Christmas memories

Mac’s first Christmas morning with us 2008

I think its pretty common if you are longing for children that you spend some time imagining special occasions and how they might be when you do have children.  Birthday parties, Christmas, family occasions more generally are all very different as a parent of a young child.  I know that once we had been approved for adoption, I often spent time thinking about and planning what Christmas would be like, and what I would want to do to make things special when a child finally moved into our home and became part of our family – but then I have always been an inveterate planner. 

The thing to be aware of is that the adopted child has being doing the same thing – dreaming of how they wish things could be and how they hope things would be once they have a family of their own.   

Christmas

Of all of the special occasions that I had most thought about, Christmas must come top of the list.  It is commonly said that “Christmas is for children”, and it has to be true that the traditions of Christmas of so much more exciting when you’re a child or when you are the parent of younger children.  When my nephews were younger, I would always spend Christmas Eve at my sister’s house, so that I could join in the preparations for Christmas morning and be there when my nephews woke up to see what Santa had left and to open their presents.

I have always loved the run-up to Christmas as well.  I love all of those schmaltzy Christmas films and the nights drawing in.  I have always loved the preparing of Christmas treats – making the pudding and the cake weeks in advance with those familiar warm Christmas spices scenting the air.  Then there comes the wonderful Christmas carol concerts and midnight mass, preferably by candlelight, in our beautiful village church.

Swee also loved Christmas – she has always loved decorating the house, shopping for the perfect presents, wrapping them beautifully.  And of course, Christmas carols piped around the house at every opportunity.

So you can imagine how excited we were for Mac’s first Christmas.  We had already taken him to Lapland UK, and encouraged him to write his Christmas letter to Santa.  Our preparations were underway.  Well, they had been underway in our heads for years, and we had been starting to buy presents as soon as we knew for sure that Mac would be moving in.  We’d thought carefully about what traditions we wanted to start with Mac and how things might work.

The run-up to Christmas was great.  My birthday is the same day as my dad’s just a few days before Christmas.  As dad’s dinner had been a big affair which Mac had not coped well with, we kept it quiet and just to the three of us when the actual day came round.  Mac loved to buy presents for people, so Swee and he had been shopping for me.  We also had a wonderful Dalek cake.  Mac was now right in the middle of his fluey bug, so was feeling pretty under the weather, but the cake and birthday tea helped to raise his spirits.

As Christmas drew nearer, we started to talk about Santa more.  I would love to stop still really quietly and say,

“Can you hear those sleigh bells?  Listen really carefully.  Santa’s getting ready to come.”

Mac would stop and listen really carefully, a look of wonder on his face, and finally would convince himself that he could hear them.  We were careful not to do too much of the good boy / bad boy stuff.  Adopted children have such low self-esteem, that you do not want to make them feel bad about themselves.

(As a digression, years later, when Mac had moved on from the Santa myth, I asked him what things had been like before he move to Sue and Mark’s which was his first real Christmas.  He said,

“Santa never came.  I just assumed I hadn’t been good enough to get any presents and that he would never want to come and visit me.”

I think it was one of the saddest things he ever said.)

Swee and Mac had spent ages decorating the house and the tree.  It became their “thing”, something they always did together having a similar taste in all things spangly and fairy lights!

Finally we got to Christmas Eve. Mac got some sherry, a mince pie and a carrot for Rudolph and put it all a special Christmas plate we had and placed it on the top of the wood burner. I always cooked the turkey on Christmas Eve and a ham. We have a picture of Mac looking at that bronzed turkey, looking huge against him – he has a look of disbelief at the size of it. He also found that he loved Christmas ham – it became one of his absolute favourites.

We spent the day watching Santa’s journey on the PC on the NORAD site – so good to see him making progress around the world.  We sat down and watched some telly.  The there was one last check on NORAD and Mac went to bed.  We read “The Night Before Christmas” together and he went off to sleep.

Then it was all systems go as we got his presents together in the various sacks that we had – one that we had made with his name on.  We couldn’t believe the number of presents we had for him.  It is true that we may have gone overboard.

I went off to Midnight Mass.  When I came back, we put all of his presents on the sofa in the sitting room by the tree.  We also had some instant snow, so made footprints with it leading to his presents from the patio door.  The last thing to do was to hang up a small stocking in his bedroom with a few small surprises.  I had never had to do anything like that – I crept into Mac’s room every night to kiss him goodnight when I went to bed and he never woke up.  But the stakes this night were so high – I didn’t want him to wake up and for it all to be ruined.  Of course, Mac had made things more difficult by falling asleep facing his door!  Anyway, Mac had a chest of drawers by the door, and I was able to quietly slip the stocking over the handle and creep out without waking him up.

In fact he slept really well that night.  The next morning he woke up about six and came into to see us.  We had made sure there were enough things in his stocking to keep him occupied.  He brought it through to us. 

“Santa’s been!” he said, with complete delight on his face.

“Let’s go and see if he has left anything downstairs,” I replied.

So he led us downstairs (I had that groggy feeling having been to bed late following late church). The door to the sitting room was closed.  He opened the door, and as he went in his face lit up completely.  He couldn’t decide what to do first.  He went to the fire.

“Look, the drink has gone and the mince pie.  And Rudolph has eaten half of the carrot. It must be him, I can see the teeth marks!”

Swee had done a great job with the carrot – he was completely convinced.

He went to the footprints and felt the “snow”.

“It’s still cold!”, he said (it wasn’t really, just wet).

He then and went to start opening his presents.  The thing I remember most was that he really took his time.  He savoured and enjoyed opening every one of his presents.  It took ages, and he enjoyed every minute of it.  As always he also really enjoyed giving presents to me and Swee as well – his generosity shining through.

The rest of the day went equally well – we always spend Christmas at my sister’s house just five minutes away with her family, Swee’s mum, dad and brother and my mum and dad.  My nephew has a daughter just a year or so younger than Mac, so they were able to sit together and have a good time chatting away.

All in all it was a perfect Christmas.  Looking back, it could have been so overwhelming.  But starting with just the three of us and then being with the family worked (and by then Mac knew all of the family).  The other thing we learned very quickly was that sometimes when a lot of us were together, Mac needed to go off on his own for some peace and quiet.  He would disappear for a little while and then come back when he was ready.  Its easy to forget that he was often dealing with some conflicting emotions – wondering what the people from his past were up to, maybe even feeling guilty that he might be having a better time then them.  Those are difficult emotions for an eight year old to process.

We had four Christmases with Mac still believing in all the magic – although it has to be said the last one involved a bit of brinkmanship as to who was going to crack first.  I’m sure Mac felt that if he stopped believing, then the presents might stop.  Mac never asked for too much, and we did always try to get some sort of surprise.  Even when he was fifteen he was grateful.  I remember that I finally got him his own iPad – he had no idea.  When he opened he looked aghast,

“Is this really for me?”

Of course, in the end we only had eight Christmases together. Even after Mac gave up with Santa, he still enjoyed Christmas. He loved to plan and purchase gifts; he loved the special food; and I think he revelled in the warmth and “familyness” of it all. He also grew to love the church traditions – singing in the choir and serving for me at the altar for Midnight Mass. So Christmas, and the run up to it remain my favourite time of year – tinged with sadness now that Mac and Swee are not here to share it with me – but full of the happiest memories.

