Dedication: I would like to dedicate this story to my incredible mum and dad. Without them I would not be the person I am today.
Let me take you back in time dear reader and tell you about something I haven’t told anyone for many a long year. Don’t panic though – it’s not a terrible story, just a bit of history that I want to share with you.
We have to go back in time to 1984 when I was indeed a girl. In fact this was when I first discovered that I had a lion heart.
We lived in a pretty standard house. There was me, my sister and my brother along with our parents. Not forgetting, probably at times my best friend in the world, our crazy dog. I was 17 at the time, going to a local college so I could get the grades to go to university. My sister was 15 and still at school and my brother was doing an appreniceship with a local company. He was looking forward to his 21st birthday.
For those of you who have only heard about the 80s, these were simpler times. We communicated with other people by sending letters in the post or by using a phone attached to the wall. Usually the phone was in the hall, on top of something, reassuringly called, the telephone table. Sometimes our phone had a lock on it – that’s because me and my sister talked on it for too long and ran up a huge bill. We had to literally ask the bill payers permission before we used the phone!
We didn’t have a computer or a mobile phone and the internet hadn’t been invented yet. We kept up to date with the world by watching the news on TV and by reading newspapers. Newspapers were exciting things and we had to wait our turn to read them. When I finally got the paper, usually all the important news had already been discussed between us. The best stories were often read out by my dad, with the opening line ‘Wait till you hear this’. Never the less, I’d still devour the contents of the newspaper from cover to cover, reading every story while trying to figure where in the country unfamiliar places were located. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we had the added bonus of the local evening paper. That was always greeted with a flurry of excitement as we loved reading about the latest local scandals and goings on. My mum poured over the wedding photos looking at the styles of the dresses. She would then flick through to the estate agents section and pick a house she’d like us all to live in. She always wanted one with a big garden for her plants, dreaming of all the new ones she’d grow if she had the space.
My story really starts on a cold November morning in 1984. It was a Thursday I think. We all went to school, college and work pretty much as normal. No doubt my head was full of boys in my class, going out with friends and Duran Duran music. The morning passed easily enough. I’d gone out for lunch with some of my class mates. I think we’d bought some Christmas cards and looked at records before going back for our afternoon classes. I was looking forward to our lesson as it was with my favourite teacher.
You know that feeling you get when someone asks to speak to you, very quietly, and then leads you into another room? Something about their body language, about the way they are avoiding your eyes, about the gentle touch on your elbow makes you feel uneasy. I think I sensed that the conversation wasn’t going to be an easy one.
My teacher led me into his office. He sat me down and explained that he had some very bad news for me. He told me that he didn’t know all the details but that there had been a terrible accident at my house, some sort of explosion, and that my mum and Dad were both seriously ill. I couldn’t really understand what he meant by an explosion – what could cause such a thing to happen? He explained that our house was on fire and that I should prepare myself as my mum and dad’s injuries were severe. He told me that our priest, Father Mac, was on his way to collect me then he and I would pick up my sister from school and go straight to the hospital.
Father Mac duly arrived and hurried me out of the building, bundling me into his car. Father Mac didn’t know much more about what had happened just that the explosion had been caused by the new gas heating being installed in our house. He also said that our house was still on fire and that the fire was proving difficult to put out.
We picked up my sister from my old school. By this time we were both in a state of panic, confusion and deep concern. We were both crying as we clung to each other. We knew only too well that in our church, sending for a priest is never a good sign.
At the hospital, we were ushered to a room by a kind doctor who explained to the three of us (my brother had arrived too) that mum and dad had sustained severe burns all over their bodies from the fire and that they were both seriously ill. Their injuries were so bad that they would have to be taken by ambulance to a bigger hospital about 50 miles away which had specialists equipment and doctors. He further explained that this would be the best place for mum and dad to be treated. For now though, they had to be made comfortable enough to travel.
We weren’t allowed to see them as the burns to their skin were so bad and they were still being treated. Also the nurse explained it really would be too upsetting for us as they were in terrible pain. The three of us just sat in a stunned silence, not knowing what to do, what to say or what to think.
After an age, the doctor came to tell us that the ambulance was ready to take our parents to the other hospital. We saw them both only very briefly as they were wheeled into the ambulance. They were completely covered in bandages like mummies from some silly black and white movie. The ambulance doors were shut and off it drove into the darkness with the blue light flashing. I was handed a bag which contained the clothes they had been wearing along with my dad’s glasses and his wallet. The three of us were left standing alone, afraid and worried on the edge of the pavement.
We had no idea what we were going to do next. Father Mac said we couldn’t go back to our house because it was unsafe and was still on fire. Later we’d come to learn that our house had to be demolished as it was in danger of collapse.
Unbeknown to us, the good people that we knew had all heard the awful news and come up with a plan. We were to stay with a family friend for now. We were taken to the nearby house, comforted and given food and drinks. I’ve since realised that people like to feed others in times of crisis. I think it’s some sort of safety valve.
