This isn’t pain.
When someone says to me ‘I can’t imagine the pain you must feel’, I know it’s true, because if they could imagine it, if they knew what it was like, they would know that pain isn’t an adequate description. Pain is what you feel when you hit your thumb with a hammer. When you twist an ankle. When a relationship ends. When someone breaks your heart. And pain, even emotional pain, can be managed. Can be controlled. Can be overcome, lived with, blocked out. Pain can be described and diagnosed and understood. Can be medicated against. Pain and its causes can even, given time, be forgotten about.
So, no, this isn’t pain. This is … amputation. I am missing a piece. And it wasn’t removed surgically. It wasn’t a decision. This wasn’t some necessary medical procedure to prevent a rapidly spreading infection. No, this was a hatchet job. I was butchered. The piece was ripped from me, hacked off while my back was turned. And no opioid is going to help. Acupuncture won’t make it better. This cannot be massaged away. Its absence is impossible to forget, and no amount of time will reattach it.
How does the Johnny Cash song go? “I hurt myself today. To see if I still feel.” That would be an exercise in futility for me. I know I don’t feel. Because she was the bit that allowed me to, and she has been torn from me like a page from a book. And, like a book missing pages, without her I make no sense. Everything I felt, every emotion, every physical sensation, was intrinsically linked to how it affected her. My story revolved around her. She was the beginning, the middle and the end.
And, I am reminded of my incompleteness in almost every aspect of life’s mundanity. Sure, it’s the obvious things too: it’s the doll’s house my dad built, still in her bedroom, with each of its miniature rooms just as they were the last time she played with it; it’s her pink cup, with the scuffed and prancing unicorn printed onto it, which sits in the cupboard in the kitchen next to the mugs and is just there, clean and unused, each time I make a cup of tea; it’s her wardrobe, which releases an ever-less-potent puff of her scent each time I open it, but which I can’t resist opening every day. It’s these obvious things – the things that friends and family and therapists say I should remove from the house to allow me to process, to ‘properly grieve’ – but it’s the routine things which are the real reminder of what I’m missing, which do the real damage. Leaving the house. Driving to work. Eating dinner. Watching TV. Reading the paper. These everyday things are made almost unbearable by their very simplicity. The simple, mundane things which were made so much more challenging by her involvement in them, or by her presence in the room as I tried to do them, now cause an all-consuming desire for her just to be there, complicating things, asking questions, making it all more difficult but at the same time making me whole, completing me without even realising it.
And that’s why I don’t throw out her unicorn cup, or redecorate her bedroom, or take her clothes to the charity shop. If simply reading the paper makes me feel like an amputee reaching for a door handle with their missing hand, what good would some wallpapering do? I can’t drive to work without stopping outside her school and watching the kids stream out and looking for her amongst them, so what good would throwing away a cheap plastic cup do? I can’t watch TV for more than five minutes without switching to the cartoons and sitting there, blank-eyed, as the colours and noise fill the room, so what good would emptying her wardrobe do?
The silence between us amplifies the other sounds in the room. The rain drums against the window and distorts the view of the small courtyard outside. The fire crackles. The aquarium bubbles from the corner. He shifts in his chair and the leather creaks.
‘You understand, though, why I asked you to do those things?’ he says, his voice is soft and low and compassionate.
Dr Johnson – he insists I call him Bob – has been assigned to help me, to support me, and this is my second visit to him. My file sits on his desk, thick and heavy and unopened (at least while I’m in the room), filled with analysis of me, of my brain, of my psyche, of my emotional state.
‘Yeah,’ I say, not turning around, just looking at the rain run down the window. ‘I get it. But what’s the point, is what I’m asking?’
His leather chair creaks again. Somewhere high above the building a plane is passing. I hear a car horn from the road beyond the courtyard.
‘If I can’t even read the sports section without thinking of her, what’s the point of doing the big stuff?’
He clears his throat. ‘As we discussed on Monday, Steven, it’s a process. You can’t go through life without ever reading the paper, or driving to work, or doing the mundane stuff, as you call it.’
I turn slightly to look at him as he speaks. He has leant forward, his elbows on the desk, his fingers pressed together into a little pyramid.
‘But you can change the big stuff, as you call it. You don’t have to do it all at once, but maybe just throwing out her cup, or at least storing it somewhere you won’t see it every time you make a cup of tea, will be the catalyst for changing the other stuff. Which, in turn, could be the catalyst for being able to lead a relatively normal life, where not every aspect of it is dominated by your grief.’