Holidays in North Carolina

At the end of year 10 at Mac’s new school, he had the opportunity to do work experience.  We were looking around for something interesting to do when Mac mentioned that someone in his class was going to do their work experience in the US.  This gave Swee an idea – so we contacted my Aunt Cathy in North Carolina to see if she had any leads.  Luckily good friends of hers owned a chain of traditional US stores, called The Mast Stores, somewhat like the general store in “The Waltons”, but selling all sorts of things especially for tourists.  They were very happy for Mac to work there for his work experience.  What a fantastic opportunity!  We had never had the chance to visit the family, so we organised it so that we cold then tack our summer holidays on the end and make the most of our time.  My mum and dad had been a number of times, so they decided to come with us as well.

Sadly, Swee was still suffering with her kidney stone.  She had a date for the operation, but until then decided it was best not to fly in case the stone flared up again.  (This turned out to be a sensible decision as she did need to spend some time in hospital while we were away.)  Of course, I was unhappy about leaving her behind, but the rest of the family promised to look after her, and she insisted that she didn’t want Mac to miss the opportunity.

July came and we were off – flying out to Atlanta. The flight was great and we arrived in Atlanta in good time.  I’d recently had a problem with my legs so wasn’t able to walk really long distances, so had arranged to get wheelchair assistance to get through to the arrivals hall – Atlanta is huge hub for Delta so the distances to walk are pretty long.  My mum also had a wheelchair.  When we arrived there were two chairs and only one person to push.  We were going to have to wait – eager to get going Mac offered to push me.

It was hilarious.  Actually Mac was really good at steering me around – making sure I had a couple of near misses to walls and doors, but always making sure I was OK.  It was actually really good fun, and Mac and I had a great time on the way through passport control and customs.  I felt incredibly close to him as he took control, and we laughed and laughed.  It was a great start to the holiday.   He had been so good on the way through, and I realised how much he was growing up and maturing into a wonderful young man, I said,

“Maybe we should think about getting you that motorbike after all…”

“Really!”

He looked stunned and really happy.  I promised we’d start looking when we got home from holiday.

 

Cathy, and her husband Dayton, live in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, in a town called Boone.  However, they thought nothing of picking us up from Atlanta and driving us back.  We could have stayed with friends of theirs before setting off, but we were all keen to get home, so we set off.  Mum and Dad drove with Cathy, and Mac and I went with Dayton.  Mac was excited to ride up front so that he could get a great view of everything on the journey.

We had a good journey through Georgia, South Carolina and into North Carolina.  It was hot when we arrived in Atlanta, but as we moved further North and climbed into the mountains, the temperature became much more pleasant, and the scenery started to change.  On the way, Mac had his first taste of American fast food.  We stopped at a Chick Fil-A, a chicken shop that does great fried chicken.  Mac (and I come to that) do love fried chicken, and were particularly taken with the chicken burgers.  It was to become a favourite. We arrived in Boone, late in the evening.  It was so nice to be able to sit out on the deck in the balmy evening, enjoying a drink before we crashed off to bed.

We arrived on the Saturday, which gave Mac a day to get ready for his work experience.  To make him feel more comfortable, we drove over to the Mast stores at Vale Crucis, where he was going to be based.  It was a beautiful, warm Summer’s day in the mountains.  We sat on the back deck of the store, listening to a traditional local folk music band drinking our traditional bottles of soda.  Mac got to meet a couple of the staff, and met a young guy just a bit older than Mac.  They hit it off straight away and had a good chat, before we left for lunch.  At least we knew Mac would not be so nervous.

So for the rest of the week, Mac would go off to work early in the morning.  Cathy very kindly drove him over every day.  She gave him a packed lunch, and they stopped off at Chick Fil-A for breakfast on the way – trying out breakfast burritos, or mini chicken sliders.  On the first day I went with Cathy to meet him to see how his day had gone.  He had a blast – helping out with all sorts of chores in the store and meeting and chatting to customers.  This tall, handsome young Englishman clearly made a bit of hit – he soon learned that they all loved the way he talked.  I could see how much Mac was enjoying it , and how much he was growing from the experience.  First of all he was finding out some of the realities about how long (and occasionally boring) a working day could be.  It was also extremely hot in the height of the midday sun at that time of year in the Southern US, even in the mountains.  But he also found how great it was to make friends in other countries and to compare their lives.  And of course, with social media it would be so easy to keep in touch.

The week quickly came to an end.  The store generously gave him a large amount of store credit to spend to thank him for al of his hard work.  He had his eye on a few things for himself and for friends and family, and quickly found ways to spend it.  The manager gave him a great write up for school.  All in all it had been a great experience.

 

Travelling to and from work, Mac and Cathy spent a lot of time together.  As ever, Mac would always warm to people who clearly cared about him and were prepared to give him time.  As ever the car was a great place to chat and to get to know each other.  Cathy offered to give Mac the opportunity to drive her car in one of the large car parks nearby – of course he jumped at the chance.  It turned out he was something of a natural.  He managed to negotiate the confusion of driving on the other side of the road, and drove really well.    Cathy took some great videos on her iPhone which showed how much he enjoyed it and concentrated.  Later in the holiday he also got a chance to drive with Dayton in his big pickup.

 

After Mac’s work experience we had planned to go to the beach, to the North Carolina coast.  Cathy and Dayton knew a great hotel that they had visited many times before and we headed over to Atlantis Lodge in Atlantic Beach.  It’s a fairly long drive, but really worth it.  The beaches are fantastic and we had the most incredible weather.  We had also taken the opportunity to get as much of the US family together as we could.  So one of my uncles, David and his wife Barbara met us there.  Sadly my other uncle Tom and aunt Cathy couldn’t be with us.  Cathy, David and Tom have ten children between them, my fantastic US cousins.  Amazingly all of them but one was able to make it and spend time with us.  With them and their families, and all of us, we really dominated the hotel.

It was the most amazing time.  The hotel is right on the beach – just a short walk down the boardwalk.  There is also the best pool, with a waterfall, and surrounded by oak trees, giving much needed shade in the heat of the North Carolina day.  The room are spacious and air conditioned (a must when its really hot), and as the hotel is self-catering, there are small kitchens in each one.  All of the family had hotel rooms as close together as possible, but each day we would gather by the evening on the outdoor sofas in the centre of the hotel complex, making use of the shade and the fresh air as the day started to cool down and light sea breezes began to move warm afternoon air.  We had a week of pretty much wall-to-wall sunshine.

The great thing for Mac, was that with so many of my cousins around, most of whom had young children, there was always someone to spend sometime with either in the sea or the pool.  Mac loved it, and they all loved him.  He had fantastic times playing with the younger children or, when they all got a little tired, snuggling up on the sofas outside to play a game or watch a film on his smartphone.

One afternoon, as usual, most of the family were at the pool, taking the opportunity to cool off.   Most of the kids had come in from the pool, but one of boys, Cole, was still in there.  Suddenly, as can so easily happen, he got into trouble.  Mac happened to be close by and saw, and jumped into the pool and strode and swam over and pulled him out in one go.  Cole was absolutely fine, if a little shell-shocked as was everyone.  Mac just took it in is stride – good to see his Rookie Lifeguard training had served him very well.

