About Sue

An aspiring writer possibly....

Next of Kin (6)

The gentlemen have been with me for about an hour. Because of the uncertainty of Edward’s survival, the two gentlemen were already thinking of plans as to how our family could be brought back together again. Laptops adorned the kitchen table. They were plotting where Royal Naval ships were located and quietly talked things through. You could almost hear their minds ticking over.

After what feels like an agonising wait, the phone finally rings, fracturing my thoughts and silencing their planning. I look at the phone as if it is some foreign object that has just dropped through the ceiling and landed in front of me. How I would love to turn back the clock.   At the same time I know that I must pick up the receiver. My hands begin to sweat and shake. It continues to ring persistently, each ring having the similar effect to a baby’s cry. I know I have to pick it up. The noise is not going to go away, if anything it feels as if it is getting louder with each ring.

The Padre asks, “Would you like me to pick it up?” I quickly respond, his voice jolting me back to the job in hand. “No, I’ll do it” I say.

I pick up the phone and after the familiar time delay, I hear Michael’s voice….the softness of it makes me want to relinquish all responsibility but I know I need to remain in control, as much as this situation allows. At that moment in time, I just want to be with him, not separated by thousands of miles. He knows it is going to be bad news but he has no idea what I am about to say.

I ask him if he has someone who can sit with him as I have difficult news to tell him. No, he says, he’s alone in his cabin. I quietly want to prepare him as well as I can. I begin to tell him slowly that Edward has been very seriously injured. I have the card in my hand that lists what are believed to be his injuries. It is the one that the Lieutenant Colonel wrote out earlier. It is helpful and kicks my brain into action, giving me direction until words begin to flow more easily. I hear the shock and horror in his voice. He is not in the city or just a train journey away but thousands of miles distant off the coast of Brazil. All I want to do is to sit with him, hug him, and comfort him. I want to be beside him. I would prefer to talk this through in person so that I can feel his presence, touch him and watch his face. I want to make it all better for him but I know I can’t. At the same time, I need his support, his comfort, his strength but more than that, I want to give all this and more back to him. I have nothing positive to help dilute what I have just told him. There are long moments of silence and utterances of disbelief. He asks me to tell him again about the injuries. I repeat the information on the card slowly, that card that holds a tenuous link between Edward and me. By holding it I feel safer and it gives me some semblance of control.

Edward must still be in surgery. Michael promises to keep in touch with us throughout the day so that he feels a part of what is going on at home – a sense of belonging even though he is so far away. Time is dragging. The wait is excruciating. We cling to the flimsy thought that no news must mean Edward is holding his own with the help of surgeons, nurses, medication and whatever else is keeping him alive. The lack of news though is incredibly difficult to deal with.

I am just a mother; I have no experience of the military. I just want my son to live. As work continues around the kitchen table with laptops open and phones buzzing, it begins to dawn on me exactly what it means to be ‘Next of Kin’.

 

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Next of Kin (5)

The phone receiver is firmly attached to my ear. I feel sure that this will help speed up the process, which of course is a ridiculous thought. I listen to the phone ringing for what seems an inordinately length of time. My throat has dried up. My hands are moist. I know that once the phone is answered, there will be more waiting while whoever it is who picks it up finds Michael. It will take more time. I am scared – scared of what to say, scared of my emotions and of letting the side down in front of these strangers, kind as they are.

Sitting here and having to accept a situation that is out of my control is almost unbearable. I say ‘almost’ because I am dealing with it, just not very well. We do have the beginnings of a plan: contact Michael, contact Emma our daughter who is in Sheffield and then contact the rest of the family and friends.

My thoughts focus on Ed, wondering whether they have finished operating on him yet, whether he is with people who know him. What will the operation mean? What have the surgeons had to do? Not knowing what is going on in Camp Bastion, not to be there by his side, not to be waiting for him after surgery, not to be there should he die, not to be there if he should wake all seems terribly wrong. As mothers, our unconditional love and belief that we can make it better, no matter ‘what it is’ never leaves us. And now it is plaguing me. A sense of failure has crept in. And yet I know that I have to trust those that are doing their very best to keep him alive and those that are working behind the scenes for him and for us.

