New year treasure

Treasure chestWe have in a corridor of our house something my grandmother used to call “a glory hole.” In hers, you would find fragile pieces of beautiful china (incomplete sets), broken pieces of favourite jewellery and pieces of fabric from dresses she wanted to remember. Essentially, it was a cupboard of things with which she could not bear to part. I don’t care that the term has acquired a different use because to me, it still conjures up the magic of my mother’s mother.

Anyway, our cupboard of the name is overflowing with what others might term ‘junk.’ It caught my eye today and I could not think of a good reason to avoid tackling it. So, I pulled out dusty ring binders of notes on massage from a course I completed as a distraction after Juliette died, (binned), VHS tapes of films we’ll no longer watch as well as those we’ve replaced on DVD (binned), photographs not yet in albums (kept), and endless lesson plans and materials from when I used to tutor French (tentatively kept). My tidying yielded no broken jewellery, no fabric scraps or china, but I did find a box.

The box has a window lid, into which at some point I must have put a poem that Juliette had written during her last term at school. Inside I rediscovered cards written by Juliette, a dragonfly brooch she made me during a hospital stay, a still sticky empty jar of homemade jam (she had picked the strawberries), one of her favourite books (We’re going on a Bear Hunt) and a lock of her hair. Nestled amongst these was a white stone with a hole in it that Juliette found on Southwold beach during her final week and that she had given me, ‘because it’s lucky, Mummy.’

I felt a jolt turning over a card Juliette had made for her class during that holiday – we never posted it because she was taken into hospital for the final time – because in my scribbled handwriting were numbers that must have been her last blood count. She’d had a routine blood test on the Monday. It was good. All her levels were fine. On Thursday of the same week, she died from an overwhelming infection.

It must be at least three years since I’ve opened the box. I remembered that I had these things, but I had forgotten I’d saved them like this. It was a poignant find for the first day of 2014 – the 12th we have entered without her – but a lovely one. She is never very far away from my thoughts and always inside me, but finding these tangible memories reminds me she was once real, solid and adorable. While holding on to everything my life is now, I still miss her so much.

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Numbers

prime-numbersI wonder if other parents who have lost children now have a thing about numbers?  I’ve never thought of myself as a superstitious person, but what I’m about to say would rather contradict that.

Five is my golden number. It’s the age that Juliette reached, and it’s also the number of babies I’ve given birth to. I attach it to anything I want to be lucky, yet it also feels a little clandestine. To people I’ve only just met I say, ‘I’ve had five children,’ which I hope I do not have to develop into, ‘but only four are living.’ I’ve never had more than four living children. Five is the number I get away with if I can.

26. Juliette was born on the 26th March. It feels like a lovely, auspicious combination of digits.

7 is the number of people in our family, only we look like a household of 6. For the first few years after Juliette died, I couldn’t send Christmas cards because, how could I sign them off and exclude Juliette? The first ones I managed to write included her name with ours. I know lots of bereaved parents do this, but for me it very soon felt mawkish. Now I sign any family cards or presents with a pattern of seven kisses. It probably looks childish, but I don’t care. I know Juliette is ‘there.’

18. This is the worst number. I try to avoid arranging anything important on the 18th of any month. Even hearing of an 18th birthday, because of the digits, makes me feel a little sick.

2002. This is an odd one, and was the first to make me wonder about my thoughts and behaviour. I quite often fill my car with £20 of diesel, but if I misjudge the pump and it stops at 20:02, I have to keep going until it reaches £30. Eleven years on, that’s a bit insane, isn’t it?

Lovely mothers

vodka1I am lucky enough to be a member of a closed online group of mothers (and fathers) who have lost children. It’s a place for bad language, irreverence, virtual drinking and fabulous mutual support. My only regret is that it wasn’t around in the lonely, early days after Juliette died. We bereaved parents need groups like these, because more than any other loss (yes, it is worse than any other) it’s rare to find a person who understands the myriad, ongoing resonances of losing a child, unless they too have suffered similarly. When Juliette died, I really thought I was going mad. I had no idea whether what I was feeling was normal because at first I knew no one. I haven’t hidden the fact that I had written about my experiences, but no one from the group had read my manuscript before this week. I wrote the book with other bereaved parents in mind, because when Juliette first died I remembered how desperate I was to see my experience reflected in the writing of others, and most of all I needed proof I could survive. In writing this book, I wanted to be honest about how hard it has been at times, but also offer the hope for my family’s future that I myself had craved in earlier days. Most of the parents in the group have lost their children more recently and I did not want to add to their pain, so it was with some trepidation that I asked whether any of them would like to read it. I’ve been overwhelmed and tearful at the feedback.  After the relief that (so far) my sometimes overly honest account has not hurt anyone, is that what I’ve written resonates with a group of people who although many of whom I have come to care about, I have never met in real life. These are some of the comments they’ve made so far, in private messages to me and on a discussion thread…

I’m on chapter 4 and it’s so beautifully written. I feel as though I know Juliette but the whole time I’m wishing for a different outcome…

I’m struggling through chapters eight and nine. It’s so familiar, especially coming home to everything looking the same. I’m glad you could write this down so eloquently…

