Being happy

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This photograph resurfaced recently. I don’t remember exactly when it was taken, but Elodie’s T-shirt suggests it was after one of her Royal Academy of Dance summer schools. We are, from the clue of a green chair, in a Battersea Italian restaurant that was our favourite when we lived in London. We would take Elodie and Juliette there as babies, because it was at the end of our street and the waiters never minded a bowl of pasta upended by a small, chubby hand.

I guess we had taken Elodie there for old times’ sake. She looks ten at the most here, which means it was only around two years after Juliette had died. What struck me seeing this photograph again is the look on our faces.

Pure happiness.

I have no idea what is making us laugh, but Steph’s taking the picture, so that may be a clue. I look as though I haven’t slept for a week, but it’s extraordinarily reassuring and almost a shock to see us look happy, at a time that I remember as being so hard. It makes me wonder at the faultiness of memory, or my memory at least. Anyway, in this instance I’m glad for it.

I’ve just had a week’s break from work and the children have been on holiday, so we joined up with my sister, Dani, and her family on a camping trip to the Peak district. It rained as we put our tents up and mustered supper for the ten of us. It went on raining as the children played, and as Dani and I started on the Whisky Macs and the men on Jack Daniels, graduating to Baileys by way of a nice Shiraz.

It was still raining through our now compromised waterproofs the following morning as Steph and I trudged the ten minutes back from the washing up station, with sore heads and dripping pans and plates. Just as I was feeling everything was a bit grim, Steph turned to me gesturing gallically and with genuine pleasure at the rolling green hills, the grazing sheep and our playing children, filthy and laughing in the crook of the river, and asked, ‘What more could you want?’ Moments like these ratchet up my love for him. His mood is the life raft into which I can leap when mine more inevitably, sinks.

When Juliette was ill, Steph’s optimism was watertight. Sometimes I longed to see it sag a little when I languished in the water, so I was not so alone with my fears. It never did. His faith in his daughter’s recovery was unsinkable, right up until she left us.

At other times, I see Steph as the pole of a Swingball set. I’m just the bright bit of fluff on the end of some string weaving back and forth, then up and down, as life does the hitting. I’m grateful for the way he is. If he were different, I don’t believe our marriage would have survived. So far, we are beating the odds for parents like us and I try not to take that for granted.

Anyway, Elodie, who never joins us camping – (“Why would you want to be outside, cold, wet and uncomfortable when you could be inside and warm?”) – has otherwise inherited her father’s bright outlook on life. She encourages our habit of taking it in turns at supper to describe, ‘the best moment of today.’ After we’d washed the mud off our skin and shampooed the smoke from our hair she asked us each about our favourite thing from the camping trip. That moment walking with Steph was mine, amongst laughing with the sister I adore and noticing how our children bore discomfort with good humour because they were with their beloved cousins. More stained glass moments for my memory bank. I just have to keep looking for them.

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Trust

rope bridgeTrust is a precious state. It’s the more credulous cousin of hope, but where breaking hope takes force, determination and time, trust can be destroyed in an instant.

Maintaining trust takes work. When leukaemia swept into our lives uninvited, I was a homeopathic pill-popping, vaccine-foreswearing, spiritual healing aficionado. Informed without ceremony that our perfect three-year-old had cancer of the blood, Steph and I were asked to trust strangers to drug her, cut her open, insert tubes, needles and poison as the best way of keeping her alive. Our trust endured as the medicine made her bald, hollowed her eyes, bloated her flesh and made her sick.

We believed the doctors who told us Juliette would be OK and we trusted them as she failed to fight even a cold without hospitalisation. It was one of these viruses that killed her. Chemotherapy kept her with us for nineteen months but ultimately, it stole her too. But we had no conscionable alternative, and to imagine we were wrong to put our faith in her treatment would make us complicit. Impossible to contemplate.

I have often thought that losing Juliette should have made me tough, suspicious and less inclined to trust. As an inoculation against further pain, surely the clever person would always imagine the worst?

I’ve had more than one incidence of broken trust recently. It hurts. In that state I blame myself for my blind credulity, and long to be a person with a gloomier (more realistic?) view of people and situations. This does not seem to be one of the lessons I’ve learned from my daughter’s death, however.

I would hate to be cynical, but I do wish sometimes that I were better able to protect myself from the pain of broken trust. I always imagine the best. I assume that others will behave honourably in response to my faith in them, and I suppose that’s because I’m hopeful. I believe in the innate goodness of people and, strange to say, in the beauty and richness of life. If that makes me stupid, well, pass the dunce’s cap.

 

Ghosts walking

floating-feather-356388During the early days of crippling mental disorder after Juliette died, my mind flitted about like a mad child, chucking up thoughts that were not born of reason or rational process. Juliette was elsewhere. I had to reach her and my messed up brain had me make lists of what I could offer that would reverse the shocking error of her absence.

I begged nameless powers to take my limbs, my eyes and my life. I longed for the chance to eat putrefied road kill, excrement, anything to buy her back. In those moments, it was convenient to forget how I had watched as doctors failed to resuscitate my daughter, that I had held her little body as it grew cold, and seen her buried. The madness of fantasy seduced me. It drew me from the brink and plunge of knowing I would never see her again.

When after weeks my Faustian pacts came to naught, I grasped at comfort by imagining ways in which my loss could have been worse. Juliette died, as far as I knew, without pain. Steph and I were with her and she did not have to bear her last minutes alone. No one took her life, or hurt her. It did not change the fact of her death, but I looked around at the losses of other parents and it made me feel mine was slightly less terrible.

It sounds a cruel way to draw comfort, but I had to survive. I thought of a mother who was robbed even of her daughter’s body to bury, and denied the knowledge of her final hours. I wondered how she could grieve in this tortuous state of suspense, while any hope remained that her child might still be alive.

When Juliette died, Madeleine McCann was still safe with her parents, but my mind kept returning to the family of Ben Needham, the little boy who vanished on a Greek Island. I wondered whether years on, his parents had been able to accept he was probably dead, and if that acceptance brought peace, or only guilt and more suffering. I looked at Juliette’s death in the grip of leukaemia and became the mother who was grateful to have held her child’s lifeless body.

Last week, when Amanda Berry broke out of her ten-year incarceration with two other women all believed to have been dead, my first thought was not jubilation. Instead, I thought about the hurt to my more recently bereaved friends who like I once did would have imagined for a brief but agonising instant that their children might also return, before remembering it was impossible.

It’s a good news story. These daughters and sisters have returned to their families after a decade of grief, but my thoughts are with parents whose children are gone forever. In my thoughts I’m afraid there’s also a little self pity. Amanda Berry disappeared nine months after we lost Juliette. Of course, I would not wish Juliette to have endured what these women have, but a ghost of my mad brain whispers new pacts, and wonders what I would not give even now to hold a sixteen-year-old Juliette in my arms.

Birthday ballade

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So, I spent all day in a remote polling outpost for today’s local elections and I’m only just home from delivering my ballot box to the count. I love taking part, but now I’m a little wired so I’m trying to unwind with a large glass of Harveys and to knock the edge off the day by catching up on work emails. Meanwhile I can’t wait for the morning, because Steph has a big birthday next week and he has no idea we’re off to the Peaks tomorrow for the weekend as an early birthday present. We keep talking about going to the Peaks for the walking and the views, and we’re finally doing it. He never reads my blog, so shhhhhhh… all is pretty good with the world right now.