Between Christmas and New Year this year we attended a Service of Thanksgiving for the life of a beautiful little girl called Ally Louise. Ally lived for eight days in December. Ally’s impact on me and many others, is one that will live with me forever.
Ally’s parents are good friends of ours.
Heidi and I were good friends but not especially close friends before this year. This year a degree of shared experiences have brought us together and have led me to the point where I find I cannot write about Mojo without first (with her mother’s permission) writing about Ally.
When I first heard Heidi was pregnant I was driving to Battersea Zoo with the girls and my phone pinged with a group announcement that their 3rd baby was on the way. The response all round was amusement, with two children under three a third was what most of us would flippantly refer to as a ‘nightmare’. You must be mad, we all laughed.
Not long afterwards the group received another message, apologising for the medium but telling us that Heidi had been diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer (Inflammatory Breast Cancer). Then there it was, a family’s life imploded with one diagnosis meeting. Decisions to be made, hard, agonising, life altering decisions. Whilst in some ways it was a million miles from our experience with Mojo the themes, emotions and heartache all felt so similar. I described it to Keith, Heidi’s partner and a very old friend as, ‘Same shit theme park, different roller coaster’. I was desperate to talk to Heidi but given that I don’t think we’d ever spoken on the phone before and everyone deals with things differently I was hesitant to offend her by equating our experiences. I spent every day remembering how I had felt while we agonised over the recommendations that had been made to us about ‘discontinuing the pregnancy’.
Then one day I left my phone at Mojos school and by the time I picked it up and recharged it I saw that Heidi had called me. I immediately called her and we talked and I felt so much better for having spoken to her. Her strength, resolve, positivity and humour were an absolute tonic to all the worrying I had been doing about her. She had chosen to give her daughter the best possible chance, at a calculated risk to her own health, it was a brave, maternal, decision and indeed exactly what I had expected her to do. A while later she text me about this blog and I suggested to her that she blog about her experience as a way of processing and also as catharsis.
So Heidi started a blog. It is a beautifully, often comically written, account of her journey. Read it, I insist that you do. Storm in a tit cup by Heidi It tells her own story far better than any journalist (or friend) could.
Her campaigning for awareness of Inflammatory Breast Cancer has led to widespread media attention, news interviews and articles. I have watched in awe as she has shone heroically.
When in December she announced on her blog that her chemo wasn’t working and the decision had been taken to bring forward Ally’s arrival it was with her usual style and positive mind set. The news of Ally’s safe arrival, kicking and screaming into the world was celebrated by many people who had been touched by their story. I remembered the feeling so well, the relief and then the unimaginable high of meeting a much longed for, much fought for baby amidst the uncertainty of the future. Ally’s arrival felt like prayers had been answered.
Tragically and unexpectedly Ally’s life on this earth was to be agonisingly brief. The call I received to tell me that Ally had become very unwell was on the last day of term as we were winding down to celebrate Christmas. There are only clichés to describe that feeling, ‘there are no words’ ‘heartbreaking’ ‘devastated’. I knew that as much as I had been able to empathise to this point the journey she was beginning now was the one of my very darkest nightmares. The kind of thing I don’t talk about to other mothers. The kind of thing mothers should never have to talk about.
The day after Ally died Heidi called me and we talked for over an hour trying to make sense of the injustice and the agony. It was one of the hardest and yet most significant conversations of my life. The conversation exposed to me what I really felt about many things that I’ve never ever had to say out loud. It exposed to me the strength of my faith in God, my coping strategies, my darkest fears and made me think hard about trying to articulate all of them into something that might provide comfort to a grieving mother. While doing so I inadvertently found that I had provided comfort to myself too, comfort from my own deepest fears.
The day of Ally’s farewell service brought with it torrential rain and grey skies, we all remarked how appropriate it felt. There are some images of that day which will forever remain with me. At the end of the day, once the adrenaline and sore throat that comes from suppressing full on sobbing had subsided the feeling that I was left with surprised me. It was hope. It was hope that remained. After watching my friend do all the unimaginable things I have imagined myself doing, kissing her hand and placing it on the tiny basket which cradled her daughter, listening to her own words read, putting one foot in front of the other while tears poured but composure remained, leading people out to release balloons into the sky. It of course made me deeply sad, and yet hopeful.
Hopeful because the bond between mother and daughter was so tangible at that service, the connection between them, even in death, was so strong. The strength Heidi showed for her daughter, the words she found to convey her feelings so beautifully, the music they chose. The goodbye was one of tragic physical departure but Ally’s presence in their family was, to me, absolute. Hope. Hope that when, one day we are in that position I will be able to find the grace and composure to say goodbye without losing Mojo from my core and demonstrate with as much certainty, that the bond between a mother and child is something which transcends everything we understand about this world. I don’t in any way belittle the agony of the grieving process to come for them or the complexities of losing a child but instead to see through the pain to the love and hope at its heart.
So now when I look to the future or I find myself in the darkness of fear for my own daughter, I will find that hope and it will feel like a gift from Heidi and Ally and I will treasure it.
Heidi’s journey continues on her blog.