Helen and Jessica
Well my object is this framed piece of college work that my daughter did.
When she died I went through her, I don't know what they call it but you know the big thing that art students keep all their work in, I went though it and I picked some pieces out and this one I liked, partly because of the colours.
I liked it and Jessica did it and we always did some textile work. So, that was it.
So I've chosen it, because apart from the fact that I like it, I find it... interesting in terms of the exercise that she did, which I understood from the start. She was obviously asked to pick a photograph out of a magazine and then from that, to develop a textile design, a surface design, which was based on the photograph. And if you look at it you can see that. That's what she did, and obviously using various techniques. And that was it really when I got it. That was it. But the reason I've chose it specifically is because I retired in 2006 and in probably 2008, or there abouts, I decided to do a City & Guilds course in embroidery and design, and basically, we had to do the same exercise... and then I understood.
So rather than just appreciating it, I now understand. And it kind of... brought me inside Jessica somehow.
It's 17 years now and there... time does create some distance in terms of feelings and everything else, but there are still moments when you're back in touch with whatever it was that you felt when the person was alive. And there's just a little shade of that.
It wasn't specific, it wasn't willed to me or I'd gone, "Oh I really like that when you die I want it". Which is what Jessica's best friend has done over the Christmas decorations. She said to me this Christmas, "Oh I really love your decorations. Can I have them when you die?" So the answer is, "Yes of course you can". And I wasn't the least bit offended, I thought it was really sweet.
And my friend who was with me, all she could do was sit at the side of me, she said to me, "What is it?" and I thought I can't, I can't explain it. I just feel Jessica's life. I mean she was still, technically, considered to be alive. I mean her brain was dead, so she was dead... I hadn't been told that her brain was dead, but I knew. I knew. And funnily enough, this best friend who wants the Christmas decorations went to see her, and she said that her partner was saying, "Talk to her, talk to her." She said, "There's no point. Jessica's not there. She's gone." And you know, she'd gone.
She was my daughter, you know?
A memory I used when I spoke at her funeral... that was when she was very tiny, she wasn't walking, just shuffling on her bottom I think. And I used to sing to my children a lot, I didn't necessarily play with them a lot, and I know on this particular occasion I was sitting at the dining table using my sewing machine, but I was singing. And she was sitting on the floor and she had a little rabbit and the rabbit had what was called
an angel top, a short top, like similar to what we wear now with tights but this was a kind of sixties version. And she also had an angel top on with little white tights, and she sitting on the floor with this rabbit. And I'm not paying any attention to her particularly but I was singing You Are My Sunshine... and all of a sudden this little voice started going, "Sunshine! Sunshine!" And I'm not, as I say, terribly maternal but I just went, "Oooh!" and picked her up and hugged her. And as a result, at her funeral when she was carried down the isle by six of her men friends we played Ray Charles singing You Are My Sunshine. So I have lots of happy memories but that just is probably the first and the most, well I don't know... it's obviously not the first memory of her in the sense well, you know when she was born ... but the first memory I have of her and me, possibly bonding in a way that didn't come particularly naturally to me.
She'd been dead probably about a year. And I went in the room where I keep all my yarn, I also have another room that has stuff in, it's much smaller than this but it has stuff in it, and I don't know how or why, but I found one of her hairs. It's got to be one of hers; it was long, it was curly and it was very thin, cos her hair was very fine. And I cried of course. And I picked it up and I put it on one side and it went, and I've never found it again... you know? But that's, that was Jessica; she was here and then she was gone. So I think of all sorts of things, but... her hair. And even, because I laid her out when she'd died, I laid
her out in the coffin and I brushed her hair and some people went to see her and they all said, "Oh her hair's still lovely." It's what happens isn't it, its your hair that stays.
As a teenager she was, she was very difficult. I was not able to stop her doing things that she knew wasn't right, and I know weren't right, y'know? She got mixed up with boys far too young probably, but what can you do? So I don't know how to describe that... but she was problem. But she also grew up very quickly, so she was generous as well and... bright. Not bright, I mean she was intelligent, but she was bright as a person. In that photograph she had been told eight months before that she was almost certainly HIV positive. She never went for a test, cos she thought she was going to die and she needn't have. And that was taken at my fiftieth birthday party and she's sitting opposite her Goddaughter and her best friend. I suppose another word I would use is . . . she was a bloody good liar. She always, throughout her life, had the same trait her father had, she knew how to lie. For that, it was a strength, except I wish she hadn't because she could still be alive today; if she'd told somebody and got something done about it. But she didn't.
