When you shared your Huffpost article with me in May, I knew I needed to respond. And that the response had to be more than just fatherly encouragement for your inspirational action, using your own lived experiences to define what you needed to do for you and to help others.
Of course, I immediately offered to undertake this ride with you, help you find sponsors for the amazing Light House Group (TLG) charity and as a result we planned our first 100 mile bike ride last weekend...
Yet it does not feel like that is enough. True for a sixty year old, who has overindulged in the fine wines, baked camembert, you mentioned and countless other health sins, for most of those 60 years, it does seem like a big ask. More importantly, add into the equation the fact that I had not been on a bike for a good 25 years, many would say it is a herculean task! No it is the 1000 miles of madness...
...which you inspired and there is more, so here goes......
What truly lived for me as a parent when I read your post was a need to protect you from such experiences. Yet it tapped into my own grief. Let me take you back to the 2 months before you were born, September 1986. Your mum and I were at your grandparents in Great Barr, Birmingham, England, when I received the fateful call from the police, "There has been an accident, you are needed at your parents home". I was stunned, but then asked a series of quick fire questions, to which the calm and measured response was simply "You are needed at home". I sensed something awful had happened and wanted to protect you, our unborn child, from such anguish. I agreed with your mum I should go alone.
The 13 mile drive to my parents, alone with my thoughts, was torture, my mind played with the carefully chosen words of the police, fuelling my imagination. When, after an eternity, I got to the front door of my parents house, I was greeted by a police officer. I realised then how impeccably the police had acted, when they informed me what had actually happened. My youngest brother Ross, still living at home, had used our father's shot gun to commit suicide.
I was shown into the lounge where my parents and younger sister, Yvonne, were huddled grief stricken, there were no words, just uncontrollable tears. I realise now, in that painful outpouring there was a great cathartic release in that shared grief. On reflection, I denied your mother that relief and the healing of that community of shared experience and indirectly you too. So when you described the phone call you received from your mum about TJ and the fact that you were isolated with your grief, it is so understandable why you initially reacted the way you did.
My parents dealt with their grief around the loss of Ross very privately and after the funeral did not really talk about what happened. Mental health was still very much a taboo subject at that time. My father did go to talk to Ross's employers to try and discover what might have lead to his suicide, but it revealed very little. My way of coping was to look for the positive in Ross's life and his decision to end it. I made a secret vow to myself to become successful and so compensate my parents that way for their loss. I also vowed to protect you from the pain of life I had experienced so you never felt the need to take your own life. Yet all these promises were about me and my fears of facing such pain again, the thought of losing you in the way my father lost Ross crippled me and drove me at the same time. In truth life has since brought me experiences, which would guide me now to ask of Ross to share with me why he was suffering so much, and maybe in the sharing and compassionately seeking to understand his life experience a tragedy could have been avoided. My learning has been that when you truly accept responsibility for all of your actions, even the smallest of choices, that is when you become a man and in that I celebrate the man you and your younger brother have become. I am so proud of both of you.
I am reminded of the story of the young boy on the beach who was throwing washed up stranded starfish back beyond the breakwater. An elder approached the boy and said, "What are you doing?"There are thousands of stranded starfish on the beach you cannot hope to make a difference". The boy looked at him, picked up another starfish and launched it to safety, saying to the elder, "Well it made a difference to that one!"
When we talked about the motivation of getting on the bike everyday to train for our trip, when it is cold and the wind is howling you told me you only had to think of TJ and your hope in doing what you are doing to raise awareness and funds for TLG that you might save just one life, that is what keeps you going, just like the boy on the beach. Well son, your courage in sharing inspired me and that will I hope inspire others touched by mental health to act and together we will make a difference. Your audacious tenacity in seeking support is inspirational. I know you wrote to Prince Harry suggesting that you were ginger like him and that you shared an interest in raising mental health awareness, so would he like to join you for a stage of the 1000 miles of madness next year!
That would be like me writing to Prince Charles and suggesting that we have similar experiences in mental health, in marriage, children of a similar age and would he like to join me for 1000 miles on a bike trip across the US for personal growth and family healing. Initially I felt that was ludicrous, yet mental health touches every family regardless of wealth or position and only education will change people's lives, so maybe....... Well to be honest the only thing stopping me now is the mental image of Prince Charles on a road bike!!
Irrespective of Royal endorsement let's take time to share our experiences, the joys and sadness of our lives touched by TJ and RJ (Ross James) and hope at least in emulating our Princes' courage in talking so openly about their mother that we too in some small way inspire change.