There are a couple of highlights that I really remember from our time at the beach.

We did a lot of our own cooking, as there were so many of us and we were able to get together in the centre of the hotel.  There were lots of grills there, and we decided to have a barbecue -luckily my cousin, Adam, is a fantastic professional chef.  Mac went with Cathy to the supermarket to get the ingredients – plenty of burgers and steaks and hot dogs – loads of meat.  While he was shopping, Mac decided to buy the ingredients to do some baking.  He had become particularly good at shortbread.  So one morning, mixing purely from memory since he didn’t have the recipe with him, he made some wonderful shortbread for all the family.  I have to admit, it was very good.  He managed to endear himself even more!

My uncle, Dayton, loves to fish.  For him, when he had a very stressful job as an attorney in a large university, fishing was one of his main ways to relax.  A huge amount of the packing that we had to do when we were leaving Boone for the beach was all of his fishing gear.  Mac had never been fishing, but loved spending time with Dayton and some of my male cousins who also loved to fish.  They would get up very early in the morning and stand on the beach, casting into the sea.  Mac loved it and some of my favourite photos of Mac are of him standing on the shore, looking out to sea, fishing.  He really enjoyed it, and was very excited on his first time as he caught a fish – the photo of his face, holding up the fish looking so proud, is priceless.

One day, Dayton came over early in the morning and told us that he chartered a small boat to take Mac out sea fishing.  Mac couldn’t believe it.  So he and Dayton and three other went out and spent the afternoon on this small boat.  They were out there for hours.  They came back when it was dark, tanned and tired, having treated themselves to a great dinner on the way back.

Mac became so close to all of his US family on that trip.  They loved his willingness to get stuck into things and the fact that he was polite and loved all the experiences that they threw his way.  You can see from the photos of us all gathered together how much fun we had.  Mac enjoyed the freedom to spend time with various members of the family.  I remember most how I would be sat on the sofas that we gathered on and how suddenly I would feel a big pair of arms hugging me from behind, letting me know he was back.  My family are spread around the US – North Carolina, Florida, Texas and California.  They all agreed that when Mac had finished school, that he should come over to the US for six months or so and spend some time travelling across the country to see them all.  What a great experience that would be and loads of family to look after him, spoil him and spend time with him.  We also decided that we would come back next year, when Swee was better and after Mac had finished his GCSEs, so that we could show Swee all of the places we had been. 

The US just suited Mac somehow – I think the liked the attitude and the outdoor nature of so much.  I’m sure that’s why our US holidays were so special and have made such amazing memories.

Sadly Mac died just three short months later. He never got the chance to go back and live his American dream. I promised not to have regrets when he died, but I’m sad he didn’t get to travel the US and spend time with his family there. I wonder if we would have ever got him back!!

Exactly a year later, I returned. Swee couldn’t  come again, as she was now beginning to suffer more with I’ll health after Mac died. I retraced lots of our steps.

Mac had been so happy there, he left something of himself behind. I’m not being fanciful, but at the beach, it constantly felt like he would come round the corner and grab me and bear hug me – as if that’s where he’d been the whole time. It’s a special place. His happiness and memories are in the very fabric of Atlantic Beach!

Happy Halloween memories

I had never been to Eurodisney.  Swee had been when she was much younger and had always wanted to go back when we had children.  So the adoption order was granted, we applied for Mac’s passport and booked up to go.  We planned to go in the October half term in 2009, just before our year anniversary of Mac moving in.  We were going for a long weekend which took in Halloween.  We decided to really push out the boats and go for everything – we booked first class tickets on the Disney Eurostar and got tickets for the special Halloween party in the park on Halloween evening after the park had closed.

This was the first time that Mac had been abroad, so he was very excited.  Rather than taking the train up to St. Pancras, my dad agreed to drive us up.  We arrived nice and early and settled in to wait for the train.  The station was full of excitement as there were so many people there ready to get onto the Disney Express.  There were barber shop quartets and bands there to entertain us.  In no time, it was time to take our seats.  Being first class, we had loads of space.  We relaxed and got ready to enjoy the journey.

Mac’s eyes were wide with excitement.  He enjoyed it as we moved through the Kent country side, and then soon enough we were going through the tunnel.  He was a little nervous, I think, until we came out.  As we watched the French countryside speed by (as the train was then allowed to go at full speed), we pointed out the differences in the landscape. Simple thing like electricity pylons look different, and the houses we could see were not the typical Victorian terraces that were beside the railway track on the English side of the channel.

Our tickets were checked and we were given all sorts of tickets that would allow us into the parks and the special parties.  Disney characters moved up and down the train, keeping the children (and most of the adults to be fair) in an excitable state.  But there is no doubt that the highlight of the journey for Mac was the breakfast.  It was a cooked breakfast and delicious.  There was great coffee for the adults, but for the children there was hot chocolate.  But not just any hot chocolate – it was thick and sweet.  Mac’s eyes lit up as he saw it – he couldn’t believe it.  He would often have hot chocolate at home, but it was nothing like this.  He drank it down and had the cutest chocolate moustache.

After a couple of hours or so, we arrived at the Eurodisney site.  Our cases were taken away and we were able to visit the park while we were waiting for our rooms to be ready later that afternoon.

We walked into the main park.  Now it is easy to be cynical about all things Disney, but I don’t think anything prepares you for that first look as you walk in through the gates and walk down Main Street, looking at the Fairytale Castle ahead.  I think you have to be pretty hard-hearted not to be taken in by the Disney magic to some extent.  I know I was surprised how much it moved me.  It’s fair to say that Disney know how to conjure up the magic.

The first thing we did was go into the first shop on Main Street.   We wanted to buy and autograph book so that Mac could get the autographs of the Disney characters.  He wasn’t really sure what to do at first – we saw Eeyore (my favourite!) and he watched as the other children went up and had their photos taken and got their books signed.  He ventured up tentatively with me and asked for an autograph.  Eeyore gave him a huge hug and we took a picture and then had his book signed.  Mac soon got the idea as we walked round the park, rushing up and getting hugs and autographs – we were able to put a picture of all of these hugs in his autograph book.  It really is a beautiful memento.  Mac spent the rest of the holiday looking for new characters and going up to talk to them and get their signatures.

Pretty soon after we had come out of the shop there was an afternoon parade.  Again Disney do these parades so well.  We were in a perfect place to see all of the characters and floats as they turned round at the end of Main Street.  We were pointing out all of the characters to Mac, and soon realised that he didn’t know who any of them were.  Mac had clearly missed out on watching Disney films when he was young and didn’t know many of them apart from some of the ones we had watched together. Clearly we needed to work on his Disney education – very easy in the hotel room with back to back Disney movies!

