Friday

Acknowledging Anger

Another memoir about the event that transformed my life - the death of my young husband after just one year of marriage.


Henry died on February 24th 1990 and I was catapulted into a very strange world. Back then, we weren’t at war with anyone in particular so there weren’t pictures of young widows on the news and there were only four TV channels with no reality TV. Yes, people were still being widowed all the time but it was a lot less publicised and it had never actually happened in my circle. Friends and family didn’t know what to do with me which was hardly surprising because I didn’t know what to do with myself.
I lived in the media world, where people often didn’t see each other for six months to a year, so many of my former colleagues didn’t even know I’d got married, let alone that Henry was dead.
So I’d get people saying, ‘Wow! You look terrific! You’ve lost so much weight. What’s your secret?’
Those who did know said, ‘Don’t you think you’re wearing too much black?’
Or: ‘I don’t think you should be seen out with Alan/Bob/Fred dear. What would people think?’ (Alan, Bob and Fred being old boyfriends who were being non-invasively supportive).
Because I was trained to be nice I didn’t think I got angry. But, I started bitching at shopkeepers who kept me waiting and those poor souls who tried to commiserate with me. One girl, who’d never met Henry, said the dreaded ‘I’m so sorry about Henry’s death’ and got a ‘Yes, I was pretty hacked off myself’ in return.
If you’re a habitual victim and terminally nice, it gets imploded. And I was incredibly angry — with Henry, with me, with the world, with Jesus, with God, with life, and mostly with the stupid, stupid doctors who hadn’t even noticed that the chemotherapy they gave him was destroying Henry’s stomach even though I tried to tell them. It was easy for me; all I had to do was sit in the medical section of Foyle’s and read up on the DTIC they were giving him (which turned out to be mustard gas); they had whole wards and dozens of patients and dozens of different chemos to deal with and important suits to wear.
They got so narked with me that they wrote ‘Beware the wife, very well informed’ on his notes at the end of the bed. As if the journalist wouldn’t read them! And they got cross when I asked them what they would do at the critical two-week point when Henry’s stomach would be affected and said it wasn’t important.
My greatest moment of defeat unwittingly came from a kind and considerate young registrar. His name was Oliver and he said: ‘If it’s any comfort, Henry is dying from the chemotherapy that’s destroying his stomach, not from the cancer. It’s a kinder death.’
So he died from chemotherapy, not cancer. But they didn’t put that on the death certificate. And that made me angry too.

Thursday

The bad news


I think most of us experience a strange, surreal feeling when we hear terrible news. It’s like when people say ‘Where were you when President Kennedy got shot?’ Or ‘Where were you when you heard about 9/11?’ Everyone remembers because the hugeness of the event blazed a tear in their psyche. You stand numb, disbelieving, with the whole world that was in full working order just one minute before, destroyed.
I was at home; in the living room in my terraced house in Birmingham. A part of me seemed to be outside myself looking inwards; a second me was inside and screaming and the final piece of me was saying, ‘Well of course. Why wouldn’t this happen to you?’
I think all of us have got them: the watcher, the victim, the critic — and many more personalities besides. They shape our lives without our even noticing them, creating, destroying and fouling up. For most of my life I have been at war with myself through those characters. Even now, some of them only have an uneasy accord but they don’t attack the way they used to do.
Psychologists would point to Jungian archetypes, others to astrology, the Enneagram, Human Design or upbringing and environment. Some would even call them demons. I call them Sefirot from the Hebrew, meaning sphere or sapphire and each one of them represents an aspect of my own, particular psyche.
Life is circular.  At least mine is. On good days it becomes a vortex where I climb higher with every turn. At this particular point in time it had become exactly the opposite kind of vortex; from happiness to disaster.
The caller on the telephone was my husband of just six months, Henry Barley. He had been for a routine six-month check-up at hospital four and a half years after having had a malignant mole removed from his scalp. Every time before he had been clear and this time neither of us had thought anything of it. 
Now, out of the blue, he had been handed a death sentence. A routine X-ray revealed tumours filling his lungs and lodged in his lower organs as well.
The consultant said he would be lucky to live a year — and that only with savage chemotherapy.
Of course it’s not a new story; many people face similar horror. It’s not newsworthy like the deaths of soldiers at war or tragedies such as murder or an air crash. It’s just two people who are struggling with the basics; the very basics of life. The struggle for survival.
I had three hours to wait until Henry got home. His appointment had been in London where he had lived before our marriage. For most of that time, I walked round and round in the empty shell of what, hours earlier, had been a happy home. It went through my mind again and again: Every one of those tumours had formed in the six months since we got married. It must be my fault.
Eventually, I picked up the Bible that had been given to us as a wedding present. I opened it at random, hoping against hope for some hope. It was one of those ‘draw a card and see what it says’ moments. My finger fell on a verse from psalm 122. ‘I shall not die; instead I shall live to praise the Lord my God.’
I thought it meant that Henry would live. I thought it meant that he — a steadfast atheist — would become a believer in God because of the miracle of his miracle recovery. I thought that it was a sign.
It was, of course. But not the sign that I was looking for. And even as I felt a surge of hope, the critic denied it. What I was hoping for did not happen to women like me.
I wasn’t a ‘good’ woman. I was ‘nice’ but that’s different. I was a stealthy doormat with an impressive repertoire of hiding in cupboards and running away when threatened and seething with resentment underneath.  I was also a bit of a trollop until I met Henry. Not a very successful trollop, to be honest; more of a would-be trollop really but there had been a fair amount of the floozy present. And now, after the feast, came the reckoning.

