YESTERDAY would have been your birthday. January 24. Six months older than me for six months, I’d remind you. Normally I would have spent the weeks between Christmas and now trying to think of something original to buy you. And then, at the last moment, I’d just buy you another book.

Maybe we’d have gone out for a meal or gone to the movies. You loved the movies. You weren’t fussy. At some point I’d have kissed you and told you I loved you, like I did every other day.

But not this birthday. Not this year. For the first time since 1983 I won’t be able to do any of that.

Ah, Jeanie.

My wife Jean died on October 5 last year at 8.12am in Strathcarron Hospice. Outside, birds were singing.

She’d been in the hospice for a couple of days. On the Thursday it had reached the point where I was no longer able to look after her properly at home.

I had spent the Friday night trying to sleep in a chair beside her bed. Every so often I’d lean over and talk to her as she slept, letting her know I was there. Or so I hoped. The voice gets through, one of the hospice nurses had told me.

Just after eight her breathing changed. It began to slow and slow as I held her hand and cried. And then it stopped.

Such a strangely peaceful thing, I remember thinking in between the tears. Nothing traumatic. Just a shift into stillness.

An ending, one that had been waiting for us since she was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006.

Shards of memory from that morning keep coming back to me. They still cut me open. The face of the nurse I spoke to earlier that morning as the enormity of what was ahead of me was finally sinking in; the same nurse who came through the door 40 minutes later when Jean stopped breathing. The drive down the hill to Denny knowing that I had to tell Jean’s mother and sisters, our daughters, what had happened.

And then the drive back. The final moments we spent with her, all the words we didn’t get to say (because there are always words you don’t get to say) unspoken.

I am writing this three-and-a-half months later. No time at all. An eternity.

Most mornings I reach across the bed to where she should be, where she isn’t. I go through each day knowing that the person I have loved most in this world is no longer in it.

I want to hear her say my name one last time. I have been trying to remember the last time she did. Somewhere in the couple of weeks before she died, I guess, before illness took language away from her. A last time that I didn’t realise would be the last.

The thing I struggle to get my head around is the way she is somehow everywhere and nowhere now. Every road I drive down, every song I hear on the radio, she is in them. Everything is a trigger, everything points to once-insignificant memories now charged and potent, small moments from the past suddenly weighed down with an impossible weight of loss and longing.

I have nothing original or unique to say about grief. I’m sorry. No eloquence, no insight. Mostly it’s a drudge illuminated by spikes of pain.

The truth is, I suspect I’m still only in the foothills anyway. I cry most days. Sometimes I prompt it deliberately; bring her to mind in a way I know will hurt, like sticking a needle into an open wound, just to remind myself that I’m feeling something.

Other times I try to distract myself. Football on the radio, bad movies on the telly, books that seem a safe distance from her memory.

But grief’s a sneaky f***er. Last week I was reading a passage in a book about starfish. My subconscious made the connection for me. From starfish I thought of the word seahorse and suddenly I remembered Jeanie’s tattoo, little black ribbons and bars of ink in the shape of a cartoon-cute seahorse.

And, in the same moment, I realised that I hadn’t thought about it since she died. How was that even possible? Was it on her left arm or her right arm? Suddenly I wasn’t sure.

2019 was the cruellest year. On the last day of 2018 we were told we had run out of treatments. In May we were told Jeanie had, at best, a few months. Before we left, I remember, her oncologist gave her a hug.

How did we get through the rest of that day? It’s a blank to me now.

Weeks passed. I’d repeat my mantra to her most days. “You’re okay today, so things are okay.” I was in a state of deep denial. Jeanie knew better.

By July and August it was clear that her illness was beginning to have a real impact. She began to lose memory and speech. It seemed a final cruel punishment for someone so articulate, so engaged with the world. The last weeks were marked by her slow withdrawal from all of us, a withdrawal that became final on that October morning.

Three-and-a-half months ago. No time at all. An eternity.

“No tenses any more,” the poet Denise Riley writes in Time Lived, Without its Flow, her essay about grief in the wake of the sudden death of her son. “His sudden death has dropped like a guillotine blade to slice through my old expectation that my days would stream onwards into my coming life. Instead, I continue to sense my daily life as paper-thin. As it is. But this cut through any usual feeling of chronology leaves a great blankness ahead.”

The Herald:

No tenses any more. In truth, we both had been living in a continuous present for years, ever since Jean was first diagnosed. The first mention of the word cancer cut away the notion of a future.

She was diagnosed in the autumn. “I’ll not see Christmas,” she told me then. We saw another 12. But even so the future, or the idea of it at least, had been taken from us, even as we grew older and watched our kids grow up.

Worse, the past had been taken from us as well. It was too painful for her to think about. Even everyday intimacies and nothing-special moments were out of bounds. We had the present and nothing else. And now I don’t even have that. I am already living in that great blankness that Riley talks about.

That said, maybe I have the past again. I can revisit it. And I do.

Most days I find myself fantasising about going back in time, inserting myself into a moment we once shared. It doesn’t have to be anything special. Just as long as we are together, where I can hear her voice, where I can see her face, where I can touch her arm, her cheek, know that she is there with me. Given the choice right now, I would live forever in that moment. Reliving it again and again.