It was time to head for our hotel as our room was now ready.  We were staying in the New York Hotel, just a short walk from the parks.  Just outside the hotel was a large hot air balloon.  It was tethered to the ground and was raised up into the air so that you could get a great view of the parks.  Mac was desperate to go in.  It was late afternoon, but still light and there was no-one waiting so it seemed like the best time to go.  I had forgotten that Swee is terrified of heights – she doesn’t even like driving down steep hills or going over long bridges, but she agreed.  We paid our euros and got in.  it was just us and one other couple.  The “basket” was actually made of metal and was like a large doughnut with a hole in the middle where the winching equipment was housed.  You could walk around the ring and to see the views from all angles.  During the five minute ride the balloon went up about one hundred metres – apparently you can see up to twenty kilometres away.

Mac loved it and was wanting to walk all around, but then I noticed Swee’s face – she looked pale and had a fixed grin.  She did not look comfortable.  She was holding onto the side of the basket and didn’t move – this was awkward as the other couple could not get past us and had to round the other way!  (Swee had once gone on the London Eye with our nephew and had spent the whole time sitting on the bench in the middle with her eyes closed.).  Luckily the five minutes were soon over and we were able to make our way to the hotel and able to get Swee and much needed cup of coffee.

After we unpacked we went to find somewhere to eat – it was a rather bizarre German themed restaurant, but great food.  We then decided it had been a long a day and there was lots to do in the morning, so went back to our hotel for an early night.

The rest of our time at the resort was fantastic and there is just too much to go into everything in detail, but I thought I’d include a few highlights and some lessons we learned about <ac as we were still only a year in.

First the lessons – Mac had a couple of meltdowns during the holiday.  These were still fairly common more generally and we were beginning to learn that there was a patter to them, although we were still not confident enough ourselves to always believe that giving him the time he would come out of the temper.  And I think all parents will recognise the embarrassment of a wildly misbehaving nine year old and the fact that in public you don’t always have the patience that you might at home.

First we were getting better at spotting the signs – it was generally connected to tiredness, or more strictly being overwhelmed, which tended to become more apparent when Mac was tired.  When he was getting tired he was definitely less resilient.  And second, he still could not deal with too much choice, but wanted to feel he did have some control on what we chose to do.  We were starting to get better at building parameters around those choices for him.

Now the highlights.  Mac loved all sorts of rides and had no fear at all.  On the other hand I am useless.  Mac was prepared to go on rides on his own as long as we were around, but I felt that I needed to be a good dad and try.  One morning we got to Thunder Mountain early before there were any queues.  Swee told me she had been on it before and it was fine (she lied!).  So we got on and started.  Of course, Thunder Mountain is made to look, feel and sound like a rickety old train.  Although I knew that, my mind went into overdrive and I was terrified from beginning to end.  I can’t tell you how high we got because I kept my eyes closed the whole time!  Mac, on the other hand, was cheering and putting his arms up and having a great time.  When we got off I found my wife in hysterics – she said she could hear me from the ground!

After that Mac went on all the scary rides with us watching.  However, we did enjoy some rides together.  We had a great time on the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride.  Mac loved the films and was so excited to see Jack Sparrow and all of the other characters.  Swee and Mac had loads of turns on the “Toy Story” ride having a great time shooting all of the aliens.  But the big surprise hit was “It’s a Small World”.  Once we had gone round on those little boats with the fairly annoying tune, Mac wanted to go loads more times – it just hit the younger child in him.

We also loved the Halloween Party.  After the park closed there was a special party with a lit parade and a fantastic light show on the castle.  We were all encouraged to dress up and Swee had taken witch and wizard costumes for us and great skeleton costume for Mac.  It was really spectacular – the sort of spectacle that Disney does so well.

One night we went to the Buffalo Bill show.  It consisted of cowboys and Indians and amazing horse riding, knife throwing, shooting and all sorts of other tricks.  We were all given a hat when we entered and the colour of our section indicated the team we were supporting during the competition.  It was brilliant – the atmosphere was fantastic and we all spent most of the evening open-mouthed.

The final highlight was the Character Breakfast.  We had booked that for one of the mornings.  We went along to the designated restaurant and loads of different characters came to our tables for photos, hugs and autographs.  Mac by now was really excited meeting the different characters.  A particular favourite was Goofy.  A little later he confided in me, saying,

“I know they’re not real, Dad.  They’re just people in costumes.  I could see the join!”

So I replied,  “That’s true.  Except for Mickey – he’s real and he’s magic!”

Mac gave a huge grin, absolutely convinced that it was true – Mickey Mouse is magic!

 

Reflection on Father’s Day

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It’s been a while since I shared anything on the blog, but I wanted to share the sermon / reflection I shared on our Zoom service at church today.

Father’s day can be difficult for so many of us – those who have lost their fathers, those who have lost children, those who never knew their father, those who had bad relationships with their father. But i still think its a day to celebrate, and to give thanks for those who have been “fathers” in whatever way in our lives.

Fathers Day Reflection June 2021 – Benefice Zoom service

On a sultry summer afternoon in a small Hampshire village, two people were sitting on the bench outside the shop. To a passer-by, nothing would have seemed out of the ordinary — although, if you looked closely, you might have noticed that the couple appeared anxious, and weren’t talking. You might have noticed that they looked a little too closely at every car that drove past. You might have noticed that they seemed slightly emotional.

That was me with my wife, Swee, sitting outside St Mary Bourne shop; and that was the day that we met Mac, and the day that I became a father.

A blue car pulled up. Out came a small, wan, skinny eight-year-old. He was dressed in his school uniform of red jumper and charcoal trousers, beneath a thin, worn cagoule. He went to the boot of the car and took out his prized scooter.

“Do you want to see my skills?” he asked.

“Of course,” I replied.

And with that, he scooted on to the recreation ground and started to do some tricks — trying hard to perform, as if he was in some juvenile talent contest, doing everything to impress us and win the competition. There was an intensity and concentration in his trying to show how good he was with his scooter, which was at once endearing and heartbreaking. Here was a little boy, desperate for his own new family, trying to make sure that, finally, he was the one that would be chosen.

What Mac didn’t know was that I was already in love — as soon as I saw his face, I knew he was ours. That feeling of unconditional love was instant. There was a hormonal surge to care for this quirky, loving, sad, damaged, and charming boy. I had found Mac, and it was if some primeval urge had kicked in to look after and protect this small, vulnerable child. I felt an immediate need to keep him safe, and to give him all of the things that he had never had; to right all of the wrongs that had been done to him in his life so far. At that moment, before he moved in and before any judge had proclaimed us a new family, I knew I had become a father.

WHEN Swee and I were going through the adoption process, I remember thinking a great deal about what I would be called: would an older adopted child call me “Dad”? After all, they would probably have, and remember, someone else called Dad in their life. Their experience of fathers might not be a positive one. I kidded myself that I wouldn’t mind what I was called, but that was a lie. I was desperate to be a father, and to have someone bless me with that name.

In the event, it was Mac’s own choice to begin calling us Mum and Dad as soon as he moved in with us — no more Swee and Richard. I can still remember the feeling of joy, that first time that someone called me Dad. It was something that I had ached for, and something I have never taken for granted.

As I ran up the learning curve and grew into my role as a father, I learned more about my relationship with God as Father. All of the many aspects of being a father — setting boundaries, discipline, and teaching, but also playing together, laughing, and singing — are grounded in love. I began to see God as a much less authoritarian figure, and to recognise the many facets of his love. I began to see how much more there could be to my relationship with Him as I understood more deeply my relationship with my son.

