Reins of control

my beautiful

Juliette, a few days before we lost her

As parents, we control what happens to our children. We keep them warm and fed, sneak vitamins into their meals and catch them before they fall. We filter the cruelty of the world, because protecting them is what we do. The essential delusion to which most of us cling is that we can control what happens to them, just as we control what happens to us. The death of our child shatters that.

The most tormenting thought I had when this beautiful girl in the picture died was that I could have done something to stop it. I think for most of us who have lost a child this feeling is unavoidable, at least sometimes. It didn’t matter to me how many doctors insisted there was nothing I could have done differently, or the number of friends’ attempts to convince me that this torture was pointless, I agonised over the sequence leading to that awful day in search of the moment that would have changed everything.

It seems to me that to move on from this, you can choose one of two paths. You either ferment in the regret of your ‘mistakes,’ painfully alert to the fact that what happened could happen again (unless you prevent it), or you decide that you were, and continue to be powerless. Call me a godless, arrogant self-determinist, but I’ve always erred on the side of imagining that I am the primary agent in my life and those of my younger children. However, maintaining this notion of control following the loss of a child is a double-edged sword. Certainly the world feels a safer place if you can make choices to protect yourself and your children from its hostile vagaries but if those choices were always mine to make, how could I have let Juliette die? How much more appealing then to place your fate and theirs in the hands of unknown forces?

I’ve had a salient reminder recently of what being in control means to me, and at an especially critical time. Five weeks ago and seven miles into a long run, I broke my leg. OK. I have spent the last few years managing my life and with a small dose of luck, making things happen. I’ve found work that I truly love and shockingly, for which I seem to have an aptitude. At the risk of sounding self-congratulatory, I (previously a non-runner) have finished three marathons in respectable non-runner times, written two books and achieved a distinction in a Science degree with my flabby Arts brain. An effective puncture to any pride is that with my leg currently in a cast, even keeping myself clean is a challenge. I can’t carry a cup of tea between rooms or tidy up, let alone drive myself to work or to the university to complete the prison education research about which I’m passionate. As someone close to me observed, “If your life were a novel, this would be an obvious plot device.” The capable and in-control protagonist has been reminded she is not, after all, in control of all that much.IMG_20160410_150238

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Tidying? Not possible.

 

I don’t like it. I’m fairly sure I’m not on any OCD scale, but the need to feel in control (and the discomfort when I’m not) I recognise as far more of a driver (ha) than it ever was before Juliette died. Yet I’m painfully aware I need to work on this as one of the less healthy effects that losing Juliette has had on me, especially where the children are concerned. So, when a recently-returned-from-Ghana Elodie telephoned late at night from London to describe symptoms of suspected typhoid, I successfully quietened the voice that said, ‘Get dressed and drive 60 miles to take her to hospital now and she’ll live. Stay in bed, and she’ll die.’ Elodie is an adult, and I know I have to trust that I’ve helped her develop enough sense of her own to make good decisions most of the time. I aspire to be Khalil Gibran’s stable bow to my children’s living arrows, but too much of the time I’m still the anxious archer.

I’m resigned never to shake entirely the anxiety of not being in control and able to keep those I love safe. Unfortunately I am all too primed for the heart-stamping agony of losing people I care about and this places my emotions on a hair trigger, but knowing this about myself is part way to dealing with it. My conscious viewpoint (and perhaps a broken leg at this particular juncture was a useful reminder) is that life hands you a random script – mine just happened to include the death of my incredible daughter – and the limit of your control is how you play your part. At some point after Juliette died, I made the occasionally hard decision to live as intensely as she did because she no longer could. In the context of my current incapacity I must remind myself that raging against my foolishness (why was I admiring the sky rather than watching the uneven road?) and wallowing in self-pity at crutch-induced tendonitis, is no shortcut to happiness. Reading for my prison study, catching up on unfinished novels (and un-watched box sets), seeing my lovely friends and writing the odd blog post is, at a time when I have been chronically busy, a joy. And ‘only’ another five weeks without driving. Who knows? Any minute now I may be thanking my lucky stars.

 

'You're grounded.'

 

 

 

 

Eighteen…edited.

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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.

EDIT

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.

With Grandpa

With Grandpa

Watching petals fall

Watching petals fall

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Singing in the bath...

Singing in the bath…

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Dreams

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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.

Evolution, revolution

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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.

Cliff jumping

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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.”

Gulp.

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.

 

Why am I running a marathon?

