Own two feet


RETURNING HOME TO SAY GOODBYE (PART 2)
April 4, 2017, 8:34 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

https://owntwofeet.wordpress.com/2017/02/02/returning-home-to-say-goodbye/ (PART 1)

Memories are messy because families are messy and even when we’re trying our best we’re complex.

I tried so hard to bury the memories of the Halls and my time in their care. Then, a few years ago I bumped into Rebecca – their daughter. We spoke briefly and bumped into each other again. Very slowly we inched towards one another and two years ago I finally met Michael and Jenny again (https://owntwofeet.wordpress.com/2014/11/04/reflections/). I began to dig up those buried memories and re-examine our past: look back over old photos, remember. I painted a past that is fairer to us all because we all care, we all love, we all feel pain. As an adult you can learn to navigate pain, to take it in your hands and reshape it, to even turn it into something beautiful and powerful because there is a place beyond the pain we all deserve to get to, beyond hurt, even beyond healing.

Inside the care home I was met with smiles and a signing-in book. I told the lady on reception I was here to see Michael Hall. She kindly asked who I was and I stumbled to find an answer. At that point an older man and a young woman approached the reception. “They’re here to see Michael too – you can go up together,” the receptionist said, so I followed them into the lift. I never answered the question about who I was.

Inside we all introduced ourselves. The man said he was a friend of Michael’s from the church and had helped care for him. The young woman always smiling was his daughter. Alone at the reception I had felt exposed, but now in the lift with them I felt safe. The man kept talking. Asking questions about how I knew Michael. I told him I had lived with the Halls, but had only seen them once in the last twenty three years. That was two years ago and Michael was already sick then.

We all walked into the room together. Michael was lying in bed looking at the TV surrounded by photographs of the family. One in black and white stood out – of Michael and Jenny when they were first married. Michael turned his head slowly to look at us. His eyes searching as he looked at me. Nothing. I was a stranger. “Maybe take off your cap,” the man said.

I remember one Sunday at the Halls’ when Michael went out for a walk before lunch. He returned with a homeless man he’d met in the grounds of the church. The man had been drinking and smelled pretty bad. He stayed for the roast lunch. Jenny (Michael’s wife) was not happy. I remember finding the whole thing quite weird and funny, but I also remember admiring Michael. I remember that feeling so clearly. Michael is a Christian, a serious Christian, but this wasn’t his Christian duty. This was simply Michael. His selflessness and kindness was not of words, but always of actions like this. To care, to give, to love: it came naturally to him. Before he left, Michael removed the homeless man’s shoes and socks and washed his feet.

Now, in the care home, I approach Michael and feel like the stranger he sees. I want to hug and kiss him like the others have just done, but instead I take his hands in mine. They’re soft. They were never soft before. Always hard and rough. These were always his primary tools. Building this. Fixing that. Constantly covered in scratches and cuts. Constantly in a state of healing.

I take out a photograph I’ve brought from home. Michael and Jenny. Rebecca, their daughter. My brother Nathan. Their nephew Sam. The two dogs, Lilly and Judy. We’re standing in the garden. Flowers to our left. The big shed behind us. I’m back there. I’m the little boy. I want Michael to be back there with me too. Remembering. Smiling. But Michael can’t find a way back anymore. His dementia has locked all the doors shut.

He strokes my hand, ‘cold’ he says and rubs them. He’s still here I think. Still caring. I look into his eyes, desperate to be remembered, but I’m not. He takes the photo but doesn’t look at the picture. Instead he turns it over and strokes the blank white back of it repeatedly. I don’t know what to do. I feel clumsy. I still want to hug him like I used to, but now I’m afraid.

In the next two hours the room fills with people that care. Michael’s mind and body may now slowly be letting go, but his life holds on. I see his life and his love as strong as ever in the faces of the people in this room. He keeps living, keeps growing, his reach extended through his wife, sons, daughter, grandchildren, foster children, friends. It’s a life of quiet greatness you won’t read about in newspapers. I came here afraid I would be swallowed by sadness, but right now that seems impossible.

