Each griever must ask the question, 'Who am I, now that you're gone?' And the answer to that question often revises one's self-narrative. Grief is a story you tell yourself. It's a story of the death of someone you loved. It's a story of the life of someone you loved. It's a story of your life with them and it's a story of your life without them.
Ron Marasco and Brian Shuff, About Grief
A little while ago I went to see La La Land at the cinema. It was a bit of a milestone for me as the first film that I managed to sit through since you died, in fact I really loved it. Essentially I'm a sucker for whimsy and romance, the classic dreamer, head in the clouds and all that jazz. I want always to believe in destiny and true love even though my own life hasn't done much to encourage those beliefs. La La Land is a perfect dreamers' film. It reminded me of our magical love affair, of course, and also a bit of my first true love. He was an aspiring actor from California and I was an aspiring writer from Yorkshire. We had a fairytale meeting in Eastern Europe (dancing in the snow in Prague as opposed to the sunset in LA), a wonderful courtship (including drama and deportation) and we had a beautiful wedding after eighteen months. A few years later, we divorced. It was a harsh lesson to learn at twenty-six, that happy ever afters are often just the stuff of Hollywood and not of real life.
For that reason, I quite liked the ending of La La Land, even though I still sat crying on the back row with my friend when it finished, not because the hero and heroine didn't end up together but because it reminded me of the unsatisfactory nature of my own love stories. 'What is it all supposed to mean?' I asked her. Like the couple in La La Land, you and I seemed destined to be together. I felt you were my soulmate and that it was written in the stars that we should collide. Our paths had criss-crossed so often throughout our lives that it was only a matter of time, or timing, before we would get the message and fall in love. And when we finally made it, I thought I'd made it too, to the end of some kind of convoluted romantic journey, to my own (slightly later than expected, slightly unconventional) happy ever after. And then suddenly you died and the narrative was shredded and I was bewildered again wondering what to make of it all. 'The end just happened in the middle,' I wrote. The path into the future had disappeared overnight and I didn't see how I could go on. Essentially, I lost the plot.
As a graduate of English literature and a writer (predominantly of fiction), narrative is important to me and something that has preoccupied me a lot in my grief. I'm painfully aware that the narrative of my own life (put simply) is a complete mess and not something any publisher would be interested in; there's no clear narrative arc at all, certainly not from a romantic point of view. It might make a good collection of, mostly tragic, short stories but it's a hopeless romance novel. Every time someone looks like the hero of the piece and I invest in them, they vanish and your particular vanishing act was truly spectacular. In a pitching workshop that I once attended, I was told that I needed to be able to encapsulate the plot of my novel in a one-line summary. At the beginning of my grief journey, this is how the story looked: 'Two lovers, destined to be together, miss their chance repeatedly, spend their lives apart having a pretty miserable time, finally unite and then, just when things are going great, he dies and her life is ruined'. Maybe it makes a good weepy but it's certainly not an easy story to write a sequel to and, left here without you, that is, essentially, what I have to do.
My bereavement counsellor says that the work of bereavement is to find a new narrative and perhaps, in this respect, I'm lucky that I know a lot about making up stories. Perhaps that's why I have written so many thousands of words since you died, trying to find a way to write the story in such a way that it makes your narrative bearable (though it would take a genius to achieve that) and also leaves the way open for me to continue to write a better future for myself. When you died, my overwhelming feeling was that I just wanted to die with you, but gradually, over the course of the last twelve months I've been forced to consider the possibility that your ending can't be the ending of my own story. If I'm going to go on to live a rich and fulfilling life (and how can I contemplate anything else when I have the privilege to still be here when you are not?) I can't afford to have my narrative be the one in which the love of my life appears and disappears in the space of a year during middle age. It's just too ridiculous. So, I must try to find a new way to frame things and, though I have raged against the people who talk of gifts and silver linings, I find myself looking for them anyway. Because who wants to read a narrative without hope? And who can live a life in which there are no gifts?
So, I try to rework the narrative and I'm left with something like this: 'Just as they are both about to give up on hope and true love, two star-crossed lovers, battered by ill-fortune and plagued by self-doubt, find each other and repair each other's broken hearts, restoring their faith in love. Though he tragically dies, he dies happy in the knowledge that he is truly loved and accepted for who he is. And, though she is heartbroken at being left behind, she is left with the same knowledge: she has known what it is to love deeply and to be loved deeply in return. He has left her with the gift of knowing she is worthy of true love.' It still needs work, but it's an improvement, at least, on the first version.
Sometimes, I reflect that, overall, my own story is perhaps not a romance at all. When I got divorced, my mum, bless her, suggested that perhaps I was just 'one of those people who isn't meant to be in a relationship.' Cheers for that, Mum. I don't like to think she was right but there are allegedly seven possible plots and not all of them are boy meets girl. Probably my narrative is more a voyage of self-discovery, of becoming. Mostly, in my life, the men along the way feel like they have been obstacles and distractions from my main work, of being my true self and being the writer that I was always meant to be. I remember once saying to a, now well-known, author that I felt I couldn't be a writer and have love. 'With the right person, you can,' she said wisely. You were the right person and I learned that I could. I learned that someone could love both the writer and the person that I am. In truth, the person and the writer are one and the same thing.
I don't know what the next chapter of my story will be as I've yet to write it. Maybe I will go on to find my fulfilment in my writing and you will remain the one true love of my life but, I don't think that's my story. I don't think my mum was right. I've learned a lot over the last few decades of living tragic short stories. I'd like the chance to apply my learning to a bigger and more sustainable project. Maybe I'm greedy but I'd like to have my writing and still have love. I can understand the widows who feel that the love they shared with their spouses is enough to sustain them but I only had a few months. It's not enough for me. I don't know what the point would be of finally understanding what love is, if I'm never to have it again. It may be crazy but the romantic in me didn't die with you. If anything, it has been reborn.
In the van, I sing along to the soundtrack to La La Land, turning the volume up every time Emma Stone's audition number comes back round. 'Here's to the ones who dream,' she sings. 'Bring on the rebels, the ripples from pebbles, the painters and poets and plays.' She doesn't mention blacksmiths but I see you and our story in every word. It was a magical story completely devoid of pragmatism, a real romance. A story of madness and colour, a triumph of heart over head. Together we captured that feeling, 'a sky with no ceiling, a sunset inside a frame.' And whatever happens next, 'I'll always remember the flame' of our love. Like you, it lives on, in me.
Here's to the ones who dream.
Foolish as they may seem.
Here's to the hearts that break.
Here's to the mess we make.
And here's to you, Blacksmith Paul, the ultimate dreamer.
At the bonfire that we held after your funeral, I scrawled a message on a paper lantern. I still remember the words that I wrote: 'What an adventure we had! I wouldn't have missed it for the world,' It's true. I wouldn't. And even though, during this last twelve months, my journey has been a nightmarish trip to the underworld, I am still so grateful for the love we shared. I know that if I had my time again, I wouldn't change a thing, apart from the ending (and perhaps I'd bring forward the beginning). The storyteller in me is able to write new endings and she will. She can conjure worlds in which we will have our time again, in some other lifetime or some parallel universe. Maybe there we will get to have a happy ever after. But in this universe, I will go on and, when the time is right and the person is right (and he will have to be right, now), I know I will risk my heart once more. Because I'm a foolish dreamer like the aunt who jumped barefoot into the Seine.
Smiling through it, she said she'd do it again.