I have no doubt we talked for hours as the information started to filter through to us. It was only then that we realised that the only possessions we literally had were the clothes we were wearing and our school bags. Everything else that we owned had been in our house. And that meant all our things had been destroyed. All our books. All our school and college work. All our posters. All our records. All our clothes. All my collections. All our furniture. Our kitchen table. Our bedrooms. All the little things that had made up the place we called home. All gone. Everything. Gone. In just an afternoon. I can’t describe how utterly hopeless things felt right then. We literally had nothing. Apart from each other.
We were scared, worried and afraid of our future without our parents. None of us wanted to say the thing we were all thinking – what if our patents die? What would become of us? We were too young to look after ourselves. Sure we could do adult things but we really weren’t grown up enough to cope with being on our own. Luckily we had lots people to support and to help us.
My brother called the doctor at the hospital on a borrowed phone (definately on a table in a hallway) and was told that our parents had arrived safely at the bigger hospital and that the next 48 hours would be critical. We knew that that meant that our parents might die.
I have no idea how we slept that night. The next morning, my uncle was coming on the train from his home to take me to the bank. He said we had to discuss the future. He told me that we had to put my dad’s affairs in order. I didn’t know what that meant but I knew it was serious.
We went to the bank where I was given cash and a bank card (quite a thing in the 80s). My uncle said that I had to look after the day to day money. I had also to look after my sister and my brother. My uncle was going to take care of the difficult things like bills and such while I had to make sure my sister and brother had everything they needed.
We had to buy some clothes for everyone. This just made me cry. I didn’t care about clothes. I didn’t want to be in charge of day to day money. All I wanted was for my mum and dad to be here with us and to be doing normal things with them. I didn’t want to talk about the future. I certainly didn’t want to think of a future without my parents.
Our house had to be demolished for the safety of the neighbourhood. I didn’t go to see the rubble as I thought it would be too distressing. Not many of our possessions were retrieved – a few photos, a dancing Russian doll ornament, my favourite old stuffed mouse. So many irreplaceable things were lost such as my sister’s favourite teddy, my mum’s sewing machine and a lifetime of knitting patterns. Most of our family photographs were lost although we we did manage to create a lovely album put together with photos from many family and friends.
My mum and Dad remained in hospital for about 4 months both having sustained substantial burns. It is remarkable that they both survived. The doctor at the time of admission said he thought it was highly unlikely that either of them would survive the first night.
My dads burns were mostly on his hands as he had bravely tried to put out the flames on my mum’s back. Both of them had extensive skin grafts which were incredibly painful, slow to heal and had limited success. My dad had about 30 operators on his hand including having one finger removed before he finally decided that he had had enough treatment.
My mum and dad never worked again after their accident. This was a huge blow to my dad especially as he had a professional career and was only in his early 50s at the time of his accident. At times during the preceding years, my dad suffered from bouts of severe depression which was incredibly hard to life with for all of us. As this was the 80s, depression was not a term widely used or understood especially with regards to men. I doubt my dad would have agreed to treatment even if it had been suggested to him. I know both of my parents had nightmares and most probably suffered from PTSD. That said, both lived a long, happy and fulfilled life right up to a ripe old age. Mum grew many gardens and continued to make stunning pieces of clothing including wedding gowns and many knitted hats for her grandchildren. Dad was involved with many projects over the years and continued to be a dedicated charity worker. Mostly though, they enjoyed spending time with their family and watching us all grow as our lives unfolded.
The accident was due to an old gas pipe being unsafely disconnected during the installation of the new central heating. This caused a build up of gas in the house. The investigation concluded that the flicking of a switch on an electric appliance caused an electrical spark which ignited the escaped gas. The most probable explaination was that mum had switched on the kettle to make a cup of tea when Dad popped home unannounced for lunch. Dad could never explain exactly why he decided to go home for lunch on that particular day. If he hadn’t, mum would have certainly perished in the fire.
Years later, the gas board settled out of court for the damages incurred – loss of our family home and all our belongings, included my dad’s salary for over 15 years. It wasn’t a huge amount of money by todays standards but it did mean my parents could be comfortable without any financial worries.
Our crazy dog ran away in the confusion of the explosion. He was found several miles away by a family who recognised him from the story in the newspaper (yes we made both the national and the local papers as well as the tv news). He was reunited with us after a few worrying days. He recovered well from his burns and was loved so very much by us all. He lived to be a very old dog although he never did like loud noises or ladders.
This is how the lion hearted girl came to be in 1984. This was when I truly figured out that things don’t matter that much. My lion heart came to realise that most things can easily be replaced because they have little value. The most important things are the people who make up my family and friends and their worth cannot be measured or easily replaced.
My lion heart began to beat loudly in my chest for the people I loved the most. This is when I realised that love really is the only thing that matters. And that the power of love is what we need to keep us alive and, as importantly, living.
This is when my lion heart grew strong enough to realise that no matter what life throws at me, no matter how hard things seem or how little I have, I can rebuild my life and start all over again.
Because I will always have love in my strong lion heart.
Thank you so much for reading this post. It’s hard to believe this happened to my family such a long time ago. I know it made me a lion heart and I can look back at my journey knowing that we all survived some tough times and grew stronger from our path.