Clinical psychologist Vanessa Moore has spent her life helping others, but when her husband died suddenly she found herself blindsided by grief. Unable to see a way forward, she asked him to send her a sign…
The beginning of my story is unremarkable. It was a Sunday morning in February, and, like every Sunday morning, my husband Paul and I went swimming. With full-time jobs and a big family (I have three children from my first marriage; Paul, four), the only way to keep fit was to forgo lie-ins. The alarm went off at 6.35am, and in less than an hour, we were heaving up and down the pool.
So far, so predictable. But the next part of the story will be told and retold, worked and reworked a thousand times to help me process what happened. Fast-forward four months, and I’m about to tell it to a therapist I’ve never met. There’s no need to rehearse what I am going to say; as much as I might want to push them away, the thoughts keep forcing themselves into my mind with astonishing clarity. I think of some of the autistic children I’ve worked with, who are obsessed with playing a certain section of a videotape over and over again. It’s like that: my own tape repeats and repeats. It unspools itself, unbidden, whether I want it to or not.
Vanessa and Paul on honeymoon in Sri Lanka, 1997
The tape begins with my delayed exit from the pool. I get to Paul’s car, but he isn’t there. I feel a twinge of anxiety, but then I realise that I didn’t see him get out of the water, so he might still be swimming. When I check, there are only a few people left in the water, and Paul isn’t one of them.
I go back to the foyer and a woman comes rushing, almost falling down the stairs, shouting, ‘Call 999 and get an ambulance! Someone’s collapsed in the changing rooms.’ I’m seized with terror, clinging to a fragment of hope that it might not be him, but my pounding heart is certain that it is. There’s a bag on the floor and, as soon as I see it, I know it is Paul’s. I hear my disembodied voice asking: ‘Is he dead?’
‘No, they’re working on him. But I must tell you that it’s serious.’
I wait in reception with a kind lady, who has her arm around me. The woman returns and her face is stricken. This can’t be happening. It can’t. It can’t. My heart continues to thump as I climb into the ambulance. I want to stop time. I know that as soon as I set eyes on him it will be confirmed; there will be no going back, my life will be changed for ever. As the ambulance turns a corner, Paul’s head flops to the side. This is the moment when I register that he really is dead. It’s not until a few days later that the coroner discovers Paul died of heart failure, and that his arteries were clogged up.
To my amazement, an experience that I know sometimes happens to trauma victims is actually happening to me: I can literally ‘see’ the times we’ve spent together, tumbling in front of my eyes. Things like our wedding, Sunday walks with the dog in the New Forest, the ‘naughty’ fry-ups Paul would make for himself and the boys whenever
I went out for an evening, walks along deserted Normandy beaches in the middle of winter, lying with my head in his lap watching TV – this great cacophony of pictures, sounds and smells. This is it, then; these things will never happen again.
★ ★ ★
It’s springtime. Two months after it happened and the verges are sprinkled with daffodils in full bloom. Although it’s warm, the sky is grey with clouds. I am walking my dog Jess and I’m distraught again, the tears streaming down my face.
‘Where are you, Paul?’
‘Why did you die?’
‘Please, please send me a sign.’
I glance upwards, and although my vision is distorted by tears, I glimpse a single white feather floating gently, slowly down in front of my face. It hovers from side to side and lands silently on my foot. I’m astounded.
‘Is that really you, Paul?’
Vanessa and Paul married in 1997
I pick up the feather and put it in my pocket. But soon, doubts begin to surface.
‘If that really was you, Paul, send me another feather, just so that I can be sure.’
Before long, I spot another, nestled among the pine needles on the path in front of me. After that, I find white feathers constantly on my walks with Jess. Sometimes it takes a while for them to appear, but by the end of the walk they always do.
A few days later, Paul’s four children come for Sunday lunch. I’m in the kitchen talking to one of his sons. It’s a cold day and all the doors and windows are closed. I tell him about the white feathers that turn up when I’m thinking about Paul or talking to him.
‘That’s weird,’ he says.
‘Yeah, I know. I wonder if they could be some kind of sign from him, some sort of communication?’
At that precise moment, a tiny white feather appears from nowhere on the ceiling and flutters gently down to land on the surface of the kitchen island between us.
Paul’s son gasps and jumps backwards, knocking over a stool. It spooks me, too, but at the same time it calms me. Does Paul somehow know that we’re all here having lunch together? Can he sense our distress? Is he trying to reassure me?
I’ve read that the death of a spouse is the most stressful of all life events: according to scales calibrated to measure such things, it scores 100 out of 100 possible points. Although the white feathers are strangely comforting, they are not enough to sustain me, and much of the time what I really want to do is to follow Paul – to die.
My GP prescribes antidepressants, which I take, but the near-constant crying does not diminish. I find a therapist, Jennifer, and each week I drive to hers and sit and cry. She is my anchor in the raging storm that has engulfed my life. I don’t mention the feathers, though, perhaps because I don’t want the illusion to be shattered. I don’t know what they mean, but I don’t want them to stop.
