A Time for Change

It’s been a while since I updated my blog, but I thought now would be an appropriate time to let you all know what I’ve been up to. 2016 is turning out to be quite a year, not least because at long last I’ve taken the decision to become a full time writer.

For those who have followed my writing career, you’ll know that publishing books wasn’t something I ever planned on doing. My first ever job was in local government, in waste of all things, and I’ve remained in the sector for a staggering thirty one years. I would probably have spent many more years ‘in waste’, if I hadn’t had my head turned by a completely different kind of career.

Although I landed my first book deal in 2011, I didn’t let my early success go to my head. I took the safe option and kept the day job, so for the last five years I’ve had to squeeze my writing into every spare minute. I’ve worked through most weekends, birthdays, and even Christmas Days, although I’m not complaining, how can I when it’s something that I love doing? There are so many aspiring writers out there who are working hard to get their first book published, and I never take it for granted how lucky I am to have six books published already and my seventh due out in January 2017.

To top it all, I’ve recently signed another book deal for four more books, writing two a year, and so it was inevitable that something had to give – and it wasn’t going to be my writing. Walking away from the day job was a huge decision to take, but I’m looking forward to being able to write full time, and who knows, I might even try to remind myself what it’s like to take time off?

I couldn’t have got this far without my wonderful agent, editor and publisher, not to mention all those readers who have read my books. I’m especially grateful to those who might have recommended my novels to someone else, or took the time to leave a review or send a comment; you have no idea how much reassurance it gives me that I’ve taken the right decision.

Doing this means so much to me for reasons I can’t even begin to express, but I’m going to try.

I’ll be finishing work in mid-November, which is shortly before the tenth anniversary of losing my son. I remember so vividly those early days of utter devastation and hopelessness. After spending months at his bedside, watching on helplessly as my little boy was destroyed by cancer, I had to leave the hospital without him, while the memories of that time will live with me forever. Ten years ago, I honestly didn’t think I could survive that kind of pain, I didn’t think I wanted to. But I carried on for the sake of my daughter and when I turned to writing to deal my grief, I would never have believed that it would eventually develop into something that could actually bring joy into my life.

It was part of the legacy Nathan left behind, and I give him full credit for my writing career. My achievements have been a direct result of his life, his influence, and his inspiration. He continues to change my family’s life in ways I could never have imagined and my decision to give up work is only one example. What an amazing little boy I was so blessed to have in my life. 

Wish me luck!

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.

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

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?