I met my friend Mandy on 10th June 2018. We were in a furniture painting class at the local community village hall and she radiated towards me with her infectious smile and abundance of Welsh humour, telling me we were already Facebook friends. We were. At the time I was living in a cottage in the Lowther Hills of Scotland twelve miles from the nearest village and I couldn’t drive. I’d joined the community Facebook page to get to know the locals, adding one or two friends along the way, and to post questions such as whether there was a local driving instructor. At the same time I was married but lonely. The last part I hadn’t yet told a living soul.
Mandy is sixty-two and had been a widow living alone for three years when we met. At first she started encouraging me to get out more, driving twenty-four miles to take me to and from weekly coffee mornings at the village hall she lived across the road from. I hadn’t told her how alone I was or that she was forcing me out of the bubble I’d built around myself so people wouldn’t be able to see how sad my life had become. I didn’t need to.
She and her husband, Dick had been married for thirty-one years and were still as deeply in love as the day they met when he passed away. He was the other piece of her; her support system, her cheerleader, her lover and her best friend. She would tell me that in that chance moment of meeting him, he had reawakened the true side of herself that had been hidden under a blanket of sad and difficult life experiences up until then. He’d woken up her spirit; inspiring and encouraging her to be who she’d always wanted to be. He’d picked her up when she was down, shared joy in her successes, sadness in the failures and spurred her on through it all. Dick devoted his entire life to making Mandy’s heart feel like she was dancing in sunshine. He made her laugh easily and for longer than anyone she’d ever known. Mandy often shares the funniest stories about the things they got up to together. In a series of very frank anecdotes that begin with, ‘I miss my Dick’, which she allows me to have a guilty, childish giggle about every time she says it – usually aloud and in tiny coffee shops full of people – Mandy has showed me what real love is supposed to be like. And it was her who made me start to realise the many ways I didn’t have it in my own life. In return I’ve tried to make her see that knowing it was possible she herself might be able to have it again in the future. Not exactly the same, I say to her, but something every bit as good because now we both know it’s out there.
‘Heather,’ she tells me all of the time. (And I mean ALL the time). ‘When a man loves you – really loves you – he’ll take a bullet for you.’
I immediately picture myself leaning over the body of a beautiful-but-dead man with a gunshot wound in his chest, saying, ‘Ahh, so that was him!’
What she means, in her quirky, round about way, is that a man in love will do anything to keep you. Dick was the man that would take that bullet for her, and his death left Mandy lost, alone and staring into the gaping hole that was once her life. She no longer felt like she had anyone to keep her – or to save her. And she instinctively knew, even though I was smiling and joking on the outside, I was almost as sad and lonely inside as she’d been after Dick died. She not only became my rescuer, but she began teaching me some of the most important lessons about love that I’d had so far and she had no idea she was doing it. Neither of us has an answer as to how she knew I needed to meet her and hear her stories, but she was there to hold my hand just in time to witness my entire life fall apart in similar ways her own had three years earlier.
Neither of us have an answer as to how she got a notion to turn up unannounced at my door at two o’clock one afternoon, the first after my marriage had fallen apart for good. She had never dropped by without telling me she was coming before, and she found me trembling from the stress of it all and alone, having not yet told a soul what had happened. I opened the door in my pyjamas and dressing gown, flung my arms around her and wept. Magical Mandy somehow knew I needed a friend that day
…and there she was.
She was there again not long afterwards.
Because in the midst of all this, as you’ll see from my previous post, a fortnight before Christmas my 25 year-old son, Ryan, passed away. When the police came to tell me he’d died, they asked a lot of questions the fog in my brain could barely compute, let alone answer. One was whether I could recall the last time I saw him. ‘No,’ I said, suddenly feeling like the worst mother in the world. I lived in the country and Ryan in the city. We spoke all the time but for geographical reasons, coupled with my inability to drive, I hadn’t got to see him as often as I’d liked of late. Then, in the midst of all the continuing questions a memory came to me in a flash: I’d seen him just six days earlier in Glasgow. The reason was because Mandy had an important appointment in the city and she felt anxious about travelling on trains so I’d offered to go with her. We’d arranged to meet Ryan afterwards. It was the first time Mandy had met him and, as it turned out, the last time either of us saw him. I recalled him in the moment then, smiling and waving goodbye as he left us at the pedestrian crossing outside Pizza Hut in Argyle Street. But what had we said to each other? I suddenly wanted to remember every, tiny detail. I couldn’t recall much in that moment, even the fact of the date – the next day had been my birthday.
