Anniversaries can stir up so many emotions and reminders of time passing by. In a new letter written to her late husband John, co-author of Good Grief Anne Mayer Bird writes about the one-year anniversary of her son-in-law Andy Gill’s passing and how the world continues to change.
1 February 2021
I try to write to you on days which have some significance, and today it is one year since Andy died. When I say Andy died, unlike you, who drifted away from us, Andy was on life support and had been for a week. Catherine, all alone, had to agree to the medics at St. Thomas’s Hospital turning off the machine which was keeping him “alive”, but he had already left her. That trauma will haunt her forever, not least because there have been a few miracle survivals by older people who had not been expected to live and did. We keep reassuring her that Andy would never have returned but it will, for her, remain an unanswerable question. On her birthday, a couple of weeks ago, Catherine turned 60.
Catherine and I continue to see each other every Sunday to do chores both in the house and on the computer. We are doing quite a few interviews for the book; I know how proud you would be. And people respond, which means I hear from old friends and new and have become a bit of an unofficial agony aunt/bereavement counsellor. A lovely thing happened today. Ian took me in “our” car to do a big Sainsbury shop, only my second since all the lockdowns began last March. As I was wheeling my trolley to the checkout, I spotted Linda, that older checkout lady who used to be so nice to us. She said to me “I can still see your lovely husband waiting in his wheelchair with that wonderful smile”; I resisted the impulse to burst into tears and thanked her most sincerely for remembering you. She replied “we see hundreds of people but your husband was special.” Indeed you were.
The other thing which happened over the weekend was a LONG email from your brother in Singapore. That generous cheque which you sent to both your siblings only a couple of weeks before you died apparently arrived with your sister but not your brother. They were moving at the time and only a few days ago did the new people in his old house ask him to collect some “stuff in the shed” amongst which was your Christmas card and the cheque. The cheque is obviously no longer viable and as I cannot get the money to him via probate, I will donate it from my own personal account as I know you wanted him to have it.
As I always do in these letters, I will have a quick run through what is going on in the world. In this country we have the strange honour of having vaccinated more people more quickly than anywhere certainly in Europe but also have more Covid deaths, more than 100,000 and mounting steeply as new variants from, so far, South Africa, Brazil and Portugal have crept in and are much more contagious than the earlier one. No end in sight for lockdown restrictions. Joe Biden has taken over in the USA and is trying to restore some sort of humanity and order there even as Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial begins today in the Senate.
The military in Myanmar have put Aung San Suu Kyi back into house arrest and taken over again; the country has ended its go at democracy. Of course I spent a lot of today recalling our wonderful trip there in 2013 and how hopeful everything seemed at that time. And the other entirely coincidental thing is that it was on the way to Burma, eight years ago today, that we stopped for a weekend in Singapore which saw the reunion of you, your brother and your sister for the first time in 50 years. We had seen them individually but not all three of you together. Early formality loosened up considerably and the end of the weekend saw a slightly drunken truth telling session which I will never forget. What a strange childhood you must have had when none of your memories matched up, as if you lived entirely different lives in the same houses and with the same parents. I do wonder if my brother and I would have stayed close, as all our daughters have done.
But in addition to mentioning the outside world, I mainly wanted to try to describe lockdown, which we have endured for nearly a year now. Even though my cage is not a prison cell but a beautiful house, a cage it is nonetheless. The combination of very foul weather (we just finished the coldest January in recent records) which makes it difficult to take walks or even want to go outdoors, and all the restrictions means that I spend 90% of every day alone and indoors. I am not in prison as I have choices, but I might be in a nunnery or very closed order of some sort.
It changes one, this life. You yearn for company and then find you cannot take it. Being with other people is quickly wearying and even phone calls are repetitive and stale. We ring each other to remind ourselves others are out there but have nothing to report. I use whatever strategies I can manage to keep me going but spent most of January not doing any of the extra creative things I want to get going on. The house is clean and so am I but there is still a load of offstage mess which needs sorting. I am watching too much television and Netflix but not reading enough, and certainly not enough brain stretching literature.
Catherine has taught several family members to cook while I am still relying heavily on her handouts. I do cook a bit but not adventurously. I have gained almost half a stone from inactivity but cannot be bothered to do much about it. My appetite for new experiences and skills seems to have died, or gone into temporary hibernation. I am not depressed but in a weird state where I feel almost cushioned from strong emotion. I try to think of something that would make me joyously happy but cannot even imagine what it would be.
But I still get up at 7 every day, get dressed, do the housework and make my to do list. I will not let go of the framework which has got me through almost 14 months alone – 15 months if you count the month you were in hospital in December 2019. But that very framework can also be a stumbling block; quite literally as I stumble up the stairs to go to bed every evening having spent a lonely evening with the television I often cannot remember what day or time of day it is. The hamster on a wheel analogy comes to me here; knowing he has to keep turning that wheel but not exactly why.
Once, and if ever, isolation ends I will re-plan your burial at Salisbury Cathedral. I can’t remember if I told you in my last letter that Salisbury Cathedral made itself available as a huge vaccination centre and then the two main organists took it in turn to play serious and beautiful liturgical music as people filed in for their jabs. I think only one other cathedral has done that but cannot remember which one it was.
And, finally, back to Andy. I adored him both as a wonderful son-in-law and husband to my daughter and as an extremely talented musician and creative person. But what linked you and him when you were both alive is that you both loved the Mayer family. I have probably said this in a previous letter and, if so, forgive me but as two very English men you took to our noisy circus ring with enthusiasm and love. You loved us all and we loved you back, which is one reason why Lise and Cassie will also be in tears today on the anniversary of Andy’s death and were, with Catherine, on yours.
Catherine A joined us on a recent family zoom for Catherine’s 60th birthday and she looks extremely well again after her bout of Covid. As does Keith, who peered over her shoulder before going off to ring his mother. Please do not worry about me; I have made it this far and won’t give up.
Anne Mayer Bird’s new book, ‘Good Grief: Embracing Life at a Time of Death’, co-written with her daughter Catherine Mayer, is out now. It’s available to buy from your local bookshop, Bookshop.org, Hive, Waterstones and Amazon.