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I don’t know where he is

March 2, 2015

It was the second placement of my training: male medical at the old Northern General in Sheffield. In a side room, I and another student carefully listed the deceased’s property and put it into bags – we were the juniors; we expected the menial jobs. In life, he’d seemed a diffident man, resignedly expiring from accidents of time and place – lung disease brought on by smoking or heavy industry or a combination of the two. Spent his last days gasping for air. Reaching inside the bedside locker, I pulled out a small glass bottle half full of yellowy liquid. ‘Hair Tonic’ said the label. Something broke inside me.


I don’t know why such a simple thing affected me so deeply; I remember it to this day, nearly thirty years on. I think it was the pity of understanding that a poor small thing – nice hair – had mattered to this man, mattered enough for him to spend money on something he thought might help. I wondered if his family used to joke about it: “Whatever you do, don’t tell Gramps he’s going thin on top!”; or if it was a shy secret, shared unwittingly with me alone. Such innocent vanity. Such innocent pleasures. Do they endure in some place beyond our knowing? Or are they gone for ever now the soul has fled?


Like shells from which the bird has not just hatched, but flown clean away, my husband’s life surrounds me now as discarded remains. His many hobbies and enthusiasms – some lifelong, some fleeting – are imprinted on the books, the music, the photos and the odd bits of equipment that line the shelves and spill out over the floor. The time he took up juggling; the time he learned the flags of every nation; the time he realised that the shapes that swooped around the house at twilight were not birds, but bats. Like a bloke, he went out and bought a gadget – a bat detector to convert their calls into audible frequencies, so we’d know which species they were: soprano pipistrelle, it turned out. The detector is still in the kitchen. It’s my husband who’s gone. He died last month.


I can’t take in that this is for ever; he was just here…how can it be? I’ll never tell him any more what dumb thing happened at work. I’ll never throw my head back any more and laugh – laugh with that unselfconscious abandon that exists between husband and wife – at the funny things he’s told me. I don’t even know if I’m the same person now, without his humour to shape me. That part of me that was also him is a joyful face no longer, but a yearning, weeping wound.


Slipper-socks. They were our last big joke. You know what I mean – those thick socks with rubber treads that get dished out to risk-prone elders who haven’t organised their own inpatient footwear. I told him to look out for them when he was in hospital, but he said he hadn’t seen any – until we were alone on the corridor one night and he proudly revealed (he must have been saving it up) that the patient opposite had been ‘sporting them splendidly’: enthroned in his bedside chair, superb in scarlet slipper-socks – and nothing else. He laughed and laughed. And I – freed for once from professional po-facedness – laughed too. I don’t regret it.


Because he died a young man’s death, there weren’t any slipper-socks in the carrier bag I brought home after. Just another pile of banalities – pyjamas, pants, a pen – to add to the rest. I don’t know what to do with it. Is it living testament to the person he was? Or is it, without his expert hands to hold it and appraising eyes to see it, as dead as he is? Is he lingering, perhaps, within these things that daily told him who he was? No. I can’t find him.


I can’t find him. I don’t know where he is. Is he playing his guitar in that place beyond the clouds, whole again, and happy? Is he right here in this room, a hair’s breadth away but invisible, even to eyes focussed by love? Or is he…nowhere – just black, oblivious nothing that never ends? I don’t know where he is. I don’t know where he is. How could he do this? I thought marriage was for sharing; but now he knows what I cannot.


The days are lengthening. Every night, you sense it more. Soon the better weather will arrive, and I will sit in the garden. It pains me beyond words that he won’t see another spring. He won’t hear the birds. He won’t feel the sun. He won’t share the joy the yearly miracle brings, nor do those mundane suburban chores he took such pride in: mowing the lawn, and inhaling that first sweet cut with its scent like ice cream; pruning the hedge; cleaning the patio. A summer without promise of warmth. He’s all around me. But I don’t know where he is.


From → Odd and Ends

  1. lesley58 permalink

    I am so sorry. Such an unbearable pain.

  2. Deborah Glover permalink

    Dear GA, I’m speechless. What a profoundly moving piece. Thoughts are with you. Deborah and PCNR

  3. Andree le May permalink

    Grumbling Appendix – whilst I read your blogs regularly I don’t know you personally but want to say how sorry (an inadequate word I’m afraid) I am that you are going through this sad time. Your words are a poignant but beautiful tribute to your husband and your shared life as well as a reminder to all us nurses of the intimacy of life and death that we must honour. Goldielym

  4. Lynne permalink

    I read about your loss with tears in my eyes. You must be feeling incredibly lost and no words I can say feel appropriate except thank-you for sharing where you are right now. Xx

  5. junegirvin permalink

    Oh you poor darling. Unmaginable feelings. I hope your blogging helps – we are all here, listening,

  6. Your beautiful words of love, companionship, and loss brought so many memories. The ones you think leave you never really do; they just abide in another form. You touched my heart, made it stop for a moment, and now the beat goes on. You do know where he is, just feel your pulse.

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