real life

Natasha Sholl's partner died in their bed. She blamed herself.

The following is an excerpt from Natasha Sholl's book Found, Wanting - a memoir about falling in love in the aftermath of loss, and what it means to build a life in the space that death leaves.

This post deals with loss and grief. It can be triggering for some readers.

Chapter 1

ON THE DAY HE DIED

The business of death had already started. The more people moved and talked, the further I was taken from the last time I had seen Rob alive. As if the milliseconds, seconds, minutes were propelled by movement. I tried my best to keep time anchored. Tried to keep still. It was making me seasick, the flurry of activity. The sound and the noise. JUST STOP, I wanted to shout. But the effort to speak would have been too much. Would have pushed us further still.

I found out later that the morning he died was when my friend Romy had called, while my brother guarded my phone to stem the flow. She had called to tell me she was engaged. Her fiancé, Jez, had proposed on Valentine’s Day because this was the kind of thing that happens on Valentine’s Day. She was the first in our group of friends, all in our early twenties. My brother Andrew had picked up the phone and told her Rob had died. I was the first in our group of friends too, it seemed.

‘Don’t let Natasha find out,’ my brother was told. His duty was to make sure no one started talking about wedding plans in the midst of funeral plans. As if acknowledging good news would somehow make Rob more dead. Or worse, as if his death would somehow taint her joy. The loss like a shadow, darkening everything in its path.

While you're here, watch Jason Rosenthal share about the journey through loss and grief. Post continues after video.


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It wasn’t until a week later, after the funeral, that Romy came over to tell me that Jez had proposed. A loud, cackling burst of laughter followed by tears. The awkward clunk of our heads as we leaned in close. Her blonde strands clinging tight to the strands of my dark brown hair. The way even our follicles knew. Sorry, we whispered over and over. To each other. To ourselves.

I bought her an Italian cookbook as an engagement present to show that I was happy for her even though I was absolutely not. That I thought about her and Jez f*cking to celebrate their engagement as I performed CPR. That I wished it was Jez who had died even though this was not something I was allowed to think about. I bought an Italian cookbook for the newly engaged couple to hide this fact. I hoped that every time she made Bucatini all’Amatriciana on page 257 she would know that Rob loved me more than Jez loved her and that the world was a place of unbridled horror.

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No one had ever felt like us before. We thought we were the only ones. We were smug with our love. Maybe this is where it all went wrong.

Rob and I met at a party, although we didn’t technically meet. My school friend Elise was dating one of his friends. At the kitchen island in a seventies-style Californian bungalow with a swell of people, there he was. Someone was pouring drinks into plastic cups. Flat Coke. Cranberry juice. The smell of gin made me gag a little after drinking too much of it the weekend before. Dark skin, long brown hair, unnervingly blue-green eyes and enormous arms and shoulders hugged tight by his clothing. The kind of tight t-shirt that wouldn’t have been tight on anyone else.

We didn’t say a word. It was a night that was otherwise completely forgettable. Bookended by forgettable moments. The stickiness of the benches, the background noise of overlapping conversations. The loud drunk-volume laughter. Hipster jeans and excessive bronzer. The crunch underfoot of dirt brought in from the garden. These are things I know to be true but not things I remember. I make up these details to flesh out the night. To give meat to it. The night we met.

The split second of eye contact.

It was months later that my phone rang. As if it was a completely ordinary ring. As if it wasn’t the phone call that would change everything.

‘Hi, it’s Rob,’ said the voice. ‘I got your number from Elise.’ ‘Sorry, who?’ I asked. We had never been introduced.

The party. The overlapping friendship circles. He fumbled an explanation.

'Oh,' I said. ‘Are you the one with the big arms?’ Oh my god. Shut up.

I found out later that he had seen me in a photo. He’d had a girlfriend at that party. At the kitchen bench. Another detail I didn’t notice. Elise had been showing him photos from that night and he had asked who I was. Had asked for my number. He didn’t have a girlfriend when he asked.

We arranged to meet for a drink and he said he would pick me up. I told him my address, still living with my parents. He laughed. ‘I live in Connor Street!’ he exclaimed.

‘Oh!’ I said, pretending to understand. I had never heard of the street. I didn’t understand why he was telling me this.

The next night I paced near the front doorway in anticipation of the doorbell ringing, as much because I was excited to see him as to prevent Mum getting there before me. The awkward kiss on the cheek. The way my body knew. My chest thumping. A zap in the air.

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‘There’s my house!’ he said, as we walked to his car.

The back of his house and the front of my house were essentially next door. There was a tiny laneway connecting us. We had lived as neighbours for most of our lives, without ever knowing each other. Our paths had never crossed, despite there being a literal path leading from my house to his. It would have taken him longer to drive to pick me up than if he had just stepped out his parents’ back gate.

‘Oh!’ I said, now understanding why he laughed when I told him my address on the phone. I climbed into his car awkwardly, the low-to-the-ground Toyota Celica. Grey. The smell of worn leather seats. Other people’s cars always made me carsick. The strangeness of it. The not-mine-ness of it. Their lives that had sunk into the interiors. He drove a manual and I think that’s what made me fall in love with him. A detail that before that moment had been completely unimportant to me. The way he shifted gears. The subtle muscle twitch as his arm moved.

Milestones gushed from us, landing everywhere. The first kiss. The first time meeting the parents. The first I love you. That we lived so close and moved in similar circles and yet had never met before seemed impossible. It felt more likely that I had conjured him. Created him from need, from lust, from longing.

