Reminding myself of why I write. And why I must get back to it.
My beautiful, extraordinary little girl would be 18 today. It’s nearly 13 years since she left, and the family she knew has changed. This morning we all got ready for our days without a mention of Juliette. I hate that it implies we’ve left her behind, when in fact her short life infuses every single day of mine.
Tomorrow we watch Elodie perform in a dance show – we’ll stay the night close to her university and remember Juliette together on Saturday. Meanwhile it’s raining in Essex, and I have to find time to pick up a bunch of pink and purple flowers in between bouts of writing a long statistics report for my Psychology MSc. It’s surreal.
Why did she have to die? I know she would have made a fantastic, original, funny, bright and compassionate adult, but instead I have her spirit inside me, memories and a few old photos. On days like today that really doesn’t feel like enough.
I must try to remember that the moments of self-indulgence I feel on particular days are not what defines the other 364, or whatever. So now, a bit of a sob and a shower later…it is absolutely right and entirely healthy that none of us mentioned Juliette’s birthday before leaving the house this morning. Our walls are lined with her drawings, and photographs of Juliette cover all surfaces. She has not diminished in our minds. It is simply that loving her then losing her, colours us almost unknowingly (in pink and purple, naturally) every day. I have bleated endlessly about my gratitude (in the absence of choice) for the way my life has changed thanks to my amazing daughter. I am braver, because she was brave. I love people more because she thought people were wonderful – despite evidence sometimes that they aren’t. I’ve stopped feeling sorry for myself because I’ve remembered she never did – and she suffered far more in five years than I ever have. My extraordinary, always-five-year-old Juliette.
I dreamed about Juliette last night. When she first died I had, if not countless, at least a dozen of these dreams in the first few months. They were various raw longings to touch her, to smell her, anguished ‘what-ifs.’ Last night’s was not like that.
In the dream I walked into a café, and there was Juliette, queuing at the counter. She looked a little older than five, and her hair had grown to shoulder-length. She turned with the most beautiful smile, and I just ran to take her in my arms. Unanguished, just full of the familiar pleasure I have in hugging any of my children. Of course I’m crying at the thought now, but at the time it felt so ‘normal’ and just the loveliest thing.
I love writing a blog, but sometimes the gestation of posts takes an age. An idea will come to me and then over days/weeks the words have to separate and form chains before I actually type anything. And although appearances might be deceptive I rewrite several times before I press “publish.”’ Now you’d think that would eliminate typos, wouldn’t you? Nope. Own-editing blindness.
Anyway, I’ve been pushing words about for the past three weeks (on love and relationships after losing a child) but this is a particularly stubborn egg that is refusing to hatch, so these latest thoughts I’m just going to damn well write and post.
I’m a little over-excited at the moment. You know that sensation where everything seems to be falling into place? I have that, although there is a whisper of worry in saying it out loud – after losing Juliette, luck and happiness are not without menace. This afternoon Elodie set off for her second year at university. It’s been a tough summer in parts, but last night, Tchaikovsky did his stuff – the ballet shoes were on and Elodie pirouetted and jeté-d with a semi-cooperative Pierre in the kitchen. Afterwards they helped cook and we sang along to the one song on which the three of us agree – Wish you were here. Yes Pink Floyd, I really do.
I have love in my life. My youngest daughter is newly and happily ensconced at secondary school, while my oldest daughter is overjoyed to be returning to a subject and a place she loves. As poignant as it is to say goodbye to my dancing girl it is huge comfort to know her life away from home makes her happy. The moment today was crowned by the fact that a week shy of her 20th birthday, she finally passed her driving test. Woo hoo!
What also happened today was that I became a student again, enrolling on my Psychology MSc course at the University of Essex. This road began when I started teaching creative writing in prison. It took me through the most wonderful year in a school, and at this juncture I imagine it will lead me to Educational Psychology. But who knows? For now I’m enjoying the journey.
On this day twelve years ago, I woke up to a ‘normal’ day where Juliette was in hospital, like countless other mornings over the previous nineteen months of treatment. We had little warning of the nightmare that descended a few hours later.