I never got to tell Michael I’m sorry how we parted all those years ago. Or how thankful I am for everything he and his family did for me. But in the two hours I spent with him and everybody in that room I realise that doesn’t matter.

On the drive home I drop off Michael’s daughter Rebecca. We talk the whole way back. When she says goodbye and closes the door and I’m alone, flooded by a wave of emotion. I feel a happiness that in that moment refuses to allow sadness in, there will be time for that. I feel a deep connection to my past, a deep connection to a life almost lost that’s coming back to me. I mattered. I was loved. The Halls were my family. The Halls will forever be part of my complicated version of family.

Since I wrote this blog I got to see Michael one last time. His room and the corridor outside were full of family and friends. There was smiling and laughing threaded through the sadness. We exchanged old memories and built bridges between today and the last times we had seen each other. Before I left I held Michael’s hand one last time. For a moment he squeezed it. His brother stood on the other side of the bed and prayed for him. He was coming home, he said. It was time. I hid my face and the tears that fell down my face. It will be soon Jenny said as we hugged each other and said goodbye outside in the corridor. A few days later he was gone. The world felt emptier.

At the funeral the people spilled out of the church and onto the pathway outside. Again so many smiles in the sadness. So many lives touched.  Young and old. Stories were told about Michael as a boy growing up in Guyana and about the wonderful man he became. So much quiet love he had given and here it all was in this place. That part of him that will never die. As we walked to the gave we all bought that love with us. Some crying. Some praying. All of us remembering our own moments of Michael. 

At the funeral reception afterwards more stories were exchanged over food and fizzy drinks. Then the hall was dimmed and a film began to play. A collection of photos and videos featuring Michael. Such much beauty in their normality. Michael with Jenny growing up together. Their lives growing through their children and then grandchildren and all the other connected family members. Their foster children scattered throughout the pictures. More branches of their extending family. Such a rich tree of lives. Then a photograph including me as a boy appeared with Michael. A reel of my own memories flickered and he held me once again in the kitchen as I sobbed, he ran next to me on the common, he looked up at me surrounded by tools and his hands covered in grease, he tore fresh bread and passed it across the dinner table on Christmas morning and he said ‘John you know we love you’…I looked around the room at the faces staring up at the big screen, most of them now smiling…God knows we loved him too so so much.  

 

Michael

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Returning home to say goodbye
February 2, 2017, 1:39 pm
Filed under: childhood, family, Foster care, Life in care, Memory, Social workers, Uncategorized

Part One

I am on my hands and knees. Fingers blindly searching under the front seat of my car. All I need is another five pence. Fifty more minutes of paid parking then it’s free for the day. There must be something down here. Coins are forever falling from my pockets with a curse and a clink, finding the most awkward spaces. I often forget to retrieve them. Careless, I lose everything. Money, keys, gloves, phones, bank cards, people’s names, odd socks, important notes, the punchlines to jokes. I find it hard to hold on to anything for long.

This time the floor is bare but for a biro, Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ CD and a blue Peanut M&M. I go to Plan B and reach for my credit card. My so-called smartphone struggles to load the prescribed parking app. When it finally does and I add my details, it crashes. I try again and this time it works. Payment accepted. Car safe. I’ve beaten the wave of vulture like traffic wardens I’m sure are circling in the next road.

But the feeling of victory slowly fades and I’m left standing on the pavement by the parking machine. The thoughts – on loop in my head all day – return once again. Thoughts of Michael lying in the building at the end of the road. What will I say?

I went to live with Michael Hall when I was nine years old. Michael, his wife Jenny, their son Mikey who I idolised, and daughter Rebecca. They had two dogs. Judy the Red Setter with funny teeth and Lily the little Yorkshire Terrier with smelly breath.

