Thirteen years ago we did what countless couples had done before us and what countless others will continue to do long after we’ve gone – we said those powerful words of promise and commitment to each other and said ‘I do.’ As we gazed at each other through emotion filled eyes that August day in 2005 all of those marriage vows we exchanged meant everything. As we stood in front of God, our family and our friends, we were publicly promising to walk through life together, whatever the highs and lows life would inevitably throw at us. As I fixed my eyes upon Gemma’s radiant face, I promised to hold her from that day forward, in the good times and the bad, in richer times and in poorer times, to be there for her when she was sick and to be there for her when she was good. As I held her right hand I promised her that I would love her and cherish her and I would do that til death us do part. And those five words are the five words we don’t really want to dwell upon on our wedding day. Why would we? We’re in such a bubble of happiness and love that those simple, yet powerful five words are ones we’d rather not think about. Like all of us, we know it’s going to happen at some point, but on your wedding day you imagine that day, however painful it will be, will come at the ‘right’ time in life. It will come at the end of a long and hopefully happy marriage, your kids will have given you grandkids and you’ll be so old and decrepit that it will probably feel it’s the right time for life to come to its conclusion. On that happiest of days those five solemn words feel so abstract that you barely acknowledge what they actually stand for.
As I gazed upon Gemma’s radiant face, I promised to hold her from that day forward, in the good times and the bad, in richer times and in poorer times, to be there for her when she was sick and to be there for her when she was good.
On August 6th, 2005 I felt the happiest I had ever been. Although our relationship hadn’t always been easy, I knew with as much certainty as you can ever have that this was the girl I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. The sun shone, the church in Sevenoaks was packed with our family and friends, the flowers were stunning – all the months of planning were now about to be realised. As she appeared at that sun filled church door with her father by her side, my heart fluttered. As she made her way slowly down the aisle drinking in that most special of walks, I could only well up with emotion and pride. She looked stunning. She radiated a grace and beauty that in so many ways reflected the person she was. I was so in love and so excited that the day had finally arrived when we would begin to walk this journey called life together, and for twelve and a bit years we did exactly that. There were lots of highs, but as with any relationship, there were the inevitable lows as well. Times when the journey felt harder than we’d ever expected. Times when despite loving her dearly, I didn’t cherish her as much as I should have done. Times when life threw us curveballs that were so hard to deal with like not being able to have any more children. Times of unforgettable happiness, and times of gut wrenching sorrow when our second attempt at IVF ended up with a miscarriage. But this is marriage. This is why we say these vows. They’re not some fanciful throw away lines to bring a bit of formal substance to a wedding day, we say them because we’re acknowledging that however much we’re in love, however much that person means to us, life isn’t easy. Relationships aren’t easy. But despite that we are committing ourselves to stand together, to love each other, to cherish each other and be there for each other whatever life brings. I was far from the perfect husband; but I meant every word I said to Gemma on that sunny day in August and looked forward with great excitement and optimism to our life together as Mr and Mrs T.
This Monday would have been our thirteenth wedding anniversary. As we did most years, we’d have probably dug out and watched our wedding video or got the album out and laughed at my terrible hair style, and we’d have no doubt gone out for a lovely meal and reminisced about that day all those years ago and looked forward to what the next year together would bring. But today there will be nothing to celebrate, just memories to try and cherish amidst the sadness. Those seemingly abstract words of ‘til death us do part’ came cruelly to pass nearly nine months ago as a devastating strain of Leukaemia robbed Gemma of her life, destroyed our dreams of a long and happy marriage, and stole in the cruellest of ways, her hopes of seeing her boy Ethan grow up and blossom into a man. With barely twelve years on the marriage clock death ripped us apart and it is as brutal and final as that. As she breathed her last our marriage came crashing to an end, and in my mid-forties, I now find myself a single man once again. However lovely and supportive our friends have been, I now find myself in a parallel universe to them. I am still alongside them, yet now in a totally different place, I’m now the odd one out. With summer in full swing social media is awash with fun filled filtered pictures of family summer holidays and each photo cries out this is what you once had, but now you don’t and everything is so horribly different. Ethan has his own painful parallel universe to navigate. All the friends he’s grown up with now have the one thing he doesn’t – a mum – and it breaks my heart daily to know that there is nothing I can do to change his new, agonising reality. He should have had lots of summers with his mum and dad to look back on in the years to come – he got just seven!
As Alfred Lord Tennyson once famously said: “Tis better to have loved and lost to have never loved at all.” This is something I have reflected on a lot over the past few months. At times the pain of losing her has been so much that I have wondered if life might have been easier had I not loved Gemma in the way that I did. The pain of our sudden separation might have somehow been less intense. A common comment I often receive on Instagram when I post about her is that I should be grateful that I got to love and be loved like that, because many never get to experience a love like this. In many ways, although not always written in the most sensitive manner, they’re right. I am blessed to have experienced love like this, I am blessed that out of our marriage came the wonderful gift of my boy who despite everything he is going through, has been a constant ray of hope and light. Tennyson is right, it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all, but my goodness when you do lose it, the pain is horrendous and the love you got to experience and enjoy is no comforter, it’s more like a tormentor.
Tis better to have loved and lost to have never loved at all. ~ Alfred Lord Tennyson
In the words spoken at our wedding service by my Dad (who married us) he said this before we exchanged our vows: “They shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind, as Christ is united with his bride, the Church. The gift of marriage brings husband and wife together in the delight and tenderness of sexual union and joyful commitment to the end of their lives.”
On that summers day in 2005, Gemma and I became one. We became a team. We committed ourselves to walk this journey of life together. When people struggle to understand what losing your husband, wife or partner feels like, especially when it comes at the wrong time in life, it feels like your right arm and leg have been ripped from you. It is painful. It is debilitating. It is life changing, but it doesn’t have to be life ending. I will always walk through the rest of my life with a limp, the hole Gemma has left in my life will never be filled, but for the sake of my boy and myself, I have to hold onto the belief that life can be good again. As we have so often seen from those inspirational men and women from our armed services who have returned home from conflict with life changing injuries, they have to endure months, sometimes years of pain, but eventually through sheer character, grit and determination, they find a way to walk again. Whatever the next few years bring, I am determined to keep walking and keep seeking the light and keep searching for joy. My heart will forever be broken that we never got to enjoy a long marriage together and that Gemma never got to see her boy grow into a man, but in trying to honour her life and memory I have to find life again. I owe it to her and I owe it to our boy.
I’ll finish with these words. The words I used at Gemma’s funeral back in December:
“So often in life we hear these words – seize the day, carpe diem, live each day as if it was your last and yet we know that in the business and pressures of life how difficult this is to do. As I’ve looked through so many photos of her these past few days I’ve seen her in a new, more beautiful way. She looks more radiant than ever, but I will never get the chance to tell her again how beautiful she is. But I would do anything – I would give up our house, I would give up my job, I would sell all I have to have one more hour with Gemma. In the space of just three fear filled days Ethan lost a Mum and I lost my wife. Life is precious. Life is so so precious.”
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, and it keeps no record of wrongs. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres. For those of you who have found love, cherish it. When the good times come enjoy them for all they’re worth. When the hard times come, don’t give up – keep going. If you’re getting married this summer I hope and pray your wedding day overflows with joy and you have a long and fulfilled life together. For those of you who crave that special person to share your life with, I hope one day you find them. Love is amazing and I will always be thankful that despite its brevity, I got to love and be loved in the most special of ways.
For those of you who have found love, cherish it. When the good times come enjoy them for all they’re worth. When the hard times come, don’t give up – keep going.
Happy 13th wedding anniversary darl. I love you more than ever xxx