There are two lives buried inside a box in my attic – Jennifer’s and mine – where dozens of diaries lie all jumbled together, a medley of words from our past. Hand-written notes about everyday happenings. Innermost feelings about life and death, love and hate, ambition and uncertainty. A diary exposes you to yourself.
Could I ever publish them, I wondered, after spending the morning leafing through mine and then hers. The answer was and is an emphatic no. The outside world has no business reading the thoughts and feelings that were once committed to paper. I make an exception for the following passage, dated 15 April 1994:
It happened again tonight, a maddening thought that unleashed a paranoid storm inside my skull. I’m walking down the street hand in hand with Jennifer. We’ve just rented a movie at the video shop and we’re heading home. It’s already dark when we step off the curb, and we have to hurry because an oncoming car is apparently not planning to slow down. I walk faster, pulling Jenn along with me, when an image shoots into my head: she’s going to be knocked down and killed. It was like reading about an accident in the paper: a shudder goes through your body, but then you quickly move on to the personals column. We made it to the other side, but I couldn’t get the image of my dead girlfriend out of my head. I went to pieces, totally panicked. I grabbed Jennifer, who had no idea what was going on, and held her close for half a minute or so. ‘Don’t say anything,’ I whispered. ‘Don’t say anything. I love you.’
Those were almost the same words I spoke sixteen years later, when Jennifer was lying in a hospital bed, moaning softly. ‘Don’t try to talk. Stay calm. I love you.’ She’d been knocked down by a motorcycle cop who’d run a red light. She had a severe concussion and a basal skull fracture. She couldn’t remember anything about the accident except that she’d been in the crosswalk and the light was green.
To be on the safe side, she was taken to the medium-care unit of the neurology department. They said everything was going to be okay. But everything was not okay. Jennifer had suffered a brain hemorrhage, gone into a coma, and never woken up. From one minute to the next she was gone and I was left behind in a daze, together with my sons Sander (12) and Eamonn (9).
From the very beginning I told myself: just keep going. And start writing again. Jennifer had written in her diary almost every day since we’d been together, but I’d long since given up. I’d become too busy. Too hassled to make time for reflection. My life as a foreign journalist, father and husband (in that order) had been a continuous pursuit of interesting adventures in various parts of the world. Jennifer was a working mother who had seemed totally content with her life, while mine was governed by impatience.
All that changed after her death. Totally. For now there was plenty of time as for now there wasn’t work. But my peace of mind was gone. Our life had been turned upside down. Sander, Eamonn and I were on a roller coaster that sent us off in all directions at once, sometimes it hung treacherously long in the air before plunging towards the ground at breakneck speed, hurling us up and down, left and right, backwards and forwards. Over and over and over again. After that emotional ‘first year’ that people refer to so sanctimoniously, the roller coaster hurtles onward. The only difference being that now we have some idea of where it’s heading and have some control over the speed. We are still taken unawares by the sudden changes of tack and the unexpected relapses – those moments when the ground drops away from under our feet.
‘You’re looking good,’ people start remarking, after seven or eight months which I took as visible proof that I must be feeling better. If friends and family members say so, then it must be true. Apparently I’d looked rather unsavory during the first six months when as a widower in mourning I’d seen my sorry state confirmed in the mirror: the ashen complexion, the tense look, the eyes sometimes sad, but more often restless and despairing. What do you do with such a sadsack? Let him get on with it? Give him some space? There was no one who knew, least of all me.
If I wanted to get on with my life, I’d have to find a way to survive and to convince the boys that we are NOT going to give in to the incredible misery that we are going through. Day in, day out. From that moment in the hospital when I took Eamonn in my lap and put my arm around Sander, it had become crystal clear. That one sentence, ‘I am so sorry to have to tell you that Mom isn’t going to wake up’, held the solemn promise that they could count on me. Unconditionally and forever.
Of course, it goes without saying that I’d already understood that on the day they were born. As a father, you will willingly go through hell for your children. If someone said to me ‘it’s you or them’, I would give my life for them. Literally and without a moment’s hesitation. However, this was different and Jennifer’s death became my life’s work. It is a biological automatism that within the family circle the person you go to first is your mother. Jenn could deal with a skinned knee or banish sad thoughts with a big hug. She knew that sweet apples unlike sour apples should be cut into slices and not chunks, and made excuses for Dad, who’d gone and done something stupid again.
I would rather have died myself instead of Jennifer. That thought has been going through my head for the past year. Wouldn’t it have been better for the children if they had lost their father instead of their mother? Probably. But it is not ours to choose.
In any case, I already knew from experience what it was like to lose a parent at a young age. My father had died when I was not quite 13. It was a blessing in disguise, I often say, and not even facetiously as it became one of those significant lessons from life. Some thirty years later I was confronted with what had or had not changed when it came to coping with bereavement. Actually, it would seem very little has. I soon returned to school, seldom talked about my father, and only cried once in a while. Oh, and yes, my father was in heaven, which meant that death isn’t all bad, as our parish priest had impressed upon us. Now, on October 22, 2009, one might have said that I was steeled to embark on a new phase of life.
I survived that week on pure adrenaline: the accident, Jenn’s death, the hospital, cremation arrangements, spending time with her family, the viewing, the cremation, the reception, seeing the American relatives off, and all the while keeping a close eye on the boys. They seemed to be doing all right, enjoying the attention they were receiving from their grandparents and four uncles. I remembered that it had been like that when my father died and we saw all our relatives at once.
