In Times of Trouble

There’s nothing like a storm to make us all realise how vulnerable we are to the forces of nature and appreciate the things and more importantly, the people in our lives.  Not that I have any great tale to tell; Liverpool has got off relatively lightly so far but I did make a trip to London and was caught up in the travel chaos just before Christmas.  And it was that trip that got me thinking.

I arrived at Euston in time to catch the four o’clock train only to hear an announcement that there had been a power failure and all trains had been suspended.  I was tired and I not only wanted to get home, I wanted to be home!  An hour later there was another announcement, the signals were still down but two trains were being allowed to leave.  One was to Manchester which wasn’t where I needed to be but it was close enough.  I joined the stampede and was fortunate enough to get a seat.  Still wondering how on earth I was going to get from Manchester to Runcorn to pick up my car and with no direct connecting train, I had a text from my sister.  She said she would come and pick me up.  I could have cried, not because I was even going to consider letting her making the 100 mile round trip on a stormy night but simply because I knew that she was there for me if I needed her.

I arrived home at ten o’clock after another train and taxi ride, tired but immensely relieved and yet my sister’s text played on my mind.  It had made me realise how lucky I am to have two brothers and a sister in my life.  There’s a saying about not being able to choose your family but they’re the ones we all turn to in a crisis.  Okay, sometimes we drift and lose touch with some relations but the relationships we have with our siblings are probably the ones we will take to the grave.

And there lies the problem.  I couldn’t help wondering who would be there for my daughter.  When my son was born, she was seven years old and I was comforted to know that she would grow up with a brother who was going to be at the front of the queue vetting her boyfriends no matter what the age difference.  Nathan would be eleven now and the impact of his loss must include that gaping hole in her life.  My daughter is an only child again and I don’t know who she would turn to on a stormy night when I’m too old to come to her rescue.  With any luck there will be a partner or spouse (yes, this post could have been quite different if I wasn’t single), and if not then cousins or maybe close friends but in this day and age are any of those relationships as resilient as the connection between siblings?

It made me stop and think about how I develop family structures in my writing.  In my first book, Yesterday’s Sun, Holly was an only child but in Another Way to Fall, I created a sister for Emma.  Obviously as the author I had the freedom to choose the supporting cast for my characters.  Holly needed a strong sense of independence to be able to her take a life and death decision on her own so instinctively I made her an only child.  Emma on the other hand was facing her own mortality and I couldn’t let her do that without a sister by her side.

The point is, the families I created around my heroines complemented the fate I had already chosen for them but real life doesn’t work like that, does it?  For most of us, life isn’t a singular plot but an eclectic mix of trials and tribulations.  There will be times when we will fare better on our own and then other times when we will need someone to turn to for help.  I’m lucky enough to be able to have that choice, my daughter doesn’t, and not only her but a growing proportion of our society.  Families are shrinking and in time there won’t just be fewer brothers and sisters but fewer aunts, uncles and cousins too.  So what will we do to replace that kind of support network?  Will we make more of an effort to stay in touch with distant relatives or perhaps nurture more friendships?  With social media it’s certainly feasible but is that enough?  Will those virtual relationships ever replace hands-on support?  I have no answers, all I can do is be grateful that when I needed support I received an offer of help rather than someone ‘liking’ my status on Facebook or retweeting my sorry tale.

The Work Goes On

I was lucky enough to be invited along to the Cancer Research UK laboratories in Liverpool recently and I can’t even begin to describe how much of an impact the visit had on me but this blog is my attempt to put those feelings into words.

My son was diagnosed with a rare form of leukaemia when he was twenty one months old and during his treatment, I felt powerless to help him.  For a period of about eighteen months while his cancer remained indolent all I could do was research my son’s disease as much as I could so that I was best placed to be his advocate.  That was over seven years ago and I’ve forgotten much of what I learned but now all of those memories have come flooding back.

