW Arden. If these three men had not helped me, pacified me, calmed me ... I know that I would be in a far worse place than I am today.
You know what, I can do this.
Even if I do feel like a child.
Now then, all I need to do now is ask my neighbour to clear out the filter on my washing machine, and my new little world will be almost back to where it was a couple of weeks ago.
C'mon Boo, you CAN ask for help, you can do it ... (even if you hate asking, even if it does give you a harsh reminder that he's not here to do these things for you anymore ...)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Plan B

Amazing song, no need for words:

Difficult times have helped me to understand better than before, how infinitely rich and beautiful life is in every way, and that so many things that one goes worrying about are of no importance whatsoever...-- Isak Dinesen

Helen's dream

I got a message from an old friend to say that she dreamed a few nights ago, that she was in a building with Cliff and I. There was wood panelling on the walls of the building that we were in and Cliff was telling her something, but she couldn't remember what it was.
Here is her description of it:
i had a really strange dream the other night and i never dream it was bizarre, and i dont know where it was u was there and cliff he had jeans a sort of blue /grey colour jumper on his hair was in a ponytail and he was telling me something then he really hugged me and now im pissed off cos i got woken up by the children and i never really thought about it till later that evening, and i dont know if it was important it was a strange place a room with a long hallway and wood pannelling
On Thursday night I was in Coombe Abbey which certainly has its share of wood panelling on the walls. Friday I had my car crash. Was he trying to warn me?
This morning I received another message from her as follows:
omg im so glad it meant something i thought u was going to delete me as a crank. hes become your guardian angel soul mates he will never b far i promise u, he never gave up in life so he will never give up on the other side. all the time u need him he will b close by
I cried happy tears.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The car accident ... and some more thoughts about Camp Widow

Well, it would seem that the last post isn't a one-off. I felt good after writing it, cleansed even. And I wonder if I stopped blogging because I felt it was holding me back, or if it was because of what was going on in my life ... and the fact that I couldn't share it because it was too private. Yes, there was a man. No, I won't talk about it. EVER. He helped me get over those firsts and he did so as a friend. That's all I'm willing to say.

So I'm back.

Many of us have been in a funk since Camp Widow. It comes from being with all those friends who "get it" - you suddenly find yourself one of many - rather than the odd man out. It's wonderful. Then you return home. Back to life, back to reality. You feel lonely again. But just as I would not change a second of my time with Cliff, every second of this pain is worth the 15 years that I had with him ... neither would I change one second of Camp Widow ... to have the loneliness highlighted is worth every second of the weekend. I made friends for life during that weekend. I felt normal again. I have hope again. HOPE. Without hope you have nothing. Two special people; Hyla and Michele represent hope to me and they show me that there is life out there for me, and for all of us. It's up to me to grasp it.

Before I get onto the car accident, I just wanted to share some more thoughts/learnings from the Widowhood Conference.

1. One widow explained to me that just as a mother loves one child, when another comes along, she finds her heart expands enough to love that second child equally. Differently but equally. It's a different love. What a great analogy for thinking about allowing your heart to love another one day. One day. NOT YET.

2. People outside our "club" are not comfortable with widowhood or death. Because it is the unknown to them. How can we expect them to understand? We can't. But I had to stifle a smirk upon arriving at Colorado airport when US Homeland asked, "What is the purpose of your visit?" and I replied, "actually, I'm attending a Conference on Widowhood." To which he responded, tongue-tied almost, "You can go now." He could NOT wait to get rid of me.

3. During one of the workshops, we were asked to work in pairs and write down on a piece of paper what we "saw" in the other person. It was a powerful exercise.

I wrote about my widow buddy: "sense of humour, analytical, approachable"

My widow buddy wrote about me: "soft and at ease with myself, adventurous"

We both sat there saying, "WOW".


So, on to the car crash ...

Upon returning home after a good meeting in Coombe Abbey, I lost control of my car on an evil bend. The people who stopped to check I was ok told me that there was diesel or something slippy on the road. In any event, my car completely lost control - it flew over to the other side of the road, did a complete U-turn and ended up on the grass verge.

Everything went slo-mo and I swear I felt him there with me. I remained totally calm and remember thinking, "oh crap", also "I might be coming to you now baba" and feeling slightly disappointed when the car stopped and I was in tact. Not one scratch. Very surreal - I remember lifting my thumbs because I didn't want the airbag to break them (I'd watched a documentary with Cliff that shared that this happens invariably). But I can't remember if I braked or steered during those seconds. No recall whatsoever.

