I keep being asked how I feel about Father’s Day and what I have planned. The honest truth is that, because I’m lucky enough to already spend so much time with my son, I haven’t really given it that much thought. We’ll just spend the day together doing the things he loves knowing that when he has a smile on his face I have happiness in my heart.
I intend to plan my day around him rather than me. That means making pancakes for breakfast because, apparently, no other morning meal option is round or ‘panky’ enough for his tastes. It means playing with Lego because it would appear that Thomas the Tank Engine’s crown is slowly slipping. It means chasing pigeons around the park because they are ‘silly old birds’. And no doubt it will also mean acting out a euphemistic rigmarole akin to avoiding the name Macbeth in the theatre as we try to order ice cream using only the words ‘something yellow’. Perhaps, I imagine him thinking, if I actually say what I want I won’t get it. And I’ll be reminded, once again, of how much Jackson is like his mum – the only adult I ever knew who would use a longwinded series of riddles, guessing games and hand gestures to indicate that she wanted something as simple as a cuppa.
If I’m really lucky, though, as I was on Tuesday night early this week, the last words I’ll hear on Father’s Day will be, ‘Thank you, Daddy, I had a really nice time with you today.’ And while he sleeps, I’m sure I’ll think about how much I miss his mum. Yet, even if there’s a tear in my eye, I’m pretty sure there will also be a smile on my face. That’s because, just like every other day of the year, Father’s Day will be a time for me to reflect upon how lucky I am to get to spend every day with our little boy – a day to be thankful to my wife for creating such a wonderful child. A child who clearly carries his mummy in his heart.
‘Is Mummy having a nice time in the sky?’ he asked me earlier this week, ‘I hope she doesn’t get wet.’
How proud I am to have fathered a child sensitive enough to worry about his mummy being caught out in the rain. I can picture the hand gestures she’d be giving if her newly-styled hair had got soaked out there, though. But this time I can’t imagine they would politely suggest it was time for a nice cup of tea.
Life rarely goes exactly to plan. When I was young there was a time when I really thought that I wanted to be a bin man because I loved the colour yellow. I’d gaze out of the window of my grandma’s first floor flat at the refuse collectors’ high visibility jackets and think, That could be me one day.
Then I started school and my plan took a change of direction. My once sartorial ambitions (I had no real interest in waste management as such) turned historical; I just couldn’t get enough of dead kings and queens, mummified corpses and monuments built to honour or house the deceased. I binned the idea of cleaning the streets and dug out a trowel; I decided that the only option for me was to become an archaeologist.
Unlike my desire to illuminate my life through fluorescent colours, my passion for history never became a thing of the past. To this day I’m rarely more content than when surrounded by rubble and ruins. And yet the plan changed again and I left another ambition unfulfilled. Once more it became apparent that apparel would play a disproportionately significant role in my final career choice.
‘I’ve decided I can’t be an archaeologist after all,’ I explained to my parents, ‘I look ridiculous in tank tops and from the research I’ve done they appear to be compulsory.’ Oddly, for someone who ended up with pretty average A-level grades, having to have an Oxbridge degree didn’t seem to factor as the major barrier to my potential success.
I turned to my teachers for their guidance on my next step but found myself disappointed in the careers advice offered – it came from all the wrong people and focussed on all the wrong things. Rather than being built around what I wanted from life, it was all about what subjects I could pass as at teenager and how they could be applied to the limited pool of roles that careers advisors knew anything about back then. A list of job titles I had no interest in emerged with none of the detail that really mattered: how much money I might earn, how hard I was likely to have to work or God-awful the experience might be, how likely it’d be that I’d feel fulfilled, whether my personality (and not just grades) would fit, whether I’d have time to see friends and start a family, or even what clothes I might have to wear. How was I meant to know what to do without that detail?
When I turned my attention to PR at sixteen, not one of the careers advisors I spoke to knew the first thing about it. But since I did in fact appear to a member of the public and had experienced ‘relations’, when the school bell rang – signalling the availability of tea and cake in the staff room – my teacher gave me her stamp of approval and made a sharp exit.
Whatever!I’m only doing it so I don’t have to wear a suit for work, I thought.
Although I made up my own mind about my future, I now find myself wondering how my teachers might have reacted if I’d stuck with my original impulsive desire to simply wear yellow. Depending on the person dishing out the advice, my brief could have seen them point me towards refuse collection (my first choice), artistic pursuits (‘He sees the world so differently,’ I imagine them saying. ‘What a guy!’) or – and more likely – the door. ‘You’re nothing but an obtuse, time-wasting teenager,’ I hear them cry, ‘and you don’t appear to understand the importance of early-life decisions.’
John Lennon famously once said, ‘When I was five years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.’
These days, it’s how many of us would answer the same question. But, again, life doesn’t always go to plan.
Having been once so completely happy and then suddenly so desperately sad, I now realise that striving to become happy in the way that a medical student becomes a doctor is really quite an unrealistic goal. Striving for happiness alone, I believe, serves only to make us want more. The bar moves and the quest for happiness becomes a search for even more fulfilling, yet often fleeting, thrills. When the adrenalin rush of the thrill wears off, we’re often back to where we started – in a void seeking to satisfy our increasingly unquenchable thirst for contentment.
And what happens when happiness is our only measure of fulfilment in life and then catastrophe comes along and creates chaos with our plan? Have we then failed? Are our lives over? Is it impossible to shift focus just because we made our minds up about what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives at a time when we’d barely started living them? I increasingly think not.
And that’s because life presents new challenges and opportunities all the time. Sometimes the plan that we once thought we were in control of gets changed for us; sometimes we lose control and, quite simply, there is nothing we can do to get it back on track.
Perhaps we can change direction, though. Maybe, in the moments when we find ourselves with the energy and clarity of thought we need, we can take time to learn lessons from life; we can take a moment to consider what’s really going on.
I’ve done a lot of thinking lately and I’ve acknowledged that my life will never be the same as it once was. It’s become clear to me that I will waste what precious time I have on earth if I spend all of it trying to be the same sort of happy that I once was. I’ve experienced (and still do experience) such agony that I now accept that pain will always have a role in my life. Naivety has gone, innocence is lost, assumptions are out the window, and my juvenile expectations of privileged life are a thing of the past. In short, my life hasn’t gone to plan.
So, from now on my plan is not to have a one. I’m going to take the pressure off myself by pursuing more than just happiness. My goal now is to have an interesting life, instead. I’ve realised that if I get bored I can do something about it, but I don’t buy into the marginalising idea of simply ‘thinking myself happy’. I now know my own mind well enough to understand that I cannot contrive contentment.
This change of direction means that I’m going to work with life and not against it, because, honestly, isn’t life naturally more interesting than it is happy, anyway? I believe that it’ll be opportunity, not joy, that knocks.
And while I’ve found it hard to acknowledge many of life’s positives since my wife’s death, I’m pleased to say that, so far, I’m doing quite well at achieving ‘interesting’ – much better than I’m doing at ‘happy’, in fact. Since ditching happiness as my main goal in life, life has rewarded me with a series of fascinating pursuits.
From today I can call myself an author if I wish. A book I’ve written in fertile response to the void left by my wife’s futile death has now been published. It was never part of the plan, though. I had no aspirations of being a writer (I hadn’t even bothered to explore what they wore), and yet suddenly I officially am one.
But I was also suddenly officially a widower; I was suddenly officially a sole parent, too. I suddenly didn’t care about the career that I had and my seemingly boundless state of happiness suddenly officially became mournful instead.
Before my wife died I thought I was officially complete, but now I realise that perhaps no one ever truly is. And if we ever were, I think that human nature dictates that we’d probably still want more, anyway.
So I could call myself a PR consultant, a writer, a blogger, an author or a freelance journalist. I could label myself as ‘occasionally happy’ or ‘frequently sad’. I could aim to one day be ‘complete’ or accept that being a work in progress might make my life more compelling and my ambitions more attainable.
Whatever the case, right now I only care about one label and that’s ‘Daddy’. Whatever else life has to offer can make its way to me because I’m too exhausted to keep chasing it down. There will be lots of emotions felt along the way, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be less disappointed with whatever happens next in my life if I strive to make it stimulating and stop being so hung up about attempting to go through life in a state of constant happiness. After all, who really does anyway?
Happy Mother’s Day. This will be my second one without you and I’m not even four yet. All the other children at nursery made cards for their mummies this week, but I made one for Nanny instead – a great big yellow one with colourful feathers all over it. She looked so happy when I gave it to her, but I know she’s be sad that you’re not here with her today.
I’m spending the day with her, Daddy, Granddad and Uncle Anthony. They’re all so proud of me: Nanny because I’m always a really good boy when she looks after me (well I am sometimes), Daddy because we’re best friends, Granddad because I make him laugh and I remind him so much of you, and Uncle Anthony because we have fun and I keep everyone in check. Well I suppose someone has to run this ship now that you’ve gone.