For the three of us, life got back to ‘normal’ on Monday, the second of November. The grandparents had flown back to the States and the boys were at school. I sat down at the dining room table. Wherever I looked, there were flowers and cards. Alongside them, a memo pad with my hastily scribbled notes (see: the accident) about the cremation, the police, the motor cop, the lawyer I had to hire, the telephone numbers and email addresses of her friends who had to be notified. An almost endless list of things I mustn’t forget.
But which I did forget. I can’t count the number of times I walked into a room and couldn’t remember what I’d come in for, after which I started on a different chore that minutes later was exchanged for yet a new task. I was forever busy, but accomplished nothing. If someone asked me what I’d done all day, I couldn’t remember, no matter how hard I tried which is why I feverishly made a note of every phone call, every visitor, and every incident – all for fear of losing my mind. Jennifer had the memory of an elephant, while mine was more like a sieve. Sitting there at the table, I caught sight of her diary, on top of her closed laptop, which was still on. The boys didn’t feel right about turning it off. The reality of her death had still not registered with us. Hadn’t she sat there on the couch the morning of the accident, writing in her diary? So, how did we know that she wouldn’t come back next week? All her things were still there, waiting for that moment. Or so we told ourselves.
I toyed briefly with the idea of looking in her diary, but I banished the thought. There would be time enough later, if I could even bring myself to read it. Right now I felt it would be almost sacrilege. I’d do better to record some of my own thoughts. That first day, sitting at the dining room table. How I felt. How the boys and I expressed our shock, anger, grief, and depression so that later we could look back on a year of tears and laughter.
Now, twelve months later, I can say, in all honesty, that it was probably the most precious year in our lives. That sounds terrible, and naturally we all wish that none of it had happened. Jennifer should have been able to re-cross the street and then catch up with her boys and the dog in the park. That fatal fraction of a second should never have happened. But it did happen, and Jenn paid with her life. Since that moment, the three of us have lived life more intensely than ever before.
I still find it impossible to explain to the children and myself why she died. I will probably never be able to come to terms with her death; but, we have been able believe it. We had no choice. Every day was and is a day without her, and in the beginning that realization was excruciating. We refused to believe it. But gradually there comes a day when you acknowledge her absence and that new reality takes root. The loss and the pain gradually lessen, but they will never go away. One day it’s a nagging wound that refuses to heal, the next day it’s a sudden stab in the heart. I’ve slowly learned to embrace those symptoms. They are part of the process, now and in the future. In a sense it’s a comforting prospect and anyone who has felt the same pain will know what I mean.
I wrote this diary mainly for myself. To get it out of my system. The first four months I wrote in long-hand, usually in English. I found it hard to write with a computer screen in front of me. The letters began to dance around. Pen and paper were patient and more conducive to my thoughts. Words flowed from my fingers. I never had to stop and think. Because I’d lived in the United States and England for fourteen years and Jennifer and I spoke English at home, that was the only language in which I could formulate my thoughts. Especially when I was writing about emotions. When I was describing grief and anger, I wrote in English. If I wanted to make a note of something practical, Dutch worked better.
There were frustrations in both languages. In the months that followed Jennifer’s death, anger, desperation, fear, and despair formed a kind of minefield, which I seldom managed to navigate safely. Most of the time you fall headlong into the crap that has become your life. But you manage to get back on your feet in spite of or maybe because of those frustrations. That is one of the things that make mourning so universal and so recognizable, and what made me decide to publish my diary.
Last summer I translated some of the English passages, but I’ve not rewritten anything. The text of this diary is what I was feeling then and wrote down. No topics were off limits. Death is a son of a bitch, I wrote somewhere. Yet, at some point we mortals must come to terms with death, no matter how unfair it is. It makes no difference whether it’s the death of a father at the end of a long and happy life, surrounded by his children, or a baby daughter three days after her premature birth. Dead is dead. The bereaved must move on.
In the Netherlands, some 18,000 men per year become widowers. All of them will have to regain their grip on life and find a way to function as a man alone, perhaps as a single dad. For me, it was a search without a guide. I felt my way, playing it by ear. After about six months, most of my friends and colleagues had heard enough from the usually agreeable but occasionally difficult widower, who on any given day may or may not want to talk about his loss. For the most part he is inaccessible, and even when you do get through to him, he may be totally unpredictable. Not to mention the tears. Men aren’t supposed to cry. My brief retort: bullshit! This book is not intended as a guide for recent widowers. If just one day plucked from this book provides a flash of recognition, then that is the support I offer. That first year was much more than crying lonely tears or throwing in the towel. In fact, Jennifer’s death made me want to live.
Mourning is a necessary evil. All the experts I consulted were clear on that point. But it wasn’t brought home to me until I actively gave myself over to the process. We took our time, the boys and I, following our hearts and we didn’t complain when it all got to be too much. In the psychology of mourning there are five stages the bereaved must go through: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In the past year, we worked our way through all those stages. Not necessarily in that order, since there is a certain overlap and sometimes we didn’t actually recognize a stage as such. We did what seemed to come naturally. We cried and laughed, lashed out and hugged each other, or did nothing and could still take on the world. The most precious moments were those when we were able to fight our deepest despair with laughter. Those were tears of love. Sander, Eamonn and I will always be grateful to our dear Jennifer for those moments.
Amsterdam, The Netherlands, October 25, 2010