While these thoughts have been madly swirling around my head, the Lieutenant Colonel has written down Ed’s injuries on the back of a card. This helps me. It reads as follows:

“Ed has suffered a shrapnel wound to his right upper chest, a lower leg injury to his left leg and significant blood loss. He is ventilated at the moment (09.40) and undergoing surgery and a CT scan today. The aeromedevac team (medical specialists to accompany seriously injured personnel on aircraft) are preparing to accompany him back to the UK. He is very seriously injured. The incident happened on a patrol at 04.20 on Friday 21 May as a result of the explosion (Improvised Explosive Device – IED). Another marine was killed in the incident.”

Having this card in my hand is the nearest I can get to being beside him.

The phone is at last answered by the Second Officer on board the ship who says he will get Michael to call me back. The ship is a Liquid Natural Gas tanker, 279 metres long and 42 metres wide –it could take Michael more than five minutes to get to the phone on the bridge or in his cabin. I was thinking of all the places he could be. Maybe he is down one of the tanks. Maybe he is out on deck in his orange boiler suit. Maybe he has not heard that there is a call for him yet – although that is unlikely as he always has a walkie-talkie on him. If he is down a ballast tank then it really will take quite a while to get back up to his cabin to call me back. There is nothing any of us can do right at this minute. We need to wait for him to call. He must be the next person who is told the news, however long it takes him to call me back.

We have had an agreement for twenty eight years that if I ring the ship, Michael knows it is important. Of course we speak regularly on the phone, but he is the one to make the call. Gone are the days of the incomprehensible telegram and the hand-written letter that takes a few weeks to reach him. In the days of letter writing, it was almost pointless asking a question because by the time I received the reply, I had forgotten what the question was. Over the years the only reason I have called him is to break sad news to him…grandparents dying, great aunts dying, my parents dying and losing our third child who was stillborn. I am about to shatter his world again.

If he has got the message, I wonder what sort of sad news he is expecting. It seemed a hopeless situation. The longer I waited, the more I realised that I could not control something that was out of my grasp. Each challenge we faced had no simple answers. Would Michael be coming home to pay his last respects to his son, or would he be able to speak to him again and give him a hug and sit by his bed as he recovers? Nobody could give me answers. We had to move forwards believing very hard that he would live. I battled with the thought that this all felt like an equation with no variables.

The gentlemen and I remained in our seats at the table waiting for the return call. It seemed infinite. I kept staring at the phone, urging it to ring; but then wishing it would never ring so that I did not have to break the news to Michael. I fiddle with a rubber on the table, turning it over repeatedly – first one way, then the other. How am I going to work out what to say? How do I start? Is there a right way to break this sort of news? I put the question to the present company. “Just tell it as it is” they say.

I feel another wave of panic erupting, a bit like watching a saucepan of milk suddenly boil over. How come the world is trained in useless tasks everywhere – but when it comes to really important stuff, we have no idea how to choose the right words. What good is education when faced with this? There is no book I can turn to for information and if there is a book out there, it is not here on the kitchen table right now so it is of no use to me.

My world as I knew it half an hour ago has fallen down a precipice. It has vanished and is nowhere to be found. One knock on the door and my life has been adopted by the military in support of my son. Nothing around me seems familiar now. The dogs seem to sense the awfulness of it all – they have all sloped off to their beds, not a whisker stirs. The only vital things in my mind now are getting hold of Michael and praying that Edward gets through his surgery. There seems little relevance or importance to anything else.

 

Next of Kin (4)

The second far more important section of the sentence is quietly but purposefully delivered:

“He has suffered heavy blood loss from a chest and shoulder wound and is very poorly indeed”.

I needed to have and own every scrap of information that was being delivered to me. I had finally grasped Edward was in Camp Bastion and currently he was being operated on. His life was in the balance.

I had spoken to him just earlier in the week. He called me on my mobile while I was out walking in the local Woodlands Trust. This area is beautiful and always manages to restore one’s belief in humanity. He seemed happy enough fulfilling his job as a Royal Marine and painted a picture that left me in a buoyant mood, although I did of course read between the lines. After all, he and many others are at war. His corporal cooked porridge each morning and he enjoyed conversations on motorbikes with one of the troop. I was grateful that he was able to talk to me and we could converse….almost normally.

But that was then. Back in the kitchen, the two men continue.

“You need to prepare yourself for the worst. His injuries are life-threatening. I am so sorry but Edward may not survive”.

While they had my attention, they continued.

“And if the worst does happen, the Lieutenant Colonel will return himself to inform you as he is on duty this weekend. He will be dressed in full military uniform as a mark of respect.”