Daddy just took me out on my scooter. He said he had something he wanted me see. We went over this really big bridge and there were cars underneath it going really fast. When we got to the other side I saw the biggest ramp I’ve ever seen – it was so cool. Weeeeeeeeeeee! I told Daddy that I loved it. It was so much fun. When we got to the bottom I found a stream and threw in some stones. Then I raced Daddy down a long road and into a churchyard where a found a wiggly worm. I wanted to look after him because he was all on his own, so I found a nice leaf and put it over him so that he had somewhere to live. I like worms. I don’t like spiders, though, Mummy. I found one in the kitchen the other day and Daddy said that I acted just like you. It was so scary but Daddy just picked it up and put it in the garden. I told him to squash it but he wouldn’t. Silly Daddy!
After we said goodbye to Mr Wiggly Worm, Daddy took me to see your special stone. ‘These are beautiful flowers,’ I told Daddy and he gave them to me to leave for you. I noticed the squiggles that Daddy has drawn on his chest on your stone, too. ‘It’s Mummy, Daddy and Jackson,’ I told him. He says it’s a family monogram. I can say monogram really well, you know.
I noticed all sorts of things in the field where we went to see your stone: lots of flowers, a pottery pussy cat, some teddy bears and even a toy that looked like Father Christmas. Daddy said I couldn’t touch them. You know me, though, Mummy – he had to reason with me. I got five sweeties and five mini rice cakes out of that!
Before we left, Daddy picked me up and explained why we were there. ‘This is where we come to remember Mummy,’ he said. Then we both said we loved you and that we would come back soon. I’m not sure why but I felt like I wanted to give Daddy a big cuddle, so I squeezed him tightly and kissed him on the lips. I told him that I loved him, too
We drew this picture for you yesterday, as well. We didn’t bring it with us because paper gets all soggy when it rains, so I’m going to keep it at home in my memory box. That way I’ll be able to remember what we did on Mother’s Day when I was three.
I love you, Mummy. I talk about you every day and I really, really miss you.
I’ve felt a great degree of tension about how to best raise my son since my wife was killed. Immediately after her death I did my very best to act happy in front of Jackson during the day and then later retreat to my room to grieve honestly and alone. He was only two years old at the time but he was never daft; Jackson was aware of the change in me from the night his mum disappeared.
For months afterwards our relationship was challenging. When I felt at my lowest he was often at his most buoyant; when I felt okay his mood and behaviour clashed with mine and brought me back down. I think we both found it hard to deal with the fact that we weren’t always able to provide each other with a substantial enough dose of happiness to take away the pain of such intense grief. But I made a decision to be honest about my feelings with my son. I kept hearing stories about how children who had lost their mothers at an early age weren’t allowed to talk about them again in case they upset their fathers. I realised that I wanted to raise a child who understands that it’s okay to express his feelings, and that for me to hide mine would probably only end up demonising his.
Thankfully I am able to say that things have softened a little, lately. I suppose that through the struggles I’ve experienced in coming to terms with losing Desreen, the time I’ve taken off work, and my constant analysis of Jackson’s behaviour, I have probably become a better parent. I’m more patient, attentive and happy to admit when I’m the one in the wrong. It took me some time to realise that when he got the worst of me, I got the worst of him. Just today I noticed how much he retreated when I told him off for something that wasn’t really his fault (let’s just say he could have given me a little more warning before he did what he needed to do). I’m having a bad weekend because of a good night out on Friday – an all-too-frequent emotional response that hits me every time I try to enjoy myself, leaving me wondering whether I’d be better off boarding up my front door and living life as a hermit. When I saw Jackson’s reaction to my stern words – his back turned, his eyes refusing to meet mine, and his lips pouting deliberately and comedicaly – I knew it was time for me to apologise and when I did we were quickly friends again.
When Desreen was alive she often used to get asked what was wrong because she had a habit of contorting her face in such a manner that gave the impression that she was cross. I knew there was nothing the matter with her at all, but when people quizzed her about her mood it was then that she would get mad. ‘This is just my face!’ she would exclaim in a tone that only served to justify the enquirer’s concerns. Well I’ve thought of that face all weekend because of something that Jackson keeps saying to me.
‘What’s wrong, Jack-Jack?’ I’ve asked him several times as he has appeared to retreat from me. ‘Daddy’s not got a smiley face,’ he keeps replying, sadly.
And he’s right, Daddy’s not got a smiley face. But what’s a man supposed to do? I suppose I could ‘put on a brave face’. I guess I could ‘be strong’. Lying about how I feel is an option, too. I think there’s tension in all of the decisions we make about raising our children alone, just as there is evidently tension in my face. Perhaps in so conscientiously trying to build a happy life for my son and myself, Jackson notices more than most when his daddy seems sad. Maybe other kids say this to their parents all the time, too. It could be that I think too much and that if life hadn’t dealt me this hand I would dismiss his remarks as ‘funny’ or ‘cute’. But I suppose if I can take anything positive from his rather heartbreaking observation it would be that he’s not asking me why I am smiling. Thankfully he’s still familiar enough with that facial expression for it not to be his source of surprise, shock or even sorrow.
Having lost my wife late last year it probably goes without saying that 2013 has been an unhappy year for me, save the joy our little boy has continuously brought. But earlier this week it occurred to me that maybe I have been trying, perhaps subconsciously, to channel my unhappiness into something positive for my son’s future. Jackson was only two years old when his mummy was killed, and the thought of him growing up without being given the opportunity of understanding the kind of woman she was breaks my heart. So I’ve written a book dedicated to him, which I’ve just finished, and I’ve published nearly 200 posts on this blog to help him learn more about the life and loss of his beloved mother when the time is right. This particular post is a letter to Jackson, which I will give him as a gift for Christmas this year.
One day you may ask yourself what your mummy (would have) wanted for you in life; it occurred to me just the other day that I would ask the same question if I had been left in your position at such a young age. And although she won’t be here to tell you for herself as you grow, fortunately I already know the answer. Your mummy and I chatted all the time and our favourite subject was always you: how mischievous you’d been, how clever you seemed, how loving and unbelievably cute you were, how attached you were to her, how cross you often seemed to be with me, how since you’d come along I was no longer allowed to touch her (according to you). But mostly we talked about what a great life you were going to have; what a great life we had planned for you. And although the life we had planned for you has changed immeasurably from what we had in mind, I still want it to be great.
I’ve thought a lot about what gift I can give you this Christmas, and I could think of none better than sharing my insight into what your mummy wanted for you.
Most of all she wanted you to be happy. Happy was an easy word to use when she was still alive, but I’ve since learned that it’s impossible to be happy all the time. A wise man recently made a huge impact on me through his own words about happiness. He pointed out that what we all too often mean when we say we want to be ‘happy’ is that we are hoping to be constantly thrilled by the temporary rush or pleasure of new experiences. This feeling is something that we can get hooked on and, if we do, it’s as though we need to feed our addiction all the time. But constantly struggling to fuel the thrill makes ‘happiness’ progressively harder to achieve. And the excitement that we get from this sort of happiness is usually just fleeting anyway.
After this incredibly difficult year, I now believe that if a constant state of happiness, as a kind of default setting, is the only thing we set out to achieve in life, then perhaps we’re destined to fail. And that’s because lots of things crop up in life that can bring us down: bad luck, challenging relationships, work (or the lack of it), money problems, set backs, knock backs, rejection, psychological issues, ill health, bereavement. I don’t aim to paint a sombre picture of life for you – the one person who has been able to consistently keep my gloominess at bay – but instead I want to explain what your mummy would have taught you about what happiness really meant to her. And about what I hope to continue to make it mean for you now that she’s gone.
It means being yourself. It means being honest about your own feelings. It means making yourself understood. It means speaking your mind. It means making yourself heard.
It means making other people happy. It means setting expectations for yourself and not trying to live up to the expectations of others. It means not comparing who you are or what you have to others either.
It means taking your health seriously. It means trying to keep fit. It means looking after yourself. It means looking after others as well.
It means slowing the pace sometimes to try to savour the joys that life has to offer. It means taking time out for yourself sometimes. It means finding ways to focus on drawing pleasure from the present moment and not fixating on what’s happened in the past or what may come of the future. It means taking time to reflect and to acknowledge what’s going on inside your own head. It means asking for help or support if what you find there makes you feel unhappy, anxious or low. It means not constantly striving for perfection. It means trying to find joy and beauty in imperfections too.
It means looking out for others. It means nurturing relationships and keeping your favourite people close. It means keeping the company of people who make you feel good about yourself. It means making the people you love feel good too. It means making the happiness of the people you care about one of your goals too.
It means having hobbies and interests. It means aiming to reach your potential. It means opening your eyes to what the world has to offer. It means setting goals, trying to achieve them, but picking yourself up and dusting yourself off if you don’t. It means enjoying your achievements but not allowing yourself to grow too self satisfied. It means trying to focus on the positive things about yourself rather than obsessing about what you see as your own shortcomings. It means doing your best to come to terms with the unchangeable.
