I feel a bit overdramatic describing my life right now as Ground Zero. If it describes the nearest part of earth shattered by a blast though, then the blast would be my family’s illness and death, and I would be the nearest and most affected part left. Of course my life is not in ruins - I have so much of my life left that I feel like I still have more life than most people on the earth, even with the huge missing parts. But I have started referring in my head to my grieving and sorting days as Ground Zero days, and the more I thought about the analogy, the more it seemed to fit.
So this is what my life looks like right now: for the first time in twelve and a half years, I have no preschoolers at home. Twelve and a half years is a really long time back to back. It’s an eighth of a century. It’s 75% of my adult life so far. (Can you tell I’ve done a lot of thinking about this?) Here’s a brief outline of those twelve and a half years:
2002: Turtle was born, we were both in employment as as a mechanic (R) and at a travel agency (me) while doing lots of youth and childrens work.
2003: Had Scooby and Ace, worked as youth workers and then church planters in Preston.
2004: Moved to bible college to study full-time.
2005/6: Studied, raised babies, more youth work, missions, preaching appointments, etc.
2007: Finished college, hastily threw all our belongings into boxes and moved to Preston for a few weeks that turned out to be months, into a house that was more wrecked than we thought, and did up each room inch by inch. Richard becomes a full time diary engineer; Rocky is born three weeks after we move into said wreck with two usable rooms. Meanwhile we start meeting as a church.
2008: Richard works full time, fixes house, leads church. I look after four boys, help with church and by the end of the year have more than half the rooms finished.
2009: Almost hit normality, where Richard gets to work a day a week for church and youngest is nearly at preschool. Then I get pregnant and am ill and can’t walk for the last half of the year.
2010: Scooby gets ill and we spend many months in hospital with him. Baby is born and I can walk again. So two kids in school, one at preschool, one at home and one in and out of hospital.
2011: I have to step back from helping at church as the hospital trips intensify and we decide to home school instead of spreading the kids out. Richard manages to get two days a week to work for church, but ends up spending most of them in hospital.
2012: The first half of the year is lived from RMCH as we swap over twice a week to look after Scooby. We spend a month before, and several months after he dies, in Preston, trying to work out what we do next. Not wanting to make huge decisions based on grief, we move back to Morecambe and continue leading church. The kids go back to school. We see growth and make incredible friends, confirming we’ve done the right thing.
2013: Richard struggles with his back and by March we know something is seriously wrong. We keep going with church, and renovating the new building for it. After many months of tests and treatments Richard is diagnosed with cancer and spends the rest of the year in treatment.
2014: More treatments and appointments and in March Richard is unable to walk and spends the next two months in hospital and then the hospice until he dies.
I hope that doesn’t all sound depressing, because it wasn’t - there was so much fun and passion and excitement in amongst all that. I’ve written it out to remind myself why everything has felt like a whirlwind for all that time. Some of it we chose to do, other things happened to us. We didn’t ever do one thing at a time - each season and challenge ran into the next one, and nothing ever felt finished or completed before the next thing started. Richard was the driving force behind pretty much all of it and I just ran with whatever I had to. I’m not great at being proactive but I am great at being reactive in a positive way. So whatever has shouted the loudest for the last twelve and a half years, be it a baby or a hole in the roof or a 999 call or a gap in the rota for church - that’s made my decisions for me. I don’t mind, I don’t expect perfection, I just want to do what’s needed when it’s needed to the best of my ability in that time.
What it means is that anything non-urgent has constantly been pushed to one side. There’s always been at least one room in our house that has defaulted to purely housing ‘stuff that needs to be sorted’. Things that were mid-completion and needed to be kept away from small fingers, or stuff we were storing for church before we had a permanent building, or stuff that was just in the way in any other room so it ended up in that room. Right now, thankfully, it’s been shoehorned into the smallest room in the house (two years ago it was all in the biggest), but this is the sort of stuff I’m picking through:
There are boxes still unpacked from college, because by the time we finished decorating every room we’d had to move them to the attic so we had the space and they didn’t have anything urgent inside them. There’s boxes and folders of stuff we did when we were homeschooling and I put it all to one side not knowing if we would go back to it or not. There’s boxes of wires because we’ve changed what we’ve used technologically so many times but kept things for church or the kids or to fix later, that it’s all jumbled up and useless now because I don’t know what they belong to. There’s clothes that the kids have grown out of that just need separating into stained-or-ripped or decent-enough-to-pass-on but because it was never a urgent job it never got done and so the pile is huge. There’s bags or boxes from times when I’ve emptied out the car to clean it, or even a room that we were moving things around in, and after I’ve grabbed the bits we still need, left the stuff in the bag or box to go through later. There’s games that got their pieces scattered and so we put them to one side until the pieces were gathered again and now I don’t know if there’s a bag somewhere waiting with the missing pieces in to be reunited or if the pieces are long gone and so I just need to throw the game. Craft supplies that needed to be kept out of reach and got forgotten and now half of them are probably dried up. Papers that weren’t urgent enough to need attention straight away and so they got put in a pile. White memory boxes where I lob stuff I know I want to keep but that need properly categorising so everyone gets one with their name on and cards of condolence aren’t lying next to baby shoes anymore.
