I want my mummy
Seeing your child sobbing uncontrollably is something that is always hard to see and so very hard to deal with, but to see them crying over something you have absolutely no power to change is heart breaking.
I had put Ethan to bed on Tuesday night at his usual time of half past seven. He wasn’t feeling well. After the standard issue of a spoonful of Calpol we went through our now usual bedtime routine of sharing a mummy memory each – his, this night, was her cuddles, mine was her smile – and then I said a prayer. As I kissed him goodnight and told him how much I loved him I could tell as I left the bedroom that it wasn’t just his stomachache making him unhappy. Before my feet had reached the bottom stair I could hear him sobbing. I ran back up and he was beside himself. As I held him and kissed him I asked what was wrong. The words he said next are the words that many a Dad hears plenty of times – “I want Mummy.” In the ‘normal’ landscape of parenthood these are words we understand, these are words we’re used to being able to act on. In the eight years before it would have been nothing more than a shout down the stairs and up Gemma would have come to sooth his tears and provide that wonderful and unique motherly care and love. Except since November life has been anything but normal. Mummy is no longer here.
For so much of the past fifteen weeks Ethan has amazed me with how he’s coping with the sudden death of his mum at just forty years old. He’s been brave; he’s been strong and has not cried nearly as much as I had expected. This, as I’ve found out from the brilliant guys at Daisy’s Dream who are providing counselling for Ethan (https://www.daisysdream.org.uk), is very normal. One thing I have learnt in the short time since she left us is that kids do grief very differently to adults. The best analogy I’ve heard is that for children grief is like jumping in and out of puddles. For a brief moment they are in the puddle – they’re missing the person they’ve lost, they’re sad, they worry about the future and they wonder what life is going to look like without them. But as soon as the pain from these thoughts becomes too much they jump out of the puddle and distract themselves, in Ethan’s case with Lego, or drawing or another session of Minecraft on the PlayStation. But this night felt different. It was the most upset and distressed I’ve seen him since the night mummy died. It was impossibly hard to watch.
As I lay next to him and held him in my arms all that was reverberating through my mind was this brutal truth – the one thing he craved was the one thing I simply cannot change – I can’t bring his mummy back.
It’s the stuff of nightmares for any parent. The question on my mind was how on earth do I help him through this? Saying it’s going to be OK (even though I believe one day it will be) seemed hopelessly inadequate – all I could think to do was to keep telling him time and time again that I loved him and how proud I was of him. Though it was impossibly hard to say, I told him how much mummy loved him, and how utterly proud she always was of him and how proud she would be now. I whispered in his ear how brave he’s been. I whispered how many family and friends love him and are cheering him on, even people he doesn’t know. I told him how amazingly strong he’s been and I kept on telling him that together, we will get through this. Eventually the sobs began to quieten, the tears began to dry, and before long I had brought a small smile back to his face and the hint of a laugh as I trotted out one of Daddy’s repertoire of silly voices.
Since those tears we’ve talked together about that night. I’ve asked him what it was that made him so upset, and although he’s not been able to say exactly what it was I don’t think it’s too hard to work out. For nearly all of us as kids when we were ill the first person we wanted to come and hold us, reassure us and comfort us was our mum. Even now as an adult when I’m ill I sometimes miss the loving care of my mother. For Ethan that night, it hit him in a fresh and acutely painful way – the actual reality of mum no longer being here. As his tears flowed, his contorted face expressed that agony. As I struggle with her absence and all the pain, worries and fears that now inhabit the depths of my soul, I can’t begin to even imagine what it’s like for Ethan. What’s going through his mind? How does he even begin to process what’s happened – one moment his mum was here feeling like she had the flu, three days later she was gone, never to return.
Sometimes I think back to a night when I was only about seven and we were living in rural West Norfolk in a village called Grimston. It was a very foggy evening and my dad had driven to a meeting a few villages away, mum was already worried about him going. He wasn’t going to be back late but he ended up being back very late. The fog was so bad on those country roads that he had to drive at a snails pace home. In those pre-mobile phone days we had no idea whether he was OK or not. He did eventually arrive back home, but even now, all these many years later I can remember the look of worry etched on my mum’s face, and I can remember the very real worry we all had that something awful had happened. Now I look at Ethan and see a boy for whom the worst nightmare of every child has become real.