It means being kind. It means saying thank you to others. It means giving freely without the expectation of receiving.
It means trying to be optimistic and sharing your optimism with others. It means being playful. It means having fun. It means laughing. It means singing. It means dancing.
It means trying not to hate. It means learning to forgive. It means not allowing bitterness to take over your life.
It means loving. It means being loved.
God willing you will always have people in your life who will be able to tell you how much your mummy loved you. God willing I’ll be around to tell you every day. And God willing you will experience many of the things that brought happiness into your mummy’s life everyday for the rest of yours.
Daddy (inspired by the words, life and actions of Mummy) xx
Tanya is mum to two daughters aged ten months and two years and is the writer behind Mumaleary’s Blog. Here she shares her story of losing her father 26 years ago today when he was just 37 and she just seven.
I remember the night my daddy died very clearly. It is possible that my memories of the event are not 100 per cent accurate but it doesn’t matter to me, the results are the same. He died of a massive heart attack, having come home from work complaining that he didn’t feel well.
Our neighbours looked after my sister and me, and in the early hours of the morning our mum came home with a bag of possessions but without her husband. That was 3rd November 1987. That night my mum lost her husband, my grandparents lost their eldest son and my sister and I lost our daddy. Life was never the same again.
I know that it is weird for a grown woman to use the word daddy but I was never old enough call him dad when he was alive. I was only seven.
I have few memories of my daddy and some of the ones I do have are mere snapshots, possibly even imagined memories from the photos I have seen. But I do recall snuggling in his lap while he watched American football. I remember him ‘tidying up’ my ice cream in Parkgate and I remember him teaching me to ride my bike. I missed him dreadfully after he died and I still miss him today.
When I was 16 I had my hair cut short for the first time and I cried myself to sleep, worried that he wouldn’t recognise me when I got to heaven. When I went to uni I worried about my mum being on her own and at every family gatherings there is still a Daddy-shaped hole.
My mum took my sister and I to see a grief counsellor after Daddy died. I can remember a relaxation tape we used to listen to, which helped us to sleep. But mainly I remember us all clinging to one another; all girls together. We are a tight unit and it was pretty tough for people to break into that. I am certain that I would not feel the fierce need to protect my mum and sister if my dad was still here. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, just a different thing.
When I was at school I recall my French teacher asking people to recite phrases like I am sad my dog has died and I am sad my fish has died. When she arrived at my desk and it was my turn to speak, she asked me to say I am sad, my dad has died. It probably goes without saying that I never really took to the language!
When I went to uni a guy knocked on my door and said, ‘Hi, my dad’s dead too. We should be friends!’ I can think of better opening lines but we did become friends.
Hearing other friends complain about their dads during teenage angsty periods was tough, but telling people to be grateful for what they’ve got it life doesn’t always work. It’s a bit like telling someone to clear their plate because people are starving in Africa.
I have experienced two significant periods of depression in my life. Who’s to say whether or not these would have happened if my dad hadn’t passed away? But sometimes I think it’s a pointless question to ask because each of us has to play the hand we are dealt. I found a fantastic councillor who made me realise that there is no deadline for grief. It is not silly for me to miss my dad just because he died so long ago or because I have lived nearly 80 per cent of my life without him. It is ok for me to feel sad my daughters, my family and myself because we have to experience life without him. Equally it is ok to not be sad, to forget a specific date and enjoy what you still have.
I am now 32 and a mother of two gorgeous, beautiful, happy, healthy girls. I have a very happy life and I miss my daddy; the two feelings are not mutually exclusive.
I wish that my daddy had seen me graduate, I wish he’d met my husband, given me away at our wedding and made a brilliant speech. I wish he’d held my daughters, I wish he was around to celebrate my mother’s birthday and to share in her joy of being a grandma. But it was not to be. Instead, I have some beautiful memories and many more perfect imaginings of how life might have been if he’d been here. I suppose these musings are pointless but sometimes I still feel I need them and they offer me comfort.
Sometimes I imagined that my daddy had left us and that Mum had told us he’d died to protect us from the fact he’d walked out. Grief can do strange things to your head.
It is strange what the senses recall too. Even after all this time the smell of Brut aftershave and Vosene shampoo remind me of my daddy. The songs Silence is Golden and Walk of Life always make me think of him and my mum together too. I can’t see a wind surfer without thinking My dad liked that. I remember the day he shaved off only half of his moustache just to see if Mum would notice and I remember him taking my sister and I to his office to show us off.
Earlier this year a lovely man called Harry Borden turned up on my door step to take some pictures of my son and me. As one of the country’s leading portrait photographers, he’d heard about Jackson and me through a piece I’d written for The Guardian, a newspaper that regularly features his work. He wasn’t afraid to talk to about what had happened – in either his or my life – and we immediately got along. Jackson, on the other hand, wasn’t quite so ready to open up. He was deep in his phase of rejecting unfamiliar company, he was frequently tired and he didn’t much care for sharing my attention with other people.
Harry wasn’t phased though. As well as being a great photographer, he’s also a loving father. He has older kids and a son the same age as mine. Although I was a little disheartened by Jackson’s reaction to Harry’s company, I had no desire to push my son into doing anything that left him ill at ease. As an empathetic and caring father, Harry felt the same. He came back to visit again twice before my son was ready to really get involved. And I’m pleased that he did because I’m delighted and deeply touched by the results.
The reason Harry contacted me in the first place is because he has embarked on a project that celebrates men who are the primary carers for the children. His intention is to produce an exhibition that focuses on single dads and their kids. A number of other widowers who I’ve got to know through this blog have already particapted in the project, and the resulting shots I’ve seen so far are wonderful.
Not all of the men involved are widowed though; in fact Harry kicked off his project because of his divorce. Here he explains a little more about his single dad project:
‘The year that followed my divorce was the most difficult of my life. Overwhelmed by panic, despair and confusion, the hardest thing for me was the possibility of it having a corrosive effect on my children. However, through acceptance, forgiveness and love of my ex, I found a way to celebrate our time together and truly become friends. Although involved in my children’s lives, I am not the main carer. This project aims to celebrate the men who are. My intention is to stage an exhibition and ultimately produce a book. Every participant will get a print and will, I hope, enjoy the process of being photographed. My approach is very low-key. Just using available light, a film camera and a tripod. If you’re a single dad and interested in being photographed, please get in touch.’
Here are some of the shots Harry captured of Jackson and me. If you would like to get involved email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Katherine and I recently got chatting over email. Sadly we have a lot in common. Her husband Wesley died unexpectedly on 30th March this year at just 37 years old. She is now raising her young child Julia as a sole parent. She has also started a blog to share her experiences of life as a widow. I asked Katherine to write a guest post about the role of faith in her grief. Many people have written to me to say they wish they had religion to see them through. Katherine does and she articulates what it means to her so beautifully here.
“The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious unto you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.”
I first heard those stirring words sung as I stood beside Wesley on April 24, 2004, our young hands shaking with joy as we walked out of the church proudly as man and wife for the first time; him in a neat black tuxedo and me in an impossibly heavy and beautiful white gown. Our eyes shone with love and hope as we imagined our lives stretching ahead of us. We would have babies; our babies would have babies and we would fill our lives with family, careers, travel and the days that seamlessly flow into one another. Boring and mundane would be our existence. We were 25 and 28 years old and we could feel ourselves at the precipice of our life together truly beginning.
The next time I heard those beautiful words I wore not a white gown, but a tailored navy suit and although I was once again in a church, Wesley was not tightly clutching my hand. My beautiful husband, who I had dreamt would grow grey and paunchy beside me as years passed and would chase squealing and laughing grandchildren around our front yard pretending to be “Papa Bear”, was dead. I was a 34-year-old widow with a three-year-old daughter facing a future I could not begin to understand. Wesley became sick on Good Friday with what we thought was a stomach bug and he was dead by 7:30 a.m. on Holy Saturday. The confused call to 911 to say he seemed dehydrated and I could not carry him to the car; the moment where I realized he had stopped breathing as he overlooked the beautiful lake that our home faces; the sterile and empty waiting room at the hospital where the emergency room doctor tenderly told me that Wesley was gone while my brother and his wife sobbed is all a blur. At first we did not know what Wesley had died of as he was a healthy young man…heart attack? Stroke? And finally the shocking diagnosis of Acute Myeloid Leukemia which none of us, including Wesley, knew he had raging in his body. Incredibly aggressive, it appears Wesley had leukemia for possibly a couple of months, but more likely weeks. It was fast, painless and he was blissfully unaware that he was leaving his young family to cross the gulf to Heaven.
We are a religious family. It always feels oddly smarmy and a bit like a Holy Roller to say that but we are Christian and believe in the role of God and Jesus in our lives. Not trying to convert anyone as we believe that living a daily Christian life is better than knocking someone over the head with the King James Bible. A relationship with God, or lack thereof, is intensely personal and private. Or so say I. Faith brings myself and our little girl Julia comfort in a situation where the ground below us seems shaky and unsteady.
