I think I’ll stop making rash promises because that last post was premature. Two years and three months premature to be precise. At the time, I really thought, no, scratch that, hoped, that I was up to writing again but looking back, I was still floundering, my pockets weighted down by stones of grief and bewilderment.
My memories of 2009 are hazy. One minute I was gulping down too-hot espresso that scorched the back of my throat while mentally running through a lesson plan and checking in the mirror for any stray wrinkles that had crept up overnight; the next, tears and snot were streaming down my face, and I was puking up baked-beans on toast (you can take the girl out of England...) on Mario and his new pinstripe suit as I listened to my mum telling me my brother had killed himself. I never really believed that life could shatter into a million, tiny pieces. But, as I found out at 8.23am on March 31st, 2009, it can. And it did.
How I got through the rest of 2009, I’m not too sure. For an ex-fashion and textile journalist, my wardrobe was appallingly uncoordinated. I just pulled on the first thing I picked up, ironed or not, washed or not, and didn’t bother to look in the mirror because I know I wouldn’t recognise the sad, bereft woman who stared back at me, her exhaustion accentuated by the huge, dark circles under her eyes and the bald patches where her hair had fallen out in clumps from the stress.
2010 carried on in much the same way, with me wobbling off to school in my mismatched clothes and students, parents and teachers doing their best to look after me. The caretakers at the state schools I was working in would cook nutritious food and make sure we had lunch together; parents would press homemade bread and biscuits into my hands, and students were unquestionably well-behaved, sensing that all of my energy was going into to teaching them. Once, when my teenagers begged to be allowed to sing a song in class and then chose Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds – the very same song we’d had playing in church at Matt’s funeral – I surreptitiously wiped back my tears and joined in. By the end of the year, I decided that I needed answers to the questions that would torment me as I shut my eyes and tried to sleep. Was I to blame? What could I have done to prevent my brother from ending his life? But the question that tormented me most was why.
So I phoned the coroner, wrote letters and requested a copy of his report. The envelope came in the post and Mario and my friends made me promise I wouldn’t open it until one of them was with me. The problem was that the equation which ended up being my brother’s life was in that envelope and just as my nan never wanted to be without my grandad’s ashes, I suddenly had a real attachment to the coroner’s report. I slipped it into my schoolbag and vowed I wouldn’t read it until I got home that evening. Except, I reasoned with myself, it wouldn’t hurt to open the white A4 envelope and check it really was the report, would it? And then, a couple of hours later, as I ran my fingers across the inch-thick documentation, I decided it would be a good idea to check that the coroner really had sent the information about my brother and not someone else’s. With a beating heart and quickened breath, I peered in. It was definitely about my brother because his name was on the letter the coroner had written to me. And so, feeling brave, I dared myself to look at the front page of the report and then wish I hadn’t. As much as I already knew the bare facts, seeing ‘death by hanging’ staring back at me in black joined-up handwriting was too much to handle.
When I got home that night, we opened a bottle of red wine, toasted my brother and then I handed the report to Mario. For two hours we didn’t speak. He sat on the sofa and began reading what was essentially a review of my brother’s decision to tie that noose around his neck and tears silently rolled down his face. And, for two hours, I sat on the other sofa watching him, with tears silently rolling down mine. But, as I painfully discovered, knowing why was no help at all.
2011 was the year of change. The second anniversary of my brother’s suicide coincided with me starting a teaching contract at the university (an ambition of mine since I started teaching nine years ago) in Olbia. I slowly felt myself edging forward into life again only to be set back when one of my favourite students hanged himself on Good Friday for the same reason as my brother. At first I was incredibly angry with him but it slowly dawned on me that I couldn’t have prevented his death anymore than I could have prevented my brother’s and, as difficult as it was seeing that empty chair in class, I knew that a part of my grief had gone.
May played a triple whammy. Mario was in hospital for complications linked to his radiotherapy eleven years earlier and I was shuttling backwards and forwards to the hospital, which was an hour away in Sassari. At the same time as Mario was being operated on, my nan was diagnosed with cancer and the next day I found a lump in my breast. It suddenly brought me back to the here and now. When my nan died less than a month after the original diagnosis and the morning after I’d flown back to England to visit her, I drew back her curtains in her living room which had become a makeshift bedroom, listened to the birdsong and smiled at eighty-six years of life well-lived.
As for me, the radiologist at the European Institute of Oncology in Milan did an ultrasound and found several lumps the day before I was due to fly back to England for my summer holiday. Going private in the UK was out of the question because the costs were prohibitive and now that I’m Italian resident I’m no longer eligible on the NHS but I knew I had to be proactive and remain positive. I changed my diet, upped the exercise routine, retreated to a rented cottage in Devon and took my nan’s dog, who by now had been adopted my parents, for plenty of walks at the beach. By the time I flew back to Sardinia at the end of August, I felt ready to take on the world.
Two biopsies, several packs of ice and lots of shopping trips (I wasn’t going to let the opportunity to splash the cash on gorgeous accessories go to waste - sometime in 2011 I rediscovered the restorative power of high heels and Chanel lipgloss) to Milan later, the lumps turned out to be benign but they were still growing so the IEO referred me to the Humanitas Cancer Centre and on December 1 I was in my room, giggling away late into the night with my roommate Francesca, who was in for reconstructive surgery after a mastectomy, and not feeling at all nervous. Not that I had reason to. It was a very minor operation, I was awake throughout, and I was only kept in overnight because I'd flown in from Sardinia. Plus, when you have a surgeon who’s examining you intently with the words ‘I’m the best. I don’t intend to fuck this up’, you know you’ve hit hospital gold. You know you’ve hit double gold when the nurse who’s responsible for changing your dressings back in Olbia declares the stitching to be a ‘masterpiece’. And, when you look in the mirror after exactly a month (i,e, this morning) and can’t even tell where you were sewn back together, you know you’ve hit the hospital jackpot.
That’s the personal front. On the career front, I’m teaching four courses at the university, I’m an Area Rep for HSP, preparing high school students for exchange years abroad and looking after the incoming students, and I’ve got the work-life balance finally sussed. My thirty-fifth birthday last month was another turning point. I’m the same age now as my brother was when he died and, although he’ll always be my big brother, he’s now firmly a part of my past.
I was always one for five-year career and personal plans, ambitious as hell and ruthless in my quest to get there. 2009, 2010 and 2011 were nothing like I thought they were going to be, thus proving that there are some things that can never be fitted into an Excel spreadsheet, vision boards or written goals, no matter what the experts claim. But that’s the thing with your life splintering into millions of shards. You can’t glue it back together or expect it to be the same because it won’t ever be that. But you can take solace from the fact that having hit rock bottom, the only way is up.
So here’s a toast to 2012 and the Year of the Bird as coined by my friend Simon Winn, a journalist-turned vicar who was my very first mentor when I set my heart on journalism 20 years ago. But also to my younger brother, M and my best friends who got me through the toughest of years. And to Sardinia for its healing powers. Because without any of them, I would still be in a very confusing place, weighed down by grief and still wondering how and when to start writing again.