I was due to run with two friends, but one pulled out due to sore calf muscles, the other with bad hayfever. “Sorry to let you down, Charlie” says one in the group chat. “That’s fine”, I replied, thinking “it is sometimes easier to run solo anyway, as I can play the route by ear and I won’t have to bother to socialise”. Actually I’m pretty sociable when running, side-eye conversation flowing easily. Somehow social running is far less daunting than meeting a friend for a coffee would be. After an hour or so of procrastination, I selected a Spotify playlist called Made in Liverpool, and started running towards the canal.
Just after turning onto the canal towpath, there was a family of moorhens near the bank – a mother and three chicks. I paused my Garmin and took some photos and videos. One chick kept approaching the mother who gave him some of what she was eating, something pecked from the duckweed and lily-covered surface of the dead-arm of the canal. I reflected on how Iggy used to like it when I made him a banana Nutella smoothie or a ham and mayonnaise wrap. At 15, Iggy was quite capable of making those snacks for himself, but he liked it when I mothered him.
I put my phone away and jogged on, enjoying the playlist. I felt uplifted for a while, and reflected on this. Something about the left, right, left, right, repeating motion of running, and the changing scenery, the sound of bird song, almost always makes me feel calmer.
During lockdown I have been more frequently up close to young animals being cared for by their parents, which for some reason fills my heart with joy. Now I noticed this feeling, and reflected on my early lockdown solo runs, when exercise and health seemed such a treasured privilege, when newborn lambs frolicked in the fields like all was right with the world. Those early lockdown moments had brought me such genuine elation, in the midst of misery and uncertainty. Now as I ran past mallard ducklings, tucked under their mother for shelter, and adolescent Canada goslings, I just felt ok.
The opening bars of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” by Gerry and the Pacemakers played from my pocket.
I listened to the gentle arpeggios, with the fleeting thought “I could learn this on my guitar. I may have to explain that I just love the song, I’m not a Liverpool football fan”. But then I started listening to the familiar lyrics, and was blind-sided by grief.
When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark.
At the end of a storm
There’s a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark
Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown
Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone
You’ll never walk alone
My legs continued to run, but a more familiar song invades my head. It’s a catchy song, real earworm, self-penned by me. The refrain repeats more often than the “nah” in Hey Jude.
“If only I’d had the right reassuring words to say to Iggy when he was struggling, maybe he wouldn’t have taken his own life”
There are other verses too, but no music.
“Iggy said ‘love you, mum’ when we went out that fateful evening. That was uncharacteristic. I should have known something was wrong. My mothering instincts should have kicked in, I should have stayed home and protected him”
And “I did know something was wrong, when I was out. I didn’t feel right. Not just uneasy in an unfamiliar place with people I don’t know, but a sinking feeling like something terrible was going to happen. I should have made my excuses to Si and the band, and got the next train home. Or even an Uber”.
And “Did he even say ‘love you, mum’ or is that just a false memory? Maybe I just wanted him to have said goodbye, and to have told me he loved me, and my brain has fabricated that memory”. That is such a miserable fucker of a verse, I’m surprised Morrissey didn’t write it. Basically lose:lose.
The canticle goes like this “Either he didn’t love you, or he did and you failed to protect him”. Even if I wrack my brains, or have regression therapy to try and remember whether he really said ‘I love you mum’ or not, I know there’s no good outcome to this train of thought, but I still can’t derail it. I’ve even asked Si, “did I seem like I knew that evening that something terrible was going to happen”. He said “You were unusually quiet, now you mention it”.
I know how this song ends… with super responsibility. “I can’t save Iggy now, I know, but I must be able to do something through my advocacy work, so that other autistic LGBT teenagers don’t suffer in silence. I can, and must, save other teenagers who are bullied at school. It’s my destiny, and Iggy’s legacy”.
“Just look at Paula McGowan – she took it upon herself with Oliver’s Campaign to educate the NHS about autism, so no other teenagers unnecessarily die from being given anti-psychotic drugs when they are only having an autistic meltdown. Why can’t I do something like that?” https://www.olivermcgowan.org/
“How can I convince everybody to accept others who are autistic and LGBTQIA, as they are just another kind of normal. Convince those kids they aren’t alone, that I’ll fix this, and they won’t ever need to find a way out. Different is OK. Live and let live. Be kind, be accepting of others”.
“Maybe I could, and should, change the world? I could make the world a better place, as well as holding down my job, keeping my daughters safe, supporting my husband..”
“Maybe that’s too much responsibility for one person. I’m already grieving, and stressed. Maybe I need to practice some self-care? Volunteer less? Put myself first more? No, that makes me a shitty person. And a bad mother. What about my daughters? They might get bullied too, they already feel different. I could let them down too, and lose them too”.
“Just stop it… Keep running. I must complete this 10K, because my ankles are sore, so who knows how many rest days I’ll have to take before I can run again”.
“Now what funny caption shall I put on my Strava? I think it’ll be a quote from You’ll Never Walk Alone. You see, trigger, I acknowledge you. I’m not scared of you, and I’ll even make fun of you a little. I’ll blog these thoughts later, and somebody might find it relatable and helpful. I might be able to help somebody, they’ll feel less alone. It will risk one of those ‘just checking in, how are you doing’ messages, but so be it. At least one person who reads this will armchair diagnose either OCD or PTSD”.
I got home from my run, and Si said “You’ve been gone longer than you said. Good run?” Catching my breath, I say “Yeah it was ok. I saw some baby moorhens, got a little triggered over a song, but I managed 10K”. And thus, we crack on with our day.
I notice again the little plaque a friend anonymously sent us last year, and it hits home again. “Those we love don’t go away. They walk beside us every day”. Iggy joins me on my runs and walks. His presence is not constantly in the foreground of my mind after 15 months, but he follows me more ethereally. He is part of the bigger picture, like the vapour trail that cuts a swathe across the otherwise blue sky.