Their two older sons, David and Mark, had left home and had their own young families before I moved in. Then there were the aunties and uncles and grandparents and cousins and nieces and nephews. If that was not enough the church was a whole other family – many of them also actual Hall family – it was headed by Michael’s brother Conrad, who led the congregation as its Pastor in his big white house two doors down.

There were always a lot of people around. At home it had only ever been my mum, my brother and me. Towards the end a new baby brother arrived that my mum would keep when we left. Our dads were in and out and the wider family scarce and scattered, it all seemed fairly normal and still does, though my dad and I are now much closer and see each other regularly.

In the Hall’s I saw for the first time another way a family can exist. I loved this new big collective. I wanted to be part of it, part of them and in some ways, I was, but I also just wanted to go home, and a part of me still does. Over time that part of me has become quieter. I rarely hear him calling out like he used to but from time to time I hear the whispers. I listen. I tell him he has a new home now, but he still remembers.

I, and one of my younger brothers, stayed with the Hall’s until I was thirteen, when we left and were moved into a children’s home around the corner. Soon after, my brother and I were split up. The time apart from our mum finally took its toll and turned us in on each other. He reminded me so much of her. It should have bought us closer together, but it only highlighted what we had both lost. ‘He’s holding me back,’ I’d often say. He was getting into trouble. Messing things up for both of us with his behaviour. And it was harder to be placed as two brothers. I had more chance alone. I persisted in breaking us and we broke. A fracture that cannot be fixed. We no longer talk. From the children’s home he was moved on somewhere else. A few months later I returned to the Hall’s.

The final weeks of my second stay with the Halls were sad. Our relationship deteriorated. Blame, once so prevalent, slowly destroying the memories I had of them, has now been laid to rest. It’s a worthless artefact. I don’t even know who was to blame, if anyone at all. The wear and tear of being in care, the confusion of adolescence we all stumble through, old fashioned teenage rebellion and the scream to be heard, their weariness of me, my weariness of them. In the end all of our own personal realties could no longer find a way to mesh together, so we just fell apart.

It came to a crescendo of silly words battered back and forth between us over the little girl from the Cosby show, which ended in the small confines of a Toyoto Space Cruiser as Michael angrily pulled at the scruff of my shirt. I had pushed and pushed and found the edge I so badly wanted to finally leap from and I was going to take them all with me. It was the only time I remember Michael losing his temper, but I have no recollection of being afraid. I only felt sorry it had come to this.

Those times I had sobbed in the kitchen – unable to find the words – he knew and took me in his arms and just let me cry. Now a part of me didn’t want him to let go of my collar because I knew in the moment I was going to run and there was no coming back. His anger was taken over by something else. His grip loosened. The shouting stopped and I took my opportunity to escape. I quickly slid my skinny frame out of the Space Cruiser passenger window, hit the road and just ran into the night. I would not see the Hall’s for another twenty-three years.

In the years that followed I dug deep holes and threw in my memories of the Hall’s. So many memories were silenced. Our painful ending. Not being able to go in the fridge or sit on the expensive sofa. But I didn’t distinguish between good and bad. It all had to go the same way.
I let myself extinguish their love and how much they cared for me. Gone were faint memories of happy Christmases and trips abroad. Fun shopping trips, running around the common with Michael, sitting down as a family to watch ‘That’s Life’ on a Sunday. Playing football with Mikey and his friends, Jenny tucking us in at night, balloon tennis games, staying up late to watch England play the USA. I let the laughter and the silliness go too.

Eventually our ending was just another rejection, another bunch of people who didn’t want me. My pain revelled in its destructive nature and its ability to make things disappear, so I made them vanish. Almost.



A message from Garry – Part II

This is part II – you might want to read Part I first

The two boys stack children’s furniture and other bits and bobs that are lying around the garden into clumsy modern art sculptures, and then clamber up onto the garden table. They take turns to jump off it and smash their creations to pieces. Each landing leads to bursts of laughter and shouting that has me smiling – attempting to stencil the moment in my mind forever.