Within months we planned our first trip away together to New Zealand. A tour guide convinced us to go canoeing in Marlborough Sounds. The water was completely flat. Not a single wave.

‘I get really seasick,’ I said.

‘It’s impossible to feel sick here,’ he said. ‘There is no movement at all.’

At the halfway point I was lime-green, my head spinning. ‘I can’t,’ I begged, as our tiny canoe bobbed. Rob rowed us to shore through the bathtub-like stillness of the water. After I finished violently throwing up in the bushes we walked to the drop-off point, the canoe over Rob’s shoulder.

There is a photo of Rob on this trip holding a bottle of milk, standing on a jetty. He is pointing to the milk and frowning. I know there was a reason for this. I know there is a meaning behind it, some personal joke. I don’t know what it is.

That was the trip I jumped out of an aeroplane in a tandem skydive. Rob cheered on from below, preferring the safety of the ground. He didn’t want to tempt fate 12,000 feet above Queenstown. He didn’t know the die had been cast. That it was the safety of his bed that would get him in the end. We went whitewater rafting. We hiked on glaciers. We jumped off cliffs and into the choppy water below. I was brave with him. I was brave because of him. Drunk with love. I could do adrenaline. I could do wildness. But my body had a reaction to the safety of the flat water. I should have known. I should have seen the warning signs.

"I don’t remember our first kiss and yet I can feel the imprint of his lips. Can feel his hands pulling my hair. The skin on skin of us. The smell of spring and car leather, of clean hair and large hands and fresh cotton. Because surely no one had ever felt this way before."

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I still have the photo. The one of me and Elise at the party. The one Rob saw and asked for my number. Sometimes I look at it, at nineteen-year-old Natasha, just to see myself through Rob’s eyes. To get inside his skin. To inhabit as much of him as possible. I don’t remember our first kiss and yet I can feel the imprint of his lips. Can feel his hands pulling my hair. The skin on skin of us. The smell of spring and car leather, of clean hair and large hands and fresh cotton. Because surely no one had ever felt this way before. No one had ever asked: do you have something? No one had ever fumbled with the bedside drawer. Had ever gasped. Or ever breathed in the smell of another human for sustenance alone. Had ever fallen asleep in the crook of an arm, or ever clumsily put on last night’s clothes and walked home in heels through an alleyway designed just for them. An alleyway that didn’t exist until the Are you the one with the big arms? phone call. A magic alleyway to a magic house in a magic life.

Motion sickness. Not from the smell of worn leather seats. The nausea was now coming from the strangeness of it. The not-mine-ness of it. Life seeping in. ‘I can’t,’ I had begged Rob in the canoe. But now there was no one to row me to shore. I can’t. The invisible swells. Somewhere in the distance, someone said my name.

The walls were white. The smell of paint still fresh in the new apartment we had spent weeks searching for together. The inspections. The direct debit rent payments and the home and contents insurance. The signing of the lease which stipulated no large parties, no smoking, no pets. I wondered then if we had broken the lease. If the sudden death would damage the paintwork in the same way. Whether it would mark the walls, be noticeable to the next tenants. I wondered if the landlord would have to disclose what happened as part of the condition report: paint damage near doorway, oil stain on kitchen ceiling, sudden death in main bedroom, missing tile near bathtub. And now there were people in our apartment. Family members. Strangers. Paramedics in uniforms and firemen, even though there was no fire. Police. The emergency services gathered to confirm that this was in fact an emergency, though the emergency had passed.

Andrew’s wife, Dina, was on her way from the country, my brother told me. She was working hours away and had jumped on the first V/Line train when she found out. ‘Thank you,’ I said, though I was not sure why. She was doing her rural medical rotation. She was a doctor too. As were both my brothers, Andrew and Matthew. And my dad. And Rob. It seemed almost funny. All this medical knowledge, useless in the face of a medical emergency. I felt sad for her, sitting on the train by herself, hours of track ahead of her, knowing what was waiting for her at the other end. Stop the train, I wanted to say. Stop all the trains.

‘Would you like a moment to say goodbye?’ someone asked. Someone official whose face has become pixelated with time. I looked around for an answer. What was the correct response? ‘Just so you know, you may hear a breathing sound. Or moaning. Or his body may twitch. It’s a reflex of the dying brain. It’s normal. That doesn’t mean...’ the voice trailed off.

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Listen: Natasha Sholl on the life she never expected. Post continues after audio...



I walked into our bedroom, where we had gone to sleep the night before. ‘He’s not here,’ I wanted to say. But the door had closed behind me. Left alone with the body of the man I loved. Just the two of us. Though it was clear there was just one of us then. I had assumed the goodbye would be reciprocal, until that moment.

I lay down beside him on the floor, closed my eyes. I was conscious of the sound of him not breathing. I held his hand. His body was hard and cold. My body became hard and cold. The feeling leached from me. It disappeared from my fingertips. ‘He’s not here,’ I wanted to say again. I disappeared into the carpet like liquid. A stain. My senses diluted. I waited. For a sign. For a feeling. For a message. For anything. His absence had a physical weight to it. It filled up the room.

And so they would say: He’s watching over you.

And I would smile reassuringly.

And I would think: No, he’s f*cking not.

Image: Booktopia. 

You can purchase Natasha Sholl's memoir here.

Feature Image: Instagram @natasha_sholl.