Sunday, 25 November 2012

A little empathy goes a long way

Yesterday I was at the AGM for a charity with which I'm involved. We'd stayed overnight and I was pretty relaxed as I waited for the meeting to start. It was held in the middle of a social gathering and I was surrounded by people I've known for a long time - we've seen our children grow up so I know a lot of them quite well.

It was a tough time for me because tomorrow should have been Al's 21st birthday. The run up to this birthday has been easier than I anticipated but not without its difficulties. I've thought about him a lot more than usual. Of course he's always flitting in and out of my thoughts but recently the regrets of the sheer waste of his life and the yearning to see him have again become more frequent.

And yet I'm so much calmer than I was as his previous birthdays approached. He's dead and I will always miss him. But although I spend a lot of time thinking about him - and I suspect that others (non-bereaved parents) think I talk about him far too much - my memories are usually happy ones and I usually remember/talk about him with no trace of sorrow. I'm able to laugh at the things he got up to that drove me to the point of distraction. So I am OK. I'm happy. It's just that sometimes I'm sad too. It doesn't last long but sometimes, as bereaved mums are entitled to be, I'm sad.

Anyway, there I was at this gathering surrounded by people I know and like - and several little ones with blonde hair – it’s hard to see them as they remind me so much of Al when he was that age but after my stomach flips and my heart lurches as I catch my first glimpse of them, I’m OK and I can watch them – and even be entertained by them. I like small children. I love their innocence and curiosity.

I met another mum I hadn't seen for years. As my youngest and her eldest caught up and reminisced about previous gatherings, we had our own catch-up. It was lovely to spend some time with her. As soon as I mentioned it, she made it clear that she was already aware that Al had died. She offered her condolences and the conversation moved on quite naturally. Her little boy came bouncing through – a stunningly beautiful little blonde boy - called Alexander.

Later she approached me and asked if I would prefer it if they referred to him by another name during their stay. Of course I declined her offer – despite her reassurances, I felt it would be unreasonable and unfair to expect a little boy to answer to another name.

But the very fact that she even considered it meant so much. The fact that she could empathise enough to see that I might find it difficult to hear a child called by my son’s name gave me enormous comfort.

What a lovely woman.

Friday, 26 October 2012

The plaque is now on his grave

I haven't written anything here for some time. I've thought about it a lot but, given the way my life was, it seemed wrong somehow - but that's another story entirely.

Anyway, several months ago, after much cajoling from the solicitor, I finally got my act together and provided all the information necessary to enable them to complete the claim against Al’s killer’s insurers. The cheque arrived in late August and I wondered what on earth I was supposed to spend it on. Al’s dad didn’t have that dilemma. Within a few days of receiving his ‘compensation’, he announced on Facebook that he was off to collect his new car! Poetic justice reigns however – he’s now discovered it’s a dud and will cost a small fortune to repair. I sound bitter – I don’t care - some things are just unforgiveable.

Anyway, I couldn’t decide what to do with Al’s money. Al’s grandparents provided just under half of the cost of the funeral on his dad's behalf. I knew he wouldn’t have repaid any of it so I dispatched a cheque. It felt right to do that – cleansing somehow.
I’ve not yet managed to do anything with the garden and the weeds are almost waist height because I struggle to do a job that he was supposed to do. Nonetheless, it doesn’t stop me feeling completely embarrassed every time someone walks past the house and I catch the look of distaste on their face so I’ve decided to have the garden tidied. The weeds will be removed, and weed control fabric will be laid which will be covered in slate or gravel. The rotting fence will be replaced by a wall – that was what we discussed that he would do on the day that he died. He was just learning to build walls and was quite excited about his first project on our home so it seems fitting somehow.
I’ve also ordered two rather nice lockets – one for each of the girls. I’ll put photos of him in them then they’ll always have that reminder – that way of feeling close to him. I know they’ll love them and again, it seems like a fitting way to spend his money.

I finally sorted his plaque for his grave. It’s a little larger than the other plaques in the woodland but I wanted to include what the girls wanted so there was rather a lot.

26 NOV. 1991  ~  30 MAY 2009
I blanched when we arrived to see it prior to it being placed on his grave. The stonemason had shortened ‘NOVEMBER’ to ‘NOV.’ It took me a few seconds to recover and realise that it was a perfectly sensible thing to do as each month now contained three letters so it balanced nicely.

However, for a few seconds it transported me back to Al’s dad saying, “Well we’d better not have too many letters then” in response to the news that it would cost £2 per letter. I think that also influenced me agreeing to so much writing on the plaque. It felt wrong – tacky  and mean – to limit the number of letters to save a few quid.