An oncologist once told the parents of a little boy that the treatment they were about to embark upon would one day be considered barbaric.  Their child had the same type of leukaemia as my son and eventually Nathan faced an identical course of treatment, only his consultant referred to it as ‘heroic measures.’  It involved pumping three different types of chemo into his small body over a matter of days to stop his bone marrow from producing cancerous blood cells, quickly followed by a bone marrow transplant.  And when my son was at his lowest, it also involved withdrawing anti-rejection drugs so the new cells would fight Nathan’s own cells and kill off any residual cancer.  The life-saving treatment was so intensive that it was also life-threatening.  It was a lot to ask of a three year old and in Nathan’s case, too much and he died a month after the transplant.

Talking to the staff at the labs, I realised just how much there is still to do, not only in the search for a cure but in the treatment protocols that patients of all ages must endure if they are to stand any chance of getting that all important ‘all clear.’   Yes, cancer treatment has come on in leaps and bounds but with more people developing cancer than ever, now is not the time to take our eye off the ball.

CRUK

Cancer Research Lab -Liverpool

Since I lost my dad to cancer some twenty years ago, I’ve always supported cancer charities. I’ve completed nine Race for Life events with my daughter for Cancer Research UK and I ran the London Marathon for the Children with Cancer charity.  But until now, I never stopped to think how the funds raised might be used.   Other than coming across the occasional awareness campaign or reports on the latest statistics or break-throughs, the work undertaken by cancer research charities isn’t particularly visible or obvious.  In the labs, I was able to see some of that research first hand. There were stacks of Petri dishes containing live tumour cells and experiments to see what effect different drugs had on the cancer, the aim being that when those drugs are used, patients are given enough to do the most damage to the faulty cells and the least damage to the healthy ones.  I saw that kind of balancing act when Nathan was being treated, treatment which was based on the best knowledge at the time but which caused horrendous side-effects that are simply too painful to describe.  I have to believe that one day there will be a better way.

What heartened me most about my visit to the Cancer Research UK labs was hearing how much collaboration goes on behind the scenes.  It’s not just about individual organisations working to serve their own interests but a joint approach with other cancer charities, the pharmaceutical companies, the universities and the doctors, all working together for one common cause – to beat a disease that is likely touch everybody’s life in one way or another.

Cancer is on the increase and where I live in Liverpool, in the North West, statistically I’m more at risk.  We all know how to reduce those risks (quit smoking, drink less, eat healthily, exercise, avoid sunbeds and sunburn and generally be aware of the subtle changes in our bodies to spot the early signs) but we can’t eliminate those risks completely – if a three year old child can get cancer then none of us are immune.

What happened to my family was the single most traumatic experience of my life and it continues to affect me.  I became a writer to make sense of what happened and writing my second book Another Way to Fall placed me back amongst the kind of devastation that cancer can bring.  The novel is brimming with strong and inspirational characters who would much prefer to lead ordinary lives.  The same was true of my family.  I didn’t want my life to change, I didn’t want my son to have to be that strong.  I would rather Nathan’s treatment had been a little less barbaric and that he hadn’t been called upon to be so heroic.  The truth is, I would rather he was still here and while I have no choice but to accept that can’t happen, I can still pray that the next child won’t have to be so heroic.  It’s a hope, and one that’s kept alive by the amazing work of the scientists, doctors and fundraisers that I’m dedicating this blog to.

Thank you to Emma Squibb and Jamie Wilson for giving me such a thought-provoking tour.

A Day That Holds its Breath

There’s a particular date in November that I dread every year and if you’ve ever suffered a significant loss or gone through a traumatic experience, you’ll understand why.  It’s a date that you don’t want to recognise, an anniversary that you certainly won’t celebrate and a marker in time that doesn’t deserve the description of special or meaningful because you would rather that the event it marks had never happened at all.  For me it was the loss of my son.

But it’s a date that can’t be skipped over so each year I’m left wondering how to get through it.  Should I try to ignore it and go to work as if it was any other day?  Should I stay at home and hide under the duvet?  Should I find a way to commemorate my son’s life and if so, should it be subtle or something on a grander scale?  There is no correct answer other than doing whatever suits me and my daughter best and that can change from year to year.  I’ve deliberately avoided starting a tradition that risks being broken one year and I try not to worry about what other people might think, I’m pretty sure the only person judging me is myself.  Why add to the pressure of what is already an tough day?