Henry Barley

Henry married me because of a hedgehog. I married him because of Steve Winwood.
I had long been cunning in my resistance to marriage, while believing all along that I wanted it.  With middle-class angst, too much puppy fat and enough training in not showing off to make me dull as ditchwater, I believed no one worth having would want me. I didn’t realise that my strategy of falling in love only with those who were unavailable was also an effective defence. I can’t say the men I languished over were commitment-phobes; most of them were seriously committed — committed that is to steam engines, amateur dramatics, their own reflection or their wife.
And yet, one day, at the age of 32, I found myself in the far reaches of China, being proposed to by an ordinary, unassuming, perfectly pleasant grey-haired man, nine years my senior, whom I’d met just seven days before. He had never even kissed me and I’d not looked at him twice (apart from asking him to lend me the money to buy a hedgehog).
We were in the far north east of China to make a documentary and he had just been out late that night to record something known as ‘wild track’ – ambient sound for editing into a documentary.
I heard him come in at about 9pm and took him a mug of cocoa — because I was nice, that’s all. I’d have done it for any of the crew. It was sub-zero outside; there was no heating in the motel and I’d travelled in China for long enough in the 1980s to know that sachets of hot chocolate were a survival aid, not a luxury. You could activate them with the constantly-present thermos of hot water left in every room for the ubiquitous tea.
Politely, I knocked on his door and waited.
He opened it, looked understandably surprised; accepted the metal mug and asked me in.
I went, diffidently. He asked me some questions about myself and indicated that I should sit down so I perched politely on the end of the single bed.
He said ‘thank you for the cocoa.’ And then said something weird that I didn’t catch about the rest of his life.
I said, ‘What?’
‘I’m asking you to marry me,’ he said.
In north-east China in 1988, there were no mobile phones, no email, no social networks and no normal telephones which I could have used to bolster up my defences by phoning a friend. I was as far out of my comfort zone as I possibly could be, filming a TV documentary with a herd of strangers who expected me to know what I was doing when I didn’t. I was cold, tired, terrified, disorientated, lost, lonely and out of barriers.
So I said, ‘Perhaps.’ That was because I was nice. It seemed rude to say ‘You must be out of your tiny mind!’ to someone who was either being very kind or who genuinely was out of their mind.
‘Excuse me, I have to go now,’ I added, politely and got up.
He nodded, smiled and opened the door for me.
Yes, I did look back down the corridor when I got to my room to see if he was watching me. He wasn’t.
I didn’t have any experience of marriage proposals and I was more perplexed than anything. I slept perfectly well until about 6am and then was wide-awake for no obvious reason. It wasn’t the light; that morning was dull and overcast. It wasn’t the birdsong; you don’t get much birdsong when the local population has eaten all the birds. I had politely eaten sparrows on many previous visits to China though I never managed to cope with sucking out their brains bit which was, according to my interpreter, a delicacy.
It was murky and cold so I clambered into every layer of clothing I could find and went out, as bulky as the Michelin Man, for a walk in the birches and aspens of Jilin Province. We were filming at a forestry railway at Shan He Tung and staying in temporary rooms that the lumbermen and railwaymen used while they were chopping trees, replanting and extending the line.
It was only very early autumn but already the trees were mottled with gold and we were high enough for the sun to be rising across the valley below me. It was not going to be a particularly dramatic sunrise; there was too much cloud and the sky was dull grey rather than silver. I walked, my mind full of that day’s filming and whether, as a first-time documentary director, I would be able to continue to fool the rest of the crew that I knew what I was doing. I wasn’t thinking about Henry’s proposal — in the cold light of day, that was plainly ridiculous. But I did have my Walkman on, mostly because the aforementioned lack of birdsong was rather depressing.
Once I was warm enough, I stopped walking and sat down on a log to watch the dawn. I changed the cassette and the introduction to the first track of the often-listened-to Arc of a Diver by Steve Winwood began to play in my headphones.
I put the previous cassette in the pocket of my anorak. And, as I did, I kid you not; a tiny sunbeam broke from the dark clouds and flowed across the fingers holding the cassette recorder. As I looked down at the unexpected warmth, it began to expand, widening until the light shone right into my eyes, making me screen them with my hand.
I stood up, the better to see the emerging dawn and, as I did, Steve began to sing:
‘Stand up in a clear blue morning, until you see what can be. Alone in a cold day dawning, are you still free? Can you be?


