A young widowed father opening up about living with loss
My wife and I were blessed with a handsome little boy. This may sound conceited coming from his own father, but I’ve grown so accustomed to people telling me how “gorgeous” he is that I’ve now accepted it as the truth. I suppose my position on this is somewhat tempered by the expression displayed across the faces of strangers when they see the two of us together – a confused look, which I read as: He must be the babysitter.
‘Oh, he’s going to be a heartbreaker!’ they say about Jackson, ‘And isn’t he tall for his age?’ Yes, I often think but usually keep to myself, I’m short and haggard for mine.
Standing at 5ft 7in I’m seldom asked to lend my skills as a model. Jackson, on the other hand, at just 3ft 2in, is quite often asked to offer his. A few days before Desreen died, I took the day off work to take Jackson to a shoot for an Ella’s Kitchen healthy eating recipe book – a favour for a client at the time. I took him out of nursery, hauled him to the other side of London and said a little prayer that he would, for one day in his life, eat fruit and vegetables. Having lived almost exclusively on porridge, chicken and rice since he was first weened, he rose to the occasion and ate everything that was put in front of him. Unbelievable, I thought as I watched him happily eat cous cous and vegetable lasagne for the camera like organic butter from grass-fed cows wouldn’t melt.
Some months later when I revealed three of the final images to him, which I’d blown up and hung on our kitchen wall, the Jackson I knew returned as he yelled: ‘I don’t like bananas! They are too yacky!’, ‘Why am I holding an apple? They are too stinky!’ and ‘Urgh! Cous cous is too bumpy.’
Tragically, Desreen was killed the same week as that photo shoot, just a couple of miles from where it took place. Before she died, however, she and Jackson attended a couple of others shoots as favours to friends: one for a stylist she represented at Sunday Times Style and another for our mates who run their own designer children swear brand called Jessie & James. But after taking Jackson to a number of castings where he was reluctant to cooperate with the photographers, Desreen suggested that we knock it on the head. ‘To be honest I’m only really interested in him working for Burberry or Stella McCartney Kids anyway’, she told me sweepingly after what we thought would be his final shoot.
Des worked in fashion but it was much more than just a job to her. She was passionate about nurturing talent in her role as a fashion agent and got no greater thrill than when she saw the artists she represented achieve (and often surpass) their goals. Having started her own business with a friend in early 2012, her ambition in later life was to help more young black women break into the fashion industry. Scores of people, many of whom I’ve never even met, have been in touch since she died to tell me that she stood out in industry as a friendly, funny, dedicated and talented young business woman. She was ambitious and successful and yet not showy in the least; she wouldn’t even post a picture of Jackson on Facebook if he’d appeared in a photo shoot. Instead she’d simply hang it on the wall or stick it on the fridge to enjoy it for herself. Her desire to see Jackson feature in a campaign for a fashion monolith was not out of vanity but rather appreciation. She knew that these sort of brands only worked with the best photographic and styling talent in the business and that, as a result, she would get the most incredible shots of our little boy to cherish for the rest of her life.
Sadly, her life with our son was short-lived. It didn’t last long enough for her to witness his first day at school, nevermind mind being selected to work with one of the fashion houses she admired. Gladly, though, those still here still love her enough to try to make the dreams she had in life come true.
Desreen’s brother, Anthony, recently attended a wedding where he saw a friend who is a designer for Stella McCartney’s kidswear line. True to form, as the proud uncle that he is, he couldn’t resist showing pictures of his dashing young nephew to the girls. It turned out that there was a casting a couple of weeks later and Jackson was invited to attend, so Anthony called me to ask me what I thought. Unaware of the conversation his sister and I had had just over a year earlier, he was thrilled to hear how happy it would have made Desreen for Jackson get the job.
Today marks exactly one year since Desreen’s funeral. On that mournful day I promised that I would do all I could in life to do her proud. And I know that she would have been proud today because yesterday her little boy featured in a photo shoot for Stella McCartney Kids’ autumn/winter 2014 campaign, after the fashion designer herself chose him from the casting shots. Desreen would have been so excited. But when I contemplate how she’d have felt about the shoot itself, I know it wouldn’t have been the kudos of the brand or the quality of the photography that she would have ultimately gratified her the most. Instead she would have loved the story about how her little boy happily wore skinny jeans for an audience when he forcibly refuses to wear anything but jersey bottoms for anyone dressing him at home. And I know that because I can remember how hard she laughed when I told her that our carnivorous child ate vegetables all day at the Ella’s Kitchen shoot just days before she died.
I can’t wait to the shots from yesterday next year. But more than anything I look forward to being able to tell Jackson how proud his mum would have been of him for always being able to turn on the charm when it matters most. I want to be able explain how that quality makes him so like his mum – a woman who could charm herself into or out of any given situation.
I’d like to say a big thank you to all the guys at Stella McCartney Kids who helped fulfil a late mother’s wish this week. It made a bereaved husband’s tough week a little easier and it’s making a sad anniversary pass with an unexpected little smile.