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The Finish…

I’m weeping again. While I was writing this post yesterday I googled pictures of the London Marathon, finding scores of images showing elite runners zipping over Tower Bridge and around Parliament Square. That long swing onto Birdcage Walk in front of Buckingham Palace and down the Mall is very familiar. I’ve seen it twice  and dreamed it dozens more, but it’s the look on ordinary runners’ faces as they approach the finish line that really hits me in the chest.

Not everyone runs with photographs or messages pinned to their shirts, but most of us non-elites have a story. It’s the weight, the importance of these stories at the toughest points of the marathon that can overwhelm you, and I know it’s not just me. I sobbed across the finish line in 2007, and a runner in a Cancer Reseach vest hugged me – you can do that with strangers at the end of 26 miles… I plucked at my Children with Leukaemia shirt and told him about Juliette. He cried, and told me about the daughter he too had lost.

Today I’m looking at lace minute race instructions… attaching the timing chip to my shoe and trying to remember different parts of the route to calm my nerves, but it’s that surge of joy seeing the finish line that keeps popping into my head. At that point during both previous marathons I was almost hallucinating with exhaustion. On Sunday, my family and various friends are coming to watch, but Elodie will be working. This morning she told me the real reason why she won’t be there.

Apparently I looked a wreck at the 25-mile point the last time she watched. “Mummy,’ she said, “I’ve had to see you suffer too much, mentally, but to see you suffering physically was unbearable.” I haven’t lived through what she has, so it hadn’t crossed my mind that she would find it hard. I’m proud of my sensible and sensitive oldest girl.

Despite knowing what’s coming, I’m incredibly excited about Sunday and as I’ve written before, it feels different this time. The first marathon I just wanted to finish, uncertain whether I could. With the second I wanted to prove I wasn’t a one hit wonder. But this time? I know I can finish a marathon and having run two, I have nothing to prove. Yes, I’m raising money for a fantastic charity that supports bereaved children – the motherless Prince William is the charity’s patron – and to date, I’ve raised more than £3000. But this marathon more than the others, is for me. I’m five years older but fitter than ever and the difference this time is in my head.

 
I have had to work at running long distance – I was never one of those long-limbed girls at the head of the cross country pack at school – I was the one trying to cheat and cut out some of the laps. I liked sprinting (it was over quicker) but I wasn’t fast. I used to run a mile or so along Crail beach when I was at St Andrews in a vain attempt to counteract the pack-a-day and tequila shot habit, but I’m no natural runner. So for me, even contemplating a distance of 26 miles is huge. I’ve written here and elsewhere how I used long distance running after losing Juliette as a punishment for me being alive. This time I run with gratitude that I am. That, and a dollop of pig-headed determination to finish in the fastest time I can.

 
So, I’m a bit emotional, but in the past few days I’ve had two taps on the shoulder from the past to heighten things. Katy and I are in contact. Elodie, unbeknownst to me, has been talking to her for a while. It’s not easy contemplating the way Katy has grown up leukaemia-free when Juliette didn’t, but she is a gorgeous and sensitive young woman and I’m glad to know her. Although she was only four when Juliette died, for nearly twelve years she and her family have remembered Juliette’s birthday, anniversaries and have marked them by releasing lanterns. I found contact with the family too difficult so I had no idea, and it’s incredibly moving that they should quietly remember my lovely daughter in this way.

 
The second whisper from the past (thanks to marathon fundraising) was a message from someone I haven’t spoken to in several years, who spoke about Juliette and my mother, Meg. Poppy has given me permission to quote her:

 
“I remember Juliette so well! I looked at the photographs you attached to your donation page including the hilarious one of Elodie and Juliette in (I’m guessing!) Meg’s shoes, and recognised Meg’s house and the kitchen and that pale blue aga and it took me back so quickly. Juliette was an incredibly sunny and warm little girl, and so remarkably brave through everything. I also remember how wonderfully close the children were to each other, and in particular that lovely and deep bond Elodie and Juliette shared. One memory I’ve never forgotten was sitting talking to your mama in the kitchen one day, and remarking on the fact that Juliette used to walk around on her tiptoes quite often, in an almost otherworldly way. Meg said to me that she’d noticed Juliette talking in a corner one day, and when she asked her who she was talking to, she said “the angels, can’t you see them?” For such a little girl – albeit with an enormous personality! – she had a profound impact on those around her, and I consider myself lucky to have known her.”

 
I’ll have that funny, bright, extraordinary little girl in my heart on Sunday, willing me on. I know I have readers from different parts of the world (thank you so much for that) and if you could please send me positive vibes for this Sunday too, it would mean the world to me.