Another Way to Donate

I’m about to start writing a new novel and as always, it’s a daunting prospect to have so many empty pages and 100,000 words waiting to be written (then deleted, rewritten, edited, moved, etc, etc, etc) but this story feels different. Without giving away too much, which I couldn’t do anyway because much of it is still developing in my head, I can tell you it involves organ donation.

It’s a very emotive subject which involves a life-saving gift that comes not only from the donor but their family – after all, they are the ones who will be asked to carry out the donor’s wishes at what must be the single most devastating time of their lives. I already know it’s going to be a tough one to write and maybe this week isn’t the best time to start such a project as I creep ever closer to the anniversary of my son’s death. But then what better time to reflect on the amazing gifts that families like mine have received from strangers which gave our loved ones a fighting chance for life.

I don’t know how many people tried to save my son and that’s not even counting the incredible medical team at Alder Hey Children’s hospital. There were all those people who donated the blood that sometimes had to be ‘blue lighted’ over to the hospital, and then of course there was the unrelated bone marrow donor. I know the donor was male but that’s about all I do know about the faceless hero whose stem cells gave my son his only chance of survival and although Nathan died, at least I know he died cancer free. He beat you, Cancer! He may have lost the war but damn it, he was only three years old and he beat you.

And yet despite his courage and fortitude, this wasn’t a success story, so Nathan will never be a ‘poster boy’ for bone marrow donation, but I wish he was. It would be incredible if just one person reading this post would take time out to register as a bone marrow donor or even just give blood; it would be good to know that Nathan’s still making his mark on the world. And who wouldn’t want to give such an amazing gift when the best part is that you don’t have to wait until you die to do it? You get the chance to feel good about your altruistic self just by giving a little of your time and a unit of healthy cells.

Sorry, I didn’t meant to turn this into a personal campaign so I’ll leave it there…but if you do have a penchant for donating to good causes and your wallet’s taken too many hits of late then here are some other ways to donate:

Bone Marrow Register

Give Blood

Organ Donors

One final indulgence from me is to include a photo of Nathan.  He’s standing in the kitchen next to the cupboard that had his favourite Maryland chocolate chip cookies inside and I know he’s about to say, ‘only one.’ I couldn’t deny him anything. Could you?

Nathan in 2006

Nathan in 2006


The Cathartic Writer

The premise behind my second novel Another Way to Fall was for the heroine, Emma to be able to write the life she would have led if her illness hadn’t stolen it from her.  It wasn’t difficult for me to imagine how writing that lost life might have been cathartic for Emma, in fact it’s what I love about writing myself; it was that kind of catharsis that spurred me to write both Another Way to Fall and Yesterday’s Sun.

It’s easy to see how the confines of the page can provide a certain sense of security that enables and emboldens the writer to share their innermost feelings.  And while both of my novels were clearly for public consumption, the characters I’ve created are sometimes speaking my words and thinking my thoughts.  Maybe the readers can see through that false veil or perhaps they are able to take some of those feelings as their own for one reason or another.

But not everything I’ve written has been fiction or with the sole purpose of getting published.  I turned to writing when my son was ill, at a time when I couldn’t articulate my feelings in any other way.  To put it simply I couldn’t physically talk about what was happening but I could write about it.  I didn’t chose writing as a therapy but rather it chose me.  Having never had any aspirations to be a writer, when I started to keep a journal I was less interested in the prose than the message I was trying to convey or the memory I was trying to capture.  And two years later when my son died, I was determined to write his story.  It ought to have been tortuous to relive some of the horrors he endured and I witnessed but I somehow survived the retelling of it.

I can’t say how writing Nathan’s story helped but I don’t doubt that it did. As a bereaved parent it gave me the reassurance that while I had lost my son and knew that time would steal the sound of his voice, the scent of him and the touch of him, I would forever hold onto those intimate details of his life even after they inevitably faded from my mind.

The intimate details of Nathan’s life are there to be relived if ever I need to but in truth, up until recently I chose not to, and even when I did open it the other day it was only a quick glance.  I had been planning to write a blog about a park bench in preparation for my next novel Where I Found You which is being released in June 2014.  It was a bench in Sefton Park that I had in mind which held memories of me sitting there heavily pregnant with my daughter.  Then I just happened to be in Calderstones Park the other week and passed a play area with another bench which evoked another memory.  This one was not so pleasant and it made me finally open up the journal and read the entry about the day I took by two children to the park in a failed attempt to feel like a normal family.

If ever I needed proof that writing can be cathartic then it was that entry in my journal.  All those feelings of anger, futility and sadness are there in the words I had written, there on the page and not eating away at me.  I can’t claim that writing Nathan’s story has purged my soul of all the pain and grief but it has certainly lessened the burden.  I suspect my reluctance to read it over is that fear of all those feelings returning but there are some treasures in there too, the good memories and the reasons why my son is my inspiration.  But then I don’t think I’m ever likely to forget that.

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.

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 ( 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.

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

What’s your problem?

I tend to approach any TV drama about bereaved parents with a sense of trepidation.  There is of course the fear of resurrecting all those awful memories and emotions of losing Nathan but there’s also a sense of dread that yet again, a bereaved parent will be portrayed as someone to be feared, a shadow of humanity that goes on to commit unthinkable acts in the name of their dead child.

Only rarely do I come across a drama that ‘gets it,’ and I’m glad to say that Mary and Martha shown on BBC this week was one of them. Written by Richard Curtis and with outstanding performances from Hilary Swank and Brenda Blethyn, it’s about two mothers who have lost their sons to malaria while visiting Africa.  The story is intensely moving and has been produced unashamedly as part of the Comic Relief campaign to raise awareness for the prevention of malaria but at the same time it also gives a great representation of being a bereaved parent.

There was one particular scene that really encapsulated how perceptions of the world around you changes after losing a child.  Hilary Swank’s character Mary returns to ‘normal’ life after losing her son and she’s listening to her friends complain about their daily lives and problems which clearly aren’t problems at all, not to someone who has just witnessed the needless loss of children’s lives in Africa.

Losing a child not only changes your perspective and your priorities but it changes you.  For some bereaved parents, getting through the day is a challenge and in our darkest hours we look for hope.  We find inspiration from those who have been through the same kind of loss and have gone on to do extraordinary things.  Mary and Martha may only be fictional characters but they represent an army of parents who have fought many different battles but with the same objective, to prevent other parents from suffering the kind of loss that they have suffered.  These are people who see beyond the trivia in daily life and want to make a difference so the world is a better and safer place.  They are a force to be reckoned with not to be feared.

If you haven’t see Mary and Martha yet then please watch it and I dare you not to be moved by it.  The drama is packed with heartrending statistics and you will most definitely want to support the Comic Relief campaign.  It will move you and it serves as a good reminder to us all that too often our so-called complaints aren’t complaints at all. So I ask again, what’s your problem?