As the years passed, Mac grew into a thoughtful, sensitive, and handsome young man. We had overcome so much together, and had grown close as a family.

Then, two months after his 16th birthday, Mac died…..

He was knocked off his motorbike on the way to school. So much changed in that moment.

That day, 14 October 2016, was the last time that anyone would call me Dad. On that day, Mac hugged me and said, “Goodbye, Dad. See you later” — and I will never again hear that name said to me.

Have you noticed that there is no word for a bereaved parent? When you lose your spouse, you are a widow; when you lose your parents, you are an orphan. But, if you lose your child, you are “a bereaved parent”. With the loss of Mac, there was the danger that I was also losing a key part of my identity.

But, when Mac died, I began to understand God as an example of fatherhood in a way that I never had before. I found myself shouting and screaming at him about why this had happened — in the same way as I remember Mac shouting and screaming at me, as he dealt with anger from his past.

But, maybe surprisingly, I can honestly say that I never doubted that God was there; I never doubted that he heard me; and I knew that he understood the pain of losing a son. 

You see the word “Father”, and the concept of “fatherhood”, are a very intimate description of a relationship that is fundamental in Christianity. I know that there are many people who have had toxic and destructive examples of fathers, but true fatherhood is not like that. At its heart is the unconditional love that is central to all parental relationships.

When I was younger, I might have felt it easier to relate to God as Son — as human, and walking alongside us; now, my experience of fatherhood has given me a better understanding of God as Father. I understand better the intimacy of being one of God’s adopted children; and his desire to protect us and love us.

But, I think, I also understand better his need to let us go, and to allow us to make our own decisions. I understand not just his desire, but his need, to give us freedom of choice. When Mac died, I could have regretted buying him that motorbike; but — remembering the joy that the bike brought Mac, and the freedom it gave him — I cannot regret it. I am heartbroken that he died; but I also know that God was with him, and held him, when I couldn’t be there.

I was not able to protect Mac, and I wasn’t able to keep him safe as I had promised when he first walked into my life. But, whereas once I thought that it was an omission that there is no word for a bereaved parent, I am now beginning to take some comfort from it. The description is one that still contains the word “parent”.

I have often asked myself whether I am still a father now that my son has died — but being Mac’s dad is still a core part of my identity; and his spirit, his memories, our relationship, and so much of what he was, lives on, in me and in others.

So although my son is not here to wish me a Happy Father’s Day, I will still celebrate, and be thankful for all that he taught me, and for all the ways in which being a father has made me an infinitely better person.

Happy Father’s Day!

Do memories fade?

I have always fancied myself as having a really good memory.  Certainly, when I was younger, I never forgot anything.  I was always able to remember trivial facts and, in my schoolwork, I seldom had to revise hard for my exams.  I also did a great deal of acting at home and at university, and learning long scripts was never a chore, or something that I gave a second thought to.

Now anyone reading this that works with me is probably laughing quietly to themselves.  It is true, now that I am in my sixth decade, the memory isn’t what it was.  I do find that I need to make lists and be reminded of things that I am meant to do.  On the whole, I think my memory is still pretty good.

Then, the other day, I was in the sitting room and looking around at the pictures on our wall. One of the pictures is made up of a number of pictures of Mac, Swee and me. As a gift when Mac came to live with us, some good friends bought us a professional photography session. It was the perfect gift. So early in our time together as a family, those photos taken of us show something of the fun and hope that we had as a newly formed unit – us against the world. We had hundreds of photos taken – so much so, it took a very long time to choose the best ones – but we now have fantastic photos as a clear memory of that time. There are great ones of the three of us, but also some wonderful ones of Mac dressed as a wizard, and holding one of his most prized possessions at the time (a ceramic motorbike that he had painted himself).

But, as I looked at the pictures, it felt as though all of that had happened to someone else. Yes – I could remember the occasion; I could remember how much fun we had and how carefully Swee had picked clothes that would show well in photos. But somehow it all seemed so distance. Somehow it felt as though I was losing that memory, as if it was another lifetime. I went to find Swee and for the first time in a long time, I sobbed and sobbed. It made me so sad to think that somehow, maybe my memories of Mac and my memories of being a Dad were fading away.

But then I thought more about the nature of memories. It is true that some parts of our memories fade. One of the main reasons I wanted to write down my memories of bringing up Mac and our time together was that one day I would find it harder to remember, and I didn’t want his life, and the memories of all that he was, to die with me. I wanted there to be something more lasting to honour him.

So, is it inevitable that my memories will fade?? I guess in some ways that it is. One of my greatest fears has been that one day our short eight years together would seem such a short part of my life – it’s already nearly four years since he died.

But I do know that those years were the most important time in my life – it doesn’t mean that what went before, or what will come after will not be equally important – being a husband, being a son, a brother, an uncle, a godfather, a boss, a friend, a priest – all of these thing define me.  All of these things have changed me and made me who I am.  Just as being a dad to Mac has been one of the most important things – made all the more precious by being taken away all too soon.

What I do know about memories is that certain things come back very easily, and don’t seem to fade at all.

My gran died in 1997 – I loved her dearly and I can still feel her hug made strong by years of manual house work.  I can still feel her sense of complete unconditional love.  I can still hear her soft Wearside accent.

And with Mac, I don’t think I will ever forget the feeling of complete love that I had for him; I won’t forget singing with him in the car; I won’t forget the way he bumped clumsily up the starts like a deer that hadn’t grown into his long limbs and I won’t forget his laugh like a peel of bells.

But most of all it is the feelings that can come back in an instant.  So maybe the memories will fade, but I know the feelings never will.

I love you Mac.  I miss you, but thanks for all that we had.

Happy Father’s Day, my dear boy xxxx

Lockdown reflections – the missing part of Mac’s story

One thing has really hit me during this crisis.  As ever for me it’s not the grand macro events.  I listen to the numbers every day on the TV – and the scientist in me looks for the patterns, trying to understand if we are getting some sort of control of things, trying to see what I think the way out might look like.  

But I also connect on the emotional level.  I know these are real people who are ill and dying, and I feel for every single one of them and their families.  And when I’m at the bottom of the rollercoaster, I can feel very sad.

And as a priest I am very sad that the churches are closed – for me it is a place of comfort where I know thousands of years of prayers are soaked into its very fabric – and the fact that the door is locked is so wrong, even though I understand why.  I know the church is not the building, but the people – but the fact that churches buildings cannot be used for funerals, I know is really painful.  You have seen me describe Mac’s funeral and thanksgiving services – and although they were hard, they were also uplifting.  Being in a church of five hundred people celebrating his life was one of the most extraordinary experiences, and certainly made a start to helping us to move forward.  I don’t know how I would have managed if we had just a few people at a graveside.

But more than the difficulty of mourning the loss of our loved ones – I was particularly affected by the death of thirteen year old Ismael Mohamed Adbulwahab, without any of his loved ones by his side.  The thought of not being able to comfort your child as they die, is unthinkable for all parents.

And that has always been my one regret.

I’ve said before in this blog that I have not dwelt on the circumstances of Mac’s death – I didn’t want to think about it.  But I have always felt that even though I couldn’t keep him safe, somehow I should have been with him as his life passed.  An artist friend of mine as part of an artwork asked people to write what they were sorry for, and it was clear for me that it had to be “I’m sorry I wasn’t there when you died”.

