Friday, 26 October 2012

A Second Chance

You have always worn your flaws upon your sleeve
And I have always buried them deep beneath the ground
Dig them out
Let's finish what we've started
Dig them out
So nothing's left undone

'Flaws', Bastille

Allow me to wear my flaws upon my sleeve.

A Japanese tattoo extends from above my left elbow, over my left shoulder and ends upon my upper chest. Below my clavicle, a tidy scar of three inches or so splits the drawing of a leaf in two. The leaf hides a prominent bulge in the skin - the site of a device that keeps me alive. The leaf belongs to a peony, one of only a select group of flowers that are traditionally used in Japanese tattooing. In the rich symbolism of this ancient art, the peony signifies good fortune.

The scar - a flaw upon my skin, is a permanent reminder of my flawed heart. And more. Much more.

For, in a year filled with impossible sadness, it's a symbol of my second chance - a chance that, tragically, others never got.

On Sunday 7th October, members of the fellrunning community gathered in Patterdale for The Ian Hodgson Mountain Relays, a team event held over a 25 mile course. Amongst the assembled athletes was Darren Holloway of Pennine Fellrunners. During Leg 4 of the race, Darren was running with a fellow club member between Hart Crag and St. Sunday Crag when he collapsed near Link Hause. He received immediate CPR assistance and fellow competitors stopped to remain with him until the Air Ambulance arrived to take him to Barrow Hospital. It was here that his death was confirmed. Darren was 42.

I didn't know Darren. I chanced upon his name in 2009 on a FRA forum thread where he exhuberantly extolled the delights of sleeping in the back of a van and the joys of making impromptu brews on a portable stove in far-flung lay-bys. Hooked by his enthusiasm, I checked out his blog site and have continued to do so weekly over the last three years. During this time, Darren went from being a mid-pack runner to 'something special'. He trained hard, raced hard, but appeared to remain as laid back as his blog title suggested. A genuinely top bloke.

As I read the sad news on the morning of 8th October, I found it hard to comprehend the depth of feeling I had for this man who I'd never had the good fortune to meet in person. Of course, these feelings paled beside the sense of devastation felt by the loved ones he left behind and his friends on the fells. His life had touched so many people, and his death has left a hole in the fellrunning community that may never be filled.

A post-mortem revealed the cause of death as left ventricular hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Darren had died because of a flaw in his heart.

The following weekend, a large contingent of the fellrunning scene gathered at two different locations to pay their respects.

At the British Fell and Hill Relays in Church Stretton, the hillsides were full of Pennine vests, as a huge turn-out of members competed with Darren at the forefront of their minds.

Meanwhile, before the Langdale Fell Race, the last of the series of Lakeland Classics of which Darren was currently well up the leader board, a one minute silence was ended by respectful applause. On an oddly subdued day, the race winner, Ben Abdelnoor wrote of his experience in the light of the recent events. Please take a few minutes to read his words..

I know HCM well. I've lived in its shadow for most of my adult life. Just like Darren, I suspect, I've never experienced any symptoms that would point you in the direction of a doctor. But, unlike Darren, I just got lucky. A routine check-up in my late teens highlighted the probability of the condition, and, from then on, I've been kept under surveillance. Increasingly complex screening techniques have monitored the state of my heart's health, and my cardiologist recently recommended the fitting of a pacemaker to help my broken heart on its way. The tragedy here - and it's hard to take - is that a simple screening process would, almost certainly, have picked up Darren's condition and saved his life. Heartbreakingly, he never got his second chance.

It's six weeks since my pacemaker was fitted. My second chance. Each day, my running seems stronger. On recent dark, misty mornings I've found myself alone on farm tracks relishing the feeling of deep joy that comes with the simple act of putting one foot in front of another. Then, out of nowhere, I'll half-glimpse something on the limit of my headtorch beam, at the very edge of my vision. A startled rabbit? A stray cat? My mind playing tricks. Or the vision of a stranger skipping across the fields in a jaunty cycling cap and a red, yellow and black running vest. And, whilst I don't stop, my pace slows, the joy ebbs away for a moment and all I can think is 'if only...'