When I told Julia on Easter morning that Daddy had been very sick and had gone to live with Jesus in Heaven, but that he lived in our heart like the Holy Spirit forever, these were all common words and concepts for her. That I had the religious lexicon to utilize and in some ways had been preparing her and myself in a way I could never have imagined for this conversation. Even his death over Easter was comforting as Julia believes that when Jesus rose to Heaven, he took Daddy with him. And perhaps he did. The image of Christ helping guide Wesley to Heaven is very peaceful and comforting to us. We talk about what Wesley is doing in Heaven. Eating doughnuts with Jesus, taking Julia’s teacher’s deceased dog out for a walk and other every day activities provide a link and conversation where Wesley is as present if he were at the table with us. Wesley is not physically with us, but he is a vibrant presence in our home and lives.
But for many people who are religious and lose someone they love, the role of faith and religion is a very important and sometimes challenging role in their grief. It is like a puzzle where one recognizes the colors and shapes on the pieces but cannot figure out what the picture is. It can rock someone to their core and I too found myself trying to bargain with God. “I’m a good person, I have weathered this trial with grace and poise and have helped shepherd Julia through the loss of her father…now let’s return to regularly scheduled programming.” But there is no give and take and for one of the first times in my life I’m not going to negotiate my way out of this. It is a cold splash of water to realize that while I might want to sit and parlay with God, he is not going to take my meeting. But I am not being left lonely in the waiting room with lukewarm coffee and old magazines either.
I cannot find comfort that Wesley’s death is part of “God’s Plan” because I do not feel that a 37-year-old man dying of a senseless disease is in the plans of anyone, human or deity. But I do believe that God has placed every mercy in my way. We recently moved back to my hometown so I am surrounded by familial support and the love of childhood, college and newer friends, my career is very stable and they are incredibly generous and understanding that my life has dramatically and irrevocably changed. If God could do nothing to change the events on March 30th he has provided a road that while hard and rocky has a well-worn path. But still. But yet. My life is never going to be the same and it at times makes me want to scream at the heavens that I did not deserve this. Why my husband? Why my family?
I find that C.S. Lewis, who Wesley adored, spoke well to this feeling of hopelessness in A Grief Observed following the death of his wife:
“The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.
On the other hand, ‘Knock and it shall be opened.’ But does knocking mean hammering and kicking the door like a maniac? And there’s also ‘To him that hath shall be given.’ After all, you must have a capacity to receive, or even omnipotence can’t give. Perhaps your own passion temporarily destroys the capacity.”
God wants to help us. He wants to provide peace and solace, but as I’m screaming and clawing at the door of death that separates me from my love, I cannot hear the soft and steady whisper of “Peace, my love. Peace” I am batting away caresses of comfort and reassurance in my flailing grief. But when I’m quiet and when I’m still, I can hear and feel God’s comfort and love. Wesley is with me, I just have to stop to listen and sit quietly to feel him. We all have our loved ones who have passed on with us, we just need to close our eyes and listen with our hearts. Our broken and hurting hearts.
I always hate the idea of train travel with my son. It’s the not knowing how he’s going to behave that bothers me. I pray he’ll sleep for the whole three hour journey from London to the northwest of England, where my family lives, but it rarely works out that way. I guess I’m just one of those parents who dreads their child screaming the carriage down and disrupting other people’s peace, rather than one of those who simply thinks, ‘Well I’ve always had to listen to other kids doing it, so fuck ’em!’
Since my wife died I’ve been delaying the journey home. The Christmas trip was so unpleasant and my nerves were so frayed that part of me wondered whether I was putting it off indefinitely.
But today’s travels made me realise that there’s little point in trying to predict the behaviour of a toddler.
If I’d have had my way these past few months, some kindly chemist would have created Baby Nytol– a sleep-inducing, fluorescent pink, sweet and sugary tincture akin to Calpol – which I could use to sedate my son at will. But if they had, I’d have used it too freely and I’d have missed something wonderful today as a result.
I’d have missed the progress that my son has made recently.
I’d have missed him simply sitting next to me, happy enough in my company not to make any demands.
I’d have missed him just lying on my lap singing quietly and giggling at his own jokes.
I’d have missed him squeal with joy when he saw a field of cows through the window.
And I’d have missed him reaching for my phone to show the table of chatty women sitting next to us a picture that he loves.
“That’s my mummy!” he shrieked adoringly at them out of nowhere.
‘And that’s my boy!’ I thought, my breath taken away by the pride he confidently showed in the parent he’s not seen for seven and a half months. The parent he’s starting to understand that he’ll never see again.
About two years ago I started writing a blog that no one ever saw. No one apart from my wife at least. It was about all sorts of nonsense that all sorts of people already wrote about all the time. I knew that but still she was very encouraging.
“I’m so pleased you’ve started a blog, Benji. This could be your thing.”
She really wanted me to have ‘a thing’. She was so driven and had lots of ‘things’. What’s more, she never made of secret of the fact that she was worried about marrying a focused, driven, slim, young guy who might one day turn into a sluggish, self-satisfied, old, fat guy.
“I think it’s great that you’ve got a new hobby.”
Condescending but only to make me laugh. Always acting like her friends (who found her hilarious) were in the room with us to hear the gags.
But one thing’s for sure. She really wanted me to start a blog. She really wanted me to write. I wrote several distinctly average posts but from her reaction you’d have thought I’d published the third testament. She couldn’t have been more encouraging in life.
Then two months after she died a really good friend came round to our place to play with my son. He’d started a blog to chart his progress in training for the London marathon and I told him that I was thinking of starting my own. He appreciated why immediately.
“Do it!” is all he said.
And so I did. And I’ve talked at length about all the reasons why. But to be honest I guess I’m really doing it for my wife. Apart from all of the crying and the misery I know she’d really love the man that I am now. Sadly, I’ve never tried harder to please her than I have since she died. But perhaps that’s how we honour the dead. It’s something I see the other widows and widowers who I’ve met since Desreen died doing every day.
The blog itself was the reason I was invited to attend an event last night, a ceremony that recognises achievement in parent blogging. I was flattered to be asked but also felt a bit weird about the whole thing. The idea of walking into a huge room predominantly occupied with happy mums filled me with dread. And it was even harder than I imagined.
“Love you, Mummy!” I heard one child shout again and again as he was handed over to his daddy.
I felt like a recovering alcoholic who had just landed in Napa Valley for a two week holiday. Uncomfortable, irritable and wholly out of place.
But I was there for a reason. My blog was nominated for an award. An accolade which, in itself, meant very little to me. But one that I understood could help the blog reach more people, win or lose. It won and lots more people have visited the site since. So in effect it won twice.
But I guess the real personal win for me was knowing that my wife would be so proud. Knowing that she was the reason why I started writing. Without her in life I wouldn’t have had the drive. Without her in death I’d never have had the subject matter. So thinking about it I wish this blog didn’t exist. I wish I hadn’t been invited to last night’s event. And I wish I hadn’t won an award. But I’ve done it all to honour her and to try to make sure her completely unnecessary death isn’t entirely in vain.
I love you, Dessie. You still give me my drive and you still make me laugh x
It’s Father’s Day in the UK today. For those of us who are lucky enough to actually have a father, it’s probably a time to send a card, pick up the phone or make a visit to show we care. For those who haven’t it might either be a time for reflection or a time to avoid the TV, restaurants, pubs, card shops or any other outlets that inadvertently make us feel worse than we already do by treating us all as if we’re the same.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I have a father and a father-in-law and I am a father too, so I’m hoping today will be a happy and grateful day for me.
However positive I try to be, though, it’s been hard not think about how strange it will be to receive neither a card containing handwriting that looks suspiciously more like my wife’s than my son’s. Nor a gift that I know he can’t yet afford because he has no access to any savings until he’s 18. So I thought, ‘Sod it! I’ll buy myself something from his account.’ Thanks for my new chair, Jackson! Your taste is impeccable.
Seriously though, today is not about material things for me. It’s not about him behaving any more lovingly towards me than he already does. It’s not about cards, gifts, grand gestures or breakfast in bed. For me it’s about being the one who’s lucky enough to be able to spend another day with my son. For me today’s a day when I will thank my lucky stars that my beautiful wife made me a dad to such a wonderful child.
And it’s for that wonderful child’s future that a friend and I wrote a song as a way of capturing memories of days gone by. We wanted to create something that would one day help him to understand the immediate impact of his mum’s death and what it was like coming to terms with her loss as a father and as a man. I thought I’d share that song today for all the other dads out their who are raising children without their wives or partners by their sides.
Dry Eyes is performed by my good pal Paul Hand. Just click on the ‘play’ icon below to take a listen. You can also read a Father’s Day feature that I wrote in today’s issue of the Sunday People and online here
In the weeks following my wife’s death I was consumed by fear for our son’s future. How would he react? How would I tell him what had happened? Could he grow up happily without her? How would I take care of him when I was finding it so hard to look after myself?
