I mentioned in my last post that the day before I had arranged to see the social worker last month I had some really difficult news about the death of a young friend. This is a post about that lad and me, about our story.
I first met him at when he was just about a teen.
Uncertain, younger in many ways than his years, cheeky, funny, full of smiles and with a sly sense of humour.That was “my” lad. How can I describe him thus? Well recently someone said just that to me – he was “your boy”. And in so many ways of course he was not mine – above all he was himself, he belonged to nobody. He was a lad in long-term care, hugely loved by his foster family as well as birth family. He had his mates in school and his friends from the endless list of activities and different programmes he became involved with. Above all though he grew, through the time I knew him, into ever more himself, a unique and lovely person. Like us all he had his demons. There’s no getting away from the reality of his life, which led to him possibly having more demons than many of us. But through ups, downs, trying times and hopeful times, he was always a person who made you smile, shake your head in bewilderment, think twice and then a third time, who asked about your life and how it was going, and above all who cared – passionately, deeply – about the people around him.
So that question again: how could he be “my lad”?
Some good few months before we met each other my side of “our story” started when I applied to find out more about our local Independent Visitor scheme. If you haven’t come across it … well it’s a great scheme and well worth knowing about/telling people about/getting involved in. Basically young people in the care system, in generally slightly older children with little contact at that time with their birth parents, can if they wish ask to be matched with an adult outside the care system to be a “significant adult” – or simply, perhaps in the purest sense of the term – a friend. I had volunteered to be just such a person (the Visitors are all volunteers; the schemes are run by each Local Authority) and had gone through a process of interview and selection, training and matching.
And now I was meeting with “my” lad. I think, looking back, he was probably nervous. I was nervous, there’s no question.
But, with the able, skilled, thoughtful facilitation of the scheme social worker and the lad’s long-term foster carer, our first meeting went well. And so we were off.
For years we met up every few weeks. Sometimes there were a couple of weeks between visits, sometimes a month, sometimes a little more. It varied. Life is like that; what we did during our visits was unpredictable too. Cinema trips, dinner out, pub gardens reached on our bikes; many many walks around town, coffee here, cake there, chips on the street; bowling, card-playing, sheltering from the rain in the library, walking along the canal; his first ever carnival, watched in driving rain and accompanied by hot dogs (multiple trips to the hot dog van justified by level of dampness!). Apparently, when he himself spoke about our doings – and as he grew older he became involved in the recruitment for the IV scheme himself so it did come up – he would just start speaking and not stop for several minutes. But when he did run out of steam he would end by reiterating saying that mostly we talked. And that he thought it was good.
What a privilege. What a huge privilege to be a good part of someone’s life and for the thing that they cared about most was that we talked.
He had a long-term health condition. It didn’t impact all the time, but it was something that was always part of his world. Those of us who knew him knew that too. Fairly often it would merit a passing mention. Occasionally we’d even talk about something related – questions around medication or the odd activity that it wasn’t wise for him to do. Mostly it was just there, something that simply was, something that he, I and everyone knew was part of his world, but just like the lawn that demands attention only when it needs mowing, was largely ignored.
It killed him. In the morning he was fine, apparently. I will always be so pleased that by sheer chance the social worker running our IV scheme spoke to him and so she knows he was happy and feeling good about life and his immediate future. Later that day he died; probably, I am told, without pain, and without conscious knowledge of what was happening. There are many many things in life that make you grateful; this will always be one of those mercies of life that make the bigger picture bearable.
This post is a strange one to write. For all stories have a before and an after – and much of this post is about the before and then about the after. Yes, the world I am now in is still part of the story; but at the same time it is part of the after too. Intellectually I know this. I’ve shed the tears, I’ve been to the funeral, I’ve talked and I’ve walked the reality. But still while sometimes the brutal shock of “after” hits me, the cold reality is still, if I am honest, sinking in. How can it be possible? How can this have happened? When will normality resume?
I have those thoughts. Not the big thoughts – they are hard but in some ways more manageable. No, I mean those thoughts that start “When I next see him I will have to …” and then abruptly stop. Oh. And so the doubting of reality that is part of grief, part of life, goes on. I suppose, in the bigger picture, that too is part of “our story”.
There are many sadnesses. One of the specifics that currently makes me sad is that I had not told him about my plans to adopt. He would have been excited. I know he would have been. He might well have been anxious too, but mostly I think he would have been pleased and excited. During the training and preparation for our Independent Visitor volunteering we were warned not to expect “our young person” (as our matches are always described) to be interested in us. That is not their world; indeed they have so much, often, going on in their worlds already it is as much as you can do to agree a time, place and activity. This was not true of him though. “My” lad always asked about me and my life, what I’d been doing, how my own family were. And so he would have loved talking about my adoption plans. I had not planned to tell him lightly because he was a young person for whom such ideas may well have had resonances I would never have been able to predict. Indeed, that is why I hadn’t told him yet: I was waiting to be into stage 2, when still nothing is even close to certain but there is at least more to tangibly tell. I would have told him soon. It would have been an adventure to tell and then an adventure to share. It is not to be part of this adventure though, except as a story that will always be part of me and my story. It was the right thing to have waited to tell him. You can never tell the future and I needed to get it right. It still means a special sadness now.
Grief is always in part about unfinished business, about stories interrupted, about one person developing the next chapter of a joint story on their own. As a potential adopter, I am one of many all developing and building our own stories, and learning as we go. The professionals guide us along, encouraging us to think sensitively and carefully about grief, about loss, about pain, about the common, the shared, the singular and the lonely in all these experiences. I didn’t anticipate the wry, painful irony that some of my lessons would be delivered though such acute experiential learning.
At the funeral one of the songs that someone had chosen was “Don’t worry, be happy”. Through the tears I could entirely feel the rightness of this choice; indeed several times since I have paused, still, caught for a moment in time by my own smiles and my own sadness, as the tune plays on in my head.
There are clear links between the journey I am now undertaking and our mutual journey over so many years. My story goes on, and our story and therefore his story go on too. I had to decide whether to go ahead with meeting the social worker the next day – but in reality it felt like an easy decision. How better to honour him and his life than to push forward with something that means so much to me and my story, and in which he had, albeit unknowingly, played such a huge role already through our shared time together talking about, sharing, and indeed living part of his story.