Anyway, it’s now on his grave. We plan to return soon to plant more bulbs. Maybe I’ll find it easier to visit then.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Chicken Pox

I’ve struggled a bit recently. My youngest has Chicken Pox. Of course, it would be no big deal in the general run of things. OK it seemed a little unfair as it was her second bout – the last was ten years ago when she was just five years old – but it was just Chicken Pox. No big deal. All kids get it don’t they.

Except that I know it can kill. I know of a little girl whose mum grieves for her because of Chicken Pox. I have read of the pain that she lives with every day. And it really doesn’t matter how you lost your child – it hurts.
But it matters that I know that it is possible to die from Chicken Pox. Oh I know the statistical chance of my child dying from it is pretty slim. I know that she’s unlikely to develop any complications. Hmm, who am I kidding! I’ve spent the past few days trawling the web for info about what signs to look for. I now know that it seems to be worse the older you are – and she has suffered a lot more this time. She’s had flu like symptoms as well as the infernal itching. She’s fifteen so it’s timed beautifully for the middle of GCSE preparation – that’s her biggest worry. I’ve nursed her and nagged her about keeping cool enough and I’ve forced myself to work each day because I couldn’t allow her to see the gibbering wreck I was. I rang her a couple of times each day and she became increasingly frustrated with me. “Yes Mum I’m fine - I was watching telly until you interrupted.”  Losing her brother was bad enough; I don’t need to pass on my fears as well.

The spots are almost finished now and in a couple of days she’ll no longer be contagious and it will all be over. It pretty much is for her now. She’s had a few days to skive off school, watch daytime telly, read trashy teenage mags, and moan that it won’t be her fault if she doesn’t perform as well in exams as she could have done. It’s been a minor inconvenience for her. And that’s as it should be I guess.
I know the theory. I know the stats. I know it’s unlikely to happen. But then if someone had given me the odds on whether I’d lose one of my three children when he crossed the road, I would have dismissed that as highly unlikely too.

He is gone. And everything takes on a new meaning. Stats (once my refuge – my degree was in Psychology – a statistician’s dream) have become meaningless. What I would once have considered a blip became so hard to manage.
And now I look at her and am relieved she’s OK . And I think of Susan and Catherine - who weren’t. And I wish ...

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Another anniversary looms

In two and a half months, it will be the third anniversary of Al’s death. Right now, I feel differently about it than I did as I approached the last two anniversaries. I guess I now know that so few will notice, and even fewer will acknowledge it. Maybe a part of me is starting to be able to accept that. I don’t think I’ll ever be OK with it or see it as reasonable – but I’m no longer shocked by it. Saddened and resentful, yes – shocked, no.

I feel calmer. Whether it will last as the day approaches has yet to be seen but I definitely don’t feel as panicked or have the same sense of trepidation. Maybe I’ll manage to get my act together and order the Birds of Paradise in time rather than burying my head in the sand and then dashing round at the last moment.

Yes I know it was a daft thing to do...

As a way of distracting myself from the discussions about to take place when we were sat waiting at the lawyers, I’d started to tell my friend about the incident with the stupid woman at the dance class but we were called in.

Afterwards, I began again and recounted the whole incident. At the end she didn’t say, “Blimey that must have been painful to hear.” Or, “What a shame she wasn’t able to consider what she said.” Instead, she said, “It sounds as if she was embarrassed and didn’t know what to say.” Why is it that people think they need to explain away someone’s crass insensitivity – as if crass insensitivity is acceptable. Why did that woman require MY sensitivity and understanding for HER lack of it? I know she was embarrassed and didn’t know what to say. But when in doubt, say nothing. And if you do find yourself saying such a stupid thing, surely the correct thing to do would be to apologise. Why did my friend think it’s less unacceptable for me, when I am grieving, to be more understanding? I’m fed up of being expected to be the bigger person when I feel so diminished.

And so it goes on

On Friday, I attended an appointment with a lawyer. For the last two years, the firm have been gently reminding me that I need to provide info about Al. And I’ve been procrastinating because it just seems plain wrong to talk of my son in terms of a monetary loss.

The Government has a set figure for situations like mine. It seems that my son was worth £11,800. Apparently, some think it should be much higher. But just how do you set a price on someone’s life? Conversely, others feel that it should be scrapped altogether as whatever price is set is an insult. In my detached moments, I see both arguments – well, they both amount to the same thing really. I understand, unfortunately all too well, just why it’s a difficult area. Anyway, I’m running out of time because the wheels have to be set in motion within three years of Al’s anniversary and that date is fast approaching. The thing is that given the choice, I’d rather it was scrapped altogether. The amount, whilst not entirely insignificant to me as a single mum, won’t make much of a difference to our lives and it is an insult to suggest that it in any way compensates for Al’s loss of life. I notice that it is never referred to as ‘compensation’ thank goodness – I think I’d explode if it were.

