[This article first appeared in Femina : When her son Christopher was three his father died in an unimaginable way. Here is the letter Amanda Patterson promised to write to her son on the eve of his eighteenth birthday.]
‘When will we get another Mark?’Your question undid me. You are five and it is two years since your father died.‘Never,’ I answered, with half a smile. I loved the idea of simply ordering a replacement husband for me, and father for you.You are sleeping. The sky is a squid ink smudge between the blinds. I am crying. Will I ever make any sense of what happened?I promise that I will write you a letter about him when you are 18.
You never knew Papa, my grandfather. He was the ultimate risk taker – a taker and a breaker of hearts. He taught me to risk, to try, to dream and to believe. He adored me and gave me anything I wanted. He taught me how to love dangerous men. Strong, unafraid he lived every day as if it were his last. When he died, my heart cracked and ached and bled. I was his girl.When I grew older boys tried but none of them made a Mark. Until your father came along. I remember the first moment I saw him. My breath caught, time slowed and I knew that I would marry him. I wonder if you know how much I loved him. You should know that. He asked for my hand and gave me his heart, his mind and his soul, and said, ‘Until death us do part.’
We had it all. Careless, with so much love.
You were born on my birthday. ‘Thank you for our beautiful baby,’ he wrote on a card that still lives in a cupboard beside my bed.He took us home, loved us. We were a family. Your father and I could have had it all.
But that ended when the tortured mind and the battered body his family gave him as a child, won. He raised his hand and hit me. We lived and loved and tried. Years went by in happiness until another part of him snapped. I watched the promises kaleidoscope into despair. Until he broke my arm and I said, ‘No more.’
Nine months later, my sister, Lee-Anne found me curled up on the icy tiles of my bathroom floor. ‘You’ll be alright,’ she said. Our eyes met and we knew it wasn’t true. I watched the world implode and explode with a drip in my arm and lead in my heart. I saw you. You saw me, trapped in my hospital bed. I didn’t even have the energy to say your name. I cried for a month. I cried when I was awake and I cried when I was asleep. I had no idea that a body could cry so many tears. How I missed your dad. But how could I ever say that? But I grew strong again. I always had you.Christopher. You have the oldest soul I’ve ever known. Even when you were a baby with sun-splashed, white-blonde hair and the lightest, brightest grey-blue eyes. You can see forever, can’t you? Remember that Saturday night before the accident? You were eight. You sang, ‘When the night has come…Will you stand by me?’
You never sang. That night you sang every word of the song from beginning to end with a question mark in every word. My sister, Lee-Anne, her husband, Bernd, Gran and Grandy were there. The world stopped as we listened.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I will.’The next day I watched a steel peg from a cricket game fly through the air and shoot you in your chest. Your small hand covered the wound. I tried to answer the questions in your eyes as we rode in the ambulance. Time. It took so much time to get to the hospital. I couldn’t speak, and it was you that whispered, ‘It’s okay, mommy,’ as they wheeled you into the operating theatre to remove the peg that had pierced your liver.
Oh, yes, Christopher. I will always stand by you. Only a scar divides your liver and your heart. Your father had one in exactly the same place. They cut him from chest to navel too. He was a premature baby. I’ve never told you that before, have I? Bernd and Lee-AnneAnd then my sister Lee-Anne fell in love with Bernd Vallee. We all did. He was our family’s prize after all the pain. He turned Lee into a butterfly. He showed you how to be a gentle man. He was the son-in-law Gran and Grandy deserved.
It was a joke, wasn’t it, when he became so ill with leukaemia?
Bernd was the man who wanted to live, the boy in the bubble that we nursed in vain and in masks and in gloves.
He had to live.
They moved in with us and I nursed him. Lee-Anne worked so that medical aid covered his treatment. The two of you spoke for hours through the windows. You would sit back to back, separated by a wall. Remember?
When he fell asleep, you took your wooden sword from nursery school and you stood like a sentinel outside his door. You weren’t allowed in the room. Children had germs.And I loved him.
I loved the way he loved Lee and you and Gran and Grandy. I knew you were upset and scared when I went to Germany to help Lee nurse him with the bone marrow transplant. But I had to watch Lee-Anne watch him die. I had to be there when that last flat line came. I had to bear witness.
I’ll never forget how you ran through the arrivals area at the airport and flung yourself into my arms. You clung to me. We were all so scared to lose each other.
‘40 stat,’ said the paramedic when he arrived. ‘She’s barely alive.’
An experimental drug saved her life. I spent lots of time in that hospital too. I watched Gran crying. I watched Grandy watching. I watched until she survived. She lives in London, far away from the pain of the special love she had here. Is she hiding or looking? I think she’s looking for another angel without wings, don’t you?That’s when I closed my no sense businesses and began to write. Life won’t let you do anything until you do what you’ve always wanted to do. I opened Writers Write. I taught people to write novels. I smiled again. Love worksI cried last night at your final assembly. Full academic colours, swimming team, chess champion and six distinctions. You received the Gold art medal. You’ve done so well. Six American Universities and four top English art schools have offered you places. Oh yes, love works. I hope when I cry and I clutch the cold photograph of your father that he knows too. Your dad would be so proud of you.So here we are, you and me, again. You sleeping, me crying and writing. Only 10 minutes to midnight.I need you to know that I will take the chances and choices life offers. Because real life means more than just surviving. Really living is about the love we still have to give, the love we still need to make and the love we believe we can create. All the pain has shown me how to live. You know that I will always let love in. I know that love saves me every time. It’s saved you too. I’ve loved you all.I dream my own dreams now. Don’t worry about me. If a man wants to be with me, he has to have a strong heart, he must believe that I can do anything, he has to make my heart sing, he has to have gentle eyes, like the eyes of the angel who hid his wings.
Most importantly, he has to have the kindness, intelligence and the wit of the man who still calls me Mom.
Be the best you can be.
Love. Even when your heart breaks, love.So this is my letter to you. My promise to you. I have no regrets. I hope that you have none either.
When I think of you, or your father, or when I look into your eyes, it’s always the love that remains. With all of my love forever,