This piece is the original, an edited version is appearing in my parish mag in March. I attended Ben’s inspiring and poignant service today and wanted to give others who knew and loved him the chance to read this in its entirety…
DIARY OF A THOROUGHLY MODERN MOTHER
So… happy New Year…. the run-up to Christmas took care of January’s offering and then I slightly wondered what I had to say about the life of a TMM when I’m actually living a life very similar to the one my Mum was living twenty five years ago (just not as successfully).
And this month I have nothing to say about being a TMM anyway because this month I want to tell you something truly inspiring about some people who have become really important to us as a family. In July 2014 I was hanging out washing on a Saturday morning when I heard voices in the garden of Guernsey Cottage (next door). I looked over the fence and saw a couple and their little girl. Obviously I wasn’t trying to overhear but it was clear the couple were talking about what an enchanting garden it would be for their daughter to explore. Even then, I found myself thinking how great it would be for our little boy to have someone of his own age next door. The couple turned out to be Claire and her husband Ben and their gorgeous little girl and they have gone on to become first lovely neighbours and then wonderful friends of ours when their attempt to buy Guernsey Cottage was sadly unsuccessful they went on to rent the house across the cobbles from us.
They arrived in August 2014 and I remember meeting Claire before they even moved in – she was holding her little girl and I had Percy in my arms and we were instantly chatting away as if we’d been friends for years. I remember I wrote in their welcome card, ”To Claire, H- and H’s Daddy” as I didn’t even know Ben’s name at that stage. By November we were firm friends and so were devastated when Ben received a bowel cancer diagnosis – he’d had no symptoms, just an awful cough that wouldn’t clear up and turned out to be a side-effect of severe anaemia. The tumour was removed and he began chemotherapy and we tried to help when we could. Claire showed quite extraordinary strength, humour and love for Ben throughout. The final chemo treatment came and went and we took a bottle of fizz over to celebrate. By this time I was nearing the end of my pregnancy.
Shortly after finishing his chemo, Ben developed an infection and ended up in hospital. I remember waddling over the cobbles to see Claire when he was hospital and she was distraught; I reassured her and we tried to look forward – talking about my daughter’s arrival and the holiday plans Claire and Ben had begun to make. Ben was scanned again in hospital and, just two weeks before my little girl was born, Ben was told that two inoperable tumours had developed while he was having chemo and that nothing could be done .He was given 8-12 weeks without a further course of chemo and 12-18 months if he had it.
I have been this close to terminal cancer before. In November 2000 my six year old cousin was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of leukaemia. She died two weeks before her seventh birthday in April 2001.We tried to be what help we could to Ben and Claire. When Bea arrived Claire was one of the first to hold her and give her a beautiful gift and share our joy – something which should tell you all you need to know about what Claire is like. And then Ben had the idea that he’d like to raise some money for Macmillan, who were already helping the family in so many ways, and Big Ben’s Rugby Day was born. I publicised the day in this magazine back in October but none of us were prepared for how the event would develop. In the end Ben raised over forty thousand pounds for Macmillan through the charity match on 14th November, a silent auction (in which prizes included luxury holidays, sports memorabilia and even the chance to be Captain of a Royal Navy minesweeper for a day!) and a luxury raffle. Here was a fabulous family in a crippling situation and what they wanted to do was make things better for others in a similar predicament.
Our wonderful neighbours moved back to their beloved Kingsland in early December and had a very special Christmas together in their new home. Sadly Ben was never well enough to have the chemo that would have extended his life and he died, peacefully, at St Michael’s Hospice on 10th February with Claire at his side. Now, every time I look across the cobbles to those dark windows I miss our friends and wonder at their selfless efforts to do something for others when they could so easily be forgiven for focussing on themselves. They are all the inspiration I need to count my considerable blessings and celebrate the tiny joys life brings every day.
Ben was a big man – in every sense, big-hearted and with real love of life – and his death leaves a big hole but what a legacy too. An amazing family, friends who will never forget him and a significant and palpable amount of good done through the incredible work of Macmillan. I am so, so glad that he and Claire and their beautiful girl found their way into our lives, we will be all the richer for it, always