I finished it this afternoon through tears and full on sobs. I can’t think of anything I’ve read about losing a child that I identified with as much as your experience. The parts about your feelings towards Elodie, Pierre and Raphael gave me goose bumps. I felt exactly the same way about Isla once Jude died. I cuddled her and smiled at her but it was just an act at first and often when I held her, I closed my eyes and imagined it was him. Thank you so much for making me feel less guilty about that. …I so wish my friends and family could read your words so that they could have half an idea of how I feel. It’s both beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time and I really feel as though I know Juliette. I’m so sorry that you no longer have your beautiful, brave girl with you but I can’t thank you enough for putting it all down and sharing it with us. Fiona

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Wow what a read! The first half of the book I felt as if I were reading a fictional novel almost, getting to know Juliette and your family. I was interested although interested isn’t really the word I’m looking for, to read about how her diagnosis affected you all as a family and about her treatment- I had no real idea at all about what a child and their family go through when you have cancer, I think I just believed in the romantic ridiculous notion that a little bit of chemo and they would get better- I really was that stupid. I felt as if I was really falling in love with Juliette I was really hoping that she would be ok. But when she died I felt myself right there with you in the hospital, I felt rather than reading about Juliette and your family I was reading a parallel story of my own. The second part of the book was a lot harder for me to read than the first because that grief I completely understood and I felt that all over again. So often in fictional books when a character dies the death is almost romantic and brushed over very quickly, this tells it how it is. How it affects every moment and every breath in those first weeks, how as a mum to other children you have to get on and do certain things and how it affects deeply every single relationship in your life.

I was in tears from the first chapter but compelled to read on which is one of the reasons I was still awake at 3 this morning.  Sally

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I fear I won’t sleep tonight, I can’t stop reading. It is very eloquently written.

I just finished, and of course, I had to google Elodie and her torch run. I love the Olympics. I named Bodie after an Olympic Gold Medalist. How awesome that she got to carry the torch. The book was so poignant. I knew what the outcome was going to be, but I kept hoping for Juliette to recover. There is a market for this book, this group is proof of that.  Amanda

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Half way through chapter 2 and already gripped…it is heartbreakingly beautifully written…

 

Have just finished it Geves, what a wonderful tribute to your beautiful special Juliette and to you Steph and the family…Thank you for sharing your book with us.  Heather

 

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Geves, I started reading last night. As a result I’m tired today because I struggled to put it down. You write incredibly well. Thank you for telling it how it is…

I’ve just finished it. It’s so beautifully written. Thank you for allowing me to know your amazing family. I’m so sorry Juliette is no longer with you.  Beverley

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A harrowing read…but also amazing. Geves, I was so inspired by all you are doing now, especially your work in prisons. Anne

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Have read first two chapters, cannot put it down.

Oh Geves I am reading this in tears most of the time, but (and I hope this does not offend) I did laugh out loud when you were describing the birthing pool chaos! I am in awe of how you managed to write this.  Eleanor

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I’ve read it all today! Seth was a touch neglected and watched lots of Peppa Pig…

I loved reading about your life with Juliette, and getting to know her a bit better. She was Max’s age when she was diagnosed, so I recognise some of the traits and cute ways of pronouncing words…

I coped very similarly to you after he died. I drew no comfort from his brothers, they actually made me feel worse, and got pregnant very quickly after. I struggle day to day as well, and Elodie saying to you that she is the person she is today because of Juliette made me cry, I hope that Aaron can say the same. Elodie and Juliette sound very similar to Aaron and Max, you didn’t really get one without the other.

When writing about your reactions and the things people say to you, your change of friends, your change of personality, all resonate with me too, it sounds like I could have written it.

I think it is a beautiful book. You describe my life really….I think I will read it over and over and over.  Jo

 

I could not have wished for better reactions. Thank you, lovely mothers.

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.

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.

Beautiful symphonies

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I went to a funeral two days ago. It marked the life of a wonderful man who had reached the incredible age of 102.

It always shocks me that I still I still find funerals difficult. I really try. As snow fell outside the ancient Gloucestershire church, I tried to stay focussed on my friend. In a voice taut with grief she read The Good Indian’s Prayer, a favourite of her Dad’s. I only made it to the second hymn before I was fumbling for tissues. It doesn’t matter how much I tell myself that I’m not there for Juliette and to stop being so self-absorbed, at funerals my thoughts always travel back to Juliette’s life, and to Juliette’s death.

I listened harder as others spoke about the spiritually good, full, and interesting life this grand old man had lived, and about the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren he had seen into the world. I felt admiration for this special person, and incredibly sad for all the things Juliette never achieved. Then I listened closer to how much the man had been loved, how he made everyone feel special and the way he had touched the lives of everyone he met, and realised they could have been talking about Juliette.

Really, it’s only about the length of their lives. Juliette could not have lived more fully in the time she had, and could not have touched more deeply those who knew her. If Juliette had been a soldier in India, a farmer, trained as a healer and brought children into the world, would her life have been better? Would she have been happier than the little girl who giggled through chemo and baldness, who found every day ‘itciting’ and made everyone she met feel a better person for having known her?

I will never find out. I have to bring my focus back to what she did do, how much she loved and was loved, and to remember that her short life had intense beauty.

“We cannot, after all, judge a biography by its length, by the number of pages in it; we must judge by the richness of the contents…Sometimes the ‘unfinisheds’ are among the most beautiful symphonies.” Victor Frankl.