It’s strange to think that this one particular date once meant nothing to me.  I could have flicked through a calendar and not even paused on that day of that month but now I don’t even need to check the diary to know that date is approaching.  My mood changes and I can almost feel myself tensing up.

I try to rationalise my feelings by telling myself it won’t be as bad as I think.  I’ve survived enough of these anniversaries to know that more often than not the build-up is far worse than the day itself and yet it still fills me with dread.  The problem is that I can remember so clearly that pain I felt all of those years ago; I live with echoes of it every day; and I’m scared it might suddenly resurface.  And it’s true to say that occasionally my grief does catch me out, just not necessarily on that day or with any kind of warning at all.  But even though my grief doesn’t observe dates on a calendar, I’m afraid I do.  And that’s why one day every year when I wake up I can sense the day holding its breath until the sun goes down with a sigh of relief.

From Heart to Canvas

This week I spent an evening with Cancer Research UK at their shop on Bold Street, Liverpool.  As well as promoting my new book Another Way to Fall, it was also an opportunity for my brother to show some of his paintings for the very first time.  The three paintings were created to accompany poems I’d written about my son; my words and my emotions transferred onto canvas.   But I can’t claim it was only my feelings being represented in his amazing pictures.  I wasn’t the only person affected by my son’s death and for that matter, I’m not the only mother to be affected by the loss of a child.

Amanda Brooke

Claire at the Cancer Research UK shop

Having my family there on the night highlighted to me exactly how much Nathan has influenced all our lives.  My brother Chris is a plasterer by trade and art had always been a hobby that he never took too seriously.  All of that changed after Nathan came into our lives only to leave us too soon.  My brother’s art became not only a way for him to direct his own emotions and experiences but so much more than that.  If Nathan taught us anything it’s that life’s too short, too unpredictable and too precious to waste.  Chris is taking his art far more seriously these days and I hope he makes a success of it because it’s undoubtedly another one of Nathan’s legacies.

Amanda Brooke

Chris Valentine and his works of art

The paintings will be on display at the shop for a little while so if you’re in Liverpool then please, please call into the shop.   You’ll find them on the first floor which is where all the second hand books are kept.  You might even find me there, I was checking out the bookshelves and have was a long list of books I want to get my hands on!

If you can’t get to see the paintings in person, then you can always check them out in my previous blogs:

Autumn child – http://wp.me/p2B9JM-45

Golden Thread – http://wp.me/p2B9JM-4k

Where Ocean Meets the Sky – http://wp.me/p2B9JM-4z

Unwritten Pages

This week Another Way to Fall goes on general release and I’m really hoping that readers fall in love with my heroine Emma as much as I have.  She is a young woman who has barely tasted life but is forced to face her own mortality when the brain tumour she thought she had beaten returns.

I have to admit that I felt distinctly uncomfortable creating a character who had cancer but it was a story I had to write because the basic premise had been drawn from my own experience.  When my son Nathan died, it wasn’t only that sweet little boy who had been stolen from me but his entire future, and for a while, mine too.  I desperately wanted to know what he might have gone on to achieve if only he had been given the opportunity but at three years old, I had only the merest hint of the man he was meant to be.Nathan xxx

Nathan was a little charmer, I knew that much at least.  He was chatty and mischievous but he could also be quite shy.  He hid behind his Thomas the Tank Engine sunglasses during our lengthy stays in hospital and occasionally when a new visitor came to see us he would simply say, ‘me too busy.’  He wasn’t perfect, he cheated at cards and he had an eye for the ladies.  He fell in love twice, once with my nephew’s girlfriend Paula and later with his nurse, Pat.  But these were only tantalizing glimpses of the life he might have led and I was left to imagine how those empty pages in his life’s story might have been filled.