I spoke to a number of sources to help find the answers. In hindsight the idea that I would find actual conclusive answers sounds ridiculous to me. But I guess it’s just a force of habit to expect answers to follow questions. When we get ill we go online and there we can find both the symptoms and the remedies. If we need to know how to cook rice we just grab a recipe book from the shelf and learn how. But my questions about grief have rarely had definitive answers. Just suggestions, maybes and potential outcomes. That’s part of what I think makes grief so hard to deal with in our modern quick-fix society. There are simply no shortcuts or absolute solutions. People can only really give your their views or share stories of their own personal experiences. No one can ever really tell you the future with any confidence, though.
A charity called Winston’s Wish, however, did offer me some great advice. They suggested I encourage my son to release any potential anger caused by the loss of his mum in a controlled environment. The last time I spoke of this he was kicking the shutters on a shop in East Dulwich in a state of confusion caused by seeing a young black woman who must have reminded him a little bit of his mum.
Well yesterday a clumsy little stumble over an invisible obstacle on the kitchen floor saw him bang his lip on his desk, which left him crying for Mummy. Daddy simply wouldn’t do.
“I want my mummy to come back to me. Mummy’s gone away and can’t come back. I want her to come back to meeeeee!”
Once he started he couldn’t stop. He’d been storing it up for a little while and it didn’t really stop all day. I was hurt but totally unsurprised. It’ll be seven months tomorrow since we’ve seen her and I’ve felt exactly the same as him all week.
But it wasn’t just his tears that he needed to release, it was his rage too. Fortunately we were in the perfect place. Yesterday was my goddaughter’s second birthday party in the park. The main game at the event was ‘steal the tail from the lion’ (I’ve made that name up because I don’t know what it’s called), which involves the game’s last winner donning a lion hat and a cloth tail and the other players trying to be named victor by stealing back the tail for themselves. Endless fun for kids and adults alike.
It wasn’t long before Jackson himself was dressed like a miniature feline warrior ready to take on the chase. And how could any winning lion resist a loud roar of celebration? Well he didn’t stop at one. He was roaring all day. In the end I had to take him a little deeper into the park to roar with him in an attempt to get what I saw as his grief rage out of his system because I was afraid he was going to bring on a pregnant friend’s labour.
See I believe we all need a release sometimes. I’ve got my blog. I’ve got a voice and a larger vocabulary than him. I’ve got great family and friends and I can articulate myself to them whenever I wish. Sometimes all a child can do is cry, scream, shout or even roar.
So I say keeping roaring, boy. Daddy’s right here for you whether you’re feeling as tame as a house cat or a wild as the king of the jungle.
This is a fourth guest post by my two-year-old son, Jackson Bo Brooks-Dutton.
In Jackson’s fourth post, he shares his views on moving from the last home he ever shared with his mummy. You can read his previous guest posts by clicking here, here and here. As usual he’s got a mouth like a sailor.
It’s been a while. I haven’t felt much like writing because I’ve been so busy moving house, hanging with my grandparents and telling everyone who’ll listen that I’ve had chicken pox.
I love the new house though, Daddy. I know that you took a risk on us moving and that you were shitting yourself that I’d totally freak out about leaving the last home we lived in with Mummy, but I really love it.
Thankfully you’ve chilled the fuck out now. Wise move giving up half the kitchen to me and my stuff too, it’ll keep me away from all your precious stuff in the living room. I mean frankly I don’t give a shit if Mummy’s Missoni throw acquires a little extra pattern, everything looks better with a touch of Play-Doh or Crayola on it from where I’m standing. I really enjoyed it when you left me in the living room with the sofa, your laptop and a tube of Carmex too. The couch looks amazing now, Daddy. I tried to tell you that it could do with a little pattern too. I loved what you tried to do with that wall in the kitchen as well. ‘Sea Urchin’ I think you said the colour was. Well it’s ‘Seabiscuit’ now, dude! Funny how all those paints Grandma bought me ended up being a horsey brown colour after five minutes. Why you didn’t choose an equine shade for the kitchen in the first place is beyond me, but you can chill now, Pops, I’ve got the walls covered. You’ve done enough, just leave it to me now. I mean you’ve seen me after nursery twice this week looking more like Jackson Pollack than Jackson Brooks-Dutton, haven’t you? I’ve got the skills to pay the bills!
If I think about it I probably only paint the sofa, the walls and myself to get a laugh or some attention. Mummy would have spent £400 buying a candle or something on your card much to the same effect, but seen as you won’t trust me with your wallet since I hid your work pass in an attempt to keep you at home with me, I’ve had to get creative. I love making you laugh too. Someone needs to and it’s not as easy as it used to be. That’s probably why I act like I do. I reckon you’ve worked me out though.
“How’s Jackson?”, I hear them all say.
“I almost hate to say it but he’s doing remarkably well. Generally he seems to be a really happy child. But sometimes I wonder if he’s playing me. Oh, and don’t try to tell me he’s only two, because I know him best”, I hear you reply.
Busted! I’ll give you this though, for an old git you’re quite down with the kids. Of course I’m not 100 per cent happy. I mean, who the fuck is? My mind strays, I wonder what the fuck’s going on and, to be quite honest, I find it hard to express myself at times. Perhaps I don’t want to talk about it either. Maybe I need a bit of time to take it all in. Some days I want to hide behind that fake smile I pull. And yeah, sometimes I ask you if you’re sad, I indulge you, I counsel you (for free too, but I’ll be back with the bill one day, you cheap mo fo) and I listen to what you have to say, but that doesn’t mean I want to talk about my feelings. Remember we all have to face this shit our own way. Sometimes it’s easier to grin uncomfortably like Victoria Beckham on the red carpet, and spit the words ‘I’m fine, Daddy, I’m happy’ through gritted teeth. Truth is we all have our highs and our lows. I might only stand 91.5cm tall, but I’m not that different to you. In fact, let’s face it, Daddy, I’m not that much smaller than you!
I guess what we have to remember, though, is I’m doing pretty well now but I reckon my hardest days are yet to come. I’m two, everything’s a game, it’s always play time and I’ve got loads of people round me who I love. But one day when I’m too cool to play and too adolescent to talk, I’m sure things will be different. If you think about it, it’s a shame you can’t act more like me now, living in the moment and all that, then face the shit with me when I’m ready. Perhaps we’re yinging and yanging though. I suppose we’ll balance one another out eventually. I guess we’d be fucked if we were both as miserable as you at the same time. I swear though, you’ll pay your dues. This little stand-up ain’t dishing the jokes out for free forever. One day I’m coming back to sit in the audience and listen to you cracking the gags. They better be good too because I’m propping this double act up right now.
Anyway, laters. Time for me to go and start colouring in the white bits on that monochrome sofa you just bought. I mean, come on Daddy, what were you thinking? It’s like a moth to the flame. And this moth has got a lot of felt tips.
It’s easy to breeze through life and take it for granted until you are given reason not to. In fact it’s more than easy, it’s an absolute pleasure. Not a shred of me wishes I’d taken more time to appreciate the life I had before my wife was killed. I was so busy enjoying my time on Earth that I fear that I might have missed out if I’d spent time over-thinking it.
One thing I guess I never really paid any special attention to, however, was just how loving, caring, giving and talented so many of our friends are. Each one of them has offered, or kindly given, support in one way or another since my wife died too.
But I decided some weeks ago that I didn’t want to try to squeeze a square peg into a round hole when it came to the type of help friends could provide. If someone is crap in the kitchen, ain’t no point in asking them to bake you a pie.
Instead I started to think how wonderful it would be if, as friends, we could come together to support one another by sharing our own individual skills and talents. I soon realised how lucky I was to have such a diverse set to hand. And that there was nothing we couldn’t achieve together if we tried.
So I thought about all the people I have the pleasure of calling friends and family and realised that as well as being exceptional human beings they were also writers, designers, cooks, chefs, joiners, builders, singers, musicians, DJs, fashion designers, performers, dancers, event managers, financiers, accountants, PR professionals (loads of them), marketers, promoters, recruiters, vicars, teachers, personal trainers, yoga instructors, therapists, doctors, surgeons, dentists, hygienists, anaesthetists, radiographers, nurses, psychologists, chemists, carers, artists, fundraisers, travel agents, estate agents, civil servants, public servants, solicitors, makeup artists, hair dressers, stylists, photographers, set designers, jewellery designers, illustrators, tailors, seamstresses, interior designers, gardeners, parrot whisperers, sales people, journalists, editors, broadcasters, producers, directors, publishers, agents, you name it. I also realised that I could ask any of them to help in any way at any time and they would be there.
But day-to-day, I’m quite a self sufficient chap and I tend to accept domestic and child-focused help from only my most immediate family. Possibly because I’ve been well house trained by my parents and my wife. Possibly because my family (on both sides) are already a tower of strength and support.
