At last, my annus horribilis is coming to an end

Jill and me during a visit to Jerusalem

I make no claim to be a prophet, but this time last year I made a prediction that, within days, was to become chillingly true. On Facebook and Twitter, I wrote: “2017: If you thought 2016 was bad, you ain’t seen nothing yet.” This was a sentence that haunted me all year: three days later, on 3 January, my wife Jill was rushed into hospital after collapsing. She had suffered a stroke – a subarachnoid haemorrhage. She died two days later without regaining consciousness. The remainder of 2017 has been awful. My own personal annus horribilis. I can’t wait to see the back of it.

Don’t get me wrong: there were some good points to the year: and without fail, they all had one thing in common: the love, the care, and the compassion shown to me by members of my family, my friends, and even strangers – and especially strangers who became friends.

Jilly and I started the year wondering where we would be at year’s end. We had moved around a lot in the first half of our marriage: Tavistock (two addresses), Telford (two addresses), Laindon, Upminster, Liverpool, Walsall, Coventry, Wapping, Stafford and now Hednesford. We had always said that we wouldn’t move house after our eldest son had started secondary school until our youngest had left. We knew that this commitment would come to an end this September when our youngest son started university.

Jilly and I didn’t get much further than saying the type of place we wanted to move to. We would need to be able to get to London easily, so major road and rail networks were in play. We wanted to live near the coast. We wanted somewhere in the countryside. We wanted somewhere not too isolated. We needed to be near a major hospital. We put a few places in the mix – but didn’t get anywhere near a shortlist.

Jilly and I had lived in Hednesford longer than anywhere else. But it is the place that least feels like home. Until this year. Now, the idea of moving no longer appeals. It isn’t just because here is where I have so many memories; it is also because planning for the future now meant planning for a future without Jilly, I know that my future is without her. But facing that, and planning for it, are two different things. I can face up to the first; I struggled with the second.

Fortunately, my sister-in-law and niece have moved in; and I’ve made a new commitment: I won’t move out now until my niece has finished school. In the long-term, this gives me the space to organise Jill’s “stuff” without urgent pressure of time. In the short-term, though, it was an absolute life-saver: Jilly was such a big part of me that when she died, so much of me did too. I had no reason to live. I had no reason to be.

I could quite easily have spent days-on-end lying in bed wasting away. But I couldn’t. I had to get up: when my sister-in-law was away visiting her boyfriend, I was responsible for looking after my niece. Getting breakfast ready, doing the school runs, and organising supper are small things: but things that meant I had to get up. I had to be responsible. I had something to do.
In return, I had company: this was especially important in the early part of the year when Myles was still in Hong Kong, Rory was back in Sunderland, and Fergus was busy finalising his studies. That company helped to get me through the year. It is not an exaggeration to say that without that, and without the love and care that they and so many other people have shown to me, I really do not think that I would be here today.

We are in the middle of a difficult few weeks. Firstly, it was Christmas – those of you who knew Jilly know how important Christmas was for her. She made a very big effort at Christmas. It was the highlight of the year. And facing Christmas without her has been hard. Or rather looking ahead to Christmas was hard. We actually had two Christmases: one at home with the lads, my sister-in-law and niece on Saturday 23 December; and one at my sister’s house in Lincolnshire with my other sister, my mum and a good number of nephews and nieces – and even my newest great-niece.

This coming week is the first anniversary of Jill’s collapse and death. And the following week it would have been her birthday. Difficult days indeed.

The reality is that the fear of these big “events” has been far more debilitating than the events themselves. Possibly because the fear is that strong that whatever happened on the day couldn’t be as bad as the fearsome predictions had been. And the reality was that I was never alone during them: no matter how much I often felt alone throughout the year.

And now here we are on the eve of a new year. 2017 and all that it bought is nearly behind us. It is a year that I want to forget. It is a year I will never forget.

A friend of mine, Mandy Stubbs, lost her beautiful daughter Hannah a couple of years ago. Today, she shared on Facebook a link to a blog on Huffington Post by Rhonda O’Neill about coping with grief. Mandy quoted these words by O’Neill: “Finding joy in life again doesn’t mean you will ever forget your loved one. It does mean that you honour the place they had in your life and the love you shared…allowing love and loss to walk side by side into 2018. Pain and loss will change you, but they don’t have to define you.

Those words struck a very deep chord with me this afternoon when I read them. My wife had suffered an horrific attack in March 1986 – before I met her. It was to be a catalyst for a life spent helping victims of rape and sexual violence. The attack changed Jilly; and it shaped the course and direction of her life. Yet the attack didn’t define her. She was defined by the joy she bought others; not the pain that she herself went through.

That’s a powerful message for me. This year, I have been defined by losing Jill. It has more than changed me. The loss was me. But now, as we approach 2018, I can once more look ahead.

It is difficult, still, to plan for the future. But now, at least, I know I have a future. This month I started a new job. It is actually work that I have been doing on-and-off since 2011. But now I am doing it as a full-time employee rather than a self-employed contractor. Being freelance has its advantages. But it also has disadvantages. One of those is that if you don’t work, you don’t get paid. And there have been entire months this year when I did no work at all – just one regular column. I couldn’t face doing anything more.

But I’m looking to the future with a positive mind. I’m not predicting that 2018 will be an annus mirabilis; but – let’s face it – it can’t be a worse year than this year.

The events of this year have taught me that you can’t predict what will happen tomorrow – even though my New Year’s Eve 2016 Tweet sounded very much like a prediction. All you can do is make the most of what you’ve got. And I’m going to do that.