And this is the single biggest part of this tragedy that I struggle with the most. How can my boy no longer have a mum when he’s only eight? I know kids can be remarkably resilient, but how can he face the rest of his childhood without her? The other day on Twitter a rather unhelpful chap told me to be thankful for what I had because there are children in Syria growing up without a mum or a dad. This line of argument is one I have never bought. Yes it’s always good to have perspective in life, but if you take the ‘there’s always someone worse off than you’ argument to its logical conclusion then we wouldn’t be allowed to feel bad about anything. What’s happened to Ethan is deeply unfair (like life is for countless kids) but is that sense of injustice for him redundant because far worse things are happening to other kids? Like Gemma did, I have shed tears watching the situation in Syria unfold over the past few years, and I can’t even begin to imagine the horrors the children in that country have been put through, but does that therefore invalidate the horror of losing his mum for Ethan – of course it doesn’t.
One of the many bedtime conversations we’ve had over the past few weeks was particularly difficult to have. As Ethan lay there one night he started talking about his sadness at all the things he’s hopefully got to come in life. He talked about passing his exams, he talked about the day he leaves school, getting his first job, getting married and then he said this one heart breaking line – “and Mummy’s not going to be here to see any of them.” I could have adopted my Twitter ‘follower’s’ advice and just said well you’ve still got me, you should count your blessings. The truth is it broke my heart as I imagined all those big life moments for Ethan that his mum should be there to see, but won’t. It’s difficult enough to try and get your head around, but the hardest part is that you can do absolutely nothing to change it.
There are so many things in life we can try and find solutions for – we can throw money or time or effort at them to try and change the narrative, but when death comes calling there is nothing you can do. From an earthly perspective it’s as final as it gets.
As a Christian I’ve had lots of lovely, well meaning people saying Gemma’s in no more pain, she’s free from her suffering, she’s in heaven, and whilst I believe this with all of my heart and mind, it does nothing to alleviate the pain Ethan is in. It might give him hope but it does absolutely nothing to change the agony of the here and now. As he said to me the other night, I’ve got a long long time to wait before I see Mummy again. Having seen Gemma have her life robbed from her at only forty, I can only hope and pray it is a long wait for him.
But it’s not just Ethan and I who miss her so much, so do her family and friends. For Wendy, Gemma’s mum, this will be the hardest of Mother’s Day’s. Whilst she’ll have the comfort of her other daughter Rebecca, there will be one card, one bunch of flowers (we have bought her some) and one significant person missing this year – her eldest daughter. Every parent’s worst nightmare is seeing their kids go before them, and nearly four months ago this nightmare became real for Wendy. To watch your own daughter die in hospital is something no parent should ever have to go through, but sadly so many do. The woman who forty years ago went through the pain of labour and witnessed her daughters first breath, also had to watch her daughters final breath, and like me and the other family and friends who had gathered round her bed that Friday all we could do was pray, we were helpless. I will never find out why those prayers went unanswered, but that day we all lost a precious lady, a selfless wife, a love-filled mum, a rock-like daughter and sister, and the most loyal of friends. Here are a few stories that in the simplest of ways show why it is so very hard for all of us to live without her.
A woman of compassion
It was Christmas day the year before last. We had just got back from church and the festive aromas of Christmas dinner were already wafting through the house. As Michael Bublé’s Christmas album sang out for about the twenty-sixth time that week and the prosecco was poured, my wife began creating her magic in the kitchen. When I married Gemma back in 2005, I knew she was a pretty good cook, it was only as we moved in together for the first time after our honeymoon that I realised just how good. She had this amazing ability to be able to rustle up a delicious dish or cake in no time at all. Our kitchen shelves still lie heavy under the weight of the cookbooks she amassed over the years, with Jamie Oliver’s numerous books taking up the most shelf space! Sadly, my limited cooking skills will leave most of them forever more untouched and unread.