As I thought of this more I decided I wanted to find out who was with him when he did die, and to find out more about what happened.  So I contacted the police, and in a remarkably short time they found the names and contact details of the witnesses who were there.  With some trepidation, I wrote emails of thanks and hoped to hear from them.

And a wonderful woman called Emma wrote back.  She had been first on the scene of the crash.  When she got there Mac was standing up – the adrenaline keeping him on his feet.  She helped to get him to the roadside and to lay him down and make him comfortable.  She looked for his licence so that she could call him by name and she just spoke to him and stroked him and comforted him and made sure he was never alone.

She and some others who joined her made sure that he was warm and stayed with him until the emergency services took him away.  She was able to tell me how hard everyone worked and how gentle they were with him, gently removing his helmet and stroking his arm and his face to make sure he knew he wasn’t alone and that he was loved.

It is hard to put into words the gratitude that I have for the people who were with Mac, but particularly for Emma.  And what she probably doesn’t realise is that she has laid to rest the two main fears that Swee and I had – I was always worried that no-one was comforting him and caring for him; and Swee was always worried that he was cold.  In that reply she was able to answer that for us.

So that part of Mac’s story is now put to rest.  Emma was the angel that Mac needed at that time, and I am so very glad that she was there to help him.

Emma – thank you.

Lockdown reflections – lockdown without Mac

So I’m entering my sixth week of working from home, and most of them under lockdown.  I’m one of the lucky ones – one of the ones who can continue to work from home; one of the ones who gets to experience lockdown in a nice home with my wife and two dogs and a garden; one of the ones whose income has not been affected by these strange times.

And work has been busy and fulfilling and I don’t have to worry about travelling – working long hours is not so bad when you are instantly home.  Of course, it can be difficult to get away from work, when the emails are constantly buzzing away in the corner – but it’s a small price to pay to be locked down in comfort.

But as ever, at times like these I always find my thoughts turning to Mac….he would have been nineteen, turning twenty.  What would he have been doing?  Would he have still been at home? Would he have been stuck in the house with his parents as so may of his peers are? 

One thing I do know is that Mac would have taken lockdown in one of two extreme ways.  Either:

  • He would have hated it.  He hated been stuck in the house at the best of times, especially if he was told he had to.  He would have been super stir crazy, and he would have been impossible to keep in – looking for any excuse to run an errand or to get out, or:
  • He would have taken it super seriously….making sure that everything was bleached and that we were all washing our hands and no-one was allowed near the house just to make sure that he kept us well.

And the more I have thought about it, the more I can’t be sure how he would have been.  All I am sure of is that I wish he was here.  I could do with one of his enormous all-enveloping bearhugs when things seem a bit tough as we ride the emotional rollercoaster of the Coronavirus lockdown.

You see when you lose someone you never expected to die in your lifetime; when your perfect little family of three is destroyed in an instant; when you realise how fragile even the most young, robust life is – it can make you feel extremely vulnerable.  It is often said that three is  crowd – but when it’s the two of you and your child, it turns you from a couple into a family.  A perfect unit.  And when that is taken away – being just a couple feels so much more vulnerable than it did before – it’s just one step away from being on your own…

But in many ways lockdown has been good for me and Swee – it has given us so much time to be a couple and to remember what a strong couple we are, and to enjoy all of the times we have together – watching the TV we like, looking after one another, talking and reminiscing about those we have lost – but mostly just laughing at really silly things!

Mother’s Day 2009

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Special Occasions

I think it’s pretty common if you are longing for children that you spend some time imagining special occasions and how they might be when you do have children.  Birthday parties, Christmas, family occasions more generally are all very different as a parent of a young child.  I know that once we had been approved for adoption, I often spent time thinking about and planning what Christmas would be like, and what I would want to do to make things special when a child finally moved into our home and became part of our family – but then I have always been an inveterate planner.  The thing to be aware of is that the adopted child has being doing the same thing – dreaming of how they wish things could be and how they hope things would be once they have a family of their own.

I know once we had adopted Mac we looked forward to these occasions, the opportunity to “show him off” to our family and friends, knowing that they were going to love him as much as we already did.  We were so keen for him to be surrounded by the family that we cared about so much and wanted him to be enveloped in their love.

We had been warned that to begin with to introduce people slowly as moving into a new home is a pretty daunting prospect – it is most important that the attachment between parents and child is beginning to build, giving the child some much needed stability an opportunity to begin to build trust.

We were careful to follow this advice.  We introduced Mac slowly to the closest members of our family – grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins – and he lapped it up, glad to be the centre of attention and revelling in the treats that the all inevitably had for him.

But we didn’t always get it right.  Mac had a complete meltdown at the first big family party we took him to – a gathering of much of our family for a Chinese meal to celebrate my father’s seventy-fifth birthday.  Dad had hired a private room upstairs in the restaurant, so it was the perfect opportunity, with no-one else around.

WE made so many basic errors – misjudging how long it wold take to get ready with an 8 year old, forgetting he would be tired, not noticing he was coming down with a nasty cold.   You name it, we got it wrong, and so the only thing to do was to leave – me with an eight year old Mac under my arm crying and really quite upset and very hot.  Classic parenting fail.

Actually as soon as we left the restaurant and got into the car, everything calmed down, so we got pizza and went home.  What we also didn’t know was that Mac was starting to come down with a nasty cold and temperature – probably a reaction to all the changes he had been through in the last few months. 

It is interesting that we found an almost sure-fire way to get Mac to calm down in any situation was to take him over a threshold.  It was more than just taking him out of the situation, but we had found that if you got him through a door, it would often take the heat out of the situation.  This was most useful in the morning.  Mac did nearly always wake happy, and was usually fairly content to go to school.  However, we did find him starting to kick up at schooltime when he first started testing the boundaries in the early days.  We were always very keen clear that school was a non-negotiable.  Even if he was very upset in the house, if I managed to get him out of the front door, he calmed down almost immediately.  (I have since read somewhere that there is scientific research that shows humans do change emotions when they move through a threshold – so maybe there is something in it).

Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day is so painful for many people at some time in their lives – if they have lost their mother, if they have lost a child, if they are childless – and once we were married and unsuccessfully trying for a child, Mother’s Day was very difficult. 

Once we had Mac, it became one of the special occasions we started to look forward to the most.  We would finally be able to celebrate Mother’s Day in a completely different way – as one of the “in crowd”, rather than being on the outside, looking in..  It was going to be a celebration that we had finally become a family.  And for us that meant going to church as we had so much to be thankful for.

Our church, like so many, gives out flowers to mothers on Mothering Sunday.  But the children often also make gifts for their mothers.  I can still remember sitting with Swee in the pew as Mac went up to the front to help give out the presents.  The children had made little pretend “handbags” from a face flannel containing soap and other smellies.  They were in different colours – but Mac knew that Swee loved all shades of blue and looked carefully for a blue one.  He rushed back to Swee with the biggest smile on his face as he launched into Swee to give her the present and a huge hug.  I felt so emotional and happy – I can’t imagine how Swee felt.