In some ways I already am. Just before Christmas I had our wedding video transferred to DVD so I could watch it. I don’t think I had ever watched it before, if I’m honest. Now I can’t stop.

It’s not really a wedding video, just some footage my friend Mark filmed that day back in 1993. Watching it again took me back to our old flat in Bruce Street, Stirling. There are our two cats, my sister-in-law looking impossibly young, my dad, Jeanie’s dad, now no longer with us. And here are friends who have drifted out of our lives.

But, really, when I watch it, I’m only watching Jeanie. She would have been 30 when it was filmed. God, she looks beautiful. She had her make-up done professionally that morning and she hated it. And yet on video it’s clear how great it looks on her.

She hated being filmed. It explains why she hardly says anything in the video. That was not like her at all. I wish she had said more on camera, just so I can hear her speak. But the fact that she is there is enough, occupying a space in this world, a grainy image of her physical presence that is now out of touch.

Already there is a moment in the video I find myself waiting for every time I put it on. At one point she comes through the swing doors that separated our kitchenette from the living room and, as the camera adjusts to the March light streaming through the window, it’s clear she is smoking. Jeanie is smoking.

I had almost forgotten. How could I have forgotten? It had been something she had done as long as I’d known her.

She would give it up a year, maybe 18 months, later with the same steely self-will she later brought to learning to play guitar or speak Esperanto. A task to be achieved.

But in the fuzzy, flickering yellow video light, the image rolling and glitchy with age, she can be seen drawing fumes into her lungs with such obvious pleasure that the sight of it felt like a depth charge in my head, a memory of who she once was, of the girl I first met in a student kitchen in Stirling University in September 1982. We were both 19 then. She was barefooted and wearing a headscarf because her hairdresser had given her a buzzcut, much to her disgust.

She sat there smoking and swearing and talking. She was this lifeforce. I don’t know how else to describe her. She was self-confident and outgoing, all the things I wasn’t. I was totally smitten. What she saw in me, I still don’t know.

In time I realised that we had some things in common. We were both working-class kids in a still largely middle-class environment. She had her own vulnerabilities like everyone else. I’m not sure what I represented to her, but I was happy to represent something, anything.

I asked her out. In the most roundabout of ways. And she said no. And then she said yes. And that was the start of the rest of our lives. We got together, stayed together, grew up, got married, had kids, were happy.

In my head there are all these different versions of Jeanie; the 19-year-old firebrand, the thirtysomething mother, the dedicated professional (after working for the DHSS, she retrained as an archivist), the girl who would get drunk with her dad and her sisters every Hogmanay and start singing Leaving on a Jet Plane. The Jeanie who immersed herself in anything that interested her. The Jeanie who could make you laugh just by the way she looked at you.

For a few days after her death I found myself resentful about the last incarnation of Jeanie, the one who increasingly was drifting away from us, the one I had been caring for in the last weeks of her life. I loved that version too, of course, but the memory of this last Jeanie was so close, so tight against me, that I couldn’t see past her to all the others I’d spent the best part of 40 years with.

It took my friends Karina and Michael to put me right. Jean and I had met Karina for a coffee in September just before Karina went back to Buenos Aires to look after her own sick mother. It was a farewell meeting. We all knew it.

A few weeks later, after Jean’s funeral, Michael told me what Karina had told him about that day, about how, when I was off elsewhere for a few moments, Jeanie had told her that she knew what was happening to her and that she was at peace with it.

Hearing that felt like a damn breaking inside me. My viewpoint shifted 180 degrees. Suddenly it came home to me how stoical that last version of Jeanie was, how brave. When she was initially diagnosed in 2006, she had struggled to deal with it. But when it returned in 2016 she refused to give into despair. All she wanted, she said, was to see the end of Game of Thrones. She managed that at least.

The thing is she wouldn’t want you to know any of this. Jeanie was intensely private. She hated me mentioning her in anything I wrote. And this illness. Well, this was her business. But I guess it’s my business now. And what is this business? That I’m not sure I know. I do know that over and above losing her I have somehow also lost my own sense of self. I was so synced to Jeanie that I am now unfixed, ungrounded. What I’ve realised in this no time/eternity that I’m currently living in, is I don’t really know what I’m for any more.

I am still a father and a son and a brother and brother-in-law and a friend (I hope). But I navigated through the world with Jean as my lodestar. And now that star has disappeared, and the night is dark.

I don’t believe in heaven but I have taken to thinking about the possibility of parallel universes. I like the idea that somewhere there is another Jeanie even now. In most of them I guess she would never have met me. Or maybe she met me and didn’t like me, or vice versa (this is more difficult for me to imagine). But I want to believe she is out there. Somewhere, I hope, Jeanie is smoking a cigarette and enjoying it as much as she does in our wedding video.

In the week after Jean’s death we put a notice in the Falkirk Herald. The Philip Larkin line from his poem An Arundel Tomb seemed appropriate: “What will survive of us is love.” It comes at the end of a poem in which Larkin is trying to suggest otherwise. But I want it to be true.

Yesterday would have been your birthday, Jeanie. What survives of you is love. That’s why this hurts so much. Smoke one for me, darling.

If you would like to donate to the Strathcarron Hospice, please visit Jean Jamieson’s In Memory page at