When my son died multiple people kindly said, ‘I’m so sorry for your loss.’ There were hundreds of messages, all providing the greatest of comfort to me during this most horrific of times. Yet of the people I called the night he died: his father, his brothers and sisters, my family and a few very close friends, only Mandy didn’t say any of the usual things. Mandy, who had my daughter Luci staying with her that night, was able to provide something even more precious that nobody else could give to me. She knew what I needed to hear because 1) she’d been in a similar place herself not too long before, watching the walls of a previous life she’d never see again crumble before her blinking, unbelieving eyes and 2) she was standing beside me on that final day I spent with my son. When someone close dies you want to know if you’d told them all the things they meant to you when that real, live, If Tomorrow Never Comes moment happens. Did he know how much I loved him? Mandy’s gift to me on that darkest night of my life was a minutely detailed reminder of what my son and I spoke of the very last time I saw him alive. She told it to me over and again on the phone, aware that I was engulfed in a cloud of fog and sinking into the abyss without even being there in the room with me. I wasn’t in the room with myself, truth be told. Mandy knew she had to tell me more than once for it to sink in. And after our phone call ended, she texted it to me so I could read it again and again and again; so that I never lost it. I didn’t:
On 15th of June Ryan would have turned twenty-six and I won’t lie, nothing inside of me is even remotely looking forward to that day. Yet no matter how huge the loss of him is to me, I know the world does not stop. My son wouldn’t want me to stop living. If anything, losing him has taught me to live and love even harder than ever before, be authentic, genuine, brave, say what I mean – what I feel – to everyone who’s important to me and to make every single day of my life count. You have to let go, trust and be who you are, just as my son was able to do in his short life. After taking a flight to Bristol with Ryan’s ashes for his father to scatter at sea with all the family down there, I kept a small urn back for myself. I have sat with it in my bedroom for five months now, pondering what we might do, Ryan and I, as a special occasion just for us.
I spoke to my therapist about it who asked me if I’d considered the idea of doing something creative, taking Ryan along with me as I go. He advised making it something Ryan would thoroughly appreciate and be proud of me for. It would be the perfect tribute to my son – proof that there is life after loss. I’m now ready to reveal what I decided on. It is to journey with Mandy along Scotland’s North Coast 500, sharing the driving as I finally passed my test in March! Woo hoo to that, it’s taken me long enough. As we have magically and inexplicably found each other at a point in our lives when we were both grieving and alone, this seemed the perfect thing for us to do. We plan to wild camp, something we’ve tested in my back garden, giggling like a couple of ten year-olds as we dived into the near collapsing tent we’d tried to put up. And as my son was a drag queen who took to the stage in Glasgow regularly without a care for how anybody felt about that, we plan to dance on every beach we visit along the way, come rain or shine.
I am working on a book about this time of my life that will include our adventures and journey together through grief and loss. I guess my aim is to spread the word about the power of finding happiness and friendship and how it can save us in the darkest days of our lives. Mandy and I will be living proof of that – providing we survive out there of course. It will be a celebration of my son and Mandy’s husband’s lives. Two women of a certain age, wild camping and driving a 500 mile coast road, one of them having not long passed her driving test. Watch out world…
Dancing With Mandy will be about pride; personal pride, family pride and gay pride, while sharing our worst, most vulnerable experiences out loud. It’s to demonstrate the sheer power of two and of humour. You can find out more here:
“Mandy, I think I have to write a book about us and our North Coast 500 road trip.”
“What, like Thelma and Louise?”
“Yeah. Well, sort of.”
“And who will I be in the story?”
“You’ll be you. Mandy.”
Mandy pauses, and a smile that goes all the way to her eyes brightens the room once more. “Well,’ she says finally. ‘I don’t mind being the one that gets ravished in the beginning.”
To be with us on our journey, which begins on 16th July 2019 for ten days, FOLLOW #dancingwithmandy on Instagram