As it was Swee’s first Mother’s Day, the rest of the family came back to our house for lunch.  It was a typical family get together and not the first we had had since Mac had been with us, so we thought nothing of it.  Fairly soon after lunch started, Mac became really quiet and pensive.  Quietly he went off to his room on his own.

You see through all the excitement, including his own, we hadn’t thought enough about the conflicting emotions that Mac was feeling.  Here for the first time, Mac was celebrating Mother’s Day with a woman who wasn’t the woman he first called mum.  Now even though in many people’s eyes she had let him down and not played the role of a mother, she was still his mum and still very important to him.  Despite that fact that he was angry and upset at her for the occasions when she hadn’t been there for him, he still loved her.

And here I have to say it takes a while as an adoptive parent to come to terms with that.  However understanding you try to be, you know that they have let down and hurt the child that is now yours, who you love as much as you would your own biological child, and it is difficult to forgive them.  We always made sure that we never let these feelings show with Mac, and over the years, as you realise how important they still are to your child, the angry feelings subside.  (Now in our shared loss of Mac, we have established a friendship and often drop notes to each other on social media checking up to see how we are).  Mac was always emotionally intelligent and he knew she had let him down, but she was still his mum.

That first Mother’s Day, we had forgotten the huge conflict of emotions that Mac would have and didn’t make allowances enough for them.  But we did learn a lesson.

So on any other big family occasion, we would make an effort to mention Mac’s birth family so that he knew they were not forgotten and to make sure he realised it was OK to be thinking about them.  It was always a tricky line to tread, because as Mac grew older he made it clear that they were his family, not ours.  But we would still mention them as I think it was important as Mac grew to give him permission to think about them and to know that it didn’t hurt us.  We knew he loved us and loved his home and all that it stood for – but there was still room for him to think about them and to love them.

Oh! He’s down!

On the way home from work on Friday, I took a cab back to Waterloo.  As we were driving along the Mile End Road, the cabbie had to make an emergency stop to stop him ploughing into a car that had just turned in front of him with no indicators.

Of course, I wasn’t watching (and naughtily hadn’t put my seatbelt on!) – so the next thing I knew I was flying slow-motion through the air from the back seat of the cab.  Eventually, I fund myself sitting up on the floor of the cab, my hand and arm having taking the brunt of the force.  After getting over the shock, and checking that I just had bumps and bruises, and nothing more serious, we carried on.  As the sense of relief came over me, I just found myself wanting to laugh and giggle – with the phrase “Oh, he’s down!” in Mac’s voice and his laugh like a peel of happy bells ringing in my head.

You see, Mac was clumsy.  Mac had the ability to knock over a small cup placed in the middle of an empty room, just by trying to avoid it.  Every night when Mac went upstairs to bed, you could hear the noise as he bumped his was up the stairs, knocking from the bannister to the wall and back again until he got to his room.

He could fall off anything, and like many boys constantly had some sort of bump, bruise or graze on his legs.  Part of it was that his balance took a while to recover after he broke his femur when he was younger.  It took a while for that leg to allow him to get a proper balance – Tae Kwon-Do really helped him with this as he learned in the increasingly complicated patterns to gain the next belt.

But I think he was also clumsy because he was growing at an incredible rate.  Like many parents, we still have the marks on his bedroom wall that where we frequently marked his progress.  When he came to live with at age eight, he was at Swee’s chest height, and she is not very tall at all.  Once he was settled, it was if his body made up for all those years of being unsettled as he just began one long growth spurt – it was impossible to keep him in trousers.  They wouldn’t even last a term!  His desire was to be taller than me at 6’3’’, and by the time he had reached sixteen, he had done that and was clearly the tallest in our family.

So, it was no real surprise that he didn’t have full control of those long, elegant limbs.  Finally, as he reached the age of sixteen, there began to be a little more poise and elegance about him.

The expression “Oh, he’s down!” was what Mac would shout on those frequent occasions when he did fall over, and you’d see that large, tall frame suddenly disappear as gravity took over.  I have such wonderful memories of that expression, because it was always followed by the giggles and peel of laughter – the same laugh that came over me as I found my self on the cab floor.

It is an example of memory of Mac that always brings joy – one that you remember fondly with a smile, and a warm feeling of love and contentment welling up from inside.  And I do find that more and more, the memories of Mac are like that.  Of course, it doesn’t take much to go back to the darker, sadder place – but it doesn’t have the hold it used to have, and it is easier to find your way out with a warm and happy memory.

And as I was reflecting on memories, thinking about what I might write today, I realised how much we do have some control over what we remember and how we remember it.  I have said before that I made some positive decisions on the day that Mac died – not to be angry and to live my life because he wasn’t able o live his anymore.  And I think unconsciously I must have also made an effort to control some of the difficult memories and thoughts.

There are gaps in my knowledge of what happened to Mac on the day he died.  All I know for sure is that he left us on his motorbike, and the next time I saw him he was peacefully lying in a hospital chapel of rest.  Of course, on an intellectual level I know what happened to him.  But my mind doesn’t let me go there much. 

I could try and visualise the scene, I could wonder if he was scared, I could feel guilty that I wasn’t there in his last moments (and in my darkest moments, my one major regret was that I couldn’t hold him as he moved on to his next big journey).  But I know that it won’t make anything better if I do any of those things, and my mind doesn’t let me go there.  I do know that there were people with him, and holding him when he died.  I don’t know who they are – I started to make a feeble attempt to track them down at the beginning – but I am very grateful he was not alone and that someone held him tight. 

But those are moments my mind does not let me imagine.  It’s strange, because I sometimes see people flinch if they mention a motor accident in front of me or someone dying in a crash and I can see they want to apologise for reminding me of what happened to Mac.  But in some ways I forget that is how died.  It’s hard to explain, but for me the reality is that he did die – as I didn’t witness it, it is not real to me and is irrelevant.  I realised that when I sat through the court case of the man who killed Mac.  It was like an intellectual exercise – interesting in and of itself, considering the points of law and what needed to be proved in evidence.  But it never seemed like it was describing Mac and what happened to him – not until right at the end.

The human mind is a wonderful thing – and I know that bit my bit it has allowed me to process more and more, and that this will continue throughout the rest of my life.  But the most wonderful thing is that mostly it allows me to remember the funny, warm moments that we shared – and to hear in my head that laugh as he tripped over his feet another time.

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A new school, a new start

So, at the end of Year 9, Mac left his first secondary school with some relief for all of us, looking forward to a new school in the September.

New friends -post 26

Starting at a new school after everyone else has settled in is never easy.  I had to do that when I moved to Hampshire at the age of twelve and I had wanted to avoid this for Mac.  I think that had probably delayed our decision to look at moving Mac before.  It was a good move for Mac for various reasons:

  • It gave him a completely clean slate with teachers and students,
  • Some of the students knew him from the village, but he would be able to decide how much of his past he revealed, and to whom,
  • He was more confident in himself, than he was at the age of eleven when he started his previous school,
  • He really wanted to make this work,
  • The school seemed to have a much better ethos for Mac.