My friend offered to accompany me to the appointment and suggested we go for lunch afterwards. Until she offered, I hadn’t realised just how tense I was about it. I’d deliberately packed the morning full so that I didn’t have time to dwell too much on things so I dashed to get my youngest to school, flew over to get the car MOTd and went to collect my friend so that we could get into town on time.

We arrived and I met the legal executive I’ve already met once before. The lawyer arrived and while we waited for some paperwork, he floored me by saying, “So – tell me about Alexander. What was he like?” In an instant, I knew that this was clearly a technique to get me to talk about him so that I’d be more easily able to cope with the nitty-gritty discussions later on. But although I grasped that straight away, I froze. I’d been prepared for cold, clinical, detached descriptions of driver/victim liability but I simply hadn’t been prepared for a question about my boy. I didn’t want to discuss his likes and dislikes, his foibles, his personality. I wanted to keep my son out of that room. With hindsight, it seems mad that I could even think this possible but I’d wanted to keep him out of it and refer to everything almost in an academic sense. If I didn’t take him into that room, it was just a business discussion about something abstract.

Damn me for being the compliant, polite type - It simply isn’t courteous to ignore or refuse to answer a question. I replied with, “What do you want to know about him?” But the first half of the sentence was merely a croak as the words were stuck in my throat. He said he wanted to get a feel for the kind of lad he was.

‘A feel’? Damn! Damn! Damn! That was the last thing I wanted. I didn’t want to feel at all and anything that brought him to life (the irony of that phrase hit me like a sledgehammer as it popped into my head) was something I needed to avoid right then.

Anyway, as I said, I was raised to be polite so I complied and began to describe him and the kind of lad he was. As I talked, it got a little easier and I became increasingly animated and was able to smile at some of the things I recounted. I guess the lawyer knew his job well.

Anyway, the paperwork arrived and we got down to the business of the day. It seems that the driver’s insurance company had originally said that as there was some suggestion of him playing chicken, they should reduce the amount they paid out by 30%. The amount was irrelevant. It was the fact that they used the driver’s ‘excuse’ that he thought my son was playing chicken. He was the only person to say it. None of the other witnesses supported this. Not one! But the insurance company tried it on anyway. I know it’s a business. I know it’s their job to save money. I know that they view it in that cold, clinical way I’d wanted to use in order to preserve myself. They saw the amount of money they had to pay out as collateral damage. But this was my boy. He was my son – a human being. And yet he was reduced to a few figures on a bit of paper.

I wanted to scream, “You didn’t know him. You never delighted in the way he sang along to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and couldn’t pronounce the ‘th’ in ‘thing’ so, until he was six, it always sounded like ‘sing’. You never sat up at nights worried about whom he was with. You didn’t stand with your heart bursting with pride when he was all dressed up for his school prom night. So how can you decide how much he was worth? And how dare you try to suggest he deliberately taunted a driver by playing chicken!”

I knew it was a balance-sheet decision but it ripped into me. It was the percentages that did it. They were saying that my son was 30% to blame. They actually quantified it. Before entering that building, I knew that logically it was going to be that way, but to face the cold, stark reality of it was another matter entirely. My friend, who had sat quietly until now, interrupted with, “Beverley understands that these decisions need to be made but what she finds difficult is the percentage.” The lawyer asked if the 30% was at issue or the very fact that any percentage was used. We both chorused, “The fact that any percentage is used.” He then said that they could just get the company to make a total offer and thereby remove the percentage because this is a common issue. It felt easier that way so I agreed.

As I said earlier, I’d have found it easier to not have had to go through this but, in the very early days after Al died, his dad contacted the police to enquire about compensation. The very fact that he did this, and just how quickly he did it, still never fails to sicken me. I suppose I could have left him to deal with it but Al was my son and it feels important to me that I stick up for him in whatever way I can. I’m his mum (not, ‘I was his mum’). I will always be his mum and so it’s my job. His dad (and I use the term loosely) preferred to be more of a mate – and a fair-weather one at that. This effectively meant that Al only had the one parent. And in the same way that I wouldn’t have entrusted my son’s reputation to one of his mates, particularly one who seemed to be far too focussed on how much money was available, I wasn’t about to entrust it to that man. I don’t know why it matters so much to me that some faceless person in some insurance company clinically attaches a specific proportion of blame to my son but it does. It matters!

In the end, we left with a small list of info I need to supply and a deadline. Knowing my tendency to procrastinate around this issue, I’d specifically requested it and the Legal Executive had been a bit woolly in her reply. She clearly thought she was being kind. The lawyer interjected with, “By Easter at the very latest.” He’d understood that was what I needed.

We left and went for a quick coffee as my friend was on a diet and had her grandson to look after. Just as well really – I was in need of comfort and would have devoured all the cakes in the cafĂ© given half a chance.