I had asked them for complete honesty and that is what I am getting. I am hearing words from the two gentlemen that I wished never existed. The realisation that I may never touch Edward’s warm living body again or feel enveloped in his hugs makes me feel cold and shaky on this warm balmy morning in May. His face, his body, him is what I see as I alternate from wanting to run away to a place in the world that does not know this news so that I can pretend it has not happened – to catching a plane to Camp Bastion to be by his side. Who will be there to hold his hand so that he does not die alone? This question begins to plague me and spins round and round in my head but I do not….cannot….speak these words out aloud to them. I feel I might be tempting fate if I do. He is my child. My son. Mine. It is the wrong way round. Mothers die before their children.

The job of a Casualty Notification Officer is incredibly challenging, but a vital role for the families as well as those that have been injured. It is carried out with respect, care and compassion. To have to be the bearer of life-changing news to family members about their loved ones day in day out must be grim. The two gentlemen were courteous, kind, gentle and did everything they could to put me at my ease and support me in such a situation. The Padre made copious amounts of tea and coffee.   They spoke softly to tell me that I had twenty four hours to make the necessary phone calls. There would be a media blackout during this period of time. Family members and close friends must be told that Edward might not make it through the operation that was being carried out as we sat at the table thousands of miles away.

“Would I like help with the phone calls” the Padre thoughtfully asked?

I had tried to pull myself together a little and decided the least I could do was to have a go myself. However much I hated all this, being busy would be better than sitting wringing my hands with fear. They said they would step in if necessary and were there to support me all the way. I had to keep doing something even if it was being the bearer of bad, almost impossible news.

None of my family was at home. My husband, Michael, is a master on a BP merchant ship and was away at sea, not just up in London or in a car driving somewhere in England. I remembered that the ship was somewhere off the coast of Brazil. No idea of time zones though. I found the phone number for the ship at the bottom of one of his emails – it is a long combination of figures, but after what seemed an age, the connection was made and I heard the ringing tone the other end. I know the number does not go directly through to Michael and that whoever answers the phone will have to go and find him. While I am waiting for the phone to be picked up on the ship, the Padre and I have a quiet chat at the kitchen table as to what I should say and how on earth I start telling Michael the news.

“Just tell it in your own way, tell it how it is”, the Padre says.

My concentration switches from him to listening to the phone as it is answered the other end. I quickly say who I am and feel how dry my throat is. Abruptly the ship’s phone goes dead. The satellite is in the wrong position. It happens quite often but I really wished that this once the call had been straight forward. The thought of repeating this procedure fills me with dread and foreboding. My hands are clammy. Nothing can move forward until we get through to Michael. Apprehensively I search for the email with the number on again and begin to dial the number. I hear the familiar ringing tone. I silently plead with the receiver – please, please pick up the phone.

Next of Kin (3)

I stood with my hands over my nose and mouth trying to regain a steady rhythm of breathing. They gently explained what had happened. ‘During a routine patrol early this morning one marine has been killed and your son Edward has been very seriously injured’. I now know these words were selected carefully with just cause. The military have a categorization code where by ‘Very Seriously Injured’ means that it is uncertain that the injured will survive. I have little breath left for anything other than short staccato sentences. I hear their voices distantly, yet the two men are right in front of me. ‘May we come indoors please?’ We walk back up the drive way, the men either side of me. In the few minutes it took to answer the doorbell, my world has crashed. It feels completely wrecked. We go through the gate and into the kitchen.

The words spoken by the Casualty Notification Officer repeat in my mind as a whisper. One marine killed. This is one of those moments where the defining line between reality and a nightmare is difficult to decipher. Everything happening right at this minute is pure shock and adrenalin is racing around my body. I sense that we are right in the thick of something and yet as a Mother I feel an outsider, in the dark, on the periphery of what is going on.

I cannot begin to imagine the unbearable pain and horrific shock of the family whose Royal Marine loved one has been killed. I squirm at the bitter, ghastly, hateful ending that their loved one has endured. I look down at my feet – it is the only place I can focus on to try and escape what is happening right now. The gentlemen are just far enough away from me that by looking downwards they are out of my vision. I feel their presence though, hear their breathing. The kitchen is filled with an atmosphere of dread. The air is tense; the Casualty Notification Officer and the Padre are in control.

