on 6 December 2010
Great art, or for that matter any other line of work, is created out of love, it would appear. So it is with this great little book of letters composed by the actress Natascha McElhone in her first year after the sudden and wholly unexpected death of 42 year-old husband, plastic surgeon Martin Kelly. Her grief's unadulterated rawness and her searing emotional honesty make reading this 110-page volume nothing short of a tour de force, and we can only speculate about the emotionally wrenching experience, however therapeutic, of writing it, and her brave decision ultimately to publish it. The very fact of this book's publication renders it a work of love directed not just to the husband and father who never these letters shall read, or their three sons who one day, no doubt, will do so filled with immense pride, but readers at large, privileged to vicariously accompany Natascha for the especially turbulent first twelve months of the emotional rollercoaster that constitutes life after Martin (lest my referring to them here by their first names seems overly familiar, any pretense to detachment or formality by the end of the ride seems the greater inappropriateness). Collectively we can consider ourselves fortunate that Natascha came down on this side of the proverbial fence she makes clear she was on at one point about publishing her letters.
I did actually know Martin, in my days training to be a plastic surgeon at Charing Cross Hospital in London, as a smart, personable, subtly funny, driven and enviably talented colleague, and once met Natascha, briefly, at the hospital's 1997 Christmas party. I last spoke with Martin in 2008, when I inadvertently interrupted his out-patient clinic at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital by calling him from Manhattan, where I then lived, for advice, which he graciously gave, on a friend's baby born in London with a facial deformity.
Martin and Natascha's motto was: "Work hard. Expect nothing. Celebrate." Her book expresses it perfectly. The mere fact and tragic circumstances of Martin's death notwithstanding, Natascha never, at least not in these pages, wallows in self-pity, and owing to her evidently irrepressible, whimsical and self-deprecating sense of humor I found myself more often smiling than her book's unfathomably sad subject matter brought tears to my eyes (though there was plenty of that). Far from the diva one might count on her to be, or the glamorous 'OK Magazine' lifestyle of otherwise untroubled privilege she might be expected to lead, Natascha comes across as vulnerable and unedited, all the more lovable for her unguardedly, bravely and generously shared insecurities and neuroses (in contrast, Martin - after all the object of this oeuvre - remains subtly less approachable to us, perhaps because through Natascha's lens he appears too close to perfect).
Natascha's description of the experience of grief from her children's perspective is impossible to remain unaffected by. One particularly moving passage, indicative I suppose of this cyberage of ours, is the incident she recounts, close to the anniversary of Martin's death, of Theo prompting her to vainly click on Martin's Skype username to see what would happen.
It comes as no surprise to read on this site and elsewhere that Natascha's book is helping bereaved readers in their grief. But this isn't a book just for widows and widowers - I would recommend it also to wives and husbands. A marriage therapist friend of mine once revealed to me that she mourns her husband daily to appreciate what she has. And husbands and fathers may gain a glimpse of how their loved ones might remember them in death, and thus be reminded of what matters in life. As profoundly and completely as Natascha experienced being loved by Martin, it is the palpable intensity of her love for him, and so articulately expressed acute grief over her loss, that surely make him the envy of every man alive. What better memorial?