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30 December 2020

We must not wish this bleak year away

Many people are expressing relief that 2020 is over – but to do so is to forget that even the darkest moment is still a gift.  

By Catherine Mayer

I am resilient. I have survived 2020. I will survive its last gasp however much I dread the coming run of days. January 1st is the birthday of my beloved husband, Andy Gill. Always we treated the turn of the year as a Festival of Andy, celebrating as soon as midnight struck and continuing our festivities at least into the following night.

I will survive, but survival isn’t enough. If the losses of this year haven’t driven home that lesson, imagine this video: it captures the final Festival of Andy, in Italy. Here is Andy, embarking on the first moments of 2020 and his last birthday, already dying, though we don’t yet know it. His face is swollen from the steroids that are meant to help him breathe. He can barely stand, but puts on a brave show.

A month later, an exact calendar month, he will die.

Only in that mortal sense is survival a sufficient and worthy ambition. When the critical care team still believe Andy has a chance, they warn me that he will never fully recover. Some damage will be permanent. After he dies, friends seek to comfort me. “He wouldn’t have wanted to live this way”, they say, as if the only life worth living is one of robust physicality.

In truth, the only life worth living is one we fully and wholeheartedly live. It has been tempting during the drear and difficult stretches of this past year to write off time, to wish it away instead of wrenching the joy and potential from every drop.

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I catch myself in the act right now. I fear the pain that New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day will surely bring. I shrink from the looming anniversary of Andy’s death. I worry about navigating the dark, cold days of a Covid winter in a flat that is unnaturally silent.

The challenges are clear, but by now they’ve grown familiar too, neither exclusive to me nor more acute. In many respects 2020 has treated me more gently than many. Friends and family have drawn as close as social distancing permits. I have been able to write a book with my mother and to make progress on projects that matter to me: two EPs released by Andy’s band, Gang of Four, an extraordinary tribute album on the way; the Women’s Equality Party again and again proving an essential voice as the measures to combat the pandemic hit women harder or differently; Primadonna Festival not only making plans for the future, but buoyed by an Arts Council England grant and the prospect of a beautiful new home.

This isn’t to say there haven’t been bleak moments. Only a week ago, a blow between the shoulder blades sent me sprawling and brought the realisation that the year hadn’t quite finished with me. As the muggers sped off, I gave hopeless chase, shouting something both forlorn and comical: “I need my phone. I’m a widow.”

This wasn’t wrong. I’d been carrying boxes of vegetable chili and roast chicken to my mother. Since my stepfather’s death, 41 days before Andy’s, I’ve cooked for her every week. Perhaps I should summon a cab to drop off the food. But, of course, no phone, no taxi. A kind passer-by called the police for me and waited with me, despite a significant delay. Eventually a lone officer appeared on foot. Another incident further up the same road had taken precedence. Muggings, he said, are multiplying like the virus.

Or perhaps because of it, I thought, resolving to research this proposition. First I must negotiate processes that during the pandemic and just a few days before Christmas surely entailed additional complexities: notifying my service provider, securing data, claiming on insurance, organising a replacement mobile.

Hadn’t I dealt with enough (s)admin this year? Self pity constantly dances attendance on me like an oily courtier seeking opportunities to insinuate himself. On this occasion friends gave him no quarter, rallying round, sending over a temporary phone, helping with bureaucracy and technical advice, doing and saying things that cheered and uplifted. A woman working for the insurers and, from the sound of her voice tired to the bone, pulled out the stops to get a new mobile delivered before Christmas.

That’s when the real magic started.

As the phone began to load, photographs and videos, lost in the cloud for months, even years, reappeared: the agonising film of Andy at his last birthday but so, too, fragments and memories of love and happiness. And so it continues, every few hours a rediscovered image or clip of Andy.

A sliver of silver lining: the story of this year. Amid irrecoverable, irredeemable losses, griefs for people and opportunities, lives and livelihoods, the flash of a hummingbird’s wing. It beats so fast you can easily miss it. If you shut your eyes, if you turn away, you surely will.

Catherine Mayer’s new book, Good Grief: Embracing Life at a Time of Death, co-written with her mother Anne Mayer Bird, is out now (HQ , £16.99).

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