I suppose the worst things are the fact that I asked her .. 36 hours before she died in front of me in the living room, if what was wrong with her could be AIDS and she said, 'No.' And because it's what I wanted to hear, because I was ignorant, I accepted it and didn't ask any more questions. And I know that she told me, in the months before she was told she was probably HIV positive, that there was something wrong and I urged her to go and get it sorted. I still have a note that I actually wrote. I wrote in capital letters, I shouted at her GO AND GET IT SORTED. But I didn't follow it up and I didn't have the ... had I been a different sort of mum, a mumsy mum, I think I would have done. I would have interfered more if you like; that's my term. A mumsy mum wouldn't say that, they'd have been so in tune with the child that they would have, you know... I don't know, done so... got it sorted somehow. Got to the bottom of it. But I didn't. I accepted what she was saying to me, which was not a lot. We sat for several hours, on more than one occasion, cos I thought she was just extremely run down, and so we sat quite a lot with me talking to her trying to make sure that she was feeling positive. And telling her what a good daughter she was. And there was a look in her eye... there was a startled look in her eye when I was talking to her and I couldn't understand it. But I never said to her, "You're looking at me in a very peculiar way and I don't understand it. Is there something you're not telling?" You know? Those sorts of things. "Is there something you're not telling me or..." I don't know. But I didn't ask and I realised that the startled look was probably that she knew she was looking death in the face.
And the other difficult memory is that when, on the Sunday evening when she died my friend was here, we'd been talking for a while, and the previous night Jessica had wet the bed, which is, you know . . . but still me not fully understanding what the hell's going on. And I told Pam in front of Jessica and we'd been having a bit of a discussion about it. Jessica obviously not saying very much. And erm, I don't know... I was the other side of the room with my back to her and she said to me, and she was having difficulty breathing, I mean why the hell didn't I realise what was going on? She was having difficulty breathing, and she said to me . . . (I've never had difficulty saying this before)... she said, "Mum, I love you and I appreciate everything." And I dunno whether she said, " that you're doing for me" or "... you've done for me." And I just turned round and went, "Hmm, yes." As much as to say I hope I don't have to change the bed again for you... and then we helped her to her feet, and we started to help her walk across the room... and under her breath she said, "Oh no."... and she dropped down dead.
Now you see, I tell this story a lot. Last week I must have told it six, eight times, but obviously I tell it in a slightly different way. Because I'm talking to, usually sixteen year olds and my message is: don't make the same mistakes that Jessica made. But the focus of what I'm saying now is what I always think and I think if I ever talk to a group of parents, whether they would actually say to me, "Why didn't you do something? Why didn't you manage to get her to tell you what was wrong?" And, in that sense I feel I failed as a mother and always will. Even though people tell me I didn't, but it's how I feel and I always will. And even though I know now that Jessica didn't want me to feel like that, which is why she said what she said almost with a dying breath and why she twice told me the same story, which was about a woman that she worked with who had two daughters and how this woman was always worrying about her daughters and what they were doing or not doing and that. She said, "Mum, I keep saying to her they're good girls. She's done everything she can as Mum to make sure that they turn out alright." And of course I would agree with her. And I know now that she was trying to tell me that I hadn't failed ... but it's not how I feel.
And it's not something that I dwell on because it doesn't, you know, what good does it do? She would be horrified if she thought that I blame myself, or that I spent a lot of time beating myself up. I mean maybe she'd accept the way I felt, but she wouldn't accept if I live my life beating myself up about it. And so going and talking in schools about Jessica and what happened to her, is ... I can't, I couldn't stop it for Jessica but if I can make just one of the thousands of kids that I've now talked to behave differently and prevent them from making a hideous mistake when they should have known better, which of course Jessica did. She watched all the programmes that were on the television that said, "Don't have unprotected sex." But we all have. It's always gonna happen to somebody else, not you. So, that's a difficult memory.
Why the f- didn't you tell me? And, well . . . I dunno, I mean if ... at school we sometimes ask the kids why do you think Jessica didn't say anything? Well, there's all sorts of reasons aren't there, you know? And you say to them, well any idea you have is probably right because they'll all be right. And some of them are to do with not wanting to hurt me. Some of them, and this is going back to my own sense of responsibility or guilt or whatever else, is if she had, I'd have gone absolutely bananas. Well, when you're very ill you can do without a parent you know having a tantrum and behaving badly. And even if she told me when she was quite well, because she was quite well almost... ooh, up to the, well, she was only ill for about two months really... or only obviously ill for about two months. And so, I mean, I would have got over it very quickly and then I'd have got on with sorting it and then I'd have found out a lot more and then I'd have stopped blaming her. Because as my colleague John, who is himself HIV positive, and who was literally at death's door but was able to take the experimental pills... all she did was have sex, you know? And you only have to do it once. I mean she probably did it lots of times but, I was a child of the sixties myself you know? So... But, why didn't you tell me? Why didn't you tell me? Why didn't you? When you were still quite well? Just take the bull by the horns. And I mean if she was alive today, everytime she got a cold of course I would worry about her, you know? I mean it's still, you know? And I still would have no Grandchildren probably. So. But she could have been alive.
And I would have my best friend.