So rather than ask a lawyer to iron my shirts (as much as I’d love to just for the sheer indulgence of it), I figured that their expertise could be better applied. I reasoned that if they could utilise their own knowledge of the law on my behalf, they could feel better about the type of support they could offer, thus making each other feel a little bit better during such a tough time.
I’d also like to think that, as friends, we can put what the author Paulo Coelho would call The Favour Bank into practice. I want our friends to enjoy the help they give. I want them to feel good about it. I want it to be a pleasure rather than a chore. I want us to have something to show for it above and beyond thanks and hugs. And I’d like to think that the energy that they give to me now will be returned one day by me when they need it most. That’s the nature of The Favour Bank (even if its name may sound a touch cynical in times like this, it’s the spirit of it that I’ve long held dear).
I’ve said this a number of times before but I also want my son to have treasures to hold onto as his grows up without his mum. I need him to understand the significance of the people in our lives without him feeling like I am simply spinning another fairy tale whose characters he can’t identity with.
So about a month ago I chatted to an old friend, Paul Hand, who has really shown himself since my wife died. Geography separates us but it has felt like he has been around just as much as those who live nearby.
I never wasted my time appreciating the relationship I had with him before my wife died because we were way too busy partying in Ibiza, winning TV cookery shows (yes, really!), doing stupid impressions of ageing Welsh celebrities, laughing and just generally enjoying ourselves.
There’s an awful lot to be said for that kind of shallow fun, but as people we tend to find depth in one another in the most trying times.
In him, aside from being a great friend, I found a man who could really write and produce music. In me he found a man who likes to put his pen to good use. So together we have collaborated to write, produce and record an autobiographical song called Dry Eyes, which Paul performs in its entirety. It’ll be available from Monday 29th April on iTunes and Amazon (I’ll follow up nearer the time with more details).
In the spirit of collaboration and putting the talents of friends to good use, I also co-designed the artwork (see below) for the track with my friend Emma Sexton.
Both the song and the artwork evoke a painful story of loss and the conflicting feelings of strength and weakness in grief. Sadly for my family and friends, it’s our story. But far from wanting to indulge, I hope some people can find solace and empathy in the music and lyrics.
Thanks to all my friends and family for your continued support and for banking on me and Jackson. I know none of you are looking for it but, when the time comes, I intend to pay you all back with interest.
This is a guest post by writer, journalist and blogger, Emma Beddington
…but first an introduction from me
I don’t usually interfere with guest posts by weaving in my own story, but today I’m going to make an exception. I wrote to Emma Beddington a few weeks ago when I discovered a story she had written for The Guardian, which revealed how Thomas the Tank Engine had helped her son come to terms with the loss of his grandmother, Emma’s mum. I could hardly believe what I was reading and how moved I was by a story built around a little train that I spend so much of my life wishing would really ‘bust his buffers’ or ‘flatten his funnel’ and just naff off.
You see, Thomas lives with me every bit as my child does. His is usually the first name from my son’s mouth in the morning and the last in the evening. The day after my wife was killed, my son cried and asked not where his mummy was but rather, “Where’s is (sic) my Thomas gone?”
The fact is it was more unusual for him to not have his little toy train by his side all day than it was one of his two working parents. Sadly we lost not only his mummy in the carnage of the crash, but also Thomas. Thank God at least one of them could be replaced.
The Saturday that would come to follow my wife’s last evening with us, the three of us were due to go to Thomas Landand indulge Jackson in his love for the locomotive inhabitants of Sodor. Against my better judgement, I decided that the two of us should still go, that we’d never get the chance to go again on that day. I was exhausted, an emotional wreck, dying inside. The taxi driver who picked us up at the station apparently recognised me from the papers and chatted to me like I was a guy who’d just won the lottery. The only way I could stop his painfully jovial banter was to tell him I’d become a widower just a week ago. As I did, Jackson fell asleep leaving me to manoeuvre a sleeping toddler from the car and into a theme park that had become Christmas Thomas Land that same day. Fake snow, festive tunes, happy families and, perhaps worst of all, a child who wasn’t even awake to enjoy it. It was amongst the lowest and toughest moments of my whole life.
The next morning, however, my son woke up, turned to me and exclaimed in a spritely voice, “Thomas Land!” He’d had a good time, he had good memories and he had a daddy who could feel just a sliver of happiness that he’d gone ahead with the last day out that his mummy would ever have the opportunity to plan. And like Emma will go on to say about her own son, I don’t think I could have got through this dreadful situation without Jackson’s steamy little chum.
…now back to Emma, who I would like to thank for sharing her story.
Confusion and delay: bereavement the Thomas the Tank Engine way
After Emma Beddington’s mother died, at a railway station, her son’s obsession with Thomas the Tank Engine became a way to talk obliquely about danger and loss
When my mother died ten years ago, my son Theo was 18 months old. Precociously verbal, cheery, fond of earth moving equipment and the colour pink, and in no way equipped to understand death. So, at least, I told myself, rather shiftily. What would be the point of saying those words to him? “Granny’s dead”. It would be about as meaningful as telling him that competitive pressures and poor regulatory controls had led to a catastrophic boom in sub-prime lending.
Of course, it suited me not to tell him. Things were bewilderingly terrible back then. My magnificent mother – the lynchpin of my world, the person I most wanted to share every stupid detail of my life with, the person I most admired – had been killed in a freak accident at an Italian railway station. My family had been catapulted into a dark, new world of lawyers and coroners, funerals and obituaries. My stepfather was in hospital; my seventeen-year-old sister had moved in with us. I was six months pregnant.
I was coping, if you could call it that, by dealing with practical realities of my mother’s death without engaging with the emotional truth of it and this denial (for it was denial of a sort) informed how I dealt with Theo. Something in me revolted absolutely at the thought of having that conversation with my sunny, delightful son, whose eyes lit up when he saw pictures of my mother. “Granny!” he would say in delighted recognition. I couldn’t – wouldn’t – do it.
It was cowardly and self-serving and wrong. It might be desperately hard to explain death to a toddler, but sometimes as a parent, it’s your job. Children aren’t stupid and they don’t exist in a carefree U-rated infant vacuum: Theo knew something bad was going on, but I failed to tell him what. When things go wrong, in the absence of honesty, children founder, lose their place in the world. Some blame themselves, some act out, some withdraw.
In my case, I was very fortunate. Theo found his own way, where I failed, and his way was Thomas the Tank Engine.
For a TV show aimed at pre-schoolers, there’s an awful lot of catastrophe in Thomas. The Rev Awdry’s world (as filtered through the HIT studios animated doom generator) is one of derailments, fires, collisions, billowing gusts of smoke, showers of coal, all rendered in eery stop motion, disaster edging jerkily closer in every frame. It’s dark.
For a year or so after my mother died, Theo couldn’t get enough of Thomas. He was drawn, again and again, to watch those five minute tales of doom and disaster: Percy showered with coal, the troublesome trucks tumbling down ravines, the glowering giant boulder that pursues the engines along the tracks, crashing, finally, into the engine shed with an impressive mini-conflagration. It was these grisly episodes that Theo insisted on watching again and again, terrified but compelled by the shocking moment of impact, the reaction shots of dismayed engines, the curls of crudely rendered smoke. Sometimes he would cry with fear, but with a restraining hand preventing me from turning off the tape: he needed to watch to the bitter end. The Fat Controller‘s ringing, admonitory “confusion and delay” set the rhythm of our early mornings, and our evenings.
As I walked him to nursery in the mornings, Theo would demand I tell him “a Thomas story”. He was a demanding listener, driving and guiding the narrative, from mishap to accident to disaster. Every time I tried to tie up a neat resolution (‘then the truck was mended and everyone went to the party!’), Theo would raise an imperious hand and correct me: “no, but then he ‘SPLODED!” It would be up to me to find a way to resolve things all over again.
There was something about Thomas, about the imminence of disaster and its resolution (or not) that spoke to Theo at that bewildering time. It confirmed what he had, inchoately seen and learned in his own life: accidents happen. But in Thomas’s world, and in the stories I invented, when accidents happen, they are fixed. The paint is cleaned, the track cleared, the trucks repaired. There’s no disaster too great for the officious Fat Controller to clear up, nothing that cannot, somehow be fixed. That simple resolution, seen over and over again, gave him the precious reassurance I had failed to provide.
I hate Thomas. I think he’s horribly reactionary, sexist, cruel, a colossal bore. I would gladly never see his leering face again or hear his tedious boasting about his buffers. Even so, I owe him a huge debt of gratitude, because Thomas did what I couldn’t: found a way to talk to a toddler about death.
New feelings have taken hold of me this weekend. Untold pain from running up steep hills in the biting cold at a 10K race in Greenwich Park on Saturday morning. An overwhelming urge to laugh and make people laugh on Saturday afternoon. And something quite like happiness today.
Running with new friends and then drinking with old ones on Saturday meant that I spent most of the day away from my son. I missed him terribly and thought about him the whole time. So when I woke up on Sunday and heard him rise soon after me, I rushed to greet him.