I turn back to the window. I watch a single raindrop run down the glass, follow its wriggling progress downward until it drips off the sill.
‘I just don’t want to forget her,’ I say, almost to myself, barely loud enough for him to hear.
There is another short silence. I hear him settle back into his chair.
‘Remembrance and grief are not the same thing, Steven.’
I turn fully around to face him now. Lean back against the windowsill, arms crossed.
‘You have to learn to remember Leah without constantly grieving for her,’ he continues, whilst removing his glasses. He briefly rubs the bridge of his nose. ‘Nobody would expect you to forget her – and you shouldn’t, even if they did – and some part of you will always grieve for her. But you have to learn to manage that grief somehow. Otherwise, it will continue to consume you, like it has Sam.’
Her name causes a ripple of … something. Anger? Disappointment? Jealousy? I don’t know. I am so emotionally anaesthetised that I’ve never been able to label what her disconnection from the world evokes in me. Despite that though, my instinct is to defend her. Bob senses this and raises a hand.
‘I don’t mean any offence, Steven, I really don’t.’
I decide to say nothing, just nod slightly. He puts his glasses back on.
‘To use your analogy,’ he continues, ‘have you ever seen the Paralympics?’
I don’t answer, but he goes on.
‘There are amputees running marathons. Completing triathlons. I saw a news story about a double amputee climbing Kilimanjaro using just his arms. These people don’t let their disability define them. Yes, they’re missing important pieces, just as you say you are, but they carry on, they achieve great things, despite how difficult it is.’
Now my instinct is to defend myself. What would this quack know, I ask myself? How could he possibly understand? Again, he senses my frustration.
‘I’m not trying to undermine how you feel here, Steven, I’m really not. I’m just reminding you that people can lead relatively ordinary lives despite great hardship, despite great emotional and physical amputation, as you put it. Leah is never coming back, it’s a horrendously sad but undeniable fact, and you will always feel her loss like a missing part of yourself. But, with great effort, you may just be able to reach a point where you can lead a normal life and do normal things – and I’m not talking about running marathons or climbing mountains, just the normal, everyday things you spoke of – without that loss crippling you.’
I look at him. I look at the round glasses perched on his bulbous nose. I look at his chubby face. I look at his receding hair line and the deep lines across his forehead. I look at his suit jacket with the stain on the lapel, at the striped shirt beneath, straining against his belly. At his ugly yellow tie. I look at him in his creaky leather chair, at the certificates on the wall behind him, at the bookcase filled with leather-bound books. I look at this so-called expert and think – you have no fucking idea.
I feel an anger boil inside me. I want to throw the chair in front of me. I want to smash the computer on his desk. I want to scream at him. I want to pull the certificates from his wall. I want to scream at him to keep her name, her beautiful name, out of his dirty, quack mouth.
‘Look, Steven,’ he says, taking his glasses off again, leaning forward, maintaining eye contact with me. ‘I can see you’re angry with me. And I don’t blame you. We hardly know each other and here I am trying to tell you how to deal with the most difficult thing you have ever, and will ever, experience. You say you don’t feel anything anymore, but you do. The anger just makes it seem like you don’t. And that anger blinds you to all your other emotions. You’re angry at yourself. You’re angry at me. You’re angry at the world. You’re angry at Sam, too, I think. And, in many ways, anger and grief can be two sides of the same coin. So, I get it. You’ve been dealt a bad hand, the worst hand imaginable, and I’d be angry too. But I also believe that you want to be free of that anger and grief, or at least for it to be more controllable.’
I am still staring at him, but his words have calmed me a little. Deep down, I know he’s right. I do want it to stop. I’m never going to get the missing piece of me back, but I do want to learn to live without it. I look down at my hands, which have been gripping the chair in front of me. I let go, feel the tension in me ease, watch the blood return to my whitened knuckles.
‘Our time is up for today anyway,’ he says, looking at his watch. ‘So, all I’m asking, before I see you next week, is move that cup out of the cupboard in the kitchen. You don’t need to redecorate, or empty her room, or take her clothes to Oxfam. Just move that plastic cup. Put it in the loft. Put it in a box under a bed. Put it anywhere you won’t see it ten times a day.’
