I have spent the past week apologising (and sending flowers) to the neighbours because of my daughter’s ridiculously loud and long party last weekend. And, while I totally understand why the neighbours are so annoyed, I can’t help but be pleased that she had such a wonderful birthday.
And I know why I am not ready to murder her, why I am being so unreasonably reasonable.
It’s because I am just so happy that she had a birthday to celebrate.
She recently came home from the annual party that her friend Gabriel’s parents hold, a party where quite a few people, for the first time, didn’t know Gabriel.
It made me realise that time has moved on. And that it’s five years ago this month since his death.
And, because I don’t want Gabriel’s mother to think that we have forgotten him, and because I wanted to understand why I’m not annoyed that we will have to move house, I dug out something I wrote, to myself, the day after his funeral, because I needed to get it down on paper and out of my system.
It’s not light-hearted. But, it is from the heart:
I went to the funeral yesterday of a boy who should have turned 22 today and didn’t.
Gabriel and my daughter Kimberly first met on a school ski trip when they were 11, but she really got to know him through her best friend, Sophie, whom she met the following year at her secondary school.
Sophie’s father was Gabriel’s godfather and Sophie and Gabriel grew up together, so Kimberly, Gabriel and Sophie spent a lot of time together, went to the same parties, hung out, went on holidays.
I never met Gabriel. He lived in Notting Hill, so I never bumped into him in the neighbourhood and, since the friendship ran through Sophie, he never turned up in my sitting room.
I have, however, been hearing Gabriel stories for the past 10 years, because he really was a one-off. He was the centre of every party, the one who had everyone laughing. He went to Thomas’s, the school where Kimberly worked as a Gap Year assistant. Whenever she mentioned him, the words ‘unbelievably naughty’ came up several times in every conversation.
I know the headmaster and wrote to tell him the terrible news. I got back an extraordinarily touching email that described Gabriel as one of the naughtiest boys he had ever met, but with such a warm and endearing nature that you could forgive him anything, any number of times. He was among the hundreds of people yesterday who forgave Gabriel the fact that they were attending his funeral when they, and he, should have been out enjoying the sunshine.
Gabriel was at a party last weekend (Kimberly and Sophie, thank God, were in Devon). They all decided to go on to the roof, which was three storeys up and had no guardrail or wall, and started doing cartwheels. Gabriel did one too many, went over the side and was dead when he hit the ground.
Hearing that story, many people would think that drink and/or drugs were somehow involved. But, they weren’t. It was just Gabriel being Gabriel.
Kimberly said that everyone was shocked at his death but not surprised by it. It must be true because when his father said at his funeral that he was lucky to have made it to 21, the entire congregation nodded their heads in agreement.
Kimberly has been an amazing friend to Sophie during this whole time. I’m proud of her. But, come to think of it, I never got around to telling her that. She has spent enormous amounts of time with Sophie, gone to Gabriel’s parents house with her, helped her write the eulogy, and yesterday stood next to her while she read it – ready to take over the parts that Sophie found too hard to get through.
It was a lot to ask from a young person. Yet she, and Sophie, did it.
Because Kimberly has been so involved, we have been swept up by it all. Tom didn’t think we should go to the funeral based, not unreasonably, on the fact that we had never even met the kid, but I thought that it might help Kimberly to know that we were there. I also thought that this was something that she was going to remember for the rest of her life and that in case she wanted to talk about it one day, I would understand it better if I had been to the funeral. I was still undecided yesterday morning, but then Kimberly asked me if I would go, and the decision was made.
I’m glad I went for her sake, but it was unbelievably hard. The service was packed. They had a screen set up next to the casket on which they projected hundreds of photos of Gabriel, with Kimberly coming up in quite a few of them. His father welcomed everyone, Sophie, a neighbour and his godfather spoke. Someone read a poem. In between everything they played some of his favourite music. There were flowers everywhere. It was a beautiful church.
The overwhelming feeling you got was that while everyone was very sad that Gabriel was dead, no one really wanted to change the way Gabriel had been, that the living on the edge, the taking risks, the never quite knowing when to stop had made him the person they loved. They all wished it could have ended differently, but no one would have had him be different. He was the kind of person who would be entertaining a crowd, laughing uproariously and doing cartwheels on a roof, all with total abandon.
And then his mother got up to speak.
To be honest, she wouldn’t have changed him either but her anguish at the fact that he was dead was unbearable to witness. She kept breaking down and struggled to keep going. Her husband stood next to her, ready to help. But she managed to get through it on her own. She said that he was her only child and that she would never again feel his hugs or hear him say “Don’t worry Mum. I’ll be fine”, never be a grandmother. That she didn’t believe in an afterlife and so didn’t believe that he was anywhere waiting for her. That she needed his friends to not forget her because by watching them grow older, get jobs, get married, have children, that she could keep Gabriel alive.
It was so unbelievably sad that 24 hours later I am sitting here weeping as I write this. Then, when there was nothing more to say, she just stood there looking shell-shocked. You could tell that she didn’t want the service to end. You knew that she was afraid to walk out of the church, and for the future to begin. So, we watched all the pictures again, and listened to some more music and then, it finally was over. They carried the casket out, her husband practically carried her up the aisle behind it and we all just stood there in total silence for what seemed like a very long time before anyone else left.
It was so awful.
But, what’s really awful is that I was so proud of Kimberly, and yet I forgot to tell her. Earlier that day, I was ready to rip her head off because she told me how much her phone bill was, because her room was a mess, because she has been such a moody cow lately. And, while watching that woman walk behind her son’s casket, I thought, thank God she can run that phone bill up even higher, can get her room even messier, can still flounce around the house. Thank God Christopher can truck mud up the stairs, leave plates lying around and just, generally, make the house seem so much smaller whenever he is in it.
I have to learn to look at the bigger picture, which is that no matter how annoying/worrying/disappointing/frustrating they can be, I am just so thankful that they are still breathing. At the end of the day, that’s all they really have to do to make me happy.
Kimberly is now in India (she was meant to have gone a few days ago but changed her plans to be at the funeral) and Christopher is back at his boarding school in Tonbridge. But, she just phoned from Mumbai and his housemaster just sent me an email, so while they may not be here in the flesh, they are still here.
I think the scariest part about all this is that it was so easy to imagine being in Gabriel’s mother’s shoes. She said that she always read the newspapers and paid particular attention to stories about tragedies. She figured that they had to be fairly rare or else they wouldn’t be in the papers.
And, that with each one that happened to someone else, the odds got better that it would never happen to her and her family.
And now it had.
And you could tell that all the mothers there were thinking – “I do that” – and realising that while this tragedy had not gotten their family directly, it had come very close and it could so easily have been them up there speaking and Gabriel’s mother sitting in the pew thinking “I do that”.
All in all, it was horrible, and frightening and eye-opening. I’m sorry you got so much info, but once I started I realised that I needed to write it all down so that I can not only get it out of my system but also so I can go back and look at it whenever I get upset by what my children do, or don’t do, and remind myself about what is, and what isn’t, important.
That’s it. I’m done.
I have to stop thinking about this and do other things, while realising how lucky I am to be able to stop thinking about it. Gabriel’s mother doesn’t have that luxury. Poor woman.
Not Leo Tolstoy (aka Eileen Riley)