Ladies and gents, you have all been very patient with me and kind over the last three and half years whenever I have posted something about Jacqueline. Not so much here, on this blog site that I have struggled to add to since she went through the gap that sunny May morning in 2019. Before Covid, before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, before ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’: it was a different world.
More so on Facebook where I have occasionally posted photos and memories, often with a tear in my eye. You have been kind, all of you. I am constantly humbled to see how many friends Jac had across the world, how many lives she touched, often in ways I never knew about. A kind word here or a few dollars there to help another artist or musician complete a project.
It makes me realise that although I knew her as well as anyone, I barely scratched the surface. I suspect this is the same for all of us. We love people, we live with them, we make families with them, we laugh, we row, we go through life together… and yet we never really see the full face from every angle.
But that’s ok. That’s wonderful. It is amazing to learn new things about your wife, your husband, your partner, your “other half” after they have gone even if there are times when I wish, so wish, that we could pop the top off a bottle of beer, kick back on the sofa and talk about these other projects, these other passions. Alas.
Many of you will know from personal experience that Grief is a fickle beast that never truly steps away, for which I am oddly grateful. So please bear with me as I mark the end of a chapter, the completion of a wish that had lain unfulfilled for the last three and a half years.
Jac and I met in 1997 and married four years later. We had ups and downs like every couple but we stood shoulder to shoulder on sharing adventures. In 2004, we gave up our life in London and drove with two young children – babies really, they were only two and one – to Greece where we spent an amazing five years. When the global crash reared its head in 2008, we went a bit chicken, choosing to up sticks and head to the safer pastures of France.
In all that time, though, we never really discussed death except in that oblique way that couples do, late at night with a ‘cleansing ale’. Jac would tell me that she was bound to go first as my folks all lived to be 120… but in these moments, she repeated one wish, enough times for me to recall it when the terrible moment actually came to pass.
“When I croak,” she would say, always preferring the vernacular (occasionally it was “kick the bucket”), “you can take me to Hydra and scatter my ashes there – with Leonard and Low Anthem playing as you do it.”
I had remembered this as she lay dying in the hospital in Corbeil. It was a dreadful time for us all. Just seven weeks earlier, Jac had been walking in the Preseli Mountains in her native Pembrokeshire. She had been suffering from headaches and when she returned we had to get her to the hospital – only to discover that she had three tumours in her brain.
The ensuing weeks were little short of a nightmare. There were good days but most were bleak. She had spent much of the previous year caring for her mother who was also up against glioblastoma. Valerie died in June 2018.
Jac knew what lay ahead and the likely outcome as soon as we were given the news at the hospital.
What neither of us was prepared for was the speed of her decline. Just seven weeks after her first diagnosis, Jac lay motionless on a bed in intensive care in the hospital at Corbeil-Essonnes.
I had called her father Patrick and her brother Owen on the Sunday afternoon when I noticed a massive downturn in her being. On Friday she had been tired but sparky, the occasional characteristic caustic joke slicing through our concern over the situation.
But on Sunday, she was in a world of her own, barely recognising me, sluggish and irritated by bedclothes, light, sound.
I didn’t know what to tell the kids: Syd was 17 and Nat 16. We had been open with them from the start but I had tried to remain upbeat, sound the positive note that we were picking up from the doctors.
“You are young,” the specialists had said to Jac. “This gives you a very good chance of enjoying another five to ten years. And who knows what advances we will make in that time.”
But that Monday was the darkest we will experience. Jac had a seizure around six o’clock in the evening just as I had taken Patrick and Owen – who had only just landed – in to see her. Right before that she had lifted herself off the bed and wrapped her arms around Syd who was also in the hospital, whispered in her ear. She then threw an arm around me as I leaned down to her.
“I remember,” she said with her lips pressed to my ear. “I remember”.
She then slumped and began to fit.
Jac never regained consciousness and later that evening I was taken into the dreaded side room and given the news that she was about to die.