‘When some cold tomorrow finds you; when some sad old dream reminds you; how the endless road unwinds you. While you see a chance take it. Find romance, fake it. Because it's all on you.’
‘It’s not a clear, blue morning,’ said the critic. ‘You couldn’t be that stupid!’ it added as my thoughts turned to Henry Barley, still asleep in the basic accommodation below. But I knew, I knew that Nemesis had found me. I knew that I would go back down that hill and say ‘yes’ to marriage to a man I barely knew and certainly didn’t love. It was time. It was time to surrender: to learn how to love a real human being and to learn how to be loved in return.
Henry and I were married four months later. And one year, sixteen days, eight hours and twenty three minutes later, I was a widow.


Returning to a Life of Miracles.

I began this blog several years ago to write stories of my life of miracles. Over time it got diverted into writing articles on prosperity consciousness but, this year, I'm being brave.  I'm going to return to writing stories of my life.


Even more, I'm writing my memoir of a Life of Miracles.


I told one of my best friends this, yesterday, and she said, 'Why?' She genuinely couldn't see the point.


Ten years ago my (now ex) agent said, 'Nobody wants to hear about you dear.'


Well, it doesn't matter if they don't want to hear, because I have a voice and I've realised that I want to speak. We all have a voice and we all have a right to speak. It is in the speaking that the power resides and it is in the overcoming what they think that we can begin to thrive.


I want to talk about being engaged at 32 and widowed at 33. I want to talk about having a life-changing encounter with a giant barracuda. I want to talk about riding on the back of a Bengal tiger. I want to talk about emigrating to Montana for a whole 11 months and being the first person in the world legally to get a dog from the USA to the UK without quarantine.


I want to talk about giving up my home and losing all my money, about working through debt, getting through divorce, loving again and about learning to round myself out and owning myself. I want to be amazed at all the miracles (and tragedies) of my life and to share them with anyone who might just want to hear about me.


And I want to talk about God. And how, in the midst of tragedy, dispossession and grief, I knew that I was going to find God, nail His shoes to the floor and ask Him what he meant by it all. I had to understand why and how all this made sense. 


I am not going to blame, bitch or push against. It is what it is and it's wonderfully okay.


If you want to join me, you'll be very welcome. But I'm going to write it anyway.