With or without loss, this would need doing at this point in my life. I am privileged to now have the time to do it. Heck, anyone who has this problem is privileged! “I have so much stuff I don’t need that unless I sort it out properly I’m just going to be filling more landfill space with stuff I shouldn’t have spent money on in the first place because I’ve clearly managed this long without it.” So I’m determined to redeem as much of it as possible by getting rid of it in a still useable state.
The other reason of course has become emotional, not just practical. Every single thing in my house - like your house - has a story behind it. When and where it was bought, why it was given, what it was used for, what changed so it no longer was needed, etc. All of it. Through the summer I spent time away from all this stuff. My only objective was to keep going - to keep feeling alive, to do stuff I didn’t think I’d be able to do, and to stop grief from crushing me. It worked, and so now I’m removing the cushions and letting the crushing begin, because it’s got to come anyway, and I’d rather decide the how and when, with a whole summer of survival behind me to remind me that this is not going to destroy me.
That’s why these are my Ground Zero days. This is the time where I look over the rubble of the past years and start to sift through. Because when devastation hits, the problem isn’t that you’re left with nothing; it’s that you’re left with a whole bunch of something that you no longer know what to do with. You don’t just take a match to what’s left and hope it disperses in the wind - you have to go through it piece by piece and see what’s left.
So much of it is just rubble because it’s been warped by the tragedy and has no use anymore. In my case, that’s medication, work clothes, pieces of gadgets that I don’t know what they belong to, subscriptions, emails, accounts - stuff you can’t leave there or keep because it’s in the way and stops you moving forward.
Then there’s stuff that you know you’re not going to be using anymore but that is still useful to someone, and if not in it’s present form, then at least it can be repurposed for something else. That’s clothes, shoes, books, gadgets that still work, tools, fish-keeping equipment, church strategy ideas, etc. In my case, this is from a man who, when he decided to try something new for the first time, would go out and buy all the equipment for it, had a short attention span, and a bad memory for remembering how much time and money hobbies normally take, so would underestimate both and launch into something huge, be unable to finish it, but keep all the equipment just in case. These hobbies including keeping marine fish, woodwork, diving, playing guitar, air fix models, cycling, cooking, any DIY related skills, running, travelling, cheese making - the list was endless. So you imagine the amount of equipment left behind after all of that.
Then there’s the treasure, and the reason why the whole site doesn’t just get bulldozed in the first place. Stuff that was once every day, but now the tragedy has turned it into more valuable than gold. In real blast sites, there are actual remains of loved ones. In figurative ones like mine, there are things that piece together what’s left of a person in a way that nothing else can. Writing pads with disjointed thoughts on, pictures, cards, things that were bought impulsively and never used but illustrate a character trait so perfectly that the story needs to be repeated, clothes that were worn on special days or bought for a special reason, mementos of holidays, text messages that illustrate every day banter, training manuals that show how much time was invested into future hopes - all that stuff needs to be preserved and put somewhere so it can be accessed whenever people need to revisit the life that had such an impact on their own.
So as I sort, and pick through, the external is mirroring the internal. I have no idea what to let go of and what to hold on to. I sort, I stop, I cry, I write down a memory before it’s forgotten, I allow myself to follow through thought processes that I normally have to push aside when I’m concentrating on conversation or the children’s needs. I ignore my phone and I push myself to keep going, crying and laughing with every memory I come across, letting it hit me as hard as it needs to. It’s exhausting but it stops me from becoming complacent. Although it feels like wallowing in the past, I know what it’s actually doing is moving me forward, like opening up old wounds to sort out what’s underneath.
I can’t do this every day. I wish I could just pause life for a few week, get it all done, then close the door on it. But I have responsibilities, and also I don’t want to sink too far down. I can’t seem to sustain deep levels of negative emotion for long periods, whether it’s anger or sorrow. I need to break free in-between and have laughter and purpose too, so I’m spacing my ground zero days where I focus on the past and on the pain of death, with days where I take the kids out and I serve at church and live life alongside other people and keep focusing on my purpose for being here. Because when tragedy hits like this, one shortly after another, how else do you stop yourself from only thinking about the world beyond this one? It’s easy to start wondering what the point is when life seems so short, and so many ideas and projects seem to have died along with the people I lost. But to keep talking and dreaming and hoping - that’s the biggest weapon against despondency and allowing death to have the last word.
Some people have been uncomfortable when I say I can’t hang out for coffee because I’m busy, because they fear I may be taking too much on. But at Ground Zero you can’t just leave everything as it is and make your bed among the rubble. And if I don’t plan and structure, I just spiral instead. That’s when I go from job to job in the house, and from room to room, because as soon as I move one thing, I see another thing that needs to happen, so I physically move round and round and as I do, I feel myself sinking down and down. But if I choose my mission for that day, and I ignore the things that masquerade as “urgent” - phone calls and thoughts of other things I could be doing - then I know at the end of every one of those sessions, be it an hour or a day, I have moved forward a tiny bit, and faced a memory or shed more tears or put words to a heartbreak, all of which are necessary.
So I am treating this stage as a project, and even though I’ll have nothing physical to show for it at the end (except for space and some neatly packaged memory boxes), I’m hoping there will be a beauty and a weightlessness at the end of it. And I hope to have remembered, after twelve and a half years, what it's like to be allowed to commit to the important instead of just the urgent.