How awful that night was. Each of us taking time by her bed, on our own, to hold her hand and talk to her. I felt a miserable helplessness as I watched Syd and Nat through the glass, talking to their mother, kissing her, weeping on her breast. I felt a horrible sense of letting all three of them down. I should have protected Jac from this awful illness, I should have saved my children’s mother. It was a terrible guilt.
We were gathered around her early the following morning as dawn broke over Corbeil, the cars hurtling up the highway below as commuters rushed to get into Paris.
Syd had set up her phone and as Jac stepped away through the gap, she was accompanied by Leonard Cohen’s ‘Take this Waltz’ and Low Anthem’s ‘Charlie Darwin’. We played both songs again at her funeral the following week, along with Jac’s own song ‘Tomorrow’s Tears’. I have found it hard to listen to any of them since.
The unfulfilled mission of scattering her ashes in Hydra had been hanging over all of us. I certainly found it a burden, another cause of guilt, if you like. So much guilt when your other half dies.
We had initially envisaged going to Hydra in April 2020 but, of course, you all know what happened then…
And so we decided that we would go to Greece to mark Jac’s birthday on September 27 this year, 2022, and complete our duty.
Our kids Syd and Nat, now 20 and 19 respectively, were with me, as were Patrick and Owen, so we had a wee group of five.
Together we took the hydrofoil from Piraeus to Hydra, a beautiful small island – no cars, a trillion cats – which used to be our retreat from Athens when the kids were little. It was a special place for all of us.
We stayed in a low key hotel in the port and from our balcony watched the sea traffic as pleasure boats jockeyed for space with sea taxis and ferries. There was a lot of money invested in that port with some very large personal yachts tying up. Probably Russian oligarchs hiding their goods.
We arrived on Jac’s 54th birthday and ate well at Douskos – the taverna made famous in The Boy on the Dolphin and in pictures of Leonard Cohen and Marianne. I have a photo from 2007 of Syd sitting on my shoulders as we swayed/danced at a Rebetiko festival there. It’s been in our lives a long time.
The next day, after the mandatory pilgrimage to Leonard C’s house, we made contact with our boatman who took us out to sea. He had heard our story from a friend on the island and knew exactly what was needed.
Aiming for the neighbouring cove of Kamini, about a mile away, he pulled up between two islets just off the coast, one of which held the tiny white chapel of Agios Nikolaos. He shut off the engine and discretely took himself off to the flat deck at the stern.
Syd took out her speaker and put on the music – ‘Charlie Darwin’ followed by ‘Take This Waltz’.
I had divided the ashes so that each of us had our own jar.
In turn we climbed up the two steps, leaned over the Aegean, a thrilling translucent, shimmering tourquoise, and scattered the ashes.
Inevitably there were some tears but watching her drift in clouds, shifting, dissolving and disappearing was also wonderful, as if Jac had been set free and allowed to swim, to fly, to float wherever she wanted.
It felt like a release, for Jac and also for each one of us carrying that sadness.
When Leonard finished we had some moments of silence before we called the boatman back to the wheel. He then took us to the little port of Kamini where we clambered up to a taverna overlooking the two islets and had a beer and some lunch.
We raised a glass. Again, sadness and a kind of joy, that Jac was finally free.
I cannot speak for anyone else but I also experienced a feeling of lightness, as if the weight of the responsibility of doing this right had slipped from my shoulders.
After lunch we walked slowly back to Hydra town, left Patrick at the hotel for a siesta and the rest of us carried on walking for another mile and a half to Mandrakis Bay to swim. The water was beautiful although the temperature outside was beginning to drop.
Oh the Aegean, that gentle hand that salves our wounds.
I lay on my back in the water, closed my eyes against the sun and let the water massage me.
Jac’s water. Jac’s sea. Jac.
Jacqueline Jones 27.09.1968 – 27.05.2019
@Barney Spender 2022