My husband’s last Christmas message
Christmas always makes me think of Niall, my brilliant, quixotic, sensitive and troubled partner who died by suicide in the year 2001. He died in early February, traditionally the beginning of spring in the Celtic calendar, when memories of Christmas and New Year still linger in our minds. For me this time of year inevitably brings memories of our last Christmas, which we spent together in our rented London flat. I begged that we might visit my family for the holiday, but Niall insisted that he would not be able to cope with the travel and the hurly burly of my large, boisterous clan. I knew this was true, and to leave him on his own would have been unthinkable. So we two spent Christmas 2000 together but alone.
Niall had always hated Christmas. The questions from colleagues and friends about where he would spend the holiday – the expectation that we would go ‘home’ to Ireland. But that final Christmas, he did try to get into the festive spirit. He bought a tiny tree and decorated it with two strands of tinsel, one white, one red. He also bought a silly Santa toy, on an elasticated cord, which went ‘ho ho ho’ when twirled around. We exchanged cards and gifts and shopped for festive food. We had duck with all the trimmings, followed by mince pies, pudding and cake.
After Niall died I gathered up everything he had, every letter, every note, every knick-knack, and stored it all in boxes. Every item, however trivial while he was alive, now took on a new and profound significance. The compass he used for our occasional hiking expeditions; his medication dispenser; his travel card. So it is that I still have the strand of red tinsel that he bought for his little Christmas tree. To me it forever means Christmas. I smile to think of him going to the Pound Shop to buy in the things that would make us a Happy Christmas.
In the past few days I’ve found myself remembering another aspect of that last Christmas with Niall – the last Christmas card he had given me. I remembered that it had a beautiful, but very lonely, image of a snowy woodland path. Reflecting on this memory, I wondered how on earth anyone had designed a festive card with such a lonely theme. Searching through my boxes of Niall’s things today I found the card. The image was as lonely and as lovely as I had remembered: a deserted snowy woodland path. But for the first time, I noticed that it was not, in fact, a Christmas card. It was a blank-for-your-own-message card that happened to feature a beautiful snow scene.
I remember the moment when Niall gave me the card. I opened the envelope eagerly, but instead of feeling joyful, I was overwhelmed with dismay and fear. I blurted “oh it’s lovely Niall thank you!”, as I hastily placed it on the mantelpiece with the other cards. Perhaps strangely, I then completely forgot about its existence. A couple of weeks after his death, it occurred to me that he must have given me a Christmas card, and I searched for it, to see what his final Christmas message might have been.
On re-reading the message, I understood why I had reacted with confusion and dismay on being given the card. The tone of the message was as bleak and alienated as the snowy image. Instead of the intimate or silly message that I’d expected, I found a formal, stiffly-worded note, like a letter from some distant uncle. Niall wrote “I wish you a year 2001 in which you consolidate your already impressive career achievements,…” He signs off with the awkward words “From the husband you didn’t think you would have, who is a lucky man himself. With much love”. When we first met, I was in my thirties and had told him I had been happily single and had decided I wasn’t “the marrying type”. This seems to be what Niall is referring to here, but it’s also possible to see a hint of what was to come.
Reading these words again, written in Niall’s familiar sprawling handwriting, I’m struck by the fact that nowhere in this brief message does Niall use the words “we” or “us” or our”. He hopes that “2001 is truly your year” instead of “our year” which is what he had said for every previous New Year we spent together. This card was almost certainly the last card Niall ever gave me, as his suicide happened some weeks before my birthday, and a couple of weeks before Valentine’s Day. I now see it as his farewell to me, the woman he remembered having once loved.
I think of Niall every day, and today is no different. He changed my life utterly, twice. And he left me some tinsel.
24 December 2018