Emma & Claire
Could you start off by telling me a bit about the original photograph? Where and when it was taken?
My name is Emma. The original photograph was taken in the half term of 2012, the start of June, Claire and I had been together for about 3 weeks. We came here, because we're both teachers, we came in half term and we brought a colleague here who's Canadian, had never been to Stratford before and was very excited to come here. We were having coffee outside the theatre and our friend took a photo of us. Claire must have just said something funny or cheeky I imagine, because I'm kind of grinning in the photo. There's quite a few photos like that of us that people have taken. I suppose I chose that photo because, it was really early days, but she'd already said something in passing about when we get married, because she knew what she wanted in life! So I think you can tell from the photo that we knew it wasn't casual.
Stratford was nice because she also happened to meet my mum that day. I told my mum she was just a friend, but my mum actually knew she wasn't just a friend and I knew that my mum knew she wasn't just a friend because my mum put the biscuits out on a plate instead of just from the packet, which is what she would do for anyone else! But the fact that she made proper cups of tea and put the chocolate digestives on a plate meant I knew she'd rumbled me!
In one of the photos, I'm wearing a jumper with robots on, that's Claire's jumper. She put the photos on facebook and her mum and her sister immediately messaged her saying, 'Who is that woman! You never let anyone borrow that jumper! Is that your new girlfriend?', so they knew it was serious because of the jumper! So I guess that's why I chose it, because it ties a lot of things together.
So it's a very loaded image, people sussed you out pretty quick! Could you describe the picture for me?
So, we are sat at a picnic bench that's out the back of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre overlooking the river in Stratford. I'm stirring a coffee, and Claire is holding her phone in her hands. Recently, when I chose this photo, I looked back at it and I'd forgotten that the reason she's holding her phone in her hands is because from where we were, sometimes you can hear the noise of the trees, the willow trees that were opposite us, and her mum loves the sound of the wind in the trees, so she was texting her mum to say they made them think of her. I remembered that recently and I was able to tell Claire's mum, you know that photo, she was actually texting you at that point, which is a really nice thing that I was able to recall.
"I remember at her funeral saying that she was like the advent of colour television."
Is it a particularly special place for you? Is it somewhere that you've come back to?
I didn't chose somewhere that felt really significant in our relationship, I don't know why really. I feel like the photo just captured what our relationship was like, it wasn't at our wedding or something particularly special or important, but it was just how we were. We went on lots of adventures, we did lots of travelling, so I guess it sums up a normal part of our relationship. I grew up not far from here and we did come back here to see a play together. It's also just a really nice calm place and a really happy time I suppose.
Would you say this place holds more significance for you now?
It definitely holds more significance than I think it would have, because in a way that lots of places that we went together now are much more significant. Revisiting some of those places is much nicer than I would have assumed, and revisiting some places is harder. For A-level, I taught Thomas Hardy's poetry, and obviously he's known more as novelist, but he wrote a collection of poems called the '1912-1913 Poems', where, for the year after his wife died, he travelled back to all the places that they'd been to together and these poems are completely heartbreaking. Some of them are him thinking that he sees her, some are just him feeling desolate, some of them are him recalling happier times. I would have assumed that that would be something that I would do, and I haven't, but I've definitely have either ended up going or choosing to go back to places that we went to together, and so they do become much more significant. The park that we got married in in Bath is where we've scattered some of Claire's ashes, she was scattered via a fireworks display, which is what she had chosen. I researched crazy options for her and I said you can either have a fireworks display or you can be blasted into space, because when she was younger she wanted to be an astronaut. She said, 'Well if you blast me into space no-one can see it, but if you do the fireworks everyone will have something fun to look at', so I guess what I'm trying to do is say that with these significant places is find ways to incorporate ways of remembering her if that makes sense. It was really nice to come back actually.
"I think it's being wholly known by someone, that's actually what love is about, being wholly known, and I think she did that in just a really generous way."
Thinking about returning to places and remembering Claire, are there certain routines, places or anniversaries that allow you to remember her, think about her?
So, I write to her every night. I've written to her pretty much every night since about 3 days after she died. I've skipped a few nights when I've been staying with friends, but I'd say other than 5 nights it's been every night. I find writing to her really good, it makes me feel more connected to her and is a good routine.
