Two weeks ago tomorrow, the fabric was ripped from my universe. I lost my darling husband, Jeff, suddenly, unexpectedly and inconceivably. There is much I want to say about how I have survived the worst two weeks of my life — most of it involves being carried by my sister, friends and even strangers, when I felt I couldn’t breathe. I’ll write about that in the coming weeks, but, for now, please indulge me while I share with you the words I spoke at his memorial service on Friday.
The weekend before Jeff died, I told him I had a flat tyre.
‘Call the NRMA,’ he said.
‘I’m not a member.’ I told him. He rolled his eyes, frowned at me and sighed. And then he looked at me and said, ‘Well you should be.’ (Thanks to my brother-in-law, Paul, for changing my tyre for me.)
In the days that followed his death, as we walked around the house, trying to piece together some semblance of understanding about what had happened, and how it could possibly have happened … We also had to piece together the house.
There was a smoke alarm sitting upturned on a pile of books in his study. The oven door handle was on the kitchen bench with the broken lint cover from the dryer. The towels were on the bathroom floor on top of the towel rail which Seb had ripped off in 2012. The television channels left us three years ago …
My husband was a man with a long history of leaving things broken around the house. And now he’s left us broken.
When someone like Jeff is taken from our lives so unexpectedly, everything appears in sharper focus. How much we loved him. How much he accomplished. How much his enormous brain had left to think, and how deeply he intended to continue loving and inspiring us.
He was a man who died with a to-do list a mile long — and I don’t mean domestically, I mean in all the ways that truly count. Books he wanted to write. Places he wanted to see and revisit. Children he dearly wanted to love deeply for decades to come, whose lives will somehow continue to unfurl without him, in ways that would have brought him immeasurable pride.
When Jeff asked me to marry him, it was less of a question and more of a demand. ‘Marry me,’ he said. And I said, ‘what’s the magic word?’ Our bond was as writers, and we admired each other’s work immensely. It was his brain that I fell in love with first, and one of my proudest moments as his wife was watching him deliver a very warmly-received lecture at Oxford University in 2011.
He often told me he couldn’t write the way I write (which I think he meant as a compliment!) and he read my teen romance novel with a hot pink cover on the flight to the most recent Society of Military History meeting in Ottawa. He took great pains to point out afterwards that, while he wasn’t the target audience, he thought it was good. Complex. He enjoyed the villain, in particular. (I think I have an understanding of how his students must feel receiving his unembellished and fair feedback — which of course is exactly the sort of feedback we really need.)
But there was a lot more to Jeff than his towering intellect. For the last two years, every single week, he cooked two meals for my parents — who absolutely adored him. He was a much-loved uncle to my nieces and a strong presence for my sister. He gave me not just a son, but a step-daughter and step-son who mean the world to me, along with their partners Jake and Meg — whose strength this week has brought us through.
I posted something only a couple of weeks ago on Facebook publicly thanking Jeff for the sacrifices he made in recent times to give my family the stability it needs on a number of important fronts.
I said, “What you do as step-dad on a daily basis in large and small ways to support my girls isn’t unnoticed, by any of us. Things aren’t easy, even as a natural parent, and it takes someone really amazing to love the way you do, and to put up with the deep array of ‘gah’ in our household.”
That’s when he delivered a reply that I will always remember as the best line he ever wrote: “And here was me thinking it was in the job description.”
After he died, a friend described our relationship in a post. “They were the perfect couple, living a life together with the rarest bond of mutual support and love that I think I’ve ever seen”. Another said that she thought our regular interactions online were the most romantic thing she’d ever read.
Something that gives me immense comfort now is that Jeff knew exactly how I felt about him. I told him, regularly. I told everyone else, regularly, and I wrote a chapter in the upcoming book that I’ve co-authored, about exactly what he means to me.
He hadn’t read the whole book, but he did read that chapter, and while he wasn’t into public displays of affection, he did approve of those words.
I’m going to have to re-write the end of that chapter now. After that, I’ll have to re-write the story we imagined for our future.
The night before we lost him, during an uncharacteristically long hug with Seb on the couch (almost as though they knew), he told Sebastian that when he was older, we’d take him all around the world to see all the cool places Daddy loved. The morning after, when Seb first opened his eyes, he put his arm around me, smiled sadly and said, ‘Mummy — let’s go out into the world together.’
Jeff had every confidence in me, that I could wrangle myself out of an unexpected plot twist and he’s now handed me a scenario more unexpected and shocking than something out of his beloved Game of Thrones.
We as a family will scramble out of this wreckage together, because he left us with helpers. Hundreds and hundreds of helpers who loved him and who love us, who will help us now. You already are.
I had the rare good fortune to be loved by a man who knew how to challenge my thinking and push me out into the world to do hard things. He always used to tell me before I went and did anything professional, or nerve-wracking: “Be brilliant.”
So I think we owe him that.
Be brilliant. Love fiercely. Squeeze every last drop out of our lives right up until the final breaths that we take just as he did. Let’s be the highest versions of ourselves that we can be. Let’s borrow from his favourite quote and ‘reach beyond our grasp’.
And let’s write stories in our lives that would have made him proud.
You can enjoy the slideshow of images we showed at the service here, and for something truly special, you can listen to the piece of music our dear friend Sally Whitwell composed in Jeff’s honour.
And here’s an obituary, if you’d like to learn more about who he was, career-wise – but my favourite place to visit is this link, in which colleagues all over the world shared memories of the kind of man he was.