It was a happy day. Bright and sunny. Ben was in a bouncy mood and gave us all a big hug before he left for football training. At 49 years I had a loving family, a new business start-up, two wonderful, bright, funny kids and a loving wife.
I had it all.
The phone call. Oh my god the phone call.
My wife Helena took it in Waitrose. It was Ben’s football coach asking us to come immediately to the training ground. Helena phoned me saying an ambulance had been called for Ben. I raced there, fearing a broken leg. A devastating scene awaited us. Two ambulances, two paramedics fighting to keep Ben alive, four police. His team mates in complete shock.
Ben had collapsed whilst warming up. His football coach, who Ben doted on, had immediately given CPR and his team mates had flagged down a passing paramedic. Other paramedics and ambulance crew were there in 5 minutes. A mad dash across Bromley followed with the police clearing the way to the hospital. I had no idea what was going on, what had happened, or why.
50 minutes later a consultant emerged to say that Ben’s heart had been restarted but that it had taken too long and they needed to transfer him to St. Thomas ITU. I broke down. My beautiful son. I was losing him, and I was helpless.
Another mad police-led dash and we arrived at the relative calm of the Evelina Ward, St. Thomas Hospital. Ben hung on for 3 days aided by a ventilator. We realised we would not have the Ben we knew back, but clung on to our prayers for a miracle. The nurses and consultants gave us belief and hope through their kindness and care for Ben, but an MRI scan forecast that brain death was inevitable. We had to let him go and the family were summoned to say goodbye.
Ben died for the second time but this time in my arms. I watched, devastated, as his breathing slowed and stopped, and his colour drained as he let go. Nothing can prepare you for losing a child. There is no training for such an event. I couldn’t walk, breath, talk. All I could do was cry. But I was so grateful we were able to say goodbye to him. The nurse helped us to take Ben’s hand and footprints. I talked to him. Still do.
Ben was 15. A gorgeous fair haired, blue-eyed boy who was bright, cautious, sporty. His transition to school was difficult and he was diagnosed with ADHD, as well as being found to be on the autistic spectrum. Despite behavioural problems in his early years he never lost his love of going to school and we actively encouraged him to find himself through things he was good at. In sport he learnt to lose gracefully and win magnanimously. He was good; cricket was his first love, but also tennis, and football. Above all he relished team sports with team mates that judged him by his commitment and sportsmanship; although he had his mad moments and on a number of occasions I had to calm him down as he stropped off the pitch at some perceived slight! His personality and confidence grew as team mates and school friends recognised him as a first class sportsman.
I loved Ben no less than I love my wife or my daughter Frances. We formed a partnership that got him through integrating at school, steered him though conflicting emotions, helped him understand how to create and maintain friendships, and enabled him to lead by example
in helping others through volunteering. Our experiences together were formative for us both, whether it was going to music festivals, travelling to watch Aldershot or Chelsea play or attending cricket matches galore – including in Australia for the 2010 Ashes series, when a treasured photo of Sir Ian Botham and Ben was taken without any knowledge that Sir Ian was a Patron and President of CRY. 2 months later Ben was dead.
Friends, including other Dads, knew what to do and say and kept everyone in our wide circle of friends informed as we approached the funeral. Their practical and emotional support was unbounded.
The funeral became a project to remember Ben and send him on his way, not just for us but all his friends. Being a Project Manager I did what I was good at, organising! There were many crises in the 3 weeks leading up to it and I felt like I was looking after everyone but myself. Trying to hold it together, but not doing it very well. My family surrounded us with their love and many tears were shed.
The funeral itself was a blur. At his committal, a family friend whom Ben had played cricket with took the service and described our grief as a tsunami. No one saw it coming, it seemed impossible to overcome, and never ending. Later that day all his friends, school mates, team mates, anyone who knew him, gathered for his memorial service. It was fun, sad, poignant and a relief.
Ben not being here has become, for me, an intimate loneliness. His photo on the mantlepiece looks down on me. I think of him everyday. But he’s not here.
How have I coped? Excellent counselling; throwing myself into work; involvement in junior cricket; creating a young leaders programme in South East London; setting up Ben’s Memorial Fund to raise money and awareness for CRY; and screening. It all fills the gap but not the most important one. There is nothing I can do to bring him back. I miss watching him play his sport, the banter, playing cricket together, seeing him grow up. I miss being a dad to a son.
Time is healing. The first year inwardly I was a mess, albeit outwardly I tried to appear in control – but wasn’t. Despite the love of my family and my friends I felt utterly alone. My relationship with my son was unsaid and brilliant for us both. But a new intimacy now started kicking in – one of loneliness, of things never to be done, experiences incomplete.
A surprise 50th birthday party organised by my wonderful wife with many, many friends reminded me that I was in fact not alone. That is a treasured moment in my life and my relationship with Ben. It also reminded me how much I love Helena for her own steadfast struggle through what happened to us.
We talk of Ben almost every day, laugh about the funny moments, reflect on his thoughts and views, wrestle with the difficult memories.
But another person has been an inspiration for me too – my daughter Frances. She was 12 when Ben died and has never let Ben’s death deter her from carrying on and achieving her potential whilst remembering him in her own quiet way. Frances has held Helena and I together through her unqualified love and enthusiasm for life. We owe her so much and, like Ben, her love for Helena and myself is unconditional.