And Edward, I ask. Where is he? What are his injuries? They look through their notes to check their latest update, careful to quote what is in front of them. They tell me but their words evaporate into thin air. A few seconds pass. I apologise and ask again. I am listening but nothing is registering. I wish I could have the sheet of paper which they are using to help them get through this difficult time with me. I want to take it away in to another room in the house, hide and read it, as if it is my last gossamer link with Edward, and absorb it. Alone. Solitude has been my way of coping with difficult times for years and now in the middle of a crisis, that is what I would like more than anything. I am not used to sharing my emotions in front of strangers. When I am worried, I bottle it up. I clean. Or scrub floors. Or mow the grass. Or leave the house and go for a long walk. None of this is possible. The precise moment the doorbell rang, our normality extinguished. I had no inkling of what lay around the corner.

They suggest we sit round the kitchen table which is pressed up against the rustic brick wall.   One of them gets his laptop out. They quietly begin to try to get a feeling for our family asking questions about my husband, our daughter and me. As we begin to talk I finally grasp Edward’s injuries. It sounds like the damage is to his lower legs and then some facial injuries. I am trying to fathom out what his injuries mean. Has he lost his legs? Is he maimed? Are they broken? They seem unsure and not too worried about this.   I spurt out raw undressed questions at them both. I still have not grasped where he is. With incredible patience and compassion, they begin to talk about what occurred near Patrol Base Almas, Helmand Province – the frontline of the Afghan war. In fear, I have interrupted. I cannot wait for them to finish each sentence. Each sentence spoken by the two gentlemen propagates more half-formed stuttered questions from me. But there is more to come.

Next of Kin (2)

My muscles tightened like stretched elastic, restricting blood flow and air. The other gentleman without the clerical collar demanded to know whether I was next of kin to my son and asked me to tell him my son’s name and rank. A sentence was on replay in my head ‘surely this couldn’t be happening to us?’ They announced what they believed to be his rank. It was wrong. I moved my neck to open my throat just enough to find space to inhale air. They quickly went through their paperwork. I stood there feeling helpless, frightened. My head cried out silently, have we escaped?  The confusion which his ranking seemed to cause gave me time to take a breath. They had him listed as Lance Corporal. A seed of memory burst into action and I recalled that the Royal Marines drop a rank when they change units. He served as a Lance Corporal in Faslane, Scotland where he had been serving for a couple of years.   When he joined 40 Commando in the autumn of 2009 he returned to the rank of Marine. My mind was working overtime. Surely if they got his rank wrong – then maybe, just maybe – they have got the wrong address and this is just a case of a mistaken identity. And however bad this sounded, perhaps I was in the clear. It was not me they were searching for but another ill-fated family.

I corrected them in an almost confident manner saying, no, he was Marine Ed Hawkins. I was desperately hoping that my correction would end this ghastly situation and my responses would satisfy them and make them go away. That edge of courage was dissipating fast. The inquisition continued. They asked if I could please confirm his date of birth. After my response to this question, they deduced that they had the right person. I was alternating from feeling that the two men were so close there was no escape, to watching the situation as if from above – a kind of out of body experience. At that moment in time, I equated escape with turning the clock back and pretending I had never heard the doorbell ring, that Edward had not been injured. I remember being told at the pre-deployment briefing at 40 Commando in February, that if two men in full military uniform knocked on the door then it meant that your loved one had been killed. If they were wearing ordinary civilian suits, then your loved one was injured. I did not appreciate it at the time but in either case, these were life-changing ordeals personally delivered by Casualty Notification Officers. They had a gruesome task.

I felt physically sick and began to shake uncontrollably. For a moment or two I lost my composure. My legs went fuzzy; my head began to spin while the adrenalin pumped around my body. Agreeing to sign the ‘Next of Kin’ form a few months ago before Edward deployed did not prepare me for handling this news. I had been living on the edge since 40 Commando’s tour of Afghanistan began, but this was obviously in a league of its own. I could not believe that this was happening to us. My vision narrowed down to just them and me. I noticed nothing else.

Next of Kin (1)

The seed for Next of Kin was sown in 2010 when I was sitting beside my son’s hospital bed wondering how to talk to him as he lay unconscious. I kept notes of my feelings and thoughts which I began to realise helped me function at an acceptable level to the outside world.

Until more recently, it was thought that personal struggles should remain behind closed doors. A lack of understanding and uncertainty of what to say, it was easier to cross the street, creating for the sufferer an even greater sense of isolation and lack of support.

The impact of an injury to a family member is hard to bear for everyone involved but easier if feelings are shared and understood. Reading, listening or talking about a difficult time in our lives helps its validity. As the saying goes ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’. Mutual support encourages us to gradually reach a state of acceptance. It is a relief to know that at last attitudes are beginning to change towards mental health at all levels.