Move your gaze from the peony to the area of my left upper arm. Perhaps you'll notice the scars. Four parallel welts, raised and ugly. A little lower, a criss-cross of less pronounced but equally damaging tracks. These are scars of a different nature, expertly woven into the image of a large koi carp and the delicate detail of falling cherry blossom. Whilst the tattoo art symbolises bravery and persistence in this fleeting journey we call life, it is the scars that tell the real story. The story of a second chance. A second chance born from a tiny flicker of hope that sparked so briefly in the scenery of dark places. I was lucky to see that spark. How I wish others might have seen it too.

In the small hours of a late June day, Robbie pulled out his phone and logged onto Facebook. Everyone in Alford knew Robbie. The area's most popular postman, seemingly dressed in shorts and flip-flops all year round. The kid with the tattoos and that massive smile. The life and soul of the party with a kind word for everyone.

He typed out a short message that began with the words 'This is my last status...' and ended with kisses. The majority of his Fb friends wouldn't see the message until the following morning. A few night-owls saw the message straight away and posted comments along the lines of 'Keep your chin up mate' or 'If you want to talk, you know where I am.' A couple of his most cherished tried to ring him to no avail, and then called on a couple of his favourite haunts in an effort to find him and offer their love and support. Again, to no avail. In recent weeks, Robbie had lived a nomadic life outside of work, staying at his sister's house and on the sofas of various friends. Who knew where he could be at this time of night? Eventually, they returned home, no doubt sure that Robbie would see things more clearly in the morning.

As dawn broke on that next morning, the post office staff turned up at the sorting office in the same manner as they did most days. But the police had already gained entry and discovered Robbie's body. Shortly after posting that message in the darkest hours, he had taken his own life.

Whilst just the thought of the death of a loved one is completely unbearable, the suicide of a family member you adore goes beyond my comprehension of sorrow. I'd only gotten to know Robbie recently, but there were many times in the days after his death when the tears came and wouldn't stop. I thought of my darkest night and wished so dearly that he might have seen the spark.

A couple of days after his death, Robbie had been entered to compete in our running club's seafront handicap 10k race. Along with Our Kid and myself, we were to comprise a team of 3 that was guaranteed to give the rest of the teams a real run for their money. It seemed impossible now to believe that our team would be one short.

The day before the race, Rhea, one of Robbie's sisters, contacted Tammy and told her that her and her family would be coming along. She knew that that's where Robbie would be.

The next evening - a perfect June evening - a large group of friends and family gathered on the beach near the start of the race. Rhea and Robbie's mum said a few tearful words and all of us that knew him cried. Sitting by themselves on a concrete step on the sea defences, Robbie's young daughter and her mum hugged each other tightly. We remembered Robbie in a minute of applause before starting the race. A race in which running has never seemed so meaningless.

Since this worst of days, I've been filled with a bottomless admiration for the dignity and bravery of Robbie's family. The actions of his sister, Rhea, in particular, have been an inspiration. In an effort to make sure Robbie's huge smile is never forgotten, Rhea has put together a series of races that have included The Great North Run and Perth, Western Australia's City to Surf run. As well as keeping Robbie's memory alive, she has also set about raising funds for PAPYRUS - a charity dedicated to the prevention of young suicide. Please spare a moment to look at her Running For Robbie fundraising page.

There's tears in my eyes as I write these words. 'There's the spark!' I want to shout. 'The barest glimpse of light. Hold onto it with all you can. Hold it tight. Don't give up.' But, of course, it's too late.

In the small hours of a late June day in 1998, I walked into the tiny bathroom of my Anderby Creek chalet. I unscrewed the top of a new razor and took out the blade. I was broken. There was nothing left.

I was 7 years old when the cracks first appeared. A little blond boy with a shameful secret I would keep for over thirty years. I did my best to repair the cracks. I worked harder in school than anyone else. My exam results were exceptional. My self-esteem was barely functional.

