Widow Walking in Wild WeatherBy Emma Pearson
October 24, 2020
23 September 2018
I wrote a couple of weeks ago about not recognising my life. Since then I have hiked for 12 big fat full days up and down Corsican mountains on the “GR20 mythique”. Considered to be the hardest of the French Grandes Randonnées, at 180 km in length and over 10,000 m of climb.
I did it because it’s something Mike and I wanted to do when the kids had left home, because Corsica is where we had our honeymoon in 1996 (we hadn’t been back in the meantime); I did it because I could; I did it because I had to. Unfinished business.
It was hard, perhaps more emotionally than physically. Lots of grief triggers for me in the mountains – any mountains, but especially these ones – whether just plain wishing Mike were there to enjoy the beauty, to share conversation and an end-of-day beer with, to bemoan the cramped and snore-y sleeping conditions, to be jointly sweaty with, to delight in local culinary delights – from the most fantastic pork charcuterie to the saltiest ewe’s and goat’s milk cheese, to the most insipid and tepid coffee with powdered milk to wash down the stale white bread in the morning – and just being grateful for our luck in sharing common interests.
I so wish we had done the GR20 together. I so wish we had just pissed off and done it a couple of years ago when the idea took root in my brain. I so wish Mike hadn’t got ill and died, cutting our time together in half compared with what we hoped we’d be lucky enough to have. I so so so wish.
I loved having Nathalie there with me – it made a world of difference for the first week. And I made an amazing new friend, Charlina, another woman who lost her husband way too soon, some 5 years further along from me in her new life.
But I still wish I had had Mike with me. He would have revelled in it all. He would have beamed. He would have moaned with joy and delight at everything from the scenery to the food to the smells to the rock pools to the muddy paths to the rugged rocks and the almost horizontal, wind-swept trees. He’d have gasped and then grinned with pleasure at the sighting of the endemic “mouflon” (wild sheep) with its curly and curvaceous horns, and the free-wild horses in some of the lower plains.
Before Mike died, he and I had one of “those” conversations. Not one of the “dark” conversations. Just one of “the” conversations we had once we both knew with absolute certainty that he was dying, and dying soon. I asked, “so, Mike – what are you going to be, how will I know you’re around, when you’re dead… What will you be?” He looked at me and smiled his crooked smile, and said, “I think you’re going to have to figure that one out for yourself”.
He wasn’t going to be drawn on such esoteric talk! His answer pissed me off. I mean, just say… Butterfly, chirpy birdy, spider, sunshine through clouds (that’s Edward), swirling leaves, hearts in nature (that’s Don) – come on now! Throw me a bone! Give me a clue!
Within weeks of Mike dying, I was sitting outside my office space, quietly resting in the spring sunshine, and felt a breeze tickle the back of my neck. Okay – breeze. Mike’s the breeze. Since then I have “conjured up Mike the breeze” in myriad situations. I chat away to the breeze. And while I am sure it sounds quite mad to some, it’s a lovely thing for me.
Except for the penultimate day on the GR20. Day 11 of walking. Legs tired by now. Left inside ankle tendon tender. Knees more than a little creaky. Starting the day with a 3 hour straight up hike, in the dark with our headlamps on for an hour before the first signs of daylight came. It was windy. It was bleak. The sun was starting to emerge down in the valley behind us, but up ahead it was swirling chilly mist, the rocks coming into view and disappearing at a fast rate. Very windy.
Our young guide and another conferred together. I saw them looking anxiously up, then at their watches. They put on two extra layers and protective wind/rain gear. I followed suit and added my inner gloves and cross-country ski bonnet – the first time they’d come out during the entire hike. Upwards we headed. The guides said, “if this wind would just drop, we will be okay, but we have a very exposed ridge to cross. There have been times we have got up there and had to turn back (ugh – after three hours and 1,200m vertical ascent!!). And once we only got across by being on all fours and hanging on to the trouser leg or boot of the person in front”. Crikey.
I conjured up Mike the breeze and said, “Mike, you need to settle down a bit now. You need to keep us safe. You need to let us all get across this ridge”. I conjured up Ed to bring some sun and warmth, and Don to bring some loving care. I conjured up my mountain walking grandparents May and Jim, my aunties Janet and Julia, Mike’s parents Grace and Bruce, and his sister Barbara. I conjured up all of them to just do what they could to help settle the wind and keep us safe.
We arrived at the top. It was stunningly beautiful. The guide allowed us a 30 second photo opportunity. She was still anxious. We started across the ridge. Then the wind dropped – completely and utterly, utterly and completely dropped – and we jauntily sauntered across the ridge with nothing more than our two feet (and perhaps two batons). There was still a long way to go that day, and the downhills are worse for me than the ups, but the scary dangerous part was over. Thank you Mike, Ed and Don and all of you wild spirits.
Home now, in this unrecognisable life of mine. Safe and sound. It’s been breezy and windy all day. It’s quite wild out there right now. I wish I could chat away about it all with Mike. With anyone. Widowing empty nests is lonely.
Charlina said something very very true to me about widowing: “The ‘never again’ is really hard”. Yes indeed it is. Hard to accept. Hard to experience. Hard to live, day in, day out. Really hard, and really lonely.