He made me laugh immediately. Standing in the hall sporting a new, if accidental, asymmetric off-the-shoulder pyjama look and sodden from an over active night bladder, he was only interested in putting his arm back in his sleeve.
“You’re soaking, Jackson. Let’s get you bathed and changed.”
“No dank you, Daddy.”
Happy as a pig in shit (or perhaps a kid in piss).
Breakfast, second breakfast, train time and then we hit the park where we went to feed the squirrels. I haven’t seen my son so contented, confident or cooperative in weeks. He indulged himself in fun and play for an hour and emitted joy that soothed my soul. For the first time in months I allowed myself to live in the moment and we just had fun. Simple as that.
This playtime paved way for a little friend’s birthday party. Unable to avoid analysing his behaviour whilst in the company of other kids and parents (fuck it, I mean mums) I was worried for a few minutes. While the other children sang songs and passed the parcel, my son’s eyes darted round the room and weighed up his two-parent peers. He looked cross. He seemed confused. My heart sunk.
But then he was suddenly back in the room. The boy he had always been showed up and made me wonder whether he hasn’t actually really changed that much. He didn’t respond that well to the organised fun at the party, but then he never did. He shirked it at his last birthday party when his mum was still alive in favour of some quiet time sitting on a window ledge entertaining himself with his trains. Today he chose to pass on pass the parcel and instead pass his time dancing to the stop-start house beats that accompanied the classic party standard. But that’s him. A true individual, slightly antisocial at times, knows his own mind. Two going on 42. Loving, sensitive, mostly happy, a touch grumpy, won’t be cajoled into doing anything that doesn’t appeal at any particular moment in time. In short, quite like his mum.
I suppose I was in a slightly better mood than I have been for quite a while today. But allowing myself to see my child for what he is rather than torturing myself about how he might feel helped me to chill out and enjoy my day too. Of course he’s sad, of course he’s tortured and of course he’s confused. But I realised this week that his pain comes in waves that appear to last for five or ten minutes before he moves on. But then his pain transfers to me and I cling onto it for hours.
So right now I find myself thinking that if I spend the rest of my day pouring over his five or ten sore minutes he’ll only get to live with a miserable and sullen dad. And he deserves better than that. So while I can’t just switch off those feelings or the sensation of being stabbed in the heart when observing his anguish, perhaps I can try to be more like a child. After all I feel like I’m starting my whole life from scratch anyway, so why not?
It’s said that young children are better than adults at dealing with immediate grief because they are more able to live in the moment. Perhaps they have something to teach us.
My little apprentice is slowly becoming the master.
This is a second guest post by my two-year-old son, Jackson Bo Brooks-Dutton
In Jackson’s second post, he shares with us what he really (maybe) means when he throws himself on the floor in tears at soft play and claims that he’s only upset because he wants some raisins. As ever, his writing comes with a ‘parental guidance’ warning. His first guest post can be viewed by clicking here.
I’ve just been to one of my favourite places, Peckham Pulse soft play, with a little mate and three olds. It’s off the hook this place. Ball pool, big slide, shaky bridge, bare tunnels, the lot. There’s usually some fella in the corner who thinks he’s the shizzle too, dishing out all these rules that none of us listen to but it must have been his day off today so we let rip and proper had it.
Anyway, I’m gonna rewind a bit otherwise you lot just ain’t gonna get it. I’ve been having some serious woman trouble lately. Like, I’m handsome and that and I’ve got all these girls putting their names down already, but it ain’t that kind of trouble. I just don’t like them much right now, especially when they go anywhere near my dad. I’m like, ‘Back off bitch! Mummy would slap you down if you came anywhere near her man.’ I’m kind of just doing her work for her now that she’s gone.
And here’s the thing. This is why I need to get some of this shit off my chest today. I think I know she’s gone. I haven’t seen her for ages and I keep repeating back what my daddy says to me about how she didn’t want to leave me but that she can’t ever come back, but something keeps confusing me. I keep thinking she’s still here, that I’ve just seen her in the street or in the park or wherever.
As I was saying a minute ago, at the moment most chicks that I see get a big fat ‘whatever’ from me, which often manifests itself as a filthy look, a massive raspberry or a repartee that sounds elegant and articulate in my head but that usually comes out more like, ‘Ubbubbubbaabah, THOMAS, PERCY, HENRY, RAAAAAR!’ But then I see a lady who looks a bit like my mum and I’m charm personified. I’m thrown.
So I’m down the Pulse today and this woman goes to give me a hand over an obstacle that was just too high for me. She had black skin, just like Mummy’s. She wore her hair the same way as Mummy did around July of last year. I think she was French and maybe a bit taller than my mum but it’s always hard to know from down here. She was daft and funny too, not scared to make a fool of herself to make kids laugh. The only real striking difference was that this lady seemed a lot more comfortable showing her legs. Weird, because I always thought my mum’s were lovely.
So there we are playing and I’m holding her hand, happy in unfamiliar female company for the first time in months and I felt like what I’ve been missing so much was back. But I only felt like that for a minute. I might be small but I’m not stupid. I know my mum when I see her but grief can really fuck with your head. It was like happiness one minute then crushing sadness the next. I’ve got stuff to play with everywhere, free run of the place and yet there I am floored, in tears, confused.
“What’s wrong, Jackson?” asked Daddy, although he obviously already knew, I could tell by the look on his face. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“No Daddy!” I shouted, lying face down on the floor in tears.
He gave me some space for a minute or two and then came back and asked me again.
Now give me an online forum like this, a MacBook Pro and the time to think my thoughts through and I can really hold my own. But ask me on the spot and I fall to pieces.
“Want some raisins, Daddy”, I replied mid-sob.
He didn’t buy that response any more than I meant it. Like he’s dumb enough to think that fucking dried grapes are going to make me feel better when I’ve barely eaten a piece of fruit since I was born.
This is a very special guest post by my two-year-old son, Jackson Bo Brooks-Dutton
Toddler, train enthusiast and part time nursery attendee, Jackson Bo Brooks-Dutton, shares his thoughts on his behaviour since his mother was tragically killed in November 2012 in a open letter to his father. Like every child of his age, his dad believes him to be an exceptionally gifted and extremely advanced pre-schooler. However, it probably goes without saying that this post is entirely made up because, as yet, Jackson doesn’t know if the book he is ‘reading’ is upside down or not. This is an interpretation of his behaviour from his point of view. I feel I must warn you, he swears like a trooper. His daddy did when he was young though too. I blame the parents.
I feel like I need you to see things from my point of view because you’re giving yourself a very hard time. Good at spelling, aren’t I?
I’m going to keep this brief because I get bored really easily and although I said I don’t like Thomas the Tank Engine anymore when we left the house this morning, I’ve changed my mind and he’s all I can think about right now. Frankly, I also find writing letters a real bore and I don’t understand why this archaic laptop has keys when I prefer to touch type directly onto the screen with sugary yoghurt on my fingers. But I love you, Daddy, so I’ll persevere. Big word for such a little guy, n’est pas? Oh yeah, they make kids’ TV shows that teach you French and Spanish now. Oh and Patois too if you include Rastamouse, man.
Where was I? Oh aye, three things happened last week that I think I ought to explain from my perspective because they seem to be crushing you up and I need you to be in a better state of mind to build my train tracks. I might be able to write well, but those bloody bridges get me every time.
Daddy, last week you took me ‘on holiday’ to the Canaries when I was really ill. I had a huge fever, you pumped me full of drugs and I think you probably wanted to ‘be on form’. Well let me tell you something, man flu starts young and I had it. You grown-ups think Calpol is the answer to everything but we only take it off you because it tastes like Haribo. If it actually worked that well, then why the fuck don’t you take it when you get ill? Are you with me?
So there we are sharing a sun lounger, recently bereaved of the one person who meant most to us in the whole wide world and you reckon a swimming pool and a scoop of ice cream is going to sort it. Did it make you feel any better? That’s what I thought.
I’m not trying to make you feel bad for taking me, quite the opposite in fact. I thought you really made an effort and you barely left my side. But that’s my point. I needed you last week, not a holiday. And on reflection I think you did a pretty good job at putting me first, so please don’t beat yourself up. Let’s just move on. We’re both home now and we’re closer than ever, so take a chill pill.
While we were away I heard you sniff. It’s a filthy habit and had I known you didn’t have a hanky I would have reprimanded you but, more fool me, I thought you were crying. So I ran across the room and asked, “Ooo okay, Daddy?” (God knows why I write so well but can’t even pronounce ‘you’, but you’re one to talk, you had a lisp until you were five). I also offered you a plantain chip to comfort you because I know from previous experience dummies aren’t really your thing. While we’re on the matter that bitch doctor from A&E can kiss my tiny ass if she thinks I’m giving her one of my plantain chips. Bloody nerve of the woman (see previous post). I did this because I want to look after you too, Daddy. We’re both crushed by what’s happened but we really need to support one another. You looked genuinely shocked that a child could be so sensitive, but I love you man and I’ve got your back. That’s how toddlers roll these days. We’re not as dumb as we are small.