Later, after discovering running, I repaired myself with increasingly ambitious challenges. Coast to coast, John O'Groats to Land's End. Crazy schemes to hold myself together. And that might have been enough. But things kept happening that made the cracks re-appear, made the cracks wider, broke me up a little more.

The Run For Africa destroyed me. And after three months of alcohol, insomnia, fluoxetine and amphetamines, I found myself in that tiny bathroom staring at the end. Pass this test, I thought, and tomorrow I'll run a hot bath. I love hot baths. I'll run a hot bath and I'll relax a while. Then I'll take this same blade and cut deeply - draw the blade upwards, not across. When I'm done, I'll place the blade on the side of the bath and go to sleep.

I've always been disciplined. I like to do things properly. Would I be able to do this last task properly? No 'cries for help'. No half-arsed efforts. Do it once and do it right.

Was I up to it? Pass the test and you'll know a voice told me.

I took the blade in my right hand and cut into the skin of my left upper arm. Four or five tracks in a messy criss-cross. I stared in the mirror and watched the blood well from the wounds and start to trickle down my arm.

That was easy.

I held the blade more tightly, found another clean area and tried to do better. I applied more pressure. Pressed harder. Four gashes, parallel lines near my shoulder. In the mirror I studied the gaping wounds with an amused detachment.

Too easy, I thought. Surely killing yourself shouldn't be so easy?

I put the blade down, walked into the bedroom and lay down. Blood covering the sheets. Dirty. Dirty. Worthless. And just one thought. Killing yourself shouldn't be so easy.

I slept a fitful sleep, and whilst I slept I knew where this nightmare must take me. Swimming in the sea, I'd gone as far as I could. Exhausted, I stopped. Desperately tried to stay afloat. Desperately tried to stay alive. Eventually, the water took me. I struggled, held my breath until my chest burst. The pain was unbearable. I opened my mouth and took a deep breath. Breathing water. And the pain eased. The pain eased. And then I woke.

I knew now what I must do to go to the only place left for me. I wasted a day, and as the day darkened, I put on the running shoes I'd discarded for so long. A long, long run and then I'll give up. Tired. So tired. I left my keys on the kitchen table, put in the headphones of my cassette walkman. 'And the fireworks in me are all gone...'

Sometimes you need someone to help you see the spark. The words of a lover, or a stranger. There's hope in the merest of sparks. Four short words. 'Keep it up son.' The stranger who saved my life.

I got lucky. My second chance. How I wish it was the same for my friend.

The ancient Japanese art of Kintsugi, which translates as 'golden joinery' or 'to patch with gold', is the process whereby ugly breaks are turned into beautiful fixes. Most repairs hide themselves - the goal is usually to make something as good as new. Kintsugi proposes that repair can make things better than new.

Kintsugi is a technique of repairing broken porcelain, earthenware pottery and glass. The highly skilled artist carefully repairs the broken vessel with a sticky resin that hardens as it dries. The resin is then sanded and buffed until the crack is almost imperceptible to the touch. After that, the artist takes a lacquer that has been mixed with real gold and covers the crack.

As an art form, Kintsugi points to valuing the history of something that has been broken and is made whole again in a new identity. The new, reformed whole contains both the remembrance of that which was before and also what is now - something that had been broken into pieces and is now reformed, containing the additional joining golden amalgam that is noticeable and traceable.

Once the storm had passed, I remained deeply ashamed and embarrassed about my scars for a long time. They were a reminder of my weakness, of mental flaws that almost took me away.

But, with love came self-acceptance and a new strength. Those scars are my golden seams. The cracks are still visible, but I am repaired.

 My life as Kintsugi.

I've lived by a motto in recent years. Words by The Capuccino Kid.

'We have this one brief life - this one chance - and then we are gone, and an opportunity lost is an eternity of regret.'

These words were important to me - I even included them in my wedding day speech.

But this year has shown me that I've been wrong. Whilst most people have just that one chance, I've been blessed. I've been given a second chance.

I promise I won't waste it.

          *                    *                    *                    *                    *                    *

This post is dedicated to two fine men who never got that second chance.

Darren Holloway, 1970-2012

Robbie Timmins, 1980-2012