There’s a custard cream in the pocket of my hoody. Though still in its packet, it’s getting very crumbly, disintegrating as the weeks roll on. I’m not sure for how long I can keep it there, though it brings a sad kind of comfort each time I find it. She loved a custard cream, Our Cleo. She liked to dunk them in her tea, in anyone’s tea. This one was the last in the packet, there in my pocket in case she fancied one when out and about. It’s been there a while.
You see, the shift to the past tense is one of the aspects of ‘all this’ that’s hurting the most. One minute, there, with us. Another minute later, her life suddenly became located in the past. ‘Cleo loves custard creams’ versus ‘Cleo loved custard creams’. That’s really bloody hard.
We didn’t ‘lose’ her, she didn’t ‘pass away’. She didn’t go to sleep to join the angels or whatever, she died. I feel harsh and bitter, but simultaneously soft and glad that the way in which she died was as beautiful as it was. Cleo died at home with us, her mummy and daddy, holding her gently, lovingly. She knew nothing, suffered no pain. She clung on so hard, so hard… Her wonderful fit healthy body just wanted to live so much.
I will miss you so much, forever. Forever. I’m so sorry that I couldn’t fix this for you.
It’s taken me what feels like a long time to write this. I really wanted to write. I wanted to tell it all. No pictures though, not this time. After Cleo died, I lay with her for hours. Family came in to see her and went again. I stayed, stroking her hair, her silky chestnut hair. The sense of freedom I felt was unexpected; freedom from slowly slowly slowly witnessing her slip away from us. Later, before the funeral directors had to come and take her away, I washed her. I washed Cleo’s lovely little body with the stuff from the ‘Body Shop’ (ha! I just realised that’s quite funny) that she really liked the smell of. What an extraordinary experience.
The last time her daddy saw Cleo was after so carefully carrying her little body downstairs, with all the strength and tenderness of a father’s love.
I went to see Cleo at the funeral directors a few days later. I wasn’t going to, I felt strongly so. She was dead, gone. I knew from losing my dad a few years ago that the last vision you have really will stay with you: did I want that? could I bear that? But a strange compulsion overrode my otherwise rational position. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I went with it and arranged to see her body, gently arranged in its casket. I made myself look, with care, and just take her in.
Glitter in her hair… unicorn nails… a rainbow of coloured sequins on her new yellow jumper… her shiny metallic pink earrings. So tiny… it’s so tiny… white, with silver handles that almost resemble little hands holding on, just like you held my hand. Just like you held on.
My beautiful girl. My treacle pudding. My precious. We’ll get a pug and we’ll call her Barbara. I’ll tend your cactus family, Bob, Jeff and Norman.
I knew when enough was enough. I even remember smiling, and feeling so definitively ‘she’s gone. She’s gone’. The experience of me being there with her was powerfully reminiscent of the nine months spent carrying her on the inside, time with her at the end of her life that was once again so deeply personal and intimate, as at the beginning. That’s what it was, the compulsion. To be with her once again in a way that could only be known consciously to me alone. I felt a sense of peace afterwards.
Let me tell you this: there is a baseline of pain that simply underpins everything. A constant, unending undercurrent of deepest pain. I believe that it will always be there and that I will grow to live with it. The pain does not exclude happiness – we have already tentatively gone back out into the world as my family slowly, carefully explores new ways of being and we have had happy times. We will have many more, I believe it, and I also believe that everything we do from now on will be underpinned by a sense of missing Cleo so much. It is terrible now, to go on with life, but not impossible. I hope that there will be a time in the future when I don’t cry multiple times a day. I don’t break down sobbing and wailing. It’s hot, silent tears that just overflow. Paraphrasing the wonderful Kurt Vonnegut, I much prefer laughter over tears; it’s a lot less messy.
As with the custard cream, I wonder sometimes about Cleo’s possessions. Her cosy bright pink jacket hangs by the back door. It seems to fit being there right now, but for how long will it stay? As her siblings grow up and fly our nest, will the jacket still hang there? Will it become an anachronistic symbol of a time long past? The accessible van has gone already, her wheelchair, her Blue Badge, that can all go. Symbols of her illness. Leave me with her trainers, her teddies, her drawings, her writings. I guess we just go with the flow, slowly, gently.
Now, without Cleo, we are transforming. Changing state, both as a family and as individuals, from one way of being to a new one. Like Mike Teevee, floating up in the air, fragments of what we were, ready to re-form into something new. I am so sad that Ella and Oscar have had to go through this. Though I am proud of how we have all handled the myriad events of the last year, I am vigilant and fearful of the potential impact on them both. Ella was Cleo’s idol – one of her first words was “Awaaaaaaa!”, called out as she excitedly waited for her big sister to come home from school. In the last few months Cleo was just the same again, asking “when’s Ella back?” all afternoon and perking up noticeably once her mentor had returned. This love was by no means all one-way; Cleo was Ella’s best friend too. Not so much chalk and cheese as one being a big slice of smoked Applewood and the other a chunk of tangy feta; kind of the same, but so different. Equally delicious. The extraordinary compassion that Ella showed her little sister over the last year was just… stunningly lovely. I hope that she feels pride and comfort now and in the future. Fortunate are those who are blessed with a sprinkle of Ella.
It’s only been three weeks since Cleo died. I feel her everywhere, in the blue skies, in lines from a song, in the rebellious seeds of yellow and green which have escaped the farmers’ fields to settle contentedly in the hedgerow, growing tall to face the sun. They remind me of the warmth of her love.
In psychology, ‘transformation’ is where something changes so profoundly that it can never again be experienced as it once was. Reading this post has transformed custard creams for you; dunked surreptitiously in someone else’s mug or kept nice and crisp, you will eat them and you will think of Cleo. My gift to you.
One final gift, for now. Some words sent to us by a dear friend; author, alas, unknown.
A butterfly lights beside us, like a sunbeam…
and for a brief moment its glory
and beauty belong to our world…
but then it flies on again, and although
we wish it could have stayed,
we are so thankful to have seen it at all.