In Another Way to Fall, Emma gets to fill the empty pages of her life by writing the story herself.  She finds answers to all of those ‘what ifs,’ and for me that was very satisfying despite the book being an extremely difficult one to write.  It took many, many drafts because I put a lot of pressure on myself to do justice to the story, not for the sake of my fictional character but out of respect for those people who are forced to face the realities of cancer and in particular those with high grade brain tumours.  I might have the misfortune of being able to write a story like this from a mother’s perspective but I couldn’t claim to know what was going on inside Emma’s head, either from a medical or an emotional point of view.  That was when I turned to BT Buddies (http://www.btbuddies.org.uk) and I am indebted to the time and effort Natalya Jagger took in helping me with my research.  It was important to me and I think to Natalya too, that my book was based on reality.  There are no miracle cures in the real world and there couldn’t be for Emma.  Her fate was sealed in many respects from the very beginning. I don’t claim to have all the finer detail correct and there has been some poetic license in terms of Emma’s seizures but I can only hope Another Way to Fall has captured at least a fraction of the real life battles faced by brain tumour sufferers.  If you get a chance, please visit the BT Buddies website and give your support.

Not so much a ruin…

My second novel Another Way to Fall is based in my home city of Liverpool and it was lovely being able to draw in parts of the city that are so familiar to me and others that were less so.  One of my favourite scenes in the book is set in St Luke’s which is more commonly known as the Bombed Out Church.  I’ve probably driven past it a thousand times on my way to and from work but until I started planning my novel, I had never been inside.  I’m so glad I decided to use the church in my book because it made me take a closer look at one of the city’s most iconic landmarks.St Luke's Church

St Luke’s can be found at the top of Bold Street in the city centre and was a parish church until 1941 when it was bombed during the blitz.  An incendiary device was dropped at one end of the church and the ensuing fire swept through the entire building, completely destroying the roof and interior as well as bringing some of St Luke’s famous bells crashing to the ground.  Amazingly the stone façade survived unscathed.  The sandstone tower and ornate pinnacles still look perfect today and at first glance you probably wouldn’t notice that the roof and the windows are missing.  It’s no longer a church but thankfully the building is still being put to good use.  Urban Strawberry Lunch are artists in residence who organise events at the site and have made sure the church and its history remain a part of the city.

Bombed-Out Church InteriorIn my novel, St Luke’s is where Emma wants to get married and although the ruined church isn’t licensed for wedding ceremonies, this is her dream wedding so anything is possible.  I certainly couldn’t think of a more appropriate and poignant setting.  To all intents and purposes, the church is a desolate ruin, inside you can still see the charred remains of timbers that once supported the roof and tiny fragments of the stained glass windows.  And yet you can’t help looking at the building and seeing its beauty and magnificence.  Little wonder that my heroine was drawn to it.

You can find out more about the site on the St Luke’s website and if you’re ever in Liverpool, I dare you not to think of Emma when you visit the church.

A Richard and Judy moment

As any writer knows, one of the best ways to improve your writing skills is to read and one particular novel I’ve thoroughly enjoyed recently is SeaSea Sisters Sisters by Lucy Clarke.  Not only is it another fabulous pick from the Richard and Judy Book Club but it’s also a book that was originally spotted by my editor Sarah Ritherdon at HarperCollins who also acquired my book Yesterday’s Sun…another Richard and Judy selection.

So while I immersed myself in the lives of the Sea Sisters, at the back of my mind I was also marvelling at my own good fortune.  As I considered what it was about this novel that caught Richard and Judy’s eye, I couldn’t help wondering what it was that caught their attention in my book.  What I do know is it was very exciting time in my life and one I’ll never forget.

Yesterday’s Sun was selected for the Spring 2012 list but it was in October 2011 when I first heard the news.  I had finished work (my day job) early because HarperCollins had arranged for some photos to be taken for my author profile.  The photographer was lovely but it wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience for me trying to look comfortable in front of a camera.  I’d switched off my phone so it was only when I left the studio that I noticed a missed call from Sarah.  I was walking through Cavern Walks in Liverpool laden down with the outfits I’d taken for the photo shoot when I phoned her back.

