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.