You would think, wouldn’t you, that if your partner had died, the last thing you’d want to read about is someone else who’s been widowed, but in fact it is strangely interesting. Mostly to be consoled by the fact that grief is a rocky road and we all navigate it differently. Hence the subtitle to ‘Being Adam Golightly – One man’s bumpy voyage to the other side of grief.’ I know it makes it sound like crossing the A34 on a busy Friday, but it does avoid saying that this is a ‘journey’. Because I can assure you, no one wants to buy a ticket for that particular cliché.
Adam Golightly is a pseudonym: the author of the book wrote a regular column for ‘The Guardian’, in which he shared his experiences as ‘The Widower of the Parish‘.
Adam’s children are aged 10 and 14 when their Mum dies, so he has to step up to parenting on his own. I got the impression he was a pretty hands-on dad anyway, it isn’t as if he needs to read the instruction manual for the toaster, but there are nevertheless practical challenges. Ballet shoe ribbons and alcohol for teenage parties provide more of a learning opportunity. But the widower’s relationship with his children is honest and open, with lots of moments of humour as well as sadness.
Within the book, which reflects on the past as well as dealing with the present and looking to the future, the author tackles lots of the practical aspects as well as some of the more emotional ones: collecting ashes and what to do with them, money worries, drinking too much, whether to wear a wedding ring, dating and socialising, going back to work. He finds having a pet around the place comforting and faces the first Christmas. I particularly identified with the way Adam describes Helen’s possessions as ‘portkeys’, seemingly random objects which have the ability to transport him to another place or time in memory.
Golightly is a funny, charming and insightful narrator and were many times during the book that I found myself nodding in agreement and recognition. It made me feel part of something bigger than my own experience, which I found comforting. Which led me to think about what the appeal of the book might be to those readers who haven’t had their spouse die of ‘fucking cancer‘ (Adam’s words, not mine. Although I wholeheartedly endorse the sentiment) or anything else. I’m not a fan of ‘Dos and Don’ts’ which prescribe how to talk to a bereaved friend – there are so many variables and what might make one person cringe is another’s solace. But this book is a gentle insight into what might be going on in our lives, or minds. However, if you are looking for help tailoring pointe shoe tapes, don’t go here – Adam stabs himself in the thigh with a needle!
Having a dead wife is not funny. I mean, even I can see that the opportunities to extract humour from being a widower are extremely limited. Which makes ‘The Owl at the Window’ extraordinary. Carl Gorham writes with such under-stated proficiency (he is the creator of ‘Stressed Eric’ and his credentials as a wordsmith are not in question) that his book drew me in and made me laugh as well as weep.
The autobiography chronicles the author’s relationship with his wife, Vikki, from their meeting at University to her untimely death from cancer. Beginning at Oxford where the couple were undergraduates, to courtship, marriage and successful careers, Carl and Vikki seem to have a charmed life. He is prattling on about an exciting job prospect when Vikki drops the bombshell that she has discovered a breast lump. Through the diagnosis of cancer, chemotherapy, then six years of bi-annual checks and yearly scans, I was willing Vikki to beat the big C. But of course we know the ending of the book; it’s written on the (beautiful) cover. The re-appearance of the disease and Vikki’s death is related through a series of flash-backs, alternating between Carl’s panic and the re-emergence of hope. I felt slightly guilty about giggling at some parts (Cardboard Mummy in particular), and I cried lots of times (his daughter’s memory Box and an imaginary telephone call both reduced me to tears). But no-one wants to read about unremitting despair. Gorham is smart, he knows that for sure.
Despite the sadness of Carl’s experience, this is not a sad book. The author examines bereavement and grief with an honesty and self-deprecating humour which is inspiring. There is no bitterness, no ‘why me?’ but instead an acceptance that shit happens. And sometimes it’s really bad shit, like your wife dying of cancer, so you have to just keep going.
I’m not sure whether it is a good thing that this has been my first review of 2017. On the one hand, I have 11 months to tell people about ‘The Owl at the Window’. On the other, the bar has been set rather high for remaining 49 books of my year.
Still on the death theme after ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes‘, I chanced upon Lucie Brownlee’s autobiographical account of her life after her husband died suddenly, leaving Lucie and their small daughter bereft. To start with, the author is writing from a position of disbelief; staring at her husband’s coffin at the funeral, Lucie can’t believe who is inside it. The realisation of the permanency of her separation from Mark is a slow, painful dawning. With the new knowledge comes acceptance and hope.
The situation when my partner died suddenly was not the same as Lucie’s; we had been together only a few years and the child who lived with us was his, but not mine. Nevertheless, I found myself scouring the pages of ‘Life After You’ for common ground. There seems to be comfort in knowing that your own experiences have echoes of others’. Grief is a personal, private affair with no blueprint but I recognised Lucie’s behaviours as she struggled on. Anxiety, panic attacks, crying in public, visiting a clairvoyant, a tentative and wholly unsuitable relationship just to prove you can get back on the bike, so to speak. And the drinking. Oh yes, the drinking. It’s not cool and it’s not funny to be so drunk you can’t stand up and fall asleep in your clothes, the wise-mummy now tells her teenagers. But in the early days of grief, the mind-numbing relief to be found in the bottom of a bottle sometimes feels like the only way to get through the next few hours.
Having your husband die on you is clearly not funny, yet ‘Life After You‘ is shot through with a gentle humour which endeared me to the author and her situation. The tone of the book is frank, matter-of-fact and I laughed, and cried quite a lot as well.
Now I have finished ‘Life After You‘ I am reflecting upon the fact that there are very few people to whom I would recommend it. Not because of the quality of writing, which is insightful and poignant, but because of the subject matter. All I can think is that if you have a friend or acquaintance who has been suddenly widowed, this book will give you a little window into their world. Knowledge which would be invaluable should you be unfortunate enough to ever need it. Because if there is one thing I learned from my bereavement is that what gives strength is the people around us and what remains. Not what has gone.