(Sorry, Mum. Best get the tissues now).
I’d like to tell you about my mother’s brother, my Uncle Stephen. He was born on the fifteenth of July 1953; sixty years ago today. When Stephen was about seven years old an optician discovered a tumour behind one of his eyes. There began a long, but thankfully successful battle with cancer. It left him partially sighted and hard of hearing which obviously affected his life quite considerably but he survived against the odds.
Growing up, I was aware of what Stephen had been through as a child, but it was one of those facts from the past that I just accepted. It was the reason why he was a little bit different. I can’t say that I dwelled on it regularly.
One thing I’ve learned during the past four years is how much your perspective changes when you become a parent.
The horrors of serious childhood illness are never more than a headline away and often, sadly, far closer to home. In my life pre-children my heart would break for sick children. I remember organising a charity parachute jump in aid of a local meningitis sufferer when I was twenty. I just felt like I HAD to do something to help her.
But I never really gave thought to the parents of sick children, not in the same way that I do now; It wasn’t until I became a mother myself that I really considered what Stephen’s parents (my grandparents) must have endured, seeing their child go through such a dreadful ordeal. My mum would have been about four when her older brother was taken ill. The same age as my son is now. How terrifying it must have been for her. I can’t bear to ask or even to think about it.
I didn’t have this perspective in my early twenties. I was busy with my career, my friends and trying to be a good daughter, sister and grand-daughter. But truth-be-told, a good niece I was not.
Stephen was a doting Uncle. I remember him collecting encyclopaedias for my brother and me when we were still at school. Bringing them round for us each week. I can’t remember, however, showing him a great deal of gratitude for that. He would call us often, and liked to talk to us at length about what was going on in the world. In my teens and early twenties I didn’t register the fact that he lived alone and was lonely.
I simply didn’t make enough time for him. I suppose I thought there would always be tomorrow.
I can clearly recall one of the worst arguments I’ve ever had with my mum. It was eight years ago today, on Stephen’s birthday and I hadn’t called him. My mum told me that I needed to make more time for my uncle and implied that I was selfish. I was devastated an affronted. But my mum was right. Of course I pointed out (at considerable volume outside Southwark Station) what a dutiful daughter and granddaughter I am. How much I did for others. How I rarely put myself first.
Looking back now, and knowing myself better than I did back then, I realise the words that sting the most usually have some truth in them. That’s why they hurt. I didn’t make enough time for Stephen. I didn’t and I should have.
Nine months later I received a phone call at work. Stephen had been hit by a car. He’d been taken by air-ambulance to the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel.
Every day Uncle Stephen walked from his flat to his favourite coffee shop, usually to meet his father (my Poppa) for lunch. Each day he literally went out of his way to cross where he knew it was safe, waiting for the green man and the beep to signify that it was safe to step out. The crossing was in the opposite direction to where he was headed, but was the safest option for him.
That day a ninety-three year old man was driving back back from visiting his wife’s grave. His son was in the car and they were arguing. He didn’t see the red light. He didn’t see my uncle, already in the middle of the road. He thought he’d hit a bird and didn’t even stop immediately.
I remember running down a very long flight of stairs from my office as I couldn’t wait for the lift to arrive. I remember phoning my future husband in hysterics. I don’t remember the tube journey, but I do recall running to the hospital from the station. I remember Stephen laying in the A&E bay. I remember my mum calling me much later that night, after she and my Poppa had made the devastating decision to turn off his life support machine. Stephen was fifty-three.
I thought there would be a tomorrow. There wasn’t.
There was no tomorrow for Stephen and it was too late to let him know how sorry I am. For not making time for him. For sometimes rushing him off the phone. For being young and self-absorbed. Sorry for assuming there would be another birthday phone-call or visit.
I now have nieces and nephews. The huge love I have for them overwhelms me.
To think that Stephen probably felt that love for me makes my heart hurt and my eyes water. I just hope that wherever he is now, on his sixtieth birthday, he looks down at his great-nieces and nephew and knows how we miss him. How my son is named after him and how I write, now. Like he did. I hope he knows I think of him every day and sometimes dream about him.
This heartbreakingly sad story has taught me such a valuable lesson. I’m not going to pretend that I seize every day as if it were my last, as I don’t think that’s realistic. But if I love someone, I try to tell them. I need them to know. I need my family to realise how much they mean to me because I know that there is no guarantee of a tomorrow.
I can’t change the past but I hope I’ll keep learning.
So in honour of Stephen today, please tell someone special that you love them. Please make sure they know.