There are moments which seem to change you forever; after which, life and your outlook on it is never again the same. I’ve experienced a few of those in my 39 years; perhaps the most important of which was the birth of my Son. His arrival seemed to unlock a part of my brain that wasn’t consciously accessible to me previously, enabling new and unrealised thoughts, emotions and abilities. I call it the “Firmware Update”. Now, I’m not saying that I became a perfect father overnight; I’m far from it and still learning as I go. Every day is a school day, and the day we stop learning and growing as individuals should be the day we draw our final breath. After that event, becoming a father, I have learned to identify the things that matter, the people who are important and tried my best (which is difficult with my OCD tendencies) to let the unimportant things go. As I’ve said previously, I’ll write more about Joseph’s birth in another post, one which is dedicated solely to it; in this post I want to write about another “moment of clarity” in my life, one which I touched upon in my very first post and which took place three years ago today. And, unfortunately, one that came following tragedy.
David was a lawyer, like me. A young man; a young family man. 40 years old, married with two young sons. He worked at another firm of solicitors, his office not more than 100 metres from my own but had recently transferred to their Whitby branch which was closer to his home. We were often on the other side of each other’s property transactions and whilst I “knew” him in a professional capacity and well enough to have a nice conversation on the telephone, I didn’t really know him at all and we certainly weren’t what you’d think of as friends. I only met him in person just the once, and that was briefly in passing at his office whilst having a declaration sworn by a Client. He was always chatty & upbeat but prepared to have a moan about work with me if that was the mood I was in (and it often is!). Then, one day not too long later, he was gone. He woke for work one morning, was in the process of starting his day with his family and had a heart episode. He died right then & there.
Word gets around very quickly in a small town and it was on that very day that I heard he had died. Although I only knew David professionally, his death had a profound effect on me personally. The immediacy of his passing, so unexpectedly & suddenly and at such a young age brought into sharp focus for me the fact that we have no guarantee of how long we have on this Earth and no control over how we will leave it. I of course then imagined myself in his position – leaving Sarah and Joseph to go on without me. I’ve taken out life insurance jointly with Sarah so if and when I do go, I know that she and Joseph will be financially sound, but the hardest part, was that at that time Joseph wasn’t even a year old and I knew he wouldn’t remember me. Sure, he’d be shown photos and be told stories as he grew up, but they’d be of and about someone he had no memory of. That thought still brings me to tears. Joseph will be 4 at his next Birthday, still not old enough to retain any real memory of me if I die. The actor Denzel Washington once said “You’ll never see a U-Haul behind a hearse. You can’t take it with you – the Egyptians tried; they got robbed.” All we really have are our memories, our experiences and our love; everything else is transitory. Perhaps this is why minimalism appeals to me even more in recent years. It’s also the main reason I started this blog; so that Joseph will be able to read my words after I’m gone. David’s death made me start to question why, having no guarantee of the length of my own lifespan, I’d spend so much of it tied up doing things which don’t leave me feeling fulfilled, purposeful and worthwhile, including my work.
I had for some time been interested in hiking the old Whitby to Scarborough railway line, closed following the Beeching Review in the 1960s. Referred to as the Cinder Track, it’s approximately 24.5 miles long, far more than I’ve ever hiked in a day and it runs at points not far from the coastal path the Cleveland Way, giving beautiful views of the Yorkshire Coast as you go. I didn’t attend David’s funeral – not being family or a close friend it seemed false for me to do so. I heard that his family had asked for donations rather than flowers for the service, which would be given to Child Bereavement UK, from whom David’s family were receiving support. David worked in Whitby when he died and I of course still worked in Scarborough; the two towns connected by the Cinder Track. After much thought and consulting David’s Wife to ensure she was happy for me to do so, I decided that I would do the walk and try to raise as much money for the Charity as I could.
(Image of one of the waymarkers along the Cinder Track, taken by me on the day of the walk).
(I refer to this as my “National Geographic” shot, with the shaft of light breaking through the trees that line both sides of the path).
I chose a day in August to do the walk when I knew the weather would be clement (it did actually rain a little on the day, but I had a waterproof lightweight jacket just in case – it turned out to be the weekend of the Whitby Regatta), set up a JustGiving page and wrote to all the local Law firms and estate agents etc. to ask for donations. My friends and family also gave generously.
Although many people had expressed an interest in walking with me, eventually all had made other plans but my Father offered at very short notice to walk some of the route, if not just to give me some company. We arrived in Whitby just after 9am on the day having been dropped off by Sarah, who then returned to Scarborough where my Mother was looking after Joseph. We were joined for the first few miles by David’s wife who had also helped in raising funds, and a friend of hers for support. My Father walked by far the hardest part of the route, the approximately 11.5 miles between Whitby and Ravenscar, which is largely uphill, before being picked up by Sarah at the Raven Hall Hotel. Not far from that spot is the old Ravenscar station platform, which marked more-or-less the halfway point of the hike – I would walk that section alone for a few miles before being joined by Sarah at Hayburn Wyke for the final 8 or so miles into Scarborough, the end point of the Cinder Track being a marker at the children’s playground at our local Sainsbury’s supermarket, where Joseph now often enjoys time on the swings and slides. That wasn’t the end point of the full journey however – there was the matter of the final half mile or so to the door of my office, where we were collected by my Father. Other than being a little stiff and sore for a day or two after, the hike went without any problems and I had only a little trouble once following the way, which is very well marked and dotted with long closed and often converted station buildings and platforms.
We raised just over £1,300 in David’s memory; his Wife told me that he would have been astounded that someone would do such a thing for him; but, all things considered, what had I actually done? Send a few letters, write a few social media posts, start a collection page and take a hike. Nothing. Not in comparison to what he’s done for me – the realisation that life is short, longevity not guaranteed and that we ought to spend our time doing what we love, with those we love. The lesson he unintentionally taught me cost David his life. I won’t ever forget him. I hope his sons never do too.