★ ★ ★
By now, it’s well over a year since Paul died and, as his presence recedes, the unbearable loneliness grows. Jennifer, too, has left me, moving back to her home country, just as I was beginning to take tiny, tentative steps into the world again. I have a new therapist, but we don’t have the same connection.
Both she and my sisters suggest that it might be time to ‘find someone else’ but I can’t imagine that I could ever find a replacement for Paul. I long for the security of the life we had together. I know that with dating, I’m trying to locate that security, but the more I look, the more depressing I find it, and the more I miss him. I mull over this again one afternoon when I’m in the garden. I recall us having one of those frivolous conversations long before he died, which went something like:
Vanessa’s children, Will, Emily and Simon, the year after Paul died
Me: ‘If I died before you, would you find somebody else?’
Paul (sensing a trap): ‘I don’t know. Would you want me to?’
Me: ‘No. I wouldn’t want you to be lonely, but when you died and she died and we were all in heaven, how would you choose?’
Paul (exasperated): ‘Don’t be ridiculous!
I hope you’d find someone else if I died first.’ (Neat deflection.)
Me: ‘Do you?’
Paul: ‘Of course I do. I love you. I’d want you to be happy.’
As I’m pondering on this, my eyes are drawn to the large lavender bush in the flowerbed that Paul and I planted together a long time ago. The scent is intoxicating, and it is smothered with bees and white butterflies. I then notice that one of the butterflies isn’t a butterfly at all, but a white feather clinging to a purple frond. The conversation with Paul is still in my head, and I think that perhaps this is his way of trying to reinforce his message that I’d have his blessing.
★ ★ ★
All the while, as I go to work, to Sainsbury’s, on dates with disappointing men, the feathers keep appearing and I keep thinking they’re a sign from Paul. But are they? I ask the vicar who took Paul’s funeral service and still comes to visit me what he thinks. His response is reassuring. He tells me that he has been told enough stories by recently bereaved people to convince him that there is communication with the ‘next world’. I find this interesting: are these feathers really messages from beyond the grave? My professional self is keen to investigate further, and I carry out a survey of people who have been bereaved to try to find out how common these experiences are. I find that a quarter of the respondents report ‘signs’ following the death of a loved one. For me, the feathers are highly significant: it’s as if there is no way to bear the loss, so the feathers (or, for others, robins, dreams, smell of pipe smoke, etc) become the way. These ‘sensory threads’ are a source of comfort, a means of making the separation a little more bearable. It is the lifeline to the dead.
Fast-forward to more than four years since Paul died, and I’m walking alone through a deserted gorge in southern Crete. I talk to Paul most of the way. In this hot, dusty place, there is little sign of any animal life, and so I joke to Paul: ‘Huh, well you certainly won’t be able to send me any feathers here, will you?’ I feel almost smug in my certainty that this would be an impossible feat, and as I carry on walking, I actually say to him: ‘You see, I told you so.’ As I turn a corner in what must be the driest, deepest and most inaccessible part of the gorge, I see a carpet of white feathers strewn on the sand in front of me.
★ ★ ★
Nine years after Paul’s death and I begin to find a way of moving forward. In the intervening time, both my mother and father, my brother-in-law and my dog Jess all die and I am so lonely I am inert with misery. My GP takes my suicidal thoughts seriously, and I am introduced to cognitive behavioural therapy, which challenges my negative thoughts, replacing them with thinking that is more balanced. It helps me manage all kinds of situations. It allows me to feel there is an end in sight.
Vanessa first saw one of Paul’s feathers while walking her dog Jess
Then, I am invited to stay with friends in Spain. The last time I’d been was with Paul and the children. It would be a real test of whether I am able to cope better with life: am I ready for it? But when I am there, I find I have a wonderful time. There are moments when I’ve missed Paul dreadfully, but they have passed. If coming back to Spain was a test, I passed it.
Sitting in a café with my friends, I reflect that I am happy. The misery is gone. It feels almost as if I have internalised some essence of Paul, which is giving me the strength to face whatever challenges everyday life might throw at me.
When it’s time to go, I pick up the bill, and go inside to pay. My eyes take some time to adjust from the bright sunlight to the gloomy interior. At first, I think they are playing tricks on me, but as I lift the bill, I can just make out, lying underneath it on the saucer, a perfect white feather. I stare at it, mesmerised by the thought that Paul has been with us after all. I pick up the feather and put it in my pocket.
Months later, I will come across it in the pocket of the jacket I was wearing that day. Its discovery will make me smile again and will strengthen my belief that Paul will find me, wherever in the world I choose to go.
One Thousand Days and One Cup of Tea by Vanessa Moore is published by Kyle Books, priced £14.99. To order a copy for £13.19 until 7 March go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £15.
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