The first thing I remember doing after Ashleen died was calling Jaime, my wife, who was in our hotel room instead of with me, due to the unforgivably callous actions of the powers-that-be at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital’s ICU.
“She’s gone,” is what I think I said.
Shortly after that, I left the hospital with my sister, and we said our goodbyes after I assured her that I was “fine.”
As she drove away, I was alone, for the first time since Ashleen died.
I immediately started my (rental) car, and, for the first time since Ashleen died, I drove, down George St., through downtown Sydney, to our hotel.
I parked the car, entered the hotel, rode the elevator to our floor, walked to our room, opened the door with my key card, and saw my wife and our daughter. I hugged them, and I cried, for the first time since Ashleen died.
So began my year of firsts.
After a bit of time had passed, as the reality of Ashleen’s irrevocable loss sunk in, I began to see the near future as a kind of minefield of “special’ days. What would her birthday be like? What about Christmas? Father’s Day? Mother’s Day? This line of thinking expanded to Easter, to Thanksgiving, to St. Patrick’s Day, and so on. All of these days held special memories. Many we had spent together, and the ones where we were apart always held the hopeful promise of days yet to come.
Now, Ashleen was gone. The future held no such promise.
The really special days were the hardest. Not so much the days themselves, though. I’m surrounded by love and support, and I have a wife who is amazing in ways too numerous to mention. It’s the anticipation of the days that is hardest on me. Knowing exactly when it is, becoming more tense as the day draws near, wondering what will happen, how I will feel, is excruciating.
Then, there were the other “firsts,” the ones that sneaked up on me, caught me off guard. Like driving by where she lived in Halifax, just off Oxford, as well as driving by the bus stop near there where I picked her up numerous times when I was working. It was always such a pleasant surprise to see her standing there, and she was always so happy to see me. Fast-forward to 2021, and I’m suddenly ambushed by this memory, which makes me smile even as my breath catches and I feel a pang in my chest.
The “sneaky firsts” seemed to come at me all the time, and from all angles. Unable to anticipate them, I was spared the anxiety, while at the same time, I felt more vulnerable because I had no opportunity to cover up and protect myself.
At first, I think I handled things fairly well. As time passed, the emotional Sturm and Drang, combined with my illness, exhausted me. The latter part of the summer and into early autumn was, in some ways, the lowest point of my life.
Then I rallied, thanks to some very intense therapy sessions. I settled into a nice groove, as a result of a new, more realistic outlook.
The Christmas season was extremely low-key, I experienced a ton of bittersweet memories, but I got through it. New Year’s Eve was particularly difficult.
On January 12th, 2022, the anniversary of Ashleen’s death, I shared a memory on Facebook from the previous year, where I announced the time of her passing.
I felt that moment deeply. It was as if I’d passed some kind of threshold. I had made it. I had survived.
The funny thing is, although a year had passed, and so much had changed, the fact that Ashleen was gone remained the same.
If you think about it, every day is a “first day.”
We begin each day anew. No day is exactly like any that has happened before. Even the most rigid person changes imperceptibly with the passage of time; the most consistent routine is susceptible to the whims of a world that cares not a whit about our plans, our expectations, our hopes.
Just over six months have passed since the marking of the end of my “year of firsts.”
St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day; still the same.
I still get the same pang when I think of her, or when I’m reminded of her by some random thing, like driving by a certain place, hearing a favourite song, eating a particular food. There are so many triggers, so many memories.
I miss her. That has not diminished. In fact, that feeling grows. She has done everything that she will ever do. Only my memories remain.