I drive home through the rain. Her CD plays on the stereo. One Direction. I used to hate it. The manufactured pop beats. The inane, meaningless lyrics. I still hate it, just in a new way.
We argued about it that morning. That morning. I made her turn it off, so I could listen to the news and weather on the radio. She sat with her chin pressed into her chest for the rest of the journey, huffing each time I tried to start a conversation. She was still mad when she got out of the car at school; slammed the door, stormed up the path to the entrance. I watched until she went in, as I always did. She didn’t look back and wave, as she usually did. Her hunched, angry shoulders. Her bobbing pony tail. That was the last time I saw her.
I stop the CD and look around. I have parked outside the school again. I didn’t mean to. I just end up here. I don’t make any sort of conscious decision to come here each day, it’s just a reflex. Something instinctive. Like a sneeze.
It must be half-term, as the school is closed, and I pass some seconds just looking out of the rain-smeared window at the empty playground. The wipers squeak back and forth. The engine idles. My breath fogs the glass and I wipe it away with the side of my hand. Although the rational part of my brain knows how ridiculous it is, there is still this other part – this loud, obnoxious, irrational part, this simultaneously hopeful and hopeless part – that scans the schoolyard for her. That watches the closed doors of the school, waiting for them to open and for her to spring out, unhurt, carefree, bursting to tell me about her day. The window fogs over again and breaks my concentrated stare. I take it as my cue to leave.
As I drive towards home, Bob’s words play on a loop in my mind. I do want rid of this burden, or at least to make it easier to carry, but how do you control an instinct? You can quieten a sneeze, smother it so as not to appear rude, but you can’t stop it from happening. So maybe he’s right, maybe I have to take these small steps, and, over time, my instinctual grief will be smothered too. I don’t want to forget her, but I do want something that resembles a normal life. A life where not every miniscule task is consumed by my longing for her. A life that is in some way defined by what I have, rather than what I’ve lost.
I pull onto the driveway. I am resolved to move the cup. It is the only thought in my head. I managed to get the rest of the way home without putting the CD on again and feel that was some small achievement. I’m sure Bob would say it was a huge achievement, would praise me for taking a step in the right direction, but I’m not so sure. If I had thrown the CD out of the window, then maybe, but all I did was not press a button for twenty minutes.
I move quickly to the front door. I’m going to go straight to the kitchen, get the cup from the cupboard, take it upstairs and put it in a box in the spare bedroom. I know I should do it quickly, like pulling off a plaster, or I’ll talk myself out of it. I march up the hall. My wet shoes squeak on the wood floor.
I cross the kitchen and pull open the cupboard above the kettle. There it is, as always. I take it down and hold it. Run my fingers over the rough patch where the unicorn is half-scraped away.
There is a bombardment of images in my mind’s eye. As though every time she used the cup has been secretly photographed and stored in some back-room of my subconscious, and that room has exploded, and all the pictures of her, all the thousands of snapshots, accumulated over the five short years of her life – of her drinking from it and knocking it over and crying when we left it at Sam’s mum’s and crying when we tried to replace it and snorting juice out of her nose after she drank from it too quickly – all rain down like burning confetti. It’s like this every time I touch it. Same with the doll’s house upstairs. And her wardrobe. And a hundred other things around the house.
I just stand there. Feeling the weight of the cup in my hand. Feeling the weight of the missing piece of me. My heart is throbbing so hard in my chest you would think I was on the edge of some great precipice. I almost don’t go through with it. Almost put it away again. But I push the cupboard door shut.
Once it’s closed, I can see across the kitchen.
And that’s when I notice her. Through the patio doors, out on the decking. The rain is still thrashing down but I can see her clearly. Sitting in one of the plastic garden chairs. Her head down. Her wet hair hanging over her face, thick as slugs. The hospital-issue white boiler suit is soaked through and stuck to her skin.
For a moment, something doesn’t compute. I know it’s her, even though I can’t see her face. But I also know she shouldn’t be here, and, for a moment, I wonder if it’s my mind playing tricks on me, trying to convince me to put the cup back, because she wouldn’t approve.
But then she looks up at me and I know she’s real, I know she wouldn’t look this way in my imagination. She brushes her hair back from her face, which is thin and pale. Her eyes seem to have sunk inwards, and even from where I stand I can tell the blue intensity of them has been lost to some lifeless grey. She sees me looking at her and I think she attempts a smile, but it comes out crooked, like her face forgot how to make that shape.