As she got to work on the finishing touches for Christmas lunch 2016, something strange began to happen. Tears began to flow from her eyes – there wasn’t an onion in sight! I asked her what on earth was wrong – she’d barely drunk any of her fizz so it couldn’t be that. It turned out her tears were for a lady called Debbie. Debbie is a woman in her 40’s who had begun coming to our church in Reading a few months before and had struck up an immediate friendship with Gemma. Debbie is someone for whom life has dealt her some very tough blows; from abusive relationships to an on-going battle with alcohol that was born out of the mental scars that these blows had inflicted. But in Gemma she found a person and a friend who didn’t judge her, but instead held out a hand of friendship, compassion and love.
Debbie wasn’t always an easy person to be around, but Gemma showed her a level of love and patience that I wish I had a fraction of. I remember one night being in bed, it was about half eleven, I had just switched off the bedside light and as our heads hit the pillow Gemma’s phone began ringing. It was Debbie. She had been to her ex’s house for the evening and it hadn’t turned out to be a very wise move. She’d had too much to drink, there’d been an argument, and now she found herself on the street outside in the cold, with no money to get a taxi home. Initially I could see that Gemma wasn’t exactly over the moon to be taking yet another late night call; but rather than tell Debbie it wasn’t her problem, she asked Debbie to hold the line and turned to me and explained what was going on. She felt we should help and pay for a cab to go and get her and take her home. Initially I was a bit annoyed. Why should we be helping her out when yet again she’d hit the booze and put herself in an avoidable situation? In truth, this was a selfish reaction. Alcoholism is an illness. Debbie had been deeply scarred psychologically over the course of her life, and the bottle had understandably become her way of numbing that intense, relentless pain. Reluctantly I agreed to Gemma’s wish and a few minutes later a cab arrived at our house, and my wife walked down our drive in her dressing gown and slippers to give him the money for the fare. An hour or so later Debbie called to say she was home safe and sound, and Gemma and I were able to sleep knowing she wouldn’t be walking the freezing streets of Reading trying to get home. But Gemma’s love for Debbie didn’t end there.
As those tears flowed on that Christmas day she told us what had upset her. As we had left church that morning Gemma had bumped into Debbie in her usual spot after church – on the wall outside smoking a rollie. What transpired from that conversation was that Debbie was going to be spending Christmas day alone in her flat, and Gemma was crying tears for her. She couldn’t bear the thought of the lovely day and food we were about to enjoy with her friend up the road sat on her own. Whilst many would be worrying about the turkey burning Gemma was thinking about others. I remember looking at her and being struck by her selflessness and her compassion. A few minutes later Gemma’s mum and myself were getting in the car and collecting Debbie, to bring her back to enjoy Christmas Day with us, and it was wonderful. Not just because Debbie had a day to remember, but because of what it meant to my dear wife. You could see a smile of joy on her face that she had been able to turn a day of loneliness and undoubted pain for her friend into a Christmas she would always remember – a day when someone reached out to her and made her feel valued, accepted and loved.
Like me, Gemma had a Christian faith, and when Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was he said this – “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and love your neighbour as yourself.” Gemma’s tears were that commandment and that Jesus shaped compassion in action. She could have focussed on just making sure her family and friends were well fed and looked after; but instead her focus was also on the need of a friend who needed to experience that love that Jesus talked about. And this was Gemma in a nutshell – putting others before herself.
And it was the suffering of others that inspired her to start a project at out church last year. Over the course of those weeks when the Syrian refugee crisis occupied a rightful place on the national news agenda, Gemma and I would often sit there watching the ten o clock news witnessing this horrific humanitarian crisis unfold. We, like so many, were moved by the almost nightly tales of desperate people packed like sardines into barely sea worthy boats, making the dangerous break for freedom across the Mediterranean Sea, and as we sadly saw so often, for too many it ended in tragedy. But as the tears welled in Gemma’s eyes they weren’t just tears of sympathy, they were tears that sparked a fire in her heart to do something about it.