We're coming up to the anniversary of her death and some of her family and I are going back to the hospice where she died, which I would have thought would be a really grim and miserable idea if I hadn't understood that the hospices are actually really nice places and they're all really lovely and caring there. I've kept in contact with them a lot.
I think because I live in Bath and it was her favourite place in the world, i'm constantly in places that were special to her. There's a load of fields where I take the dog, a field that looks down on Bath and before she met me, she sat on that hill with a friend and decided that she to move to London to get a teaching job. So, in weird way, if she'd never had that conversation, we never would have met, so I kind of think of it as her hill. So, kind of everywhere really!
Just going back to the writing, that fascinates me. What does that allow you to express? What's it's meaning and purpose for you?
The meaning and purpose, I ask myself that a lot, why am I doing this, and I think the purpose has shifted over time. At the start, it was partly, well, the first thing I ever wrote was 'You died 3 days ago', and I was having almost to say it out loud to tell myself that it was true. Those moments are far less often now, but there are still times when in my head I have to say, 'Claire's dead', and do a bit of reeling from it all over again.
At the beginning it was a way of forcing myself to process, well process isn't quite the right word, but putting something down on paper reminded myself. We also just talked loads, so if we'd spent a day when we'd hardly seen each other then we wouldn't be able to fall asleep, because we'd be talking! So the act of telling her things just before I go to sleep at night is replicating that part of our relationship. At the start I had nowhere for those things to go, and also I was going through the hardest thing I'd ever had to go through and the person I wanted to talk to about it wasn't there, so I decided just to talk to her about it even though she wasn't there. I suppose it's because she was my go to person.
Now, I think it's a way of remembering things, something will happen in the day that will remind me of something or a memory and I'll note it down. Sometimes I just tell her news. I remember the day Trump got elected and she would have been so devastated, and I'd stayed up all night watching the election with my university friends and the next time I was like, 'You wouldn't have believed...', because she died and month and a bit before he got elected and I just thought she would be so irritated if you were here! So sometimes it's just stuff like that, sometimes it's news. Recently I wrote to her and said 'I'm not sure why I'm telling you everything', because either I believe that she's with me all the time, which I'm not sure I do because I don't believe in an afterlife, but if she's with me then she knows it all anyway so why am I writing it? So I don't know anymore, but I find it very comforting, I think it's a good thing to do.
I absolutely agree, I think it's a great thing to do. You stopped yourself from using the word process, but I would say that is a significant way for you to process things. I remember outwardly talking to my dad when he wasn't there and sharing things with him, maybe you're the same, but I know I'm very much an external processor, so if I don't say something then it either niggles away at me, or I'll just feel the need to say it and get annoyed! Having a way to let those things out feels a very healthy thing to do.
Yeah, I agree, because there's a period of time where you just want to talk about it all the time, and I definitely did that, and a lot of my friends especially listened to me talk about things a lot. I think there's a stage of that that I wouldn't be processing as well if I wasn't writing. There's something about putting it on paper as well.
Could you tell me about Claire, about who she was, what did she mean to you?
That's really hard. It's hard because, where do you start? She was everything I suppose.
I remember at her funeral saying that she was like the advent of colour television, because I'd had a perfectly fine life up until then, but she was the switching on of technicolour and the realisation that life was joyful. She was adventurous, enthusiastic and genuine, authentic and earnest, cheeky, mischievous, loving and kind and could speak all these languages, fly a plane, just an amazing person. She was the kind of person that everyone else is like, 'What, really?!'. Me and Claire's sister sometimes talk about the fact that others will think we have a rose-tinted view of her, and I'm sure we do, but actually, she really was that amazing.
We created a life together that was, well, perfect is too neat a way of describing it, but I think we, I don't know, she said we were made for each other, and not long before she died she said, 'I've always said I don't believe in soulmates, but I do believe you are my soulmate'. I think it's that belief once you've found someone who absolutely understands you. I think it's being wholly known by someone, that's actually what love is about, being wholly known, and I think she did that in just a really generous way. Yeah, she was amazing.
When we were talking earlier, you described her as being very driven, in the sense of her profession, but also her pursuit, which sounds very direct, but pursuing you in the relationship and also that character coming through in light of her illness. I wondered if you could share a bit about those things, although maybe you don't feel like they're connected?