I cross to the patio doors and open them. The rain pounds the deck as though Sam is an unwanted creature some higher power is trying to hose away. I stand in the doorway. We look at each other for a short time, just listening to the roar of the weather. The rain runs down her face, drips from her nose. Eventually, she breaks eye contact and leans her head backwards, opens her mouth.
‘Why don’t you come inside?’ I almost have to shout over the noise.
I don’t expect an answer from her – she hasn’t really said much since it happened – but I hope she will at least hear me.
She looks at me again, now with a better formed smile. ‘I like it,’ she shouts back. ‘I haven’t felt rain on my skin for months.’
I smile back at her. I haven’t heard her voice in what seems like a very long time. I stopped visiting her about six months ago. I couldn’t take it anymore. Bob’s right, I was angry. I have been angry. I am still angry. I needed her and she just checked out, went to some place I couldn’t follow. I understood at first, and thought she’d snap out of it, but she never did. And that bred a deep, wide resentment in me. We needed to share the weight of what happened, but instead she left it for me to carry. Instead of just missing one piece, I ended up missing two. And even though I knew she was also missing a piece, even though I knew she blamed herself for what happened, I felt let down, deserted at a time when I needed her the most. The staff at the hospital called a few times when I first stopped visiting, tried to convince me to keep coming, that she needed me to help her get better. But I couldn’t bring myself to go anymore. Her silence made her seem like just another object that reminded me of Leah. But, unlike the cup and the wardrobe and the doll’s house, I was able to avoid her, to smother the feelings she evoked.
‘I always liked Pina Coladas,’ I say.
She laughs at this, at the shared memory of dancing to that awful song at an old friend’s wedding, at never realising how horrible the lyrics were until much later. It’s only a small laugh, an expulsion of air really, but the sound of it cutting through the beat of the rain is better therapy than could be provided by a hundred shrinks, than redecorating a bedroom, than hiding a child’s cup. And I feel my anger towards her, which has sat heavy as a rock in my gut for so long, begin to erode.
I place the cup on the counter by the door and step outside properly. At first, I just stand there, let the rain soak through my shirt, then I walk past Sam and take another chair from where they’re stacked. I place it in front of her. I sit down and take her hands in mine, look into her eyes. There is no doubt they have lost the sparkle I fell in love with, but there is so much more in them than last time I saw them. They are seeing me. There is life in them.
She leans forward and touches my face. She wipes some water from beneath my eye. She continues to smile.
She nods towards the kitchen. ‘What were you doing with her cup?’ she asks.
I briefly look over my shoulder then back at her. ‘Bob told me I should put it somewhere I won’t see it all the time. He said it might help me to stop thinking about her so much. I was going to put it in the spare room. Under the bed.’
She nods. I’m expecting some argument from her. Some offence taken at wanting to forget her.
‘Bob’s my therapist,’ I add, as though that makes a difference.
‘Sounds like Bob might know what he’s talking about,’ she says, another smile on her face.
I smile back at her again.
She stands. One of my hands is still in one of hers. The rain has eased slightly but water still drips from her nose and her chin and her eyelashes. After a moment she walks across to the door, leans inside and picks up the cup. She turns back to me.
‘Should we do it together?’ she asks.
And the rock in my gut breaks apart, becomes fine as sand, is washed away. And I know, right then, that I’m going to be okay. We’re going to be okay. We will never get over it. We will each have to learn how to live without this missing piece of ourselves, we will never be whole, either as a couple or individuals, but we might just be able to lead a normal life. A life where every task is not just a task done without her. Where every object is not just some monument to the loss we feel. A life where we can both love each other and grieve for our daughter, together, without the grief burning so brightly that it blinds us to all other emotion.
I stand and cross to Sam and pull her to me and hold her. The rain feels almost cleansing now. We stand in each other’s arms for some time, saying nothing, just letting it run over us and between us.
Eventually, we part and Sam takes my hand and leads me across the kitchen. We go upstairs, into the spare room. I pull out a box from beneath the bed and Sam puts the cup inside, underneath some old photo albums. After that we just stand there, holding hands, the room quiet but for the patter of rain on the window.
For a while, we think about Leah’s cup each time we make tea. For a while, the cup not being in the cupboard is as hard to bear as it being there.
But only for a while.