‘My allotment helped me heal’
After her only child died, Jane Cross found a unique way to cope with her grief
The lounge of Jane and Paul Cross’ home in the Isle of Wight is full of pictures of their son Pete – on holiday, squinting into the sun, playing golf and football, smiling with friends. From his birth in 1992 to his death in June 2012, they show a much-loved boy and the young man he became – a quiet high-flyer who excelled at everything he did.
In 2010, Pete had just finished his A levels, had a place at Southampton University to study Economics and was about to visit Bulgaria with friends to celebrate the end of school days.
‘His energy levels were down and he’d noticed a small lump on his neck. So, after his last exam, I took him to the doctor, who thought it might be glandular fever and arranged a blood test,’ says his mum Jane, 58.
‘The next day, the hospital called us in. It was serious. On the Thursday, he was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL). Our world was shattered.’
The next two years were taken up with hospital stays, chemotherapy and anxiety. When Pete went into remission in March 2011, the family were filled with hope, but it quickly turned to despair when he relapsed that December.
‘Shortly before he died, on 3 June 2012, he told us, “I’m going to miss you so much”. I couldn’t say, “We’re going to miss you, too”, because I didn’t want to acknowledge what was happening. But he knew.’
In the dark, empty days following Pete’s death, one thing seemed obvious. ‘We couldn’t carry on living the same life in Loughton without Pete,’ says Jane. ‘We had to start afresh. Paul had taken redundancy from his HR job with the NSPCC, and I’d taken unpaid leave from my job with the local council.’
Even so, Jane had been called into sickness review hearings throughout
Pete’s illness. A few weeks before he died, while living at the hospital with him, she received a letter stating that, if she didn’t return to work, she’d be in breach of her contract. The timing couldn’t have been worse.
In October, four months after Pete died, she and Paul were visiting her parents on the Isle of Wight, when she spotted a house for sale nearby.
Jane recalls, ‘I said, “Well, we might as well look…”’
Eight weeks later, they’d moved. ‘Friends said, “It’s too soon”, but everyone who’s visited thinks we did the right thing.’
Wasn’t it a wrench to leave the old place, full of memories?
‘No,’ says Jane. ‘It was too hard to stay. We actually feel Pete chose this house for us because it’s perfect, with a cricket club nearby and allotments opposite.
‘I’ve always liked pottering in the garden, and the council
‘We’re not religious, but we do believe Pete’s spirit is around us’
told me it was £9 a year for half a plot (half the size of a tennis court), but there was a three-year waiting list. Two years later, when one came up, it seemed such a big thing to take on, but I’m so glad I did. I’d made good friends here, and one – Brenda – was keen to join me. It was totally overgrown, and the council gave us two months to get it into shape, which focused our minds. It was very, very hard work but we really went for it.’
For Jane, tending the allotment has been beneficial mentally. ‘It’s gratifying to see all the hard work pay off in tidy beds, asparagus, beans, leeks, blueberries, courgettes and cucumbers,’ she says.
Any surplus veg gets bagged up and sold for £2 a pop in the pub, with proceeds going to Leukaemia Busters, a charity in Southampton which funds research into childhood leukaemia and safe ways to treat it. It’s a poignant way to keep Pete at the heart of their lives.
Jane and Paul are involved in several tributes set up in Pete’s name, like the shield his school presents annually to the pupil who most shares his unassuming nature and high-achieving attributes.
‘They say losing a child often tears parents apart, but it drew Paul and me together,’ says Jane. ‘He’s my rock.’
Today, Pete’s ashes are in an oak casket in the lounge, with plans for them all to be buried together under a tree. ‘Neither Paul nor I are religious, but we do believe Pete’s spirit is around us. I talk to him all the time, and Paul’s woken up some nights almost feeling Pete hugging him.
‘Interestingly, a friend who knew Pete well went to a spiritualist meeting after her father died. The medium seemed to describe him, so she put up her hand. “Your dad’s here with a young lad called Pete who became ill when he was young,” she was told. “Pete just wants everyone to know he’s absolutely fine.”
‘Funnily enough, “fine” was the only word Pete ever used to describe things.’
Meanwhile, Jane throws herself into life, as Pete would have wanted. Near the end, his thoughts had been for them. ‘What about Mum and Dad?’ he’d asked his Macmillan nurse.
‘I definitely feel the allotment helped my recovery,’ says Jane. ‘It’s helped me stay positive. We dig and plant, and weed and water, then sit with flasks of tea and have a natter. It’s my little piece of Heaven.’
The three of us
Our boy Pete
It’s gratifying work