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

desk

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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Rainbow

Traveler Digital Camera

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.

Cliff jumping

jump

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.

 

April 13th 2014

2014 marathon-1

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…

2014 marathon-2             The medal

After…. a few yards from the finish              The medal, after a bowl of pasta and some prosecco

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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