This showed itself in lots of ways.  Mac had become much happier in his own skin.  He was more confident with his peers, and able to make friends much more easily.  He was really caring and seemed to spot those in need of help and they seemed to be attracted to Mac – he always seemed to be sought out for his advice.

Mac had also grown up physically.  He was now well over six foot tall, and looking forward to the day when he would finally overtake me in height and become the tallest in the family.  As he was very active and doing a fair amount of sport outside school, he had also become lean and strong.  He was also developing into a good-looking young man – he was not as aware of this and seemed slightly surprised by the attention he got.  It was clear that the girls were intrigued by this tall, mysterious, dark handsome stranger that had turned up in their midst.

He would say to me,

“This girl kept staring at me today, dad!”. 

Swee and I would just laugh and tell him that maybe she fancied him.  He mentioned the names of different girls that were taking an interest every couple of weeks or so.  It seemed his popularity was likely to be assured.

Mac was also making friends.  He was asking to stay behind after school to go round to friends’ houses – something he had rarely done at his old school.  And there was no mention of bullying at all.  He spoke of school much more warmly – it felt like he was taking ownership and properly feeling part of the school in a way that he had never been able to do before.  We had taken a risk in making the school move, but it was proving successful in every way.

New lessons

The approach that the school took with Mac was completely different and accorded much more with the way that we treated him and the way that Mac wanted to be treated.   Rather than removing him from classes to help him out, the school ensured that he was part of the normal classes and any help he needed would be provided there.  In fact, the more he was treated as “normal” and the more the teachers expected him to be able to keep up, the more Mac actually managed to do that.  They didn’t give him an easy excuse not to try and succeed, and consequently he did start to succeed more.  I remember early on when speaking to the head whether she thought Mac would be able to achieve passes in the basic exams like maths, English and science – something that had not been assured or necessarily expected of him before.

“I sincerely hope so!”, she said, looking at me as if I had somehow taken leave of my senses.

They believed in him and put the time into him, and consequently he began to believe in himself.

Mac was doing much better at school. He started to move up in maths – he had always been better at maths.  But he also started talking more about English and having conversations about some of the books he was studying for his exams.  He still struggled with his spelling, but his writing was now good, and at least his spelling was now understandable even to the uninitiated.  It became clear that his spelling was never going to be great, but he was at least able to write faster and clearer, which meant he could get his thoughts down in a more coherent manner.

For the first time in a long time, Mac began to enthuse about certain subjects in school.  He loved engineering.  He spent lots of time on his engineering homework projects, researching materials and designs and working on his engineering drawings.  He had become so much more precise. He produced a wonderful piece of work for a home alarm project and we could see how much he enjoyed all aspects of the process.

He also had a great time in RE.  RE is compulsory as part of the National Curriculum, but not all students studied it for GCSE.  Mac did and enjoyed it.  Of course, he had a great background in Christianity – being a priest’s son (something of which he now seemed to be quietly proud) and all those hours sitting in the church choir and listening to Michael meant that a huge amount of information had gone in.  Like me, he was also fascinated by other religions and the similarities and differences.  The other aspect that was a large part of RE was learning to discuss moral and philosophical topics.  He would come home having had a discussion on contraception or abortion or same-sex marriage, and would love to talk through the issues.  On one occasion he called me on my mobile during the lesson.  Luckily, although I was at work, I was at my desk.  He wanted me to talk to class to explain a particular issue to do with the church over the phone.  I did the best I could, but I could see members of my department looking at me in a fairly strange way.

That is not to say that all was rosy.  Mac was struggling with music.  Part of the course required him to write and perform a piece of music and be able to explain the process and thoughts behind it.  Although Mac did have a nice voice, and was happy to belt out a song when it was just him and me in a car, he was much more embarrassed in class.  He had also been learning the drums before and was now taking guitar lessons.  He was improving, but didn’t really have the commitment to sit down for the hours of practice that were really necessary to get good.

Consequently he was falling behind in his project, and this was to form part of his final exam mark.  Previously he had been able to get away with avoiding things – he rarely was picked up on these issues.  The difference at his new school was that nothing was allowed to slide.  I was called by his music teacher to come in and discuss how we could help to get him back on track.  She offered much of her own time to help him, as long as he knuckled down.  I knew the behaviour of old – if Mac thought he was failing at something, he would often stick his head in the sand and hope it would go away.  If he didn’t try then he would not fail.  Now, that was not an option – he was not allowed to avoid anything, but would be helped to make sure that he would do his best in everything.  The approach in the school was fantastic.

I was also impressed by the behaviour of the students.  As ever there were one or two occasions when Mac was starting to get into trouble.  He could still be a bit of a loner at times – and as such was sometimes a target.  Again the approach was completely different.  Whereas at Mac’s old school there had been a lack of control of some behaviour during breaks, the teachers were always on top of things.  It’s not that the grounds were easier to patrol – if anything I think they were a little more difficult.  The staff just seemed to know what was going on.  I remember speaking to the head about it once, when she had stopped a group of boys ganging up on Mac.  She said,

“I always spend some time outside during breaks, and I have a sense if something isn’t right.  The other day when I walked past the group of boys with Mac.  I had a strong feeling that something was awry, so I turned back and caught the start of it and was able to discipline those responsible.”

At Mac’s old school, they wouldn’t have got there until something had happened, and normally Mac would have been blamed.  This is why they lost his trust.  Mac’s new head knew her school, and knew when things were working or not.  This approach was mirrored in her staff. It was, and is, a very impressive school.

School Sports

Sport was also a huge success for Mac at his new school.  His head of year was a PE teacher and took an immediate shine to Mac, and Mac liked him.  He saw Mac’s potential and began to get him involved in all sorts of sports.  As it was Winter, Mac started with football and rugby.  He was OK at football, but there were plenty of boys faster and more nimble than him who had been playing competitive football for a long time.  But the school was good at rugby, and they could see that Mac’s height and strength was going to be hugely useful in their team.

So he started to play school rugby. Mac did enjoy it – he was fast enough.  But he was best as a forward – bringing real strength to the scrum.  I was starting to have to pick him up late from school after a rugby match on a number of occasions.  He also made some friends in the team.  There was one downside to rugby for Mac.  When he was younger he had been fearless.  As he was growing older, like many of us, he was becoming slightly more reticent to throw himself into more physical situations.  He knew it was going to hurt and had decided he really didn’t like it.  As a forward, it was inevitable that Mac would spend a lot of the time crunching into other big bodies – despite his clear aptitude for the game, after the season was over he decided his rugby career was also going to end.

Luckily next came cricket.  This was a game that Mac really loved.  As he practiced a lot in the village he was getting better.  With some good teaching at school, he really began to improve and again was chosen for the school team.  His PE teacher recounted to me the time that Mac had taken his first wicket for the school.  He said that the look on his face was so fulfilling as a teacher and one that he would never forget – Mac had responded so well to their belief in his abilities.  At the prize-giving at the end of the year, Mac was stunned to receive a prize as the most improved cricketer.  He hadn’t won a prize at school since he left primary school.

As the summer approached, we reflected on the huge change in Mac over the past year.  Changing schools had been the making of him.  He was happier, more mature, more grown up and working hard.  He was succeeding at sports and was on track to do the best that he could in his exams.  Most of all he was happy.

What a difference a year can make!