The boys run past us into the bedroom and reappear dressed as Spidermen. The two of them leap about the garden firing invisible web from invisible web shooters on their wrists. Suddenly my son Dylan picks up a chair and throws it across the garden. Kai quickly picks it up and throws it into the air. They giggle and then Dylan races towards the patio window and fires more web at all of us, who are sitting on the other side.

They’ve been playing together like this since we arrived. First it was Top Trumps on the bedroom floor and now as a pair of slightly crazed mini superheroes with an equal attraction to construction and demolition.

“For this brief moment there is nothing else in the whole universe except my son and his son”

From the other side of the patio glass, I watch them play. A contented smile slips down into my stomach, making me feel gooey and warm. I’m interrupted by that part of my mind that wants to deconstruct the moment and pick away at it, looking for deeper meaning. ‘This is special,’ it is saying. ‘Can’t you see this is like a lost history playing itself out through these two little boys? You see that right?!’ But I don’t want to see past the moving picture they are painting. I don’t want to think. I just want to feel, and for this brief moment there is nothing else in the whole universe except my son and his son and colourful furniture flying through the air.

When we arrived earlier that day, five-year-old Kai was waiting on the drive. I can see him now. He is brimming with smiles and confidence. Dylan moves towards me, momentarily shy. My wife, Clea, and I take a collective deep breath. I think I shake Kai’s hand. Clea hugs him. He leads us into the house that immediately feels crowded. I struggle with the pram as new faces appear in the corridor. Garry’s wife smiles. Next to her their daughter Bethany looks uncertain. At first nobody is quite sure how to say hello and in what order. I hang back by the door and let my wife go first, like I often do in new situations. She starts the greetings and slowly my new older brother Garry makes his way towards me. I think I see an arm starting to extend for a handshake, but I slip past it and hug him. He tenses up slightly.

My new brother Garry is 45 (I am 38). This is only the third time we have ever spoken, the second time we’ve met and the first time our wives and children have met. Throughout the afternoon, Garry hardly sits down. He mainly stands in the kitchen behind the breakfast bar, periodically venturing out from time to time to check on the BBQ. Football plays continually on a big flat screen on the wall. It had settled my nerves when I first saw the TV on.

Throughout the day we wander through different topics of conversation. The standards of local schools, growing up in the rougher parts of the city, the gentrification that is swallowing up these same parts, to eat meat or not to eat meat and that documentary about chickens that has scared Clea into part-time vegetarianism. Garry’s daughter Bethany spends most of her time indoors, drawing butterflies at the table. She seems transfixed by Lyla, my baby daughter, and later wears the most beautiful look of concentration as she carefully holds her in her arms. Later still, Garry’s wife Sarah takes Lyla into her own arms, where she falls sound asleep. The boys play together most of the day and only stop to sit at the table in the corner of the garden to eat burgers and talk with each other like old friends. The normality of the day is comforting.

Conversation is easy the whole time we’re there. I’d feared we might quickly run out of words, but we never do. Still, we don’t delve too deep. I remember Garry writing in an email to me that he is not a big talker. “But I’m a good listener,” he had said when we met.

“We have different ages, different backgrounds, different stories… but are bound together”

From our first meeting it was clear we were different. Different ages, different backgrounds, different stories, but bound together by the distance we both shared from our father (when he mentions him he always says, “your dad”). As an adult I have closed this gap. Garry has not seen him since he was 14. But there are similarities between us. Films, music, sport, something in our eyes. I see traces of my dad in him. Some are physical – they flicker in his face. Others are deeper: the quietness they both have, the thinking they’ve both done in silence.

As mine and Garry’s lives start to intertwine, I can’t help but wonder what he is thinking about all of this. His poker face is almost professional, but did I see it slip as he gazed out at Kai and Dylan playing in the garden? Perhaps it’s less about us – more about them. Our two small boys and two smaller girls. That same blood running through their little bodies. Family coming together and building something new with all the normal jagged edges. We’re starting late, but not too late for them.