I think they are connected. The word strong has too many potential connotations, but she was strong-willed and purposeful and considered about everything. Very driven in her career and knew exactly what she wanted and she achieved the things she set out to achieve, obviously before cancer got in the way.
In terms of how she handled being ill, I think for the majority of the time she was ill, she took the focus she would have had towards her career towards trying to get better. With cancer you can't control it, either the treatment works or it doesn't, so I think she spent that time thinking about the things she could control. It wasn't just about trying to stay physically fit, because she had been very fit and active, it was about being connected to people. It was partly wanting to use the time when she was ill to having meaningful conversations and create positive memories and then once she knew she was dying, that quickly became a real focus on things she wanted to do to equip us for the future. She died much quicker than we thought she was going to, and there were things she was going to do. She wanted to record herself reading Harry Potter that then I and her brother and sister could listen to because we were big fans. Stuff like the Harry Potter play was published at the end of July and we had a party, just stupid stuff like that because she was focussed on creating things that now we can all look back on and remember that she did that for us.
Her dad got remarried a month before she died, she made a really lovely speech and there's a lovely photo of them together on the day. She was really purposeful about knowing that we would need to hold onto things, so she was almost strategic about how she spent her time, even though she was really tired most of the time.
What was your wedding like?
We had planned to get married in August of this year (2017), but we decided to move it forwards when we realised how serious things were, and so we got married in May. Actually, our oncologist, I say 'our' oncologist because she made me feel part of everything, but Claire's oncologist was very good at not being too blunt with us but helping us understand that there were certain times to do certain things if we wanted to do them. Actually she chose a time when Claire was at her best, she'd just had some radiotherapy, had surgery but recovered from it, and the treatment wasn't affecting her too much. For a lot of people, they will have seen her at our wedding and then not seen her again, and actually, it was amazing, because she very much was herself and looked like herself.
In the lead up to the wedding I think we were both quite worried that we'd be sad on the day, but actually, the wedding was great, we were really happy, it was the best day! I was amazed that we were just incredibly happy and gleeful and it was all lovely! We got married in a park in the centre of Bath, we had two very good friends conduct the ceremony for us, which was amazing. We now feature in the 'Get Married in Bath' promotional literature, which is a bit funny, Claire would find that hilarious, they're clearly trying to get the pink pound I think!
That was in May, and then it was in July that we were told that the cancer was terminal, but actually, before then already she'd been writing bits and pieces, in her diary and writing me loads of silly post-it notes. I'd come out of the bathroom and there'd be lots of notes saying thank you for this, this is great, I love you because of this, etc., which I've still got in the back of a book. Once we knew she was dying, she wrote me quite a few letters which are in a book. Also, things like a list of things she knew I'd need to remember when I was sad. I've just remembered actually, and I haven't looked at the book for a while, but she drew round her hands, so that I could, you know, because her hands were a bit bigger than mine, and she labelled them with 'This where I've got the scar from this', 'This is where my wedding ring is'. She just did loads of things I think realising that I would need things to hold on to.
She sounds amazingly conscientious, to be thinking of everyone else so much in that moment is quite incredible. What was it like when I asked you to choose a photograph, were there a few to choose from?
I think I instinctively wanted one where we were looking at each other. I remember actually when I introduced Claire to my university friends and a really good friend of mine saying in the car park as we were leaving, Sally said to me, 'Anyone who looks at you like that is alright in my book'. I think people did say that we looked at each other as if we were totally in love, and, we were. So I think I knew I wanted something that showed that. I remembered the day in Stratford and significant things like the jumper, so it didn't take long to choose.
What was it like going back, re-taking it, being in that space again?
It was not as difficult as I thought it would be. On the way here I felt a bit, not nervous, but conscious of it and wondered if it would be difficult, but actually once I was here, it was really nice. I really like talking about Claire, that's been my way of coping with it, talking about her lots. It was nice, nice is a terrible word, I tell people not to use it because it's not very descriptive, it was, I don't know! How was it? One thing Claire was very good at, even though she was a very dynamic and exiting person, she was a very calm presence in my life, and it was very calm, so that is a good thing.
"I still feel lucky that we met at all, and the photos help me feel that way."
Have photographs been important for you in remembering Claire? Have they been helpful, informing memories, or maybe confusing?