She was delirious with excitement and at first I wasn’t quite sure what she was telling me.  It took a while for the news to sink in but when it did I sank down onto some nearby stone steps.  You know how you try to talk quietly when you’re on the phone in a public place?  Well not me, not that day.  It didn’t take long before I was just as excited as Sarah, tears were in my eyes but I couldn’t stop grinning even when passersby looked at me with mild curiosity.  Next I phoned my agent Luigi Bonomi, who already knew of course, but the excitement was contagious.  And after that?  Well…nothing.  I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone else!!  It was top secret and there was a veiled threat that if the news leaked out then I could be taken off the Richard and Judy list.

So what did I do?  I went to the supermarket and bought a bottle of champagne and then rushed home to my daughter who was the only other person I was allowed to tell. And what was the response of my sixteen year old daughter?  ‘Who are Richard and Judy?’  Sorry Richard.  Sorry Judy.

I cannot even begin to explain how frustrating it was not being able to tell people.  I suppose the only good thing was that at this point my writing career had barely started and I didn’t have this blog; I wasn’t on twitter; and I didn’t have an author page on Facebook so the only real temptations were with family and friends.  The list was going to be announced on 5th January 2012 and I have to say I was pretty good at keeping the secret although by Christmas I was whispering the news to my family, swearing them to secrecy.  Not that they did.  When I told my brother Jon he grinned sheepishly, my mum had already told him.

The first time I saw my book on sale was in WH Smiths on the Richard and Judy stand.  It was the day before publication so I hadn’t expected to see it.  I was on my own and I stood there transfixed.  My hand trembled as I picked it up, still not quite believing my book had been published and then quietly I put it back on the shelf.  How I stopped myself from grabbing the nearest unsuspecting customer and pointing at it I’ll never know.

But the highlight of the whole experience had to be being interviewed by Richard and Judy for their website.  They were filming a series of interviews with some of the authors on the Spring list and we all gathered in what had been set up as the green room before being ushered in to be interviewed.  Jojo Moyes was there and said not to worry about the interview as she’d heard how experienced interviewers like Richard and Judy didn’t let their interviewees fail, they would look after us and they did.  Not that I can tell you much about the end result. I still haven’t watched the interview…but click here it is if you want to take a peak.

OK, so now I’ve just realised how every other sentence has Richard and Judy in it, including this one!  Needless to say that even now, eighteen months later I’m still absolutely thrilled that my debut novel had such an amazing kick start.  Thank you Richard and Judy…and by the way, have you heard that my next book Another Way to Fall is out soon? [VERY SOON – WATCH THIS SPACE!]

Where Ocean Meets the Sky

This is the last of the poems and paintings that I said I’d share and I have to say that if I had to pick just one pair that summed up how I felt when my son died then it would be this poem and this painting.  The poem was written when I was still raw from my grief but the painting is my brother’s interpretation of my words and when I look at it, I’m back there in that moment.  He has a true gift.

I’ll soon be refocusing my blogs on my writing journey but I’d like to thank you for indulging me in this time of reflection, it’s been much needed.

Thank you.

Where Ocean Meets the Sky

At the point of separationOcean Meets the Sky
Where ocean meets the sky
I plunged beneath the icy waves
While you prepared to fly

With flailing limbs I fought
To keep you in my sight
A thousand times I screamed your name
To stop you taking flight

My thrashing sent me deeper
Into the murky depths of grief
While you soared up to the heavens
Unaware of the struggles beneath

When silence filled the emptiness
And my rage was spent at last
I drifted to the surface
To search the skies so vast

Unburdened by mortal sufferings
Gleaming wings to lift you high
Eternal peace had found you
Where ocean meets the sky

A Race for Life and a Golden Thread

It’s a hot sunny day in Liverpool and I’ve well and truly earned my right to spend the afternoon relaxing in the garden after finishing the Race for Life in Sefton Park this morning with my daughter Jess and some wonderful friends.  It’s hard to believe it’s the ninth year for me and Jess.  Nine medals marking a long and painful journey that has stretched far beyond the 5 kilometre course.  In fact our experience of this event which is in aid of Cancer Research UK began the year before that very first race.

I’d taken the kids to Hague Hall in Wigan for a picnic and was totally bemused by the hoard of women dressed up in pink with race numbers on their fronts and messages on their backs.  The messages were in tribute to the loved ones they had lost, the ones that had beaten cancer and in some cases celebrating their own battles.  I watched on with an eight year old Jessica and my eighteen month old son Nathan, thinking of my dad who I’d lost to cancer some years before and never dreaming that the little boy sitting next to me already had leukaemia.