The kind lady who stopped asked me if she could ring someone and I replied, controlling my voice carefully, "No, I'm widowed." and she hugged me. Dammit. I wanted to tell her not to be kind else I would break. She drove the car off the grass for me and I set off, but the traction light kept flickering so I rang BMW Emergency and they said as long as the light wasn't on constantly that I could keep driving, albeit at a slow pace. After a few tears, and some builders buying me a cappuccino, I set off again, to find the car was deteriorating fast. At 35 mph and on a straight road, my car was not holding the road, so I pulled in at a safe place and 12 hours later, was home, courtesy of Emergency Services.

I miss Cliff all the time. I think of him every hour of every day. But that accident really brought it home to me. I was always okay when he was there. I would have phoned him and he would have told me what to do. It took me like an hour to figure out who to call and what to say. I felt like a child. I spoke to one of his friends and cried. His friend's voice broke too. I reached out to people on Facebook and they made me feel connected to the world. Not quite so alone.

But it's not the same.

I guess that I've learned that even though he's not here, I'm going to be okay ... I just might not FEEL okay about it. And I'll make no apologies for that.

My poor car has been taken away to be repaired and insurance will take care of that. My courtesy car will be here in half an hour.

So I'll be able to pick up my dogs (I've missed those little shitheads as Cliff called them) and get back into work tomorrow. Back to the stability of the routine I have created for myself.

Back to life.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Camp Widow

As I set off to fly to San Diego to attend the Conference on Widowhood, I felt strangely nervous ... quesy even. It didn't help when I dropped my dogs off at kennels either because the little shits managed to break out of their cage. I was, naturally wearing white linen trousers to fly in, so asked the kennel maid to collect Fred and Barney from the car. I managed to grab Barney's lead, but Fred was off like a bat out of hell - chasing a dog and a horse around the field, whilst the kennel maids were screaming for him to come back, "Freeeeeeeeeeed." I reminded them at least 6 times that he is deaf and waited for him to look at me and waved. Over he bound, full of joy and glee, and yes, I was adorned with two dark dog paw prints for the duration of the journey which lasted 20 hours thanks to United Airlines delaying both my flights.

I finally arrived at the Marriott Marina Hotel, unpacked, stood under a hot shower, ordered "The New York Times", breakfast in bed and an alarm call, and sank into a deep deep sleep.

At 09h30 I was outside waiting for my beautiful old school friend Mel (who drove down from OC to see me for an hour). She left me feeling serene, at ease with my surroundings, confident and ready for Camp Widow.

I still had three hours to kill before the Volunteers' Meeting kicked off at 14h00, so I read the paper, drank lots of coffee to combat my jet lag and walked around the hotel and the grounds, before having a delicious lunch ON MY OWN at Roy's Hawaiian Fusion Restaurant. Wow that food is exquisite, so are the cocktails (at least the three I sampled were). The waiter asked me if I'd like dessert and I decided on a third and cocktail instead (which he recommended). Returning from the loo (restroom) I found a dessert and cocktail awaiting me. The lovely waiter winked and told me, "You CAN have your cake and eat it." How nice is that? Then I realized I was wearing my Camp Widow badge and wondered if he thought I was short of money (due to being widowed) - who knows? Who cares?

After being fed and watered I headed to the meeting and as I walked off the escalator my eyes were scanning the enormous room for my friend (and fellow blogger) Dan. We have shared our pain not to mention laughter and had some serious as well as frank discussions. I don't mind admitting that Dan is a wonderful and totally trustworthy sounding board. I was so frantically looking for him then noticed this lovely man, with the most enormous smile on his face, arms wide open, and I just stood there and hugged and hugged him for the longest time. Couldn't believe he was standing in front of me ... kept squeezing his arm or hand, just had to keep reaching out for the first few minutes. We sat at the briefing together and then went on duty. I was in charge of t-shirts and Dan was tasked with giving out gala dinner tickets etc that the 210 attendees would need.

Dan took me over to the "wall of love" - which comprised of tiles on which photos of our spouses (and words of your choice) were displayed. Dan pointed out Cliff's tile for me and I had to take a big gulp because somehow it made it so so real. I'd only just gone through the 18 month anniversary, and let me tell you, even though I accepted he was dead at 13 months, I didn't accept he wasn't ever coming home till I hit the 18 month mark. It's widow-brain. If you don't have widow-brain, I don't blame you for assuming I am mad. Sometimes I think I am. I kissed my fingers and touched the face that I long to see, then afforded Michael (Dan's husband) the same treatment :-) It just felt natural and Dan grinned. Then I had to walk away and get busy, because I could feel a big wave coming at me, and I didn't want to lose it and let the Foundation down when I'd promised I would help welcome others.