When we all say goodbye, I feel exhausted and elated. I’m also relieved I’ve not said anything stupid (I think). Hugs and kisses are shared all round. Garry is still not sure about the hugging part, but I make no apologies. He will just have to bear that awkwardness around his little brother. As we walk away there’s a knock at the window. On the first floor, Kai is smiling down and waving. He’s soon joined by Sarah and Bethany. All of us are waving at each other. My brother, I expect, is safely back behind the breakfast bar.



Those voices fall silent

Here we are again. Retracing lines. Day turns into night, back into day, back into night. The light and lack of it, the only real contact with time I have. The whole world existing inside the blue curtain pulled around us. Like the first time, this baby doesn’t want to come. We wait.

After two days and two nights she arrives in a crowded room of smiles and dedication. Two of the nurses cry as she is held up for me to finally reveal the surprise. I keep looking for it because I am sure we’re having another boy. It must be hiding. I keep looking and then slowly the words start to trickle from my mouth: “It’s a girl… it’s a girl… it’s a girl…” My wife lets out a kaleidoscope cry of joy, relief, exhaustion and a love that will forever resist any attempts to define it. I now have a daughter and a son. I can’t believe it. I sit behind my wife as everybody continues to play their role. I watch them in awe. This operating theatre worthy of its name – I’m watching a play of talented actors and I feel like a spectator until the midwife brings my daughter to me, wrapped in a white blanket, and places her in my arms. My legs swing from the chair unable to reach the floor. I look down at her. I still can’t believe it, yet it feels like the most normal thing to be holding her. It’s like she has always been here.

“How could they give you up and put you in other people’s places and other people’s lives?”

I know they’re coming. Pushed back by the occasion and the effort and the pouring out of love that floods in with the birth of a child. At times I feel as if I could drown in it. Yet they do come. The feelings with voices that pick at me. All the sentences leading to the same question – how could they have let you go like that? How could they give you up and put you in other people’s places and other people’s lives that were not their own? Over the years I have come to terms with the answers. I have made my peace and wrapped a rationality around it that keeps everything together, but every now and again there is an unravelling.

People are forever keen to tell you about their own experience of having children and to give you advice. How to get them to sleep through the night, the merits of breastfeeding, games to stimulate their brains in the hope of creating a little genius, but nobody ever mentioned the porthole that opens up that leads back to your own childhood or how you are thrust into your parents’ shoes and start to see your past anew. No longer just looking up at the world as child, but now looking down as a parent and seeing all you had known to be solid and true start to breakaway. The things you were so sure of, people’s personalities and decisions, start to slip because you now see the world through the worn in eyes of a parent and that changes everything underneath the surface of memory.

I have at times struggled with this. With these new eyes turning parts of the past on their head. I have understood more than ever why my mum took the difficult decision to put my brother and me into care. I can become her and take on my shoulders her pain. I can take on the violence and the abuse and the drink and the damage and then imagine how I could distance myself from my own child. I feel the hopelessness in myself and the hope that somebody else can provide my child with more than I have to give. But then cutting through this, especially when I look into the faces of my son and daughter now, is my certainty that I could never do that. I could never let them go like that. No matter what happens in my life, I know that I would dig as deep as was needed and fight any foe to hold onto my children and keep them close. There is anger at my parent’s weaknesses. There is pain that they didn’t have enough for me, but as my thoughts start to settle and the landscape starts to colour in my children, wife, friends, career, home, places I’ve been and the experiences I’ve had, those voices that whisper from the darkest places fall silent. Still, even though what my mum wanted for me, when she made that difficult decision to leave my brother and I with a neighbour for social services to pick up, has in some sense happened, it has come with a price.

I pay this price, as do my parents in their own way. We carry this experience, and the price more recently has been hefty, as my relationship with my mum has fallen apart. I get tired sometimes, holding it all together for her. She is very fragile and although I love her dearly I find this fragility hard to witness. For too long I felt like I was the adult and she the child, even when I was a boy. Now I really am a parent and sometimes I just wish I could be more like her son.