So do join me and allow my story to dispel any thoughts you may have about ‘stuffing it all down’ and perhaps allow yourself time to think and unravel your own journey.

Do forgive me as you may already have read the compressed version in my piece that appeared in Words for the Wounded (http://www.wordsforthewounded.co.uk/), but I think reading the full length version helps clarify the story.

Chapter One

Friday 21st May 2010, 10.00 a.m.

My heart missed a beat as the sound of the doorbell reverberated through me.

It was a modern doorbell the sound of which from that day on never left my head. It looked out of place beside the Edwardian front door which we painted British racing green a little while ago. The two parallel stained-glass panels in the door occupied half its length. Another smaller panel of stained glass sat widthways above the door. When the sun beamed through the glass in the afternoons, pastel shades of pink, yellow, green and blue danced in the gilded mirror hanging in the hall above the radiator.

Focusing on who might be at the door helped me take stock. I quickly went through a list of people in my mind that may pop in on the off-chance for a coffee. Dog walks complete, I certainly could do with a catch up. Then I recalled that it could be Emma’s delivery of wellington boots. She was due to leave for South Africa shortly to carry out some voluntary work with the Cheetah Outreach Programme. I had only ordered them a couple of days ago so that would be pretty quick, almost unbelievable. The parcel would be too big to post through the letter box and the postman rings the bell if he thinks one of us is in to take a delivery to avoid it being left outside on the black and terracotta quarry tiled steps.

I still had my muddy wellies on from walking the dogs so rather than remove them, I trudged back through the rear porch and along the patio to the black wrought iron side gate, opening it carefully as I slipped through. Closing it after me, I replaced its safety chain to make sure no inquisitive dogs escaped. With my hands in my pockets, I walked down the tarmac drive, past the purple wisteria climbing up the wall and to the corner of the red-bricked house. As I peered round the house wall, I caught sight of two men standing quietly together. It looked as though they had rung the bell and then retreated down the three steps to the driveway level. I quickly looked them over from a distance and saw they were smartly dressed in suits. Who on earth were they, I wondered? Perhaps it was the Jehovah’s Witnesses. As I approached, I ran out of guessing time. They said hello and quickly introduced themselves. Their names did not register with me – I imagined I would never need to remember them. I noticed one of them was wearing a clerical collar with his civilian suit. And just at that precise moment warning bells started to ring in my head. With a sense of dread, it began to dawn on me who they might be.

Next of Kin

As my son prepared for deployment to Afghanistan, he asked me to be his next of kin. By Friday 21st May he had been on tour for two months.

I had just returned from walking the dogs when the doorbell rang. I retraced my footsteps through the back gate to save removing my muddy boots and as I approached the front of the house, I caught sight of two men looking at our front door, waiting for it to be opened.    They introduced themselves. One was a Royal Marine Lieutenant Colonel, acting as the Casualty Notification Officer, the other was a Padre – both wearing suits.   They told me that our son Edward was very seriously injured.   Shock overcame me and I slumped to the ground, they escorted me indoors. They continued to relay what information they had. The Royal Marines were searching for a wire leading to an Improvised Explosive Device when it exploded.  Edward’s injuries were extensive. He was having life-saving surgery at Camp Bastion but I should prepare for the worst.  His survival was unlikely.  The troop’s corporal had been killed in the same blast.

Clusters of words circled in my mind that I remembered Edward saying before deployment. “I’m well trained; I’m battle ready; it’s what I’ve trained to do; I’ll be fine Mum.”  I bowed my head focussing on my feet.  It was an attempt at blocking out reality. Icy cold fear crept from my head to my toes.

The Casualty Notification Officer explained that there was a 24 hour curfew preventing the media from reporting this incident. I had to reach family and friends within this period.  I prepared to phone my husband, not in the City, not nearby but thousands of miles away as captain of a merchant ship. The first attempt failed – I was cut off. The second time worked.  I heard his voice.  My heart melted.  I tried to tell him the news gently. I wanted to hug him, comfort him, to tell him that we would get through this together.  If Edward should die, the Casualty Notification Officer explained he would return in full military uniform to tell me.  That long night I barely breathed as I listened for his footsteps on the drive.  I began to plan Edward’s funeral – preparing for the worst was my coping strategy. The underlying meaning of ‘next of kin’ began to dawn on me.