It felt good to help out and certainly made me feel more involved, more assured actually. Some people were arriving completely on their own and didn't know a single other person attending. I think that's immensely brave. I felt nervous when I left home and knew that I would be seeing blogger friends, as well as widow/ers I'd connected with on Facebook, not to mention the amazing Michele Neff Hernandez, who I am proud to consider as my role model. She is passionate, committed to helping the bereaved and when I look at her, I see hope. Hope. It's that simple. I know that Michele will always love her late husband Phil, but there's more to her story ... a new chapter has opened in her life and she is engaged to a charming Aussie. When I have been at my lowest ... when I have believed that I cannot go forward, she has inspired me, encouraged me, yet reminded me to be gentle with myself, and shown such empathy. You can't really thank someone enough for that.

After around an hour of manning the registration desk more "brown shirts" joined us and I sensed I was in the company of "veterans/alumni" - the buzz and energy was contagious, as was the laughter. Great company. Easy. Natural. I was giggling and felt kind of alive again which was wonderful.

Then I heard a smiling voice say, "I think we know those guys over there" and I ran over to hug Debbie and Susan with Dan. Hugs. More hugs. Smiles. Kisses. Hand squeezing. Emotional but in a happy way, not morose. I can't find the words to put my feelings down here. Can't. Surreal yet real. Unbelievable, yet here we all were huddled together.

Back to work, then I spotted a girl. Sparkling eyes, the biggest smile, energy on legs, a huge heart and I said, "Andrea?" She responded, "Boo?" And I just went, "arghhhhhh" and ran round to give her a huge hug. Again, it was emotional but for me, just pure joy and happiness. What a great feeling after all the darkness.

One widower approached the desk and demanded that we promise him that he wasn't the only man there.

Then a lone widow walked towards us. I could literally see her breaking inside. Really see it. Don't ask me how, but I just could. She accepted the t-shirt and all the paperwork gratefully and quietly walked away. I waited around 30 seconds then asked Dan if he thought it would be okay if I left the desk to check on her. I sat next to her uninvited and held her hand and tears were just brimming over ... we chatted for around 20 minutes then I left her smiling, feeling a little less alone for other ladies had joined us on the sofas ... and went back on duty.

I bumped into Michele and told her that was the best part of the whole shift. Sure, we welcomed everyone, but I couldn't believe that I (yes I - a novice, who still fumbles through the darkness) had made a difference to another person in so much pain. Perversely, it never sits comfortably with me that I get comfort in connecting with another person who feels the same pain as I do, but it is what it is.

Then we retired for a casual drinks reception (with mashed potato in sundae glasses - very weird but really yummy). We sat down, our little tribe ... and chatted. I felt fine one minute and then ... I zoned out completely. Jet lag. Had to get into bed. That second. So I apologized and hurried back to my room for a forbidden Marlboro Lite on the balcony before collapsing into a coma-like sleep (from 20h30 - 07h30 ... yes really). Thankfully I slept through the fireworks because they would have destroyed me. I've prepared myself to scatter Cliff's ashes via fireworks, but I wasn't ready to watch them over San Diego Bay.

I felt completely rested in the morning and went straight to Starbucks for a double macchiato, then bounced back to registration till 09h00 with Dan, before heading to the keynote address, delivered by Michele. Inspiring. Miracle of miracles - I managed not to cry! It was so powerful being in a room with 210 other widowed people. Affinity. Most were complete strangers yet I felt connected to them all - many of whom I would only smile at or hug, not even speak to, through our common bond. It was at that point that I knew that Camp Widow wasn't going to be a miserable fucking sobfest or a pity party. That said, there were tears of course, but they were dignified silent tears, the tears that just spill over a person's face, even while they were participating in workshops. No matter. Tears are so part of our lives that we find it perfectly natural. No one fusses anyone because we all know that someone fussing over you MAKES YOU COMPLETELY LOSE IT. The person sitting next to you (often a complete stranger) might hold your hand or pass a Kleenex, but that was it. We all know that wherever we are on our journey, remarried, a veteran widowed for 10 years or a newbie ... we ALL feel the same pain. It never alters. All that changes is our ability to function whilst incorporating the pain. We learn coping mechanisms. We adapt and we incorporate our loss into our very being. It becomes part of us. But the pain at 19 months is the same as it was at Day One. I've just learned to live with it some days. Not always. I was crawling out of that abyss as the airplane swooshed me over thousands of miles.