“To watch them with him, then and now, is like witnessing a resurrection.”

My dad and I went many years without seeing each other and when we did get back in touch I didn’t mention the past and neither did he until we came back from the pub and stood, in the early hours of the morning, in the kitchen, finally talking. I was standing by the sink. I looked up at him and said, “Why did you leave me out there?” It was a conversation that was hard for both of us, but all I ever wanted to hear was that he was sorry. I just needed to hear that. I understood why in my own head and could imagine how different events led to him walking away like he did. He did try and we kept contact here and there throughout my childhood, but there was a space where both he and my mum were missing. After we talked, everything between us felt so much lighter. When I had my son, my dad and his wife looked after him one day a week. To watch them with him, then and now, is like witnessing a resurrection. I cannot get back my childhood, but I see – now – how that time is enriching my own children’s lives.

I have not slept much lately. My daughter is now five weeks old and she has exceptional lungs. My wife says my son was the same, but I’m not so sure. You’ve just purposely blocked that part out of your memory, she says. Perhaps I have, we can’t carry everything that has happened to us, but we can make the most of that stuff we do carry.



I still see those faces

I am starting to catch moments in the mirror where I don’t quite recognise my reflection. Small lines creeping around the eyes, grey hairs flickering through the dark crowd, the sharpness of it all slowly slipping loose. Age painting its familiar pattern.

I still play football on Sunday mornings, though I can’t run as fast as I used to. It feels like a death that nobody else will ever notice. Many of my happiest childhood memories involved running. Chasing and being chased on the estate. Racing in the school playground on breaks. Sprinting across football pitches to win a ball and across an athletics track to pass a baton or dip for a finish-line. I will never run like that again.

My muscles mutter and moan on Monday mornings. They threaten strikes on Tuesdays. But by Wednesday they have forgotten and it’s back to work as usual. My wife sometimes says I should stop playing, but I’m holding on.

I feel bits and pieces of what has been my life breaking away. There is only so much you can take with you as the years tick by. It is a bittersweet feeling in the context of my childhood. For a long time I felt like its prisoner. Ashamed and scarred. As time passes and people pass through your life, you can surprise yourself with the distance you travel if you head in a direction and keep on going. Being a survivor was never enough for me. I had to go beyond that. I’m still going.

People are a great help in this journey, but nobody else can do your healing for you. That took me a long time to understand. Mine has been a broken path. Almost untraceable. But I’m here and there is no shame now.

You have all left your marks on me. I found myself in the arms of somebody who said I will never leave you, I found friendships in different continents that sometimes lasted moments and other times, years. All helped me heal and grow. I remember the night we spent sitting by the beach with the bottle of port, pouring out our lives. The stories shared over games of Backgammon, on the rooftop in the breeze. The mixtape that included ‘Protection’. The letter you saved from the bin and stuck back together. Dancing our legs out in Kuala Lumpur and you letting me stay in your home. The times you carried me home. The times I carried you home. Singing to Madonna songs. Lives lived in Eversleigh Halls. Misfits finding a place to fit. Giving me a chance. Giving me a life. Sharing a life. Making a life. I still see those faces.

I have been able to take this difficult time of being a child in care and shine a new light on it. I have wandered for a long time in these memories. I wander in the new ones I made after that time. I’m not sure if all the memories are my own and if any are imposters, but I don’t ponder this for long these days. The only thing I can rely on is how I feel about my childhood, especially the time I spent in care and how this affected me. It was difficult and at times painful. I remember a strong sense of never being able to truly express myself outside of anger, though it was not always like that. I feel protective of this period. I feel protective over the memories where I see myself smiling and laughing. I also feel protective over the pain that cocooned itself deep within me, but time has passed – and as I have changed through the years and collided with the lives of others, my childhood has taken flight from much the pain and lifted me with it.

As I become more forgetful, dark spots drift across my recollections of the past – my childhood partially obscured by them. Where once I would have been glad to forget, now I am trying to hold on to the memories.

