This is the first in a brief series of posts.
It is May, 2013, and I am standing in a hipster bar in the middle of Amsterdam in the middle of a long afternoon-into-evening.
I have just come to The Netherlands to receive terrible news. To soften the blow of having to tell me how bad this particular situation is, a group of lawyers is taking me out for drinks. But I am jetlagged and angry about How We Got Here in the First Place, so I have become rather tipsy, rather quickly. But instead of paying attention to the Dutch happy hour and the attorneys who have graciously arranged it, I am frantically texting with a man I have loved for a long time, trying to focus his attention on me. In my head, I feel I am the embodiment of a Joni Mitchell song – winsome, wistful, lonely, pining for a man who is not ever going to be mine alone.
By now dangerously tipsy, I message the man a loaded question – a question that is meant for winesoaked lovers’ lips next to each other in bed, or the shadows of a bar, and not from halfway ’round the world via electronic pings. I ask him: Don’t you love me and want me to be happy?
He replies: I want you to be happy.
It is clear that I have made A Terrible Mistake. I gather up my things and leave the bar. I meet my colleague for dinner like Nothing Ever Happened. By the door of the restaurant there is a large, ostentatiously displayed wheel of stilton. My colleague fusses over it like it is a puppy or a baby. We English love stilton, he explains, as if that excuses his behaviour over a wheel of cheese. We finish an unmemorable meal by ordering a cheese plate – the stilton is standout. They cut it freshly from the giant wheel.
It is after Midnight when I arrive back at the hotel and I put myself to bed.
The next morning, I am up early to catch a plane to Edinburgh to run the 2013 Edinburgh Half Marathon. On the flight, I sit and observe the bracelet I am wearing, which I inherited from my grandmother – my mother’s mother. I am flying on what would have been her 100th birthday, and the bracelet is stamped with scenes from Don Quixote.
My grandmother was a tiny, peculiar woman, and had been the mother of four children – two boys and two girls. She had lost one of her daughters at the age of six weeks. Years earlier, when my grandparents had still been living in their house in Florida, and I was a tweenager, my grandmother and I had gone through her jewellery and she had taken tiny enamelled pins out from a case.
Those were Margaret’s, she said. Before that moment, I’d never even known such a person had existed, or that my mother had had a sister. Margaret had been born with an oesophageal condition and the surgery to correct it had failed. The absence of Margaret had left a hole in my grandmother’s heart that my mother could never fill. Perhaps any parent who has lost a child will confess to this; perhaps any after-born child will bemoan it. It did not occur to me until much, much later that maybe the Complex Grief was why my own mother and I were not particularly close: Those sorts of gaps; wounds couldn’t close so easily in just one generation.
The irony does not strike me at the time – that I have been chasing a non-existent love and fighting off imaginary giants. That my own Complex Grief has had a hand in tanking my first marriage and subsequent relationships. I just think that I am honouring the dead.
My friend Smplefy meets me in the Edinburgh Airport with a sign that says International Woman of Mystery, and I laugh for the first time in days. We go to pick up our race numbers and talk about running, and Scotland, and Things That Are Easy to Discuss.
I am grateful.
That night, we part ways early so we can each prepare for the next day’s race. I message my mother before bed, hinting at my romantic failures. You just need to put yourself out there, she advises, Nobody is going to come into your office and sweep you off your feet. I roll my eyes from 6,000 miles away.
For once, I draw the blackout shades in a hotel room, because it is 10.30pm and the Scottish night is still purple and blue. It is beautiful – I could drink it in forever. But I have to go to sleep because I have to run the next day. I am filled with missing, and longing, but I am limbo because he wants me to be happy. I should be happy. Alone.
The next day, Smplefy and I meet at the Start, making it by the skin of our teeth, and running the course in the unusually pleasant Edinburgh morning. We run past the landmarks, through the city, along the North Sea. It is Perfect. My heart is breaking, but it is a Perfect Day.
I run a slow race, which is confusing. My body feels like it cannot work. I am in good physical shape, and at the finish, my hip seizes for the first time. I blame a twitchy IT band, and jetlag, but I am baffled.
That afternoon I shower at the hotel and cancel my reservation for the night; opting to head back to London then onward to New York. I have failed; I am failing. I am inordinately sore. My then-assistant manages to get me on the last flight out of Edinburgh that afternoon and by evening, I am safely back in London, my grandmother’s bracelet clanging on my wrist as I exit the Tube and make my way to dinner with my friend PG.
It is the end of May, 2013.
I do not know then that within days, someone will walk into my office and sweep me off my feet – and will later become my husband. I do not know that the pain in my hip is not my IT band – it is a serious cartilage injury that will sideline me for a more than a year. I do not know that the bracelet on my wrist and the story behind how I came to possess it will later hold the key to unlocking a serious family medical mystery; that I will be fighting a different kind of giant.