From Melanie Reid in THE TIMES, 8 June 2019
When I die,” I say to my husband, “will you please give it a couple of weeks before you find someone else?” It started as a private joke, one of those quips that carries a heft of truth, and now sometimes I say it publicly.
It’s always interesting how people react. Mostly they laugh – the men especially. They glance at their wives to see their reaction. You can glimpse in their faces a flash of approval: hey, this is what we want to hear!
One of the reasons I like men is that they’re pragmatic. They don’t overcomplicate stuff.
Sometimes, women react in a way that tells me they’re secretly appalled. They’d prefer a Tristan and Isolde or an Héloïse and Abelard version of marriage, the bereaved for ever pining after irreplaceable love. At best they’d like their widowed husbands to continue in monastic denial – high stakes here, boys: Tristan refused to consummate another marriage; Abelard was castrated – in order to preserve the purity of what they had. At worst, they’d like their partners to wait ten years before looking elsewhere.
And get this: such women will hypothetically be dead. They’re not going to be here. They seek control beyond the grave. Most romantic novels, it should be noted, are written by women.
In those first days, Dave faced the horrors alone, overwhelmed with shock, grief and insecurity. I might still have been alive, but the cascade of cards, flowers and endless phone calls to our home was pretty much as it would have been if I’d died. Only in this case, he was denied even the focus of organising a funeral.
His was a most brutal, distorted bereavement, a toxic brew of despair, hope and cruelty; the partial but permanent loss of the woman he’d married. Dispassionately, death might have been kinder. He and I then had to deal with realities thankfully few couples have to address until they’re forced upon them by old age or terminal illness.
I told him within the first few months that I thought we should separate, in the nicest possible way and on the best of terms, in order for him to have a life. It seemed the kindest thing to do. And practical. On top of everything I had to deal with, I couldn’t face the knowledge that I was anyone else’s jailer. My body now held me captive, but no way was I going to imprison others who should be free. That wasn’t my style.
So I unlocked the cell door and gestured towards the opening. Dave, famously, told me not to be so bloody stupid, that he could cope if I didn’t mind him going to the pub whenever he wanted to, which still feels like the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. You have to be in my shoes to understand the sacrifice he made. I wouldn’t have judged him had he made a different decision. Because disability, hatefully, doesn’t just belong to the person who has it; it clamps its shitty jaws around family members and disables them, too.
But, hey, when I die (adding hastily that my health is reasonably stable and I hope to keep going a few years more), guilt and duty die with me. Beneath my two-week joke is an absolute truth, hewn from hard experience. Death should always free those who remain to live and flourish as best they can, to make free choices.
Dave, no Abelard, would in an instant enter priest-like Fleabag territory. Hence my How Long After guidelines – widowers’ minimum requirements for a modicum of decency: the general public, six weeks; celebrities, nine months; politicians, 18 months; royals, five years.
He knows I know that he’d need someone to look after him fairly urgently. “For God’s sake, I’d be lost,” he said. “I can’t even find my mobile phone without you, let alone anything else.”
I refer him to section IV, subsection 3.1, on suitable replacement candidates: kind, classy, good at cooking mince, no gold-diggers.
Melanie Reid is tetraplegic after breaking her neck and back in a riding accident in April 2010