I think they're really important, because, without being too philosophical about it, we do live in an age when photos are more instant and you can photograph your relationship and Claire was a massive fan of stupid selfies. There are a number of times when we've been photographed by other people, not professionally other than our wedding, but just times when people have captured things, and actually, Clarie's aunt, who she was very close to, is an amazing photographer and so there's been a number of family occasions when Claire, because she was used to her taking photos of the family all the time, so she took some nice ones of us. Claire's mum had remarried a few years previously, so there's a really nice shot of me dancing with Claire, she hadn't dancing, but I forced her to dance at weddings. Some really nice photos of us being smug and happy! I think photos are really significant.
Also, she was the kind of person that people would go, 'She's really attractive!', my friends would actually say that, she had very blue eyes, so she photographed well and I think they were quite a feature of her life.
Now, a few times I've scrolled back through photos on my phone, but in a weird sort of way, I've not looked back at everything and I'm conscious that I'm squirrelling them away for when I need them. For example, I've still got Claire's phone and I haven't switched it back on for a long time. I know there are photos that I won't have looked at since she died, am I'm saving them so I don't use them all up in one go. They won't be new, but because I will have forgotten about them, they will be like getting something a little bit new, like when someone tells you a new story. At her funeral we had an afterparty rather than a wake, one of her uni friends told a really good story about how on the first night Claire's friend had got her finger stuck in the top of a traffic cone that they'd nicked, cos, you know, students, and Claire immediately ran off to get some vaseline and freed her finger from it. I'd never heard it before, and it was lovely to have a new funny story and I think photos serve that purpose, so I'm conscious of not looking at loads of photos so that when I go back I've got something.
They are an anchoring point. There are times when it's been hard and I've looked back at photos. For me, it's nice to remember that we were incredibly happy. I still feel lucky that we met at all, and the photos help me feel that way.
I've never heard of anyone holding back looking at photographs, it's often the first thing that people do if they're preparing something for a thanksgiving service, so they could look through everything in the first week and put them on a big slide show!
We did do that, and everyone's experience is different, but I think it's fairly common that the bit between the death and the funeral, you're a bit bonkers and numb aren't you. So I know we did it, and Claire's mum and sister were staying with me, Claire's auntie emailed lots of photos across and we did a good slideshow for the funeral and afterparty, and we've all got copies of it, and I haven't looked back at it since. Some of them, for various reasons, like photos with her parents when she's little are obviously heartbreaking, but when I do finally look at it, I will have forgotten, because that time was so hazy, I was mad, basically and didn't know what I was doing, so because I haven't looked since then it feels like I've not looked at them at all.
I feel like you're doing yourself a favour! Is there anything else that you'd like at add or share?
One of the things I was thinking about on the way here was about the different elements of grieving for someone, especially when they've died at an age that Claire died at. So I'm still grieving the life that she hasn't gone on to have. I think about that a lot and one of the reasons I'm functioning better than I would have thought, is that I'm conscious of having life and being alive and therefore I should try and honour her by having a good and purposeful life and I think doing things like this is a way of trying to take her with me into that life. I think that's really important, to make her a part of the future, because we thought'd we have our future together, but that's something I think about quite a lot.
So has your experience of loss changed your outlook on life?
I want to help other people who are going through a similar situation, because I think some of it is caring for, but I was her wife not her carer, but just the process of being very close to someone as they die is something that I want people to feel like they can talk to me about. It's quite a difficult thing to talk about, and some people go through it and never want to revisit it, which I totally understand, but I feel fine with visiting it because I learnt so much. As a teacher, I can't learn lots and not give it to anyone else, it just doesn't feel right, and I think Claire would really respect that, she'd think it would be a good thing to do.
The other thing is that it's made me less, well I used to care about what people thought of me, because ultimately we're all going to die, so I'll just live my life how I think is the right way to live it. I worry less about that kind of thing, I'm a lot more relaxed about things. I'm a lot less, well, I don't obsess about work how I used to, there are other things that are important in life. One of the most significant things that's come out of this is that my family and friends and Claire's family and friends have all been amazing and so I'm making time to see them all, but also I've got amazing friends, who I knew were great people, but now I know that some of them are truly amazing, and so, actually, if I am lucky enough to live a long life, I'd like people to look back and think 'She was a really good friend', that's much more important to me, I always wanted that, but now that's much more at the centre of what I want to do, rather than just be career obsessed, which I probably was before! So it's definitely changed me in that way.