For the last thirteen years I have been writing about my care experiences. I have a cardboard box in my bedroom full with writing. Lined pads, small notebooks and scraps of paper. Memory sticks scattered around the house full of files full of more writing. Stacks of sentences all about that time in my life. I am desperately trying to keep that boy alive.

I love that little boy and I am so proud of him. I want to tell him he is going to be alright. I want to tell him he will be loved beyond his imagination and he will learn to give away his love. A love so powerful it will sometimes scare the man he will become.

I fear that by writing all this, I am using that little boy. I fear exploiting him. That fear is always there, but I keep writing because I want to give him and me a voice that was missing for a long time. I also want to celebrate him, and anyone who has been in care. Together with those that look after us, we are an exceptional family, even as our memories fade and our reflections change.

 

 



They took me

The place I ran. The place I rode. The place I screamed. The place I shouted. The place I laughed. The place I stole. The place I said sorry.  The place I would not. The place doors slammed. The place footballs flew. The place camps grew. The place I fought. The place I kissed. The place I held. The place I let go. The place of swings. The place of struggles.  The place of scaffolding. My mum. My brother. My friends. The place of games. The place I won. The place I lost. The place I called home.

They took me from that place. They took me somewhere else. From SW15 to SW16. Just a single digit difference, but a world away for a nine year old.

Everything I knew, for good, bad and all else that slips in between, slowly faded behind me. All my roots that cut through the concrete surfaces of the estate and embedded themselves deep into the ground were hacked at, but never severed. As much as I was flesh and bone, I was also the concrete tower blocks and metal railings of the estate I still see when I sometimes drive it. I was still the curly hill I would skateboard down and I was still Ali’s shop over the road and up the slope where mum could buy things on tick. I’m still that place.

The social worker who picked me up from a neighbour’s house was answering the call my mum made. She could not cope. I was put into the state hands and the state did what it thought was best. A family was found via a short stay in a children’s home. A good Christian family. A family with a mum and a dad and sons and a daughter and two dogs. They had two bathrooms and thick carpets. They had a garden with a shed and they even had a basement.

I remember being amazed when I first arrived at the foster home. The quiet road lined with trees. The tiny room when you first walked in to hang coats up in and put your shoes. The red wine stairs that climbed high to the first floor and then kept climbing beyond. The welcoming faces…but this was not just SW16, this was another country.

They spoke a different language. They kept picking me up about my dropping of ‘t’s’ and my use of the word ‘ain’t’. They dressed differently. They ate different food. They went to Church. They prayed. They went on planes. They filled the trolley to bursting in Sainsbury’s. They sat round a table at meal times.

Some of these things I fell into. So many of them brand new. I liked the material things. Things I could touch. Things I could taste. Things I could hold on to. Things I could keep. In my file I would later read that the foster parents questioned my desires to possess things. It was seen as shallow, but if one looked a bit deeper they would have understood when the most precious things are taken away from you, possession of things in itself becomes important.

But what I wanted more than anything was to go back home to where I belonged. Where I fit in. Where people understood me and where I understood them. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have the words to express all these things because we didn’t need words. We just were. In between the struggle we held on to each other and we helped each other. Even when we were fighting.

In the end though my mum couldn’t hold us all together. She was not strong enough. She needed more help and support and unfortunately either it was not there or she didn’t know how to take it.

A decision was taken early on to slowly sever the link between my mum and I and the estate. After each visit I suffered. My temper would flare. I did not have the experience, the strength, the understanding to contemplate what was happening to me. My head was a constant riot. So much noise. At night I would sometimes sit in the dark thinking about everything and it would become too much. I would wake up in wet sheets and just lay in them hoping they would dry and nobody would know. They always did.

The dislocation from where I had grown up hurt me profoundly. It was not just the distance between me and my mum, but it was the distance that was allowed to open up like a chasm between me and my friends and the estate that was home.

I remember once my friend Brian coming to visit me. Both of us just boys. It is a memory that has recently returned to me. I was so ashamed. He was my best friend and I was ashamed. I think that was the last time I saw him in my childhood.

