Learning from the past

Learning from the past

The night I met Mark

I have been asked in the past (often by people who thought they were being kind by showing interest) whether, if I knew that Mark was going to die, I would still have married him. On the surface it sounds like a ridiculous question – purely academic anyway, and far too close to just torturing yourself. But it is interesting to contemplate. And, although in our situation it was unforeseeable, sometimes people enter into relationships knowing that the person they are joining has a severely limited time on this planet. In every interview I have read about this sort of situation the individual left behind is unequivocal in their answer – they would fall in love all over again given the chance. They often mention things they would do differently – plan better for the end, fit in more adventures, have children earlier, not have children, care less about careers….. But they would choose that person over again if they could.

I would do the same. If someone had walked up to me at that house party and said “You see that man over there that you’re thinking about talking to? Well, you’re going to get married, have a baby, and 9 and a half years from now he’s going to die.” I would still walk over and introduce myself. I would still spend 6 hours laughing with him in our tiny student kitchen. I would still walk around Rome with him, taking in the epic history. I would still say yes when he asked me to marry him on the beach in Devon. I would still stand up in front of our friends and family and take our vows. I would still have his baby, even if I knew that he wouldn’t be around to see him grow up. I would do all those things; because the joy that he brought to my life was worth all of the pain and trauma that came afterwards. And, most importantly of all, Ethan is worth all of it and more. I would do it all again.

There are things that I would do differently. Things that I would encourage him to do differently. Some of them I have tried to weave into my life post-Mark – lessons learnt from mistakes made. I would have been more realistic about his chances of survival once he was diagnosed. We didn’t talk about him dying, because to mention it felt like we were giving up. But what that actually meant was we never said goodbye; and we didn’t plan for how he would say goodbye to Ethan, or what he would leave him. We didn’t talk about how much we would miss each other. The narrative of being in a battle against cancer often leads people to think stoicism is more important than being emotionally present. There were days when I spent too much time focusing solely on the practical task in front of me and not how devastated the whole situation made me feel. I didn’t want to be the weak link in the chain, or the reason Mark gave up hope. So much energy was wasted on powering through and being positive, and not enough spent on being honest with each other.

So there we are.  On my darkest days, especially since I got pregnant, my mind wanders to what would happen if Nick died. Part of my brain almost assumes that this will happen as this is all my experience. I imagine being left with a 10 year old and a 2 year old, having to go through the whole process again. I almost can’t comprehend a man sticking around for the entire thing. Near the beginning of our relationship this coloured the language I used and the emotions I let myself feel. I couldn’t say that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him as I honestly believed that he would die way before me. That is a messed up thing to write down, but that’s where my head was (and sometimes still is).

But even if the worst were to happen once more, I would do it all over again. I would take the first – terrifying – step sat on Susan’s sofa, hitting the upload button on my Match.com profile. I would wait in the freezing cold outside the Town Hall to meet the stranger I’d only texted. I would open up my home, my life, my tiny family to this quiet, adventure-grabbing man. I would lay bare the effects that trauma has had on my psyche, and I would struggle to create an atmosphere where there was room for both men, past and present. I would say yes to the magical proposal at the end of a 20km uphill bike ride next to a lighthouse. I would promise to build a life with him in front of all our friends and family at our very own festival, with children running around sticky with ice lollies and apple juice. I would have his baby, and watch him grow even more as a father than he had already. I would do all these things again – even if the worst happened – because life is short.

Life is short, and you never know how long you will have it for. So I will grasp every opportunity for love, joy and connection. I want to experience life and adventures. I want to enjoy my weekends instead of worrying about mortgages and pension plans and “working hard now so we can enjoy it later”. Mark’s entire psyche was overwhelmed by the need to be prepared for the future – to be responsible adults who overpaid into our pensions and scrimped and saved to get a good mortgage rate, and worked very long hours so that he would get promoted and retire early to spend time with his family. But he put in all the hard work and never got to enjoy the reward. I’m not saying his life was miserable drudgery, but his focus was the future, at the expense of the present. Near the end he said that, if he’d known what was going to happen, he would have worried less about his pension and more about the experiences he was having. He would have bought a little sports car, come home earlier and given Ethan tea, had more lie-ins. And eaten more cheeseburgers.

So my head is a messed up place, with regrets and weird connections and assumptions that probably bear no relation to what is actually likely to happen. But that is why I  use the best china, wear my dry clean only clothes, drink the good wine, go to the concerts and the festivals, go to friends’ houses for lunch and end up staying until the following evening, regardless of how much washing needs doing, have pyjama days with Ethan – and now Erica – snuggled on the sofa, make life NOW worth living, and worth remembering – however long we get to be here.

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