The next year, Jess and I would be taking part in a Race for Life event at Aintree Racecourse while Nathan watched on.  We were doing it for him, raising money in aid of cancer research which might make his future less bleak, there was so little else we could do.  The next year, we did it again only Nathan was becoming very ill by this point.  The year after that and Nathan was gone but we still had to do it, for him.  Always for him.  And that first year without Nathan, Jess and I were privileged to start the race which had been dedicated to his memory.

So today as I sit in my garden I’ll be thinking of my beautiful boy and missing him with every bone in my body.  Apologies if I’m being overly sentimental today but I promised you I’d add a couple more of my poems, so hears the next along with another painting by my super talented brother Chris Valentine.

A Golden Thread

Painting by Chris Valentine

Painting by Chris Valentine

A golden thread
links child to mother
Weaves the future from the past
Connecting one to the other

This eternal thread
Has not one strand but two
Stitching body to soul
Life with an immortal hue

This fragile thread
Can break but the cost
When mother loses child
It’s the future she’s lost

But this broken thread
Has one strand intact
Though a heart filled with grief
Is unaware of this fact

This golden thread
Leaves a connection open
Through memory and love
Comforts a heart that is broken

My Autumn Child

I suspect I’m not the first author to think long and hard about what to share on a site like this.  The answer on the face of it should be a relatively easy one.  It is after all an author blog set up to share information about my writing and my books and a host of other ‘author-ish’ insights.  The question is really about what not to share and where to draw that line between the public persona and the private person.

My problem however is that one of the most personal aspects of my life is also the reason why I write, not to mention why I write the things I write.  There is no clear separation.  I began to write because my little boy was diagnosed with cancer and writing was the only way I could express how I felt; I continued to write because when he died at 3 years of age, a huge void entered my life and words were one way of filling the abyss; and I write now because my son continues to influence my life.  I write because I am so very proud of everything he did in his short life and how much he continues to influence those who were privileged to know him.

So I make no apologies as I begin the countdown towards the publication of my second book in September.  Once again I feel compelled to tell the world that it’s all because of Nathan.  I have no choice.  I’m the only voice he has now.

By the same token, I should also add that I am immensely proud of my daughter too but here I will draw the line.  Jessica does have a voice and is more than capable of using it.  I must therefore respect her privacy, or at least as much as any other gushingly proud and interfering mother can.

With all of that said, here is what I wanted to share with you today.  It will come as no surprise that I wasn’t the only one influenced by Nathan’s life.  Where I began to write, my brother Chris Valentine was inspired to develop his artistic talent.  Below is an example of how our creative paths crossed as we both dealt with Nathan’s illness and ultimately his loss.  I wrote the poem ‘My Autumn Child’ when Nathan was in the midst of his battle against leukaemia and the painting is my brother’s visualisation of my words and essentially my son’s life.  I think the painting is beautiful.  There are a couple of other poems and paintings I hope to share soon but this poem is particularly poignant as it was the inspiration for my second novel.  The working title of Another Way to Fall was Autumn Child.

My Autumn Child

My autumn child, take my hand
Give me the courage
To walk through this desolate land
Give me the courage to keep by your side
Not able to heal you and nowhere to hide

My autumn child, touch my face
Give me the strength
To smile in this godforsaken place
Give me the strength not to give in
To the anger that burns from deep within

My autumn child belongs in the spring
Should take life for granted, see everything
Shouldn’t face winter ‘til he’s an old man
That’s what I thought, that was the plan

My autumn child should learn from his mum
How to play safe and how to have fun
But my autumn child is the one teaching me
To face the storm and bend like the tree

My autumn child, as winter nears
Give me the hope to staunch these tears
Give me the faith to hold onto those dreams
Of you in my future, when so bleak it seems

My autumn child is orange and gold
The brightest colours so vivid and bold
Born to shine and never to fade
My autumn fruit, the child I made

By Chris Valentine

By Chris Valentine