A home is more than what lies behind your front door. It is more than a family. It is the paths you pass through every day. It’s the two steps you always jump over at the end of the stairwell. It’s the bunches of daffodils you hurdle every summer. It’s the pissy lift you help make pissy. It’s the anti-climbing paint on your hands. It’s the concrete pavement slabs you scratch ‘I woz ere’ on. Home is where you lay your life.

It saddens me to read that children taken into care are still placed in foster homes and children’s homes far from the places they once called their own homes. Sometimes this in other far flung parts of the country. I do appreciate for some children this distance is necessary and in their best interests, but ultimately adults need to remember that even a couple of miles can seem like a huge distance to a child.

It took me a long time to accept I was not going home, but I believe the separation could have been handled much better if people had taken the time to listen to me and to ask the right questions. Time should have been taken to help me through that process. It was, and at times, still feels like a bereavement. One day I was running around on the estate feeling like a king and then the next I was in care, in a foster home asking if it was alright to get a drink of water.

I benefited from being taken into care and although my placements did breakdown, as it did with the family in SW16 after the second period I was there, I have understood it was best for me. That is sometimes hard to reconcile because it has hurt my relationship with my mum and destroyed my relationship with one of my brothers. Still, I know the alternative is I would have likely ended up in a place I do not want to look too deeply into.

I just wish the adults that were tasked to look after me could have looked a little deeper, been a bit more patient and tried to stand in my scruffy trainers. 



The magic of Christmas
December 19, 2013, 2:22 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , ,

I remember the lights and colours and stacks of presents under the tree with their tiny tears. Peeking was as much a part of Christmas as turkey and sprouts.

When I look back to those Christmas’ before I went into care nostalgia takes hold and pulls me under. It takes me all the way down to a place that is free from the times that followed. That place is still pure. Perhaps purer then it ever really was. It is a sanctuary that I am now allowing myself to return to because for a long time I banished it from my mind.

I feel myself being shaken out of the darkness. The world coming into focus through the face of my mum who is rocking me awake. Her eyes are wide and filled with excitement. ‘Wake up, wake up.’

Soon me, my little brother and mum are sitting underneath the tree. ‘We’re just going to open one each’, she says. The clock says we’ve only just crept past midnight. We open them all.

The memory breaks into pieces and starts to scatter. I can’t hold on to it. Bright reds and greens and golds and silvers swirl. Before it is all gone I see us in our dressing gowns. I am pouring water into the top of the train. I push the switch and we all watch in amazement as it chugs across the carpet pumping out real steam.

Then things change. You have no control. Just a pawn on a board in a game you have no clue about. You hold onto the hope that this is temporary, but as time passes that hope fades. In its place you build walls. You duck down and dig in…and then Christmas comes.

It strips everything back. It amplifies everything in its very nature of being a time you share with those that are the most important to you. The people that you love. Your family and your friends. Even if they annoy the hell out of you, or you find it difficult to be around each other, this is the time you come together.

This can be an incredibly difficult time and, for me, it wasn’t isolated to my time in care. It carried deep into my adulthood. That amplification never went away. It acted as a reminder of what was taken away from me. I know that nostalgia plays its part, but I also know that Christmas was always a very special time at home.

We did not have much, but at Christmas we had everything. Mum moved heaven and earth during that time of the year to make it special and that stays with me. The beauty in that memory however became corrosive over the years. Until I had my son.

This year feels different. I see the excitement in my son’s eyes and it rekindles the same excitement I felt as my mum rocked me awake that night. Together with my wife, we are building Christmas anew. We will create new memories that will amplify their own story as time passes.

Christmas will forever carry an echo of those times I spent away from my family, but as I have written before, these echoes carry the message of how important right here and now is, and that we have to take our own destiny in our hands and build our own future. At this time of the year I want to build something magical for my son. I want him to see the same excitement I saw in my mum’s eyes back at the beginning.




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