Last week I saw an old friend who remembered an afternoon in a garden during that final summer. She described Juliette sitting on my lap playing with a tube of Smarties. Somehow the tube burst, sending a shower of sweets onto the lawn.
“Oh look, a rainbow!” M remembers me saying. She told me the other night that it had made such an impression on her, because of how relaxed a mother I seemed. I have no memory of the afternoon, nor of being anything than utterly uptight in the midst of Juliette’s treatment. I’ve looked back with regret at what I imagine to have been Juliette’s experience of my stress and unhappiness during her illness, so it’s an incredibly precious thing to have seen through another’s eyes a snapshot of Juliette’s contentment and the image of me encircling her with love.
It made me wonder whether friends and family around those of us who have lost children have any idea of how much of a gift it is to be handed these ‘forgotten’ memories, when we’ve been robbed of everything else. Thank you, my lovely friend.
Today I will be at work, while the rest of my family will be at home preparing for a barbecue to celebrate Celeste’s final day of primary school. It’s the end of an era for us and it was a deliberate choice to host a party today of all days, just as I have chosen to preoccupy myself with the routine of a job I love. Juliette arranged some thunder and lightning to start the day. I just hope she’s organised some sunshine, and perhaps even a rainbow, for later.
I am about to do something insane. In two weeks’ time I have chosen to stop doing something I love and start doing something that I have yet to learn very much about.
So why on earth am I doing it?
For the past year I have been working in a secondary school, supporting students academically who are not in lessons. I arrived at the job after teaching in a prison. In prison I had discovered how much I love working alongside individuals with behaviour we call “challenging.”
It has not been an easy role. I calculate that probably once a fortnight something or someone makes me emotional to the point of tears. Sometimes it’s a privileged/horrifying glimpse into an individual’s circumstances – I thought prison had made me unshockable, but these are kids – or it’s occasions such as the morning after a young student had told me to f*** off, when he brought me a new poster he had made.
His poster said, “Sorry Mrs Lafosse” across the top and the name of the room where I teach, in different colours. In the corner, he’d drawn a bright yellow sun, inside which he’d written the word ‘Happy’ in purple pen.
“What does that mean?” I asked. “Are you saying you’re happy when the sun shines?”
“No,” he said. “It’s because that’s how I feel when I’m in this room.”
This is a boy totally without guile, who has seen more than any child should have done. He struggles with his temper. I told him I loved it, then bustled him off to his next lesson as quickly as I could. A tearful teacher rather loses authority.
The thing is, I’m not a teacher. I have huge admiration for my colleagues who manage large classes and have to account for the regular progress of hundreds of students. I teach small groups and one-to-one and the aspect of this I find most fascinating and rewarding is when a light bulb goes on and I can see how that person ticks, what motivates them, the way experiences affect their attitude to the world in general, and to learning in particular. I love them all and particularly those that push me. I suppose because it’s obvious they’re the ones that need it most.
So why am I leaving? I supposed the answer is tied up in the reason as to why am I doing a job for which I am patently untrained in the first place. I have a French degree and my “career” pre-children was in sales and language work, for crying out loud. I guess the answer is I would never have ended up doing this work if Juliette had not died, and the reason I’m leaving it is the same.
Call it courage or recklessness, but I am acutely aware that life is too short to wonder if you might have been good at something, or whether you should have tried a different path. Degrees of fear used to control my decisions, but when my own child has faced death itself, how can I find excuses to lurk in my comfort zone?
Almost twelve years after I lost my beloved girl I’m about to begin four years of study. A one year MSc in Psychology at the University of Essex, followed by three in London on an Educational Psychology course – if I’m lucky enough to get a place – and I’m going to work bloody hard to make sure I will. I am scared – this is Science, and my brain embraces literary flights of fancy, not cold, hard facts and numbers. That challenge thrills me.
It’s not exactly leaping off a cliff with a dodgy parachute but to someone as naturally cautious as me, it is a risk. However not taking a risk feels like deciding not to live, and deciding not to live when Juliette was denied the chance, feels like letting her down. Twelve, ten, even eight years ago, I wanted to curl into a ball and admit that Juliette’s death had defeated me. Now, I won’t let it. I am changed because she died, and I’m pretty sure that somewhere she is proud of me.