At lunch, Dan and I headed to Roy's Hawaiian Restaurant and Dan insisted on joining me in a couple of cocktails. It was beautiful there. Sunshine. Great food, even better cocktails ;-) and the best company. The conversation was natural and flowed. So much so that when I suggested we drop by to see Susan's quilt-making table/stall, horror struck us because we were 20 minutes late for our first workshop of the afternoon. We entered the lecture room and tried to sit down unnoticed at the back, but everyone turned round ... I felt very embarrassed but the speaker was completely non-plussed and just smiled. Five minutes passed and I glanced at Dan. OMG - he was rocking in his chair and his eyes were shut. Shit. My fault. Dan doesn't normally drink alcohol. I think he ran down to Starbucks to get 10 shots of espresso so that he was sober in time for the final workshop.

Back to the room for more illicit cigarettes on the balcony, a quick shower and changing into a long chinese red dress that Cliff and I bought for US$20 in Hong Kong. I felt so sad putting it on and started talking to him. "WTF am I doing at a Widow's Conference in fucking California baba? This is all fucking wrong. WTF. WTF?" After a little rant and a few tears I applied (waterproof) mascara and headed down to join everyone at the gala dinner. The food was good, the tables were dressed beautifully and everyone scrubbed up well. Within 10 minutes I'd made friends with the barmaid and she started fixing my drinks as I approached the bar for the rest of the evening. I was so proud (but very red-faced) when Cliff got a special mention, courtesy of the lovely Michele, for the $800 I raised doing a sponsored walk for the Foundation. The same Foundation that was helping us all by bringing us all together.

It was a privelege to meet the Canadian contingency and join in their banter, laughter and my favourite - the most inappropriate sick widow/er's dark humour. Nothing else hits the spot. Chelsea and Jackie are great girls - you can't help but feel joy and strength standing with them. I listened quietly when Chelsea recounted how her husband had proposed to her. I'm not going to share the story because it is hers and hers alone to share. It's a lovely romantic tale - next year you might like to ask her to share it with you too.

There are, in our elite (but not envied) circle some fairly famous, household even, names. Matt and Abby amongst others. For some odd reason I felt a bit in awe of them, which is unlike me. I mean, I'm the girl who boldly walks up to Triads and strikes up a conversation much to my late husband's chagrin and horror, frankly :-)

Susan left because her tinnitus precludes her from being able to hear a word anyone is saying, in the hubbub of a crowd. I hated that I only knew sign language for ball and sit (for my deaf dog). It made me feel a bit useless. It was nice to see people dancing and laughing. Lovely to watch Michele's parents dance together - it made me smile. I wasn't envious. I don't want anyone else's husband. I want my own. Mine. So I can happily feel warmth at seeing couples together. Why shouldn't others feel happy just because my world ended on January 6th 2009? I don't want others to imagine this pain. Why would I? That would make me one sick twisted bitch.

But the music wasn't really my thing. I'm more into dancing on a stage to House music and didn't think I should introduce that side of me to a roomful of strangers. The last time I danced was with Vicki at a concert and I overheard a woman say to her husband, "I think they're cage dancers, dear." But that's another story. So, anyway, as I said it wasn't really my kind of music and it was quite loud so Dan, Debbie and I took our drinks into the bar outside and settled on some barstools chatting. It's unreal. How can I have just met them (in person) yet feel as though I've known them for decades? How? Who cares ... it's great. Connecting. All of us determined to have a good time. Jesus, I'm miserable most of the time when I'm on my own, so my philosophy is to enjoy people when I'm with them.

Then a couple of girls came over and said they were heading downtown. We congregated in the lobby and the group grew and grew. I had no idea where we were heading but happily followed those in the lead. And we end up at a gritty bar called, I kid you not - "Rock Bottom" - entirely appropriate. Then I realize that everyone is showing the bouncer their ID. It's a requirement even at my age ... so I got cocky and told him I didn't have any ID. Why not? Because I'm English. My passport is back at the hotel. He lets a couple of other widows in and I get cockier ... so can I come in? Yes, yes he responds. And I walk straight into the most enormous bouncer. He looks like he's made of granite not flesh and even though I smile, his face is completely emotionless. He stamps my hand and waves me through. I introduce myself to some of the group and Matt very kindly shouts the first round. God knows what it cost.

