In defence of 2016 ...
It was the year that delivered our family its biggest tragedy, and here's why I won't write it off.
In July this year, I fell to my knees, grief-stricken, beside my husband. The air was sucked out of the universe before emotions rushed in: shock, fear, and an intense, desperate longing for him to wake up, to open his eyes, to breathe …
This couldn’t be happening. This couldn’t be true. This. Couldn’t. Be.
I told him I loved him. I thanked him. I apologised, for what I don’t know … and then, glaringly obvious amidst galloping despair, emerged a mysterious thing. My breath. In, out. In, out. And my heart. Racing. Breaking. Beating.
I’d never felt more alive. Miserably alive, and terrified, but alive. I’d known our existence on this earth was fragile. I’d understood it was a privilege. I knew it could end in an instant and now the evidence of all of this was right before me. My vibrant, brilliant, beautiful soulmate was gone. I wasn’t. The miracle of life stepped out of the shadows and stood beside the awfulness of death, pulling me through then, and in all the times since, when I’d imagined I couldn’t bear to go on without him.
Since July, almost every day and with a growing frequency, I’m been bombarded with social media posts, news headlines and viral videos slamming 2016 as some sort of unprecedented, apocalyptic-like disaster. Favourite celebrities are gone. The wrong people are in power. The earth is erupting and warming and spilling blood. Parts of the world are a cauldron of hatred and violence. People are losing jobs and loved ones and hope. From an overwhelming number of reports, 2016 is the worst year ever. If we’re united in anything, it seems to be our mutual loathing of the twelve calendar months that are about to come to an end.
I can’t help thinking my husband would disagree.
He was genuinely worried about the way things were headed politically and environmentally. He was a history professor with a highly-educated, strategic world view. But he was also a man with a family he loved — a wife who adored him, young-adult children who hung on his words and blossomed in his company and a five-year-old son who lit up his world.
He was a man who, earlier in 2016, knocked his career out of the park with an international honour beyond any he’d ever dreamt. He was top in his field. Lauded so highly, and by so many that, months after his death, I’m still scrambling to thank people for their thoughts.
In the wake of our tragedy, friends, family and strangers closed ranks to soften our fall. We were enveloped in love. If we didn’t understand the depths of the compassion and kindness of ordinary people before July, we’ve been schooled in it since.
One daughter turned eighteen and graduated Year 12 with a stunning final result and early entry into university. The other worked hard and rose out of crippling anxiety, despite her step-father’s death and her first-hand witnessing of it heaping trauma and grief into the mix and handing her a mother who was suddenly on shaky ground in every way. She faced her fears. She re-engaged in her life with gusto. She fell in love.
Earlier this year, my husband had told me to hang in there, personally and career-wise. He’d helped me deal with personal difficulties and disappointment and had been proud of my work and my writing. He’d encouraged me for years in the face of false starts and failure and rejection … and he felt that it was only a matter of patience, and time.
With his support this year, I co-wrote a musical based on my novel. It was showcased at “Broadway Unplugged” in Sydney and will be performed in the coming months. I co-wrote a book on personal productivity and, on the strength of it, we were offered a second book deal for publication globally.
In many ways, 2016 played out for us like a longed-for highlight reel that had been years in the making, only for the film to become mangled in the projector during the premiere.
The screen went instantly blank. But it won’t stay blank. I won’t let it.
My husband died with the world at his feet and left a family making the most of our chances. This year battered us. It bruised us. It wore us down. It exposed us. It pushed us into the dirt and ground us in. Yet, at the end of it all, there is our breath. In, out, in, out. And there are our hearts. Still breaking. Still beating.
I’m not one who believes we should live every day as if it’s our last. That’s a tremendous, unrealistic pressure. Some days are diabolical. Some years seem diabolical because diabolical things happen, seemingly one after the other.
It’s hard to forgive a year that dealt our family, and many others, a king hit. It’s hard to stick up for a year in which something truly horrific happened, the consequences of which we’ll we’ll be unravelling for the rest of our lives. It’s difficult to defend the saddest year in our experience, but I know this much: If my husband was here, he’d be proud of how we've handled ourselves. Proud of how we’ve grown. Excited about the opportunities we’ve grasped. Impressed with the risks we’ve taken and the dreams we’re chasing. He’d be comforted and relieved that we didn’t stop living because he did. He wouldn’t wish the rest of our time away. He wouldn’t focus on how bad it’s been. He wouldn’t give up.
‘It is what it is’, he used to say.
And then he’d get on with changing his corner of the world, one small act, one kindness, one email, one lecture, one book at a time. Because life — even the remaining days in what feels like a sorry, wreck of a year — is unbelievably precious. Making the most of our time, and valuing the breaths we take, is my husband’s parting gift.
Emma is co-author of I Don't Have Time: 15-minute Ways to Shape a Life You Love.