Four years today my friend Rob died and I went to the cemetery to visit him today. As always his grave was coloured with fresh flowers and his parents had put a cross up with a photo of him which was different to the one on his gravestone, which shows him with his irrepressible grin: this picture is gentle and pensive, as if he knows he hasn’t got long left. I felt his eyes watching me the whole time as I gave him a plant and talked to him. It was very cold but I didn’t want to leave. The air felt thin and brittle. My shoulderblades were prickling; my eyes wouldn’t.
It is the same every year. On the anniversary of Rob’s death I start feeling very claustrophobic and prickly, as if I’m too big for my skin. I got the same feeling a year to the day that my friend Fred died. I feel disturbed and unsettled, not sobbing or weeping, but feeling like a dog who can’t get comfortable on her blanket. I feel that something unidentifiable is prodding me, rubbing against my skin, scraping it and making it bleed.
In October 2008 my friend and colleague Steve died in a motorbike accident. It was a huge shock and tragedy: a huge loss of a great man. Two weeks later Rob drove into a tree on his way home, and he held on for another fortnight in hospital before he died. My precious gecko Dexter died in February 2009 and a week later Fred killed himself. A month after that another friend and erstwhile colleague, Paul, was killed in a helicopter crash.
To misquote Frank Sinatra, it was not a very good year.
After all those bereavements, things became difficult. I began sleep-walking, developed acute anxiety and had memory lapses. I had to call people moments after speaking to them because I couldn’t remember our conversations or if we had even spoken. It was a very odd time. After Dexter, even before Fred and Paul, I felt something had literally cracked inside me and I couldn’t function in quite the same way. I cried constantly – a programme featuring Gordon Ramsey killing an octopus made me burst into floods and my stomach was constantly clenched in dread of something unnameable. I feared death and ruined a potential relationship because I was convinced that he too, like my friends, would die. I learned to dread the words ‘I’ll see you soon’ because they had been said so many times and they had been innocent lies.
To fight off the veil of depression I felt drawing over me, as grey and thick as dusk, I had a huge party for my 30th in the July of 2009 which reminded me how good things could be, and how many wonderful people were still alive for me to love. It was a celebration of life when I really did feel ‘in the midst of death’. The bright blue of my dress, the hectic glitter of the disco lights, the frantic heartbeat of the music; all ephemeral, touching the senses briefly, but the warmth of the 80-odd people gathered in the village hall has stayed with me always and lit a candle in me which has never been extinguished, despite the dark days and nights which followed.
Lots has changed since then. I still am quite an anxious person, but I always was. I’ve accepted that my friends are gone, as much as anyone can. I don’t think you ‘get over’ things but you do learn how to live with them. The hole in the road doesn’t disappear but you learn to walk around it, acknowledge its presence and continue on your journey. I remember when Rob died telling friends at the gym that I would rather be feeling so dreadful, having known him, than be spared grief, and never had his friendship. I’d actually driven to the gym before I heard the news of his accident, and saw a newspaper board with the headline ‘Man fights for life following A40 crash’. I thought “How sad” and my mind, like my car, changed gears. It never occurred to me it would be someone I loved. These things always happen to Other People.
The night of Rob’s crash I was at a friend’s 40th party. I wore black jeans and bright red shoes. I danced not knowing that my friend was fighting for his life. Shortly after his funeral I wrote this poem for Rob which summed up my friendship with him and the impact he had on my life:
I bought red shoes when I had no more trouble than
What to wear to a meeting.
Shiny scarlet shoes
Luscious as a piece of fruit.
All my other shoes were dark,
I wore my red shoes
On the night you left.
I didn’t know
As I danced in them
You were driving away from us.
A kind hand reached down to you.
You took it and it helped you
Step out of your broken body.
You were free and healed.
My red shoes lay in the wardrobe
Coated in dust.
My feet were so heavy.
I walked in black shoes
Past gaudy Christmas lights,
Panicked tinsel-eyed shoppers.
A pool of grief welled up
Past my ankles, past my knees
Up past my chest.
I started to drown.
I wore my red shoes a week after you died.
I was dressed as a dragon
With a fake tail and a painted-on smile.
I drank and smoked and danced
I held close those who were left
And I wept for you.
But now I will always wear red shoes,
Sparkling and vivid and bold;
I will wear them because
You encouraged me to be all three.
You saw I could be those things
And made me see it too.
I will always walk in red shoes
Because a part of you walks in me.
Standing by his grave today I reflected that so much has changed in the four years since Steve, Rob, Fred and Paul died and yet a lot hasn’t in so many ways. I like to think they would be proud of me and how far I’ve come, though sometimes I don’t feel I have taken more than one step forward. The person I was when I started training with Rob was miserable, overweight, trapped and fiercely insecure, with scars from the inside etched on her outside. It’s taken several years but I can honestly say I am a changed person and so much of that is down to Rob’s encouragement, friendship and unfailing ability to make me laugh when I felt like giving up. I’ve become friends with his lovely girlfriend and shared in her joys as her life, too, goes on and she has learned happiness again. I’ve continued with my training and am fitter, if not thinner, than I’ve ever been in my life.
Rob: I’ll light a candle for you at Christmas like I do every year. So I never convinced you to use Hopi ear candles to sort your bunged-up nose – but I did get rid of the toxic man you told me to. I just wish I’d been able to share my (well overdue!) achievement when you were alive rather than tell you via text after your funeral, a message I knew you’d never read.
Thank you for your friendship and thank you for setting me on the road to being a brighter, happier person. We’ll all miss you forever – but how much better than not missing you at all.