Hers wasn’t an easy, social media hash tag kind of sympathy, it was a situation that in her own small way she wanted to do something about.
Over the following weeks and months Gemma pioneered a refugee project at our church with the aim of bringing a Syrian family to Reading, where they would be rehoused and resettled here until the day would hopefully come when they could return to their homeland. Last May she launched the project at our church, and along with a team of volunteers she was putting everything in place, including a house for them to live in, with the aim of a family arriving some time later this year. She knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but she would often talk to me about how much she was looking forward to the day we would drive to the airport to meet the family and bring them to our hometown. I was looking forward to it too, not just to meet the family, but to see the look of happiness and joy on Gemma’s face as those months of hard work came to wonderful fruition.
A Syrian family will still come to Reading, and in many ways it will be a beautiful legacy to Gemma’s heart and vision, but it will also be a hugely sad day as that family will never get to meet the woman whose heart was moved by their story, and Gemma won’t be here to see her vision realised. If I can get to the end of my days having shown half the love and compassion that she did in those forty short years, I’ll have done well.
When you lose a loved one people often talk about firsts – the first time you leave the house without them, the first time you go down to the shops, the first time you go away, the first birthday, the first anniversary – the list is almost endless, and today Mother’s Day is another poignant one. I know, like so many of these kind of days in the calendar, it has become ever more commercial; but for lots of us it’s simply a day for giving mum a bit of love, and thanking her for all she means to us. This year, like all the others (nearly) I have sent the card and ordered the flowers and once again written to my mum how much I love her. I’ve had forty five years of being able to do this (OK I wasn’t sending flowers aged two!), but at the age of just eight, Ethan no longer has a mum to make feel special on this day, and to tell once again how much he loves her.
And for many, like Ethan, this day will be tough. So tough. For some it will be the day they remember a mum no longer with them. That chair they once filled round the kitchen table now lies painfully empty. It may have been years ago since they passed away but the pain of that loss and the emptiness of her absence will still be as hard as it ever was. For many women and men it will be a day when they mourn the child they have not been able to have. For others it may be a day mourning the mother they never got to know. Or the mum for whom bringing up a child was too much and had to leave them to a life in foster care, or with a loving adopted family. But for some it will be a painful day for very different reasons. It will be a day when the pain and hurt of a broken relationship with their mum will be hard to bear, and the disappointment of those lost years will be especially poignant. As I’ve discovered in the most painful way possible, life is too short, sometimes way too short, maybe this Mothers Day it could be time to finally swallow that pride, stretch out the hand of forgiveness, and start building those bridges again with the person who brought you into this world.
I read this week some words by Martin Lewis from Money Saving Expert. So often I hear him talking with his infectious enthusiasm about ISA’s or energy deals, but this week I heard him talking about something you can’t put a value on – the loss of his mother in a horse riding accident when he was just eleven years old. Amongst the many moving things he spoke about in his interview on BBC Radio 5 Live he said this about Mother’s Day:
“It is far better to remember the wonderful person that you lost than to remember that you lost a wonderful person.”
Fifteen weeks ago, like Martin, my boy Ethan lost his mum. I hope that on Mothers Day in the years to come we will be remembering Gemma as the wonderful mother, wife, daughter, sister and friend that we’ve lost, but this year it’s still all too raw. Whilst we will try and remember her for the love that she poured into our lives, we will still remember the way she was torn away from us in such a brutal and cruel manner.
On Thursday I Tweeted this:
“I’m writing a blog for Mother’s Day. If you could describe what your mum means to you or meant to you in ONE word, what would it be?”
Of the many many replies I had, I wrote down the words that featured most in the replies, and with the help of some artistic design from Ethan, here below are some of those lovely and powerful words.
To mums reading this I hope today is a day when you feel loved and cherished. For those mums for whom today is going to be hard I hope that now or in the years to come you will know love again, and for those for whom today will resonate with the pain of the absence of a mother now gone, I hope that it will be a day that even if it’s just for a moment, you’re able to follow Martin’s example and remember and savour the mum you lost.
God bless and have a lovely day.