According to the lawyer, this could drag on for another year.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Insensitive comment or what

I was at my usual Tuesday evening dance class with my youngest this evening. It’s a 12-week beginner’s course and we’re kind of enjoying it. It would be better if we hadn’t had new people start every single week, which meant the instructor taught the same dances week in, week out. Anyway, she’s offered us the opportunity to stay on each week for the improvers’ class free of charge. She said that it wasn’t her fault we’ve been fast learners. Hmm. Anyway, I won’t complain. I quite enjoyed staying on and observing, and joining in the more advanced class a little tonight.

The evening was tarnished somewhat by an exchange though. It all started when my 15-year-old got a text from her mate in the middle of the class. The instructor was going through something with the newbies. Some of us had done it all before and were chatting away until she finished. My daughter decided to reply to the text. I noticed and asked her to put the mobile away explaining that it was bad mannered to send or read texts in the middle of a class. The instructor noticed and asked her to put the mobile away telling her it was considered poor etiquette to use a mobile during class. I thought she handled it well and my daughter put it away.

Ten minutes later, during another lull, I noticed the mobile out again and in a somewhat irritated tone said, “Put it away – now!” Another woman smiled at me conspiratorially and said, “These kids and their mobiles.”
Then she turned to my daughter saying, “You know these phones are not good. They can cause all kinds of problems. You can even get kids crossing the road using them.”

I interrupted, “Thanks but actually ...”
“You never know what’s round the corner just using a mobile and suddenly...”

Again, I interrupted, “Please don’t. The thing is ...”
“They’re so focussed on these daft phones - they don’t see the car coming ...”

Again, I tried, “No really. Please stop. Please don’t. You see...”
“And then, before you know it, they’re dead. Just like that.”

It was too late. She was so focussed on the lesson she wanted to give, she just hadn’t been able to listen.
“Yes we know. That’s just how my son died.”

“Oh dear.” Her expression flickered for just a second. She looked unsure - just for a second. Then it was replaced by a look of, well the smile was almost triumphant, “And that just proves my point. Don’t use a mobile” (little nudge to my daughter’s ribs accompanied by a conspiratorial wink at me) “They’re bad for you.” With a laugh, she turned back to get in line for the next part of the lesson.
I guess my son’s death was at least useful then. It reinforced her point so I ought to be grateful that she was able to support me. The thing is that what I would have preferred was that as soon as I had said how my son died, she could have replied, “I’m so sorry. I can see how my example might be difficult for you to hear.” It was the smile on her face as she smugly announced, “And that just proves my point,” that made me want to slap her.

I won’t recount this incident when I’m at work tomorrow because I just know that I’ll be met with, “Oh she was probably embarrassed”, or, “She probably didn’t mean it like that/it came out wrong”, or the old chestnut, “Well people don’t know what to say do they.” As if that excuses it.
I accept that any of those might be an explanation – but never an excuse. Never!

Monday, 9 January 2012

Al's midwife

Both Al and his little sister were born at home. My community midwife was a lovely down- to-earth woman who, admittedly, got a little nervous when I went so massively overdue (25 days with Al and 20 days with my youngest – my eldest was 30 days overdue so I ‘improved’ each time I guess). However, apart from getting very twitchy with my habit of going overdue, she was kind and patient with me and always left me feeling that my views and wishes were respected.

She missed Al’s birth by 10 minutes as she had only just started her shift but came immediately and helped the other midwife with all the post birth tasks and she was keen to tell me that it was also her son’s birthday.

I bumped into her around town occasionally as the children grew. Six years ago, I saw her in my local supermarket – the one where I ran into the man who killed Al. She told me that one of her sons had died. He’d been run over by a taxi. I can’t remember how I responded – probably inappropriately. I remember feeling immensely sad for her but feeling powerless to do anything to make it better.
The day after Al died, I was telling my sister of my midwife and how Al had shared one of her son’s birthdays, and how her other son had died in such startlingly similar circumstances to Al when our Family Liaison Officer arrived to let us know, amongst other things, that if I didn’t provide a Press Release, the local Press would hound me until I did. He passed me a copy of the short newspaper announcement regarding this young man’s death and, as I read it, I realised that I knew who this was. The officer confirmed it. It was my midwife’s son.

Since then, I've often thought of her and wondered why I hadn’t seen her since – I bumped into her at least twice a year for years and then, after Al died, I never clapped eyes on her at all.
Last week, I saw her. I was queuing (in my local supermarket of course – where else!) I almost jumped over the guardrail to get to her.

She didn’t recognise me. It took me several minutes of explaining who I was when she suddenly said, “Didn’t you used to home school your children?” Bingo!
I then told her about Al and how we lost him, and how I thought about her so much. Well I would wouldn’t I – she and Al had so many coincidental connections. What got to me was the way she almost whispered, “You never get over it you know.” Her eyes filled with tears as she said it.

I already knew I'd never ‘get over’ losing my boy. But it helped me so much to see her that day.