Shortly afterwards, a stag party tries to join us, and I make eye contact with huge granite doorman. I've been used to being in their company for years, due to Cliff being friends with some wonderful guys (who are now my guardian angels) and the funniest thing happens. Even though Cliff isn't there, it appears his lessons and behaviour are so deeply ingrained in my very being now that, through (fleeting) eye contact, he comprehends, comes over and stands watching over us till they depart. I keep turning around to ensure he hasn't abandoned us and I am rewarded with a smile. Granite man can smile. We widows meanwhile chat, we don't hold back. Widows are blunt and to the point with each other. Anyone not in this club that no one wants to be a member of would literally cringe, and they do, especially round me. Then I noticed. It wasn't just me spouting brutal honesty. It was all of us. And it felt great. We laughed. Sarah signed the stag's sombrero with, "Get Life Insurance" which he didn't find all that funny. So she explained, "all of our spouses are DEAD". They milled about and moved on. So did Granite Man. I introduced myself to Matt and laughed at myself for feeling too shy to earlier at dinner. He is the most relaxed, affable humorous man, and I love his writing. It's raw and powerful. I find myself nodding at the words in agreement, even though I'm alone at home reading them on my laptop. I love that he looked to do something positive, a focus to help other widow/ers with young children (and unfortunately WITHOUT life insurance). He said he thought it was great that I raised money for Soaring Spirits on the first anniversary of Cliff's death and I told him that I HAD to find something positive to focus on that day, otherwise I would have lost it. Big time. He nodded, and I laughed. I was preaching to the preacher.

Then a couple of dudes made a beeline for Jackie. She's stunning looking so it's hardly a surprise. But seriously, the moron's chat-up line was, "do you like men with small dicks?" and she informed him that her husband had been 6'4" (I think, forgive me if I'm wrong) and then SHE PROCEEDED TO PICK HIM UP OFF THE GROUND, PHYSICALLY. Totally emasculated him. What a girl.

I think I got to sleep around 03h00 and was up again at 07h00. Bear with sore head. Ate an enormous breakfast followed by a lovely relaxed walk with my tribe, by the marina ... we shopped for tourist kitsch (a fridge magnet for Cliff's sister) and soaked in the rays and sea air. It was a beautiful morning and it felt as though I was with family.

Before I knew it, it was time to say bye to Debbie and Susan. Big gulp. Then Dan. I passed him his tile of Michael (which I'd put in my handbag with Cliff's tile) and he looked at it. I saw the pain cloud over his face, followed by his regaining control. My heart went out to him. I felt it go out to him. I know that feeling so damn well now. Gave him a squeeze. Told him that Michael had the most piercing blue eyes. Another hug. We told each other that we loved each other and meant it. I still do. It was hard to walk away from him, but something in me knows beyond doubt that we will see each other again.

I had bought a bikini along so I could enjoy the pool. But I couldn't put it on. Nor get in the pool. Couldn't even entertain the idea. I knew I'd start sobbing, that I would break, really BREAK if I got in there. The palm trees were swaying gently in the breeze as they did on our Caribbean breaks - our wedding, honeymoon, my 40th, Christmas. That's ok though. You have to know your limits and obey the boundaries, otherwise you spiral downward and FAST. This sadness swept me away and I marched into DW's bar to order a couple of cocktails and lunch before departing for the airport.

Next year I'm getting in the damn pool

Just as I was fighting the tears which had almost succeeded in pushing their way to the brim ... Hyla appeared in front of me to give me a hug. Out of nowhere. The whole weekend was like that. Magical almost.

That hug spurred me on and ensured I didn't cry till I sat down at the bar at San Diego airport because I thought I'd lost my iPhone. I literally tipped my bag upside down on the bar, getting all sweaty and couldn't breathe. I really couldn't breathe. I said out loud, to no one in particular ..."someone needs to talk me down because I've lost my iPhone and it's got all my (voice raising several decibels) PHOTOS OF MY DEAD HUSBAND ON IT. The woman sitting next to me told me to breathe. She calmed me and helped me find it and I started crying with relief. We talked about the conference and she shared with me that her son had died two years previously. We just hit it off. Another connection. Other-worldly. Like it was meant to be. Again as though I'd known her forever. We didn't stop talking or laughing. We rearranged our seats together to share another vodka during the flight to San Francisco. We swapped contact information and we'll be in touch for sure. It's not a morbid obsession or a desire for pity, or dark. It's just being with someone who gets it. And that is what Camp Widow was all about for me. Not the workshops. Not dinner. Simply being with others who had been in that deep, dark place and crawled out of it. Time and time again. Moving, always moving. Not always onwards, forwards or upwards. But moving. Trying. Never giving up. He taught me that. Never give up. I am his wife, widowed or not and I will never give up. Camp Widow has provided me with the evidence - breathing flesh and blood that others are in this boat with me. I'm not alone. We're all at different stages and we shouldn't compare ourselves along this journey. It's not a positive thing to compare yourself to anyone else. It's YOUR journey, your loss. You own it. But don't ever forget that you always have a choice. Choose your attitude. Make your spouse proud of you. Do it for them if not for yourself. Keep moving, even if it's downwards or backwards on those darkest days.

and here is the link to USA Today's article