When you are in the grips of grief your habitual behaviour persists – it’s what gets you through the days – but your habits change also.
For most of my life I read books. For education, and for pleasure. I read management professional books, I read history books, I read philosophy and science, I read fiction. I often read 3 – 4 books at the same time. I don’t think that is very efficient but it suited me to keep shifting from one genre to another.
And I read newspapers. It’s a habit I picked up from my parents. From as far back as I can remember we had the local newspaper delivered to the door – in the fifties and sixties that was the norm. What struck me as unusual was when we moved from Sudbury (The Star) to cosmopolitan Montreal in 1959 and two newspapers started coming to the house: The Gazette in the morning, and The Montreal Star in the evening. We moved to Welland Ontario and the newspapers became The Globe and Mail in the mornings and the Welland Tribune in the evenings. Then it was The Peterborough Examiner (again, though Robertson Davies no longer was the editor and didn’t live down the street from our house) and The Globe & Mail. I moved to Kingston and I began my own marriage to newspapers, The Globe was delivered to Leonard Hall in the morning and the Kingston Whig-Standard in the evenings. (I know this list grows tedious but let me just finish it up for the sake of completeness. Ottawa was the Globe and The Ottawa Citizen, then we moved to Oakville and we subscribed to the Globe in the morning and The Hamilton Spectator in the evening; (the Spectator because Oakville had no newspaper, and is located half way between Toronto and Hamilton; I hated the Toronto Star and the Spectator was a Southam Newspaper, it had a similar look and feel to the Ottawa Citizen.) Latterly I have dropped the Globe and Mail for The National Post, while the The Citizen gets thinner and thinner.)
Anyway, during my long absence from consciousness during ‘the fog’ I continued to read newspapers out of habit and a compulsion to be up on current events. It would take me hours as I would go back to those unread pages many times during the day. This stole time from the pile of unread books and made me feel guilty for the neglect. At least I rarely watched TV.
In this grief period I also read non-fiction, mostly everything I could put my hands on about grief, but I could not read fiction. Oddly. Many grievers read fiction to escape; I needed escape too, but more, I needed meaning.
In that first year of my grief journey I didn’t do much writing. Out of compulsion to finish I did publish The Hallelujah Chorus, but nothing new would come. My heart wasn’t in it, I didn’t have the creative energy nor the stamina to start another project.
In the final weeks of Marlene’s journey I was constantly frustrated with the pace and ineffectualness of the [Ontario] health system: too slow, too bureaucratic, too late. Much of this frustration was expressed in the newsletters I wrote to family and friends during Marlene’s journey. And I intended to write a polemic about our failed health system, and pour a dose of cold reality on all those Canadian dreamers who delude themselves into thinking ours is the best health care system in the world. It’s not. Or even if it is, it isn’t good enough.
But this little rage morphed into a different sort of story: I thought I should take Marlene’s journey with cancer and turn it into a biography of her life. Not just a personal family history project but a book that could provide value to any reader. It began to take shape in my mind in the last weeks of her life, or a little after. One of my neighbours, and latter-day companion, even suggested the name for this project: The Marlene Effect. I began to see the structure of the ‘book’: Living (Marlene’s history, but more importantly, Marlene’s gift); Living with Cancer (our journey to death); Living Again (my journey with grief and then Marlene’s gift sending me back into life). Good idea, difficult to do. Especially when I had barely the energy to focus on anything.
While I may have stopped writing in this distracted period, I didn’t stop thinking. In my mind I saw my identity transitioning to writer. I wanted to write. I had other stories in my head, and on my hard drive. I imagined that one day those would transfer to lulu.com’s servers.
But before I could write again, I needed to heal.
Amidst all this chaos and change, in my life and personal attachments, I was also faced with the problem of financing my future.
The usual sources of consulting income were failing me, and I hadn’t the energy to renew it at the previous pace. My pensions were inadequate. I may have fantasized about the artist’s life, but not the starving kind.
So I decided, in a very logical and rational way, that I had to take measures to consolidate my holdings and simplify and downsize.
Planner that I am I had actually thought a lot about what this should entail long before life itself forced me to act. Even before Marlene became afflicted we had talked about ‘downsizing’. We almost bought a lovely bungalow under construction in Kemptville, and got the financing approved to proceed. Marlene’s journey with cancer stopped that plan but the refinancing allowed us to live as fully as we could Marlene’s remaining years.
In the last year of Marlene’s journey I realized that, to keep ourselves financially afloat, we had to clear our debt and convert our equity in the family home into cash flow. I found a 12-story luxury apartment building under construction in Sandy Hill; the rent was outrageous but still less than the P.I.T I was paying monthly. The large 2-bedroom plus study flat was perfect. We toured the building; Marlene agreed this was a good solution, though too far from her kids who lived in the west end of Ottawa. ‘And’, she asked, ‘what will we do with the dogs in a fifth floor apartment?’ Hmmm, hadn’t thought of that. And she said, resignedly, ‘Doug, I don’t have the strength to manage such a move’. Of course.
A year later she died, but the debt had continued to accumulate. I resurrected the plan to sell the house and move to an apartment.
I also realized that with my AFS Consulting business languishing, I could no longer afford my downtown office. The solution was to close the office and consolidate in a home office.
Little did I realize I was also tampering yet again with my core identity. We are creatures of habit and we are especially attached to our own territory: house and office are core to our sense of self.
Should I have been piling on these additional changes in this long year of grief?