So I had you covered when I thought you were blubbing in the villa but then you got all like ‘Oh God, I mustn’t cry in front of Jackson anymore’ at the airport when I behaved in a completely different way.
So you thought it was a good idea for us to get a night flight because I’d probably nod off. Well for once you predicted my sleep patterns correctly and for that you must be rewarded. I’ve a plantain chip with your name on it but if you share it with Dr. Bitchface, it’ll be your last. But what you failed to realise is that toddlers don’t react too well to being woken up from a night flight at 1am. What they like even less is when the taxi that is meant to pick them up at 2am fails to arrive. Don’t get me started on that taxi firm, but rest assured we will take them down, Daddy. What a toddler likes even less again is when the next taxi firm turns up with a baby seat and not a child seat. I can’t fit into one of those anymore, so when you told the taxi driver who suggested he just “drive slowly” leaving my life at risk just three months after my mummy was killed by a car, I think you were right to tell the punk to go and fuck himself.
However, what a toddler likes even less than all of those things put together is to see his father so upset at nearly 4am. That broke me and while you called a friend and asked for help, my verbal vocabulary doesn’t stretch that far yet (which is weird because I type like a demon), so I had to show my feelings.
So yes, I threw my dummies on the floor (I like to have at least three to hand, especially when upset because one alone doesn’t have the same effect). Yes, I removed my shoes and through them out too. Yes, I screamed the place down. But it’s not because you cried, I’m totally down with the tears dude, it’s because I was fucking knackered, you pushed me too hard and every other fucker seemed to have it in for us that night.
But have you noticed I how well I’ve behaved since we’ve been home? And have you realised that we’ve actually both laughed a few times too. Also, have you noticed how I keep asking you for a cuddle because you’re my main man and I need you so much right now?
Anyway, I just wanted to let you know how I see it all and say I love you, Daddy. We both know Mummy was the best, but you’re doing alright so don’t be so hard on yourself. We’ll get there.
For such a small chap, it seems strange to me that my son has become the elephant in the room. People seem comfortable checking how I am, but it’s often with much more marked pain that they inquire about him. The question that people (particularly mothers of small children) often want to ask but usually daren’t is, ‘Does he ask for her?’
Unlike most of my posts to date, this one will probably only work chronologically.
Imagining it from a two-year-old boy’s point of view, the simple fact is this. When we left our house the day that Desreen died, my son was with both of his parents. When he returned home that night there was just Daddy. At some point during the evening Mummy had left without saying goodbye.
Once I’d been told she was dead and I’d given my statement, I had to wake my son up from sleeping in a strange bed to put him the kind of car he’d probably dreamed about getting in one day because it ‘says’, “Nee nor!” Except he didn’t look happy. He looked confused and exhausted. He’s a chatty little fellow usually but he simply sat in the car seat that the police had to drive across town to collect, with his head tilted towards mine, holding my hand while I told him that I loved him and that we’d be okay. I was high on shock at the time, so what the hell did I know about how we’d be?
When the night turned into morning
As if it’s not confusing enough for a two-year-old child to be driven home one parent down after midnight, our living room was full of people by 3am. Desreen’s best friends came over and we all sat and stared at one another not knowing what to do or say. I offered people drinks – water, tea or Hennessy was all I had. I opted for the Cognac because I thought that was what people did in times like this. Putting the kettle on just seemed too cliched, somehow. My son ate yoghurt and played with his trains, but he did both crossly. Eventually I took him to bed hoping that we’d both wake up relieved that we’d just eaten a bit too much cheese at our friends’ house that day.
When the morning turned into days
My son’s three favourite things in the world went missing during the chaos. His mother, his scooter and his Thomas the Tank Engine. While I set about recovering the two things that could be replaced, some other things showed up. Grown-ups. Lots of them. The house was packed. Grandparents, uncles, godparents, friends, neighbours. Everyone calling her ‘Desreen’ and not ‘mummy’. So he joined in. That was that. In a matter of days he’d gone from calling her ‘mummy’ to ‘Desreen’. It was like a dagger through my heart because I thought he was forgetting her.
When the days turned to weeks
Then something happened that brought me back to my senses. I put on a DVD, something like Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom, a show he hadn’t watched in weeks whatever it was, and he knew all the characters’ names. So I realised that he couldn’t have forgotten the one person he idolised most, he was just copying the big people.
When the weeks turned into about a month
The single most painful thing I’ve felt as a bereaved husband so far was not for myself, it was for my wife. My son hadn’t asked for Desreen once in my company. I felt like she was being cheated. Like all the time and love she’d invested in him had disappeared in an instant. Sure, he’d stood at the front door and shouted her name when he thought she was coming in, but he hadn’t yet asked, ‘Where’s Mummy?’
When he finally did, he probably couldn’t have chosen a worse time. I was begging for it to happen. It wasn’t going to make me feel pain, it was going to bring relief. But he did it in front of a three men and the unprepared male doesn’t tend to be too great at this kind of thing. “Where’s Mummy? Where’s Mummy? Where’s Mummy gone? Where’s Mummy gone? Want Mummy. Want Mummy. Want Muuuuuummmmmmyyyyyy!”
He’d be storing it up and now he was using it all in one go, and the men present unanimously did that thing where you think if you can tense your shoulders hard enough, you won’t be in the room anymore. A kind of cross between an ostrich with its head in the sand and the nose wiggle from the US comedy Bewitched that made the characters disappear. The weight lifted off my shoulders and was transferred straight onto theirs. For me it meant I could finally tell him what had happened (see previous post here), but for them it meant they were sitting in the middle of the one situation that they’d dreaded the most and that they didn’t know how to deal with.
When the answers turn to questions
The impossible thing about grieving toddlers is that you can tell them what’s happened one day but they’ve forgotten the next. Actually, that’s probably inaccurate – it’s unlikely that they ever really understood in the first place. ‘Death’, ‘never’ and ‘ever’ are still alien concepts to them.
My son does this thing that I’ve always loved. When I take him to bed and cuddle up, I can ask him anything and he will agree with a silent nod. It’s probably the only time he’s quiet because he talks, sings and giggles all day and often does the same in his sleep. It’s definitely the only time he’s not contrary because he says, “No!” and “Not!”, to almost everything anyone says.
“Jackson, do you want some milk?” Silent nod. “Jackson, do you want a dummy? Silent nod. “Jackson, could you do a better job at fixing the economy that the current coalition government?” Silent nod. No end of fun for me.
However, it means that when I ask him if he understands what’s happened to Mummy at the one time of day when we really get to talk as man and boy undisturbed, he silent nods. I go to sleep at something like peace thinking he’s starting to take it in, but the next day I really can’t be sure if he’s going to ask where she’s gone again.
When the questions turn to statements
I may find myself amending this post in a day or a week depending on what my son does or says next, but it’s now two months since Desreen’s death and I don’t think he expects her to come back. He wants her to come back but I sense that the anticipation has gone. It’s impossible to know though and so I’ll repeat what I’ve said before – you simply have to go on your parental intuition and your understanding of your own child when that child is a still toddler as yet unable to fully express how they feel.
But to me there’s a big difference between, ‘Want Mummy’ and ‘Where’s Mummy?’. I can deliver on the question and, as far as I’m concerned, he can make the statement every day for the rest of his life without causing me any more pain than I already feel, because I do too.
I have since written an extended and updated version of these events for The Guardian. Click here to view.
I made a mistake when Desreen first died. I tried to hide my grief from my son thinking that he wouldn’t suffer so much if I seemed happy and kept playing with him and his train set.
You can’t hide the truth from a toddler though. They are too sensitive and intuitive to not notice that your world has shattered around you. One night I (or rather a bottle of Merlot) let down my guard and I quietly sobbed my heart out on the sofa during The X Factor final while he entertained himself with his track. My son knows me well enough to appreciate that daddy much preferred last season’s Strictly Come Dancing, so understandably he was taken aback to see the tears streaming down my face.
But it was his reaction that turned the steady stream into a river. He weighed up all the people in the room to try to establish whether any of them had upset me, gave them all a dirty look just in case and then tenderly wiped by eyes with his soft little hands. That upset me more because I felt like I should be his rock, rather than he mine. So I started acting as if I were happy in the day and then retreated to my room at night to unleash the pent up grief. I was trying to protect him from my feelings until I later realised that I should be revealing them to him (click here for a post on this).
Today I started to wonder whether my initial reaction is inherent in the male species and that maybe he’s guilty of the same crime. I went out for a run leaving him in the house with his grandmother and while I was gone he pointed at a picture of me and Desreen on the wall, looked round and said, “Poor Daddy, Nanny. Poor poor Daddy.”
This now makes me wonder whether the happiness he shows me in the day is a miniature mask for the pain he also feels in his heart. Grief has an terrible habit of making you constantly question everything. Today’s question is, why was he shouting, “Help me! Help me!”, in his sleep the other night when he always used to giggle his way through his dreams?