It was on Valentine’s Day that our comfortable world was turned upside down. Our son Paul was in his last year at St. Mary Redcliffe and Temple School in Bristol studying for his A levels. He had started getting headaches in January and when he complained of double vision, his quick-thinking GP immediately referred him to a specialist. The next day we were at the hospital having tests and a scan. The news was broken to us almost immediately — he had a tumour on the brain. The shock was overwhelming, yet within a week he had undergone surgery and was back home. It all happened so quickly and Paul didn’t miss a single Sunday at our church, Pip ’n Jay.
Until then we had been the most ordinary and happy of families. Rebekah, his sister, was in her second year at university. They had both attended the same schools, and we all went to church together. Paul was a guitarist and trumpeter and played in the church youth band. He was popular with students and staff at school, even being voted ‘nicest boy’ at the annual ball, and his smile was legendary. He was very active and loved biking, skiing, kayaking, photography and much else. Paul and David enjoyed hill walking together and heading down to Croyde for a day’s surfing, always ending with chips at Squires in Braunton.
After the operation, his surgeon told us to forget the tumour and carry on with life, as it could be years before it made any sort of reappearance. So life returned to something like ‘normal’. Despite having a course of radiotherapy, he was able to continue with his studies and got in to Leeds University to read biochemistry. Had we known what lay ahead, we wonder if he would have taken up his place, but it really was the best thing he could have done.
He quickly settled in and was soon someone others turned to for support and friendship. He joined the Christian Union and the kayaking club and entered fully in to university life. The following March, all seemed well. He was symptom free and we awaited the results of a routine scan with little anxiety, so that it came as a fresh and devastating blow to be told that the tumour had already returned and the only option was chemotherapy.
In June we headed off for a family holiday by the Italian lakes. It was a lovely week, although Paul was very tired and beginning to develop a limp. Then, on the final night, out of the blue, he had a fit. Rebekah may have saved his life by raising the alarm. He was rushed into hospital and thankfully made a steady recovery, so that a week later we were able to fly home with considerable anxiety. From then on his condition declined, slowly at first, then more rapidly towards the end. With the amazing support of a team of friends as well as professionals, we were able to nurse him at home until he died peacefully in his sleep at the end of November 2008.
Paul remained remarkably well both mentally and physically for much of his illness and, as late as October, he was able to help at the Alpha course. He showed considerable courage and calmness and, while he clearly wanted to live, he was not afraid of dying. His faith remained firm throughout.
It was a time of great turmoil for us as a family, but we had terrific support from our church friends and Paul’s own close friends, who were wonderful. But being Christians, and in particular belonging to a church with a charismatic tradition, didn’t necessarily make the whole experience any easier. Going to church and experiencing the love and concern of people on Sundays was sometimes overwhelming. And there were other issues.
When you believe in God’s power to heal, and clearly he isn’t doing so, it inevitably raises questions about prayer and faith. This was not always helped by well-meaning people who encouraged us to go to this healing ministry or another, or who implied that if only you believe in the ‘right way’ it is ‘always’ God’s will that people are made physically well. This feeds a natural desire for a miracle, and a reluctance to face up to what is actually happening. The challenge was how to exercise faith, both ourselves and with Paul, in a way that genuinely believed God could (and would?) heal, while preparing for him not doing so.
And, when healing doesn’t happen, why not? Is someone to blame? It was hard sometimes to escape a sense that maybe it was down to our own unbelief and this added to the stress at a time when it was important to face the reality of what was happening and prepare accordingly. The fact was that, for all the prophecies and prayers (literally around the world), Paul did die. Some sections of the evangelical / charismatic church aren’t always very good at dealing with serious illness, especially terminal conditions and especially in the young. And yet, as Christians, surely we have less reason to try to cling on to life than non-believers? One of the low points we experienced was at a rally with a well-known healing evangelist. Everyone was excited and raising their hands to claim or receive some sort of healing, while Paul sat untouched and unmoved, with a deep sadness in his face. In contrast, however, we did attend some healing meetings at a lovely Pentecostal church in Solihull where the minister had a much more compassionate and realistic approach that left us feeling greatly loved and encouraged.
So, despite the inner turmoil, we set about simply caring and making the most of the precious time that we had together — a flight in a balloon, a walk in the Black Mountains, a gliding lesson — every outing a precious memory.
When Paul died, we inherited some money and put it into a charitable trust which we called Paul’s Fund. At this time we had no idea how the money would be used. Then, in May 2010, David was made redundant and this has turned into a real blessing. We started to look into setting up somewhere where we could provide short breaks for young adults like Paul who had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. We called our somewhere ‘Paul’s Place’ and Paul’s Fund would pay for young adults to stay for free if they faced particular challenging circumstances — not only a life-threatening illness, but also bereavement, or being a long-term carer for a family member.
So, after some research and with enthusiastic support from Paul’s close friends, we set out to find somewhere to buy. We wanted to be by the sea and our search centred on North Devon. In July, before our house was even on the market, we received details of an existing B&B in the centre of Georgeham just a mile inland from Croyde, but by the time we got around to asking for a viewing, the owners already had an offer. The Old Bakery seemed to tick virtually all our boxes and the family who were selling turned out to be Christians, with the husband headed for Trinity College that September. Reluctantly, however, with their move imminent they felt they had to accept the offer they already had. Then in October their sale fell through. By then our house was sold, so we immediately put in an offer and in January 2011 we became the proud owners. This had to be God’s provision.
Where our heart lies
And so we now find ourselves running a B&B cum retreat centre. As well as having regular holiday guests, we are aiming to attract small church groups for mini retreats. But more than that, our vision for Paul’s Place is becoming a reality. This is where our hearts lie and, after many months of contacting numerous charities, we are beginning to see an increasing number of applications, which is really exciting.
Coming to terms with Paul’s death has been deeply challenging. Questions about God persist, but we can look at the last three years and wonder at the way events have turned out, the grace and love we have experienced, and draw some comfort. Nothing can take away the pain of our loss, but we do have a new sense of purpose and direction, and for that we are truly grateful.
For more information about Paul’s Fund/Place, go to http://www.pauls-fund.co.uk and for The Old Bakery go to http://www.georgehambandb.co.uk — or contact David and Pippa (01271 891076, firstname.lastname@example.org). The criteria for a grant are: young adults aged between approximately 18 and 30 who are experiencing bereavement, diagnosis of a life-threatening or terminal illness, or being a carer.