On 7th April 1997 Joseph, my first son, was born. My pride and joy. A boy with a constant smile, great sense of humour and a caring soul. We were mates and he trusted me with his growing pains, trouble at school and his growing interest in girls. He could swim like a fish, and played in the County Under-14 A Rugby team.
Good Friday, 22nd April 2011, was a glorious sunny day and the boys asked to go and play football. I said “See ya” without even looking up ………. that was the last time we spoke. I’ll never ever forgive myself for that. Why didn’t I hug him? Why didn’t we have something else planned? Why did I let him go?
His younger brother, Jake, rang saying Joe couldn’t breathe. I raced to the ground, the gates were locked and a paramedic was climbing the fence. I rang my wife, Daniela, and his two older sisters, Georgina and Rebecca. Joe was taken to Addenbrookes by air ambulance. A strong young man who looked asleep.
I wanted to wake and cuddle my boy. I felt how soft his skin was, how peaceful he looked, how long his fingers were…….. He was gone, my boy, my son, my friend was gone.
Leaving Joe at the hospital began my catalogue of the hardest things I’ve done in my life.
I was a mess, struggling to keep it together for the family.
Jake just wanted to watch TV to take his mind off it. He was only 10 and had been with Joe. He sat there. Numb. My wife and I kept shaking our heads in disbelief. I tripped over Joe’s slippers. My wife slept with his scarf and still does. I started phoning. My mum jumped on a plane from Colorado. The phone calls at first were to let people know and then a chance for me to do something, talk to someone.
People were saying the kindest things about Joe. As the days passed we were amazed at the cards, visits and calls we got. His friends set up a Facebook page and it was incredible how many wrote something and how many messages I received. The coroner said it was SADS. It didn’t help. Nothing would.
Then came the decision you think you’ll never have to make, where do I bury my son…? I thought of the village church where we got married. In the churchyard, the tall yew trees were swaying in the breeze, the sun shined through the leaves, and it was quiet. My wife said, “This is it”. The funeral director arranged everything. We decided Joe should wear his new birthday Vans trainers, skinny jeans, his favourite Superdry t-shirt and camo hoodie.
At the funeral parlour I kissed his cold forehead. He looked like he was going to town on a Saturday afternoon. Jake didn’t come and see his big brother lying there. He bought a new rugby ball for Joe to take with him; his mum put his birthday Superdry jacket in; and I, photos of his favourite carp captures and rugby boots, telling him “You’ll be needing these boy”.
By this time the tears came freely, every hour of every day. I didn’t sleep, didn’t eat. Didn’t want to. My daughters were brilliant and looked after Mum and Dad. They were struggling too, but didn’t let us see. We all kept a watchful eye on Jake.
At Joe’s school there was a book of condolence, flags at half mast. The Headmaster said
they would get a coach if needed for students to attend the funeral. They did. Cambridge Rugby Club held a minute’s silence for Joe at their Rugby Festival, with every team on the pitch and the first XV wearing black armbands. His team mates presented us with a signed shirt, as did the Toulon team he had recently played against. Rugby coaches were crying.
May 11th was Joe’s funeral, delayed because of Easter and the royal wedding. Daniela wanted to wear something reminding her of Joe and chose a smiley face pin badge. I wanted one too, and for the whole family, then everybody, so bought 750. The coffin bearers and even the vicar wore one. Joe’s smile was there for all to see. As we walked under the Lych gate at the church Joe’s team mates made a guard of honour. The church was full, and we had to put speakers for the 250 outside.
During the service I learnt that this boy, who had just turned 14, had made an impression on so many. His rugby coach spoke about him as a true team player and of how Joe respected and enjoyed his family. He ended the eulogy by asking that, in the true tradition of a rugby match after a battle to clap the other team, to be upstanding and clap Joe…It made me proud that Joe had been thought of in this way, but hurt even more. We gathered after at a local hotel, meeting and greeting – but when we got home reality kicked in.
Jake struggled. His brother, roommate, sparring partner, playmate, best friend and the one he looked up to most wasn’t there. His Mum and Dad were not the same. He exploded in angry rage, slamming doors, throwing things, smashing his toys. It was like a red mist came over him. Inconsolable.
I couldn’t handle it, trying to calm him and when that didn’t work I went outside and cried my heart out. Why did this happen? What if I died too, would I be with Joe? Would Joe be acting like this if Jake had been the one who died? My head was spinning. The doctors sent me to a therapist, who sat there nodding her head asking me about my anger over the death of my son. What anger? I didn’t have anyone to be angry against.
Anniversaries started to come. On Father’s Day I had to stay strong for the family but deep down I just wanted to clear off and get drunk. Next, my birthday, then Rebecca’s, Jake’s and Georgina’s all within 6 weeks.
Then Christmas. On December 1st it really hit home and Christmas Eve I was a complete mess. I tried to be upbeat for Jake – it was still his Christmas – but he knew, we all knew. It was not going to be nice. I found a photo of Joe and Jake when they were smaller, Jake with the plate of carrots and cookies, and Joe with a glass of milk. That image will stay with me for every Christmas to come.
His Mum’s birthday, his birthday and then the 1st year anniversary soon came. Each day comes and we just have to get on with it and each is a reminder that he’s not here. Someone said “It gets better with time.” It doesn’t. You learn to hide it, control it, deal with it. We have found our true friends; those that never were; and made new friends with people that knew Joe. His friends sometimes visit, they say ‘hello’ in the street. They know the pain we are going through. They miss him as well.
I miss him every minute of every day and always will.