Before… Crossing Tower Bridge at 13 miles
Well, that was quite hard. Once again I’ve learned you can train all you want, have a realistic target time in mind, and things can still not go quite right on marathon day. My heart sank at the heat of the sun as I walked from Greenwich station to the start, and it was only 8.30 a.m. Yes, It wasn’t as hot as 2007, but when you’ve done your long runs in the cold it was still darned uncomfortable in the upper teens.
Anyway, I began in high spirits – it’s impossible not to be excited by the music and noise of the crowds. At mile 2 I sang along to Robbie Williams ‘Angels’ with my fellow runners, and bounced along to ‘Come on Eileen’ at 4. I kept an eye on my watch and my mile times were roughly what I planned. It was lovely to see my cousin and his family at 5 miles and my own with Dani and children at 6, with other friends and their jelly babies at 12.
My leg cramp-avoidance strategy was not to drink any water, only sports drink, but at around 15 miles I worried I’d missed the Lucozade station. I was thirsty and desperate enough to pick up a discarded, sticky bottle – to the horror of a race official who almost slapped it out of my hand. He told me the station was half a mile ahead. Phew, and gaargh…What was I thinking?!’ A little further on, African drummers boomed in an underpass – I felt every beat in my chest which gave me a shot of energy.
My family was a welcome sight at 16 miles, but I was annoyed to find my wooded comfort break spot at 17 had been fenced off since 2009. Undeterred, I climbed the railings to avoid the portaloo queues. An absence of embarrassed dog walkers was an unessential bonus. At that point, I just couldn’t have cared less.
Around 18-19 miles I started getting tearful. My maths went to pot and at 19, I was thinking ‘I can’t run another 9 miles…’ My spirit a little broken, I began to walk and run. ‘Fast as you can to the traffic lights, then you can walk for a bit..’ I told myself. I counted to 100, repeatedly. The rhythm helped, and concentrating on what number came next helped block out the voice that was trying to say, ‘Stop! You bloody fool!’ Sometimes I said the odd numbers aloud, sometimes the even. Even in my long distance running delirium I knew I must have seemed a little mad.
I had a strange stomach pain around 22 miles (ruptured kidney/ovary/hernia, obviously – drama queen…moi?) and a fellow runner led me to the St John’s ambulance people who were all for sitting me down and wrapping me in a foil blanket. I lost a couple of minutes, but decided no pain was going to stop me from finishing. I didn’t spot my family at 22 miles but I did see another friend at 23.
Things were getting ugly. I thought I would throw up if I tried another jelly baby or slug of Lucozade, but the support from the crowds was incredible. It’s impossible to overstress the difference it makes when someone uses your name and calls out something encouraging. Still, it was a struggle in that heat, and with the stomach pain. I never got the abysmal leg and foot cramps of the previous two marathons (thank you, mega doses of calcium and a total water-drinking ban) but I’d used far too much energy acknowledging every single ‘Come on, Geves!’ and just staying cool.
I ran (in between sobs) past Buckingham Palace and down the Mall, but it was not a glorious finish. When I had my medal, I sat on the ground and cried (in between gulps of water and bites of muesli bar) while I contemplated the disappointment of 5 hours and 3 minutes.
Anyway, enough. I had a 25-minute window for the time I wanted/could expect. I couldn’t have trained or prepared better than I did so although it was the end of that window, it was at least IN the window, and I should be content with my time. Hey, it was a personal best by five minutes after all! And I’ve raised nearly £4000 for Child Bereavement UK, which brings our fundraising total since we lost Juliette to just over £25,000. My little girl had been with me every step, particularly over the tough final “9” miles. “Count, Mummy..” I heard her say.
I suppose it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but I know I can run 26 miles in under 5 hours… and I could JUST be recovered for the Halstead marathon in three weeks time…
After…. a few yards from the finish The medal, after a bowl of pasta and some prosecco