Sometimes, significant moments arrive in your life when you least expect them. You may not even recognise them for what they are; small in themselves, these are acts of generosity of spirit that resonate deep within and leave a long-lasting impression.
One such pivotal moment – during my somewhat surreal day on 21 May 2015 – was not, as you might imagine, when I walked across the stage at London’s Barbican to receive an RNLI Individual Supporter award, presented by HRH the Duke of Kent.
Nor was it when the immensely professional and moving videos made by the RNLI were screened prior to the presentations.
It was not even when, earlier in the day, fellow awardee Victoria Milligan and I were interviewed on ITV’s Lorraine programme, though that was about as far away from my norm as I could get!
Neither was it the moment that I was amused (and impressed) to see that I had been allocated My Own Dressing Room at the Barbican. Imagine!
No …the moment came as I rather shakily returned to my seat in the Barbican theatre, clutching the award, my heart pounding and throat tight with emotion.
I became aware of someone looking at me … a woman whom I didn’t know, seated a couple of rows away. Our eyes met and I guess she could see I was just about holding it together. She quickly moved across into the seat next to me and grasped my hand in both of hers.
“You shouldn’t be on your own right now”, she whispered against the backdrop of commentary from the stage, “Are you OK, is there anyone I can get for you?” “I am all right”, I replied, “my husband is just over there. I’m fine, really!”
I don’t think she was convinced and she sat next to me, simply comforting me by her presence and continuing to hold tightly onto my hand. “I lost my brother a long time ago, when he was just 14”, she went on, “So I know a little of the emotion you must be feeling”.
We sat together for a little longer before this big-hearted RNLI volunteer, satisfied that I was going to be all right on my own, moved back to her seat.
The whole episode was over in a matter of minutes but it exemplifies the immense generosity of spirit and kindness that I have encountered, almost across the board, in the (nearly) ten years since James died. Naturally, people sincerely want to empathise; but they cannot possibly understand such traumatic loss unless they have walked a similar road, though the kindnesses I have received from those who try to help are immeasurable.
All my dealings with the RNLI have been marked by the compassion, thoughtfulness, empathy and professionalism of everyone involved. From the first contact with the helmsman at Teddington, through my dealings with Ross and his team on the Respect the Water campaign last summer, during my talk at the training day in Poole, to the making of the video film this year, everyone involved has been incredibly supportive and kind.
I do not think it is too implausible to view the work of the RNLI itself as made up of acts of kindness. After all, what could be a kinder act than to voluntarily put your life on the line to save someone else’s?
As we approach the tenth anniversary of our loss and I recall the years that have passed, I am struck anew by the sheer number of people who have engaged with me in some way or another since the beginning. I will write of this separately, but it is true to say that social media has played a great part in my being able to communicate with many more people than would ordinarily be possible.
I am often called ‘brave’ and ‘strong’ for all the work that I have done since James left us.
If strength is the inherent capacity to manifest energy, to endure and to resist, then my strength has grown over the years.
If bravery reflects courage and valour, then I possess a measure of this.
But whilst I am grateful for the accolades, I believe that I am lucky to have the resilience that allows me to channel my energies into the achievement of significant outcomes. I could not possibly have done any of this without the support of Shaun, my family and my friends, who provide unstinting backing and encouragement in all that I do.
Everything that I do in honour of James’ memory helps me to cope with the idea of his not being here anymore. Even after almost ten years, it feels improbable that we will never see him again, that his footfall will not be heard on the path nor his key in the front door.
The work that I do helps me keep the memory of James alive in many other people’s minds, not just my own. There are so many people who never met James, but now know of him and a little about him. The RNLI video has been viewed by many, many people – far more than I could possibly have achieved individually.
My book has shared our story with many people and when I am told that it brings comfort, I feel that is honouring James’ memory too. James was a great one for helping people, and he would be thrilled to know that he is giving comfort to those who need it. The knowledge that my words help others, uplifts me in turn and I am grateful for the gift of written expression.
Initially I was embarrassed by the thought of the RNLI award. I am not a centre stage player as a rule. But it was pointed out to me that this recognition reflects not only my contribution to the Respect the Water campaign, but also the impact of our three years of commitment to Kingston Council, that resulted in significant river safety improvements and a reduction in
the number of water-related incidents in the area.
This work continues in that the river safety issues are constantly reviewed with local authorities including the RNLI. Training programmes are also in place.
It is not often that individuals get to make a measurable difference to the wider population and the RNLI have my unending gratitude for profiling and recognising our achievements in memory of James.