N.B. I have not mentioned certain details in this post in order to try to respect the grief and lives of those affected by that awful tragedy.
On the 29th March 2000, I learned about death in a way that has affected me for the rest of my life. Before this moment, death was something that happened to old people, or old animals, or perhaps to people in other countries who didn't have a lot to eat. For a long time after that, it was a daily phantom that followed me around.
I guess before I talk about who I became, I must introduce you to who I was. Aged 10 years, and 363 days, I was a tomboyish kind of kid. Growing up in between two brothers does that sometimes. I loved climbing trees, reading books, finding places to hide: anything that kept me out of the spotlight. I was the kind of girl who played football, dug up mud in the playground, sharpened sticks to use as 'weapons', built tree houses and for the most part, hated being treated 'like a girl'. I was average build, athletic, ambitious and tough as nails. I gave as good as I got in my regular fights with boys and many of the girls didn't really give me the time of day. I didn't really have friends in Junior school, so I spent a lot of time alone. The school toilets were my refuge at lunchtime and the small cubby hole in the cloakroom was my safety net when I felt threatened during lessons.
I wasn't naive. I had already; by this point; spent a disproportionate amount of time in my short 10 years in hospitals for appointments, operations and treatments to get rid of my birthmark that could increase my risk of skin cancer astronomically if left to grow. (I found this out later. At the time I just thought it was because it made me different to others and being different was a bad thing.) But despite all this, I was bright, hopeful, resourceful, and despite pretty much hating school because of the bullying, got on well in class and most of the time, kept out of trouble.
Perhaps it was because I felt like an outcast, but I had an overwhelming desire to help, to impress, and to appear useful in the blind hope that my spirit would override the apparent physical flaws that attracted the attention of some people. I didn't like people looking at me, but if they were going to, I preferred it to be because I was doing something of worth. I spent my life "sucking up" to the teachers and adults, and became Library Monitor, PE Cupboard tidy-er, anything to stay off the playground really.
Then, one horrible day just before my 11th birthday, a fire in a flat overnight claimed the lives of three beautiful boys who were pupils/ex pupils of my school. Two of the siblings, although suffering varying degrees of fire-related injuries, survived, (and eventually returned to school.)
Suddenly, death was on the doorstep of our school, our community and our lives. As young children, we were forced to face a horrible and unexplainable tragedy. Nothing that we were feeling could compare to the family of these boys, and I was all too aware that there were those who had known the family far better and far longer than I had. But none of us could escape the sadness that presented itself with us every day that they no longer joined us at the school. Each of us had to enter that playground on that dreadful Monday morning, and feel the weight of the sadness and silence that had smothered the usual pre-school playground atmosphere.
I don't remember much of the assemblies. I don't remember much of what went on during classes after that. I know some were offered counselling, but I wasn't worthy to waste the time of those people when others needed it more than me. I was only at the school a short while longer before I went off to Senior school, but it was a period of time that engrained its negativity into my mind, and changed me in a way I would never be able to explain.
Not long after, just that summer, I experienced my first family death when my Granddad died. But the tears I shed then were partly for my family, and partly out of fear, once again, that death was ever present on my doorstep.
A few years later I remember suffering from terrible, terrible nightmares, some about 'Death' coming to get me, (at the time it was just 'him') and about falling, fire, burning, and other equally terrifying thoughts for a 12 year old. Nightmares and bullying became part of my life, and soon after, self-harm followed to cope with everything that was rushing around my mind and spirit as I struggled with becoming a teenager, and dealing with un-spoken emotions, some of which I would not reveal until many many years later in my life.
Looking back on that time of my life, it is still extremely hard to piece together the ways that it changed me. I know that deep inside, that fear of death has tainted a bit of my soul. I know that there is no way that I will ever be able to erase the dreaded feeling that creeps in through my toes and up to my throat until it chokes me of air, paralysing me and I can do nothing but lay, helplessly on the floor until it subsides. It is a feeling that I have experienced during the most emotional moments of my life, when I felt like my world was once again falling apart. The feeling that I sought to escape every time I reached for a razor blade. The feeling I first got when I realised that death... happens. To young people. To old people. To everyone.
Fifteen years on, from that tragic day, and that time in my life is still extremely hard to talk about. For many years I had an emotional barrier between me and others: I wore a mask and I did not share my innermost thoughts and feelings with anyone. I kept most people away from my heart and kept my "public" face on when with others. But over time, some late-night heart to hearts and hugs from carefully places 'angels' hidden amongst my friends, that has now disappeared almost entirely. Tears, nowadays, seem incredibly close to the surface.
Death, of any kind, makes me feel helpless, weak and ready to cry myself to sleep once again. Funerals of people I have never met are just as emotional as the ones of elderly relatives and friends. The broadcast funerals of TV Characters who aren't even real bring my to real and uncontrollable tears. I cannot bear to see others upset, and crying friends just make me cry. And I cannot help but think that my life, in all the ways it has been affected, has been dictated by that first, unbelievably sad and terrible accident that took three beautiful boys from the lives of those around them. I mean, how can anyone get over something so devastating?
But, time is a great healer, and there is hope for a brighter future. We move on, but we will never be the same. I know that I am not. I know that the lives of those who were left behind reflect the love that they had for those boys. I know they would have been proud of the way their family have kept them alive in their hearts and spirits. I hope they always knew how much they were loved. So R.I.P. boys, rest in peace.