Af­ter her son Miles fell into a coma fol­low­ing a snow­board­ing ac­ci­dent, Lu Spin­ney left his bed­room un­touched in the hope he would re­cover. But when he died five years later, she knew it was time to face the dif­fi­cult task of sort­ing his pos­ses­sions

The Mail on Sunday - You - - Real Lives - PHO­TO­GRAPHS VICKI COUCHMAN

As a girl I was haunted by the story of a mother whose young and gifted son had been killed in an air crash. I knew the boy and it was a tragic story. He had been cho­sen to per­form at an Air Force show and, while do­ing an aer­o­batic stunt, his plane crashed in front of the sta­dium from where his mother was watch­ing.

She was un­able to come to terms with his death and for years af­ter­wards would spend days and some­times nights in his room, which she had left un­touched. She did not let any­one else into the room and, for as long as I knew her – she was a friend of my mother’s – she kept all her son’s be­long­ings ex­actly as he had left them.

Many of us will have to deal with the room and pos­ses­sions of a loved one who has died. To dis­pose of those things, which seem to still carry an en­ergy, is an­other death, an­other farewell. There is no prepa­ra­tion for this, no for­mula.

I thought of this mother again when I lost my own son, Miles. Then, I un­der­stood her grief in a way I had not when I was a girl. At the time of her son’s death, al­though I was deeply sad­dened and shocked, I had thought her be­hav­iour weird and ex­treme. Now I recog­nised what she had been go­ing through; it no longer seemed ex­ces­sive.

Miles was the el­dest in the fam­ily, fol­lowed by his brother Will and sis­ters Clau­dia and Ma­rina. They were close and their bed­rooms on the top floor of our house in Green­wich made it a lively place. It is still a much-loved home, bought at the start of my happy sec­ond mar­riage and pro­vid­ing a sanc­tu­ary through dif­fi­cult times. Built in 1780, it is a house con­fi­dent of its place, solid and se­cure; it has known more of life than we ever will.

Miles was 25 when he moved to a flat in East London, and a year later Will joined him. Their rooms at home re­mained as they were. Hap­pily, each son re­turned of­ten, for the night or a week­end.

Then ev­ery­thing changed. In 2006, at the age of 29, Miles suf­fered a dev­as­tat­ing brain in­jury while snow­board­ing in Aus­tria. He fell into a coma, from which he emerged in a min­i­mally con­scious state, a ter­ri­ble limbo of pain and fluc­tu­at­ing alert­ness in which he re­mained un­til he died five years later. Dur­ing this time his room at home as­sumed a kind of mys­tic sta­tus. A beau­ti­ful room – though the small­est – over­look­ing the garden, wis­te­ria fram­ing the win­dow, it still held his books and week­end clothes.

To change or re­move any­thing would have been an ad­mis­sion that he might not re­cover: the end of hope. We needed to be­lieve he would re­turn; it was hope that was keep­ing the fam­ily go­ing. When Will and I brought his be­long­ings back from the East London flat, we kid­ded our­selves it was a tem­po­rary mea­sure. His


over­coat and jacket were still on the down­stairs coat rack, his old train­ers in the clut­ter of the com­mu­nal shoe bas­ket; ev­ery­thing else was stored in his room.

Miles died in 2011. For us it was a dou­ble death. We had lost him first on that moun­tain slope and then again, five years later, in a res­i­den­tial care home for the se­verely dis­abled. It meant that we had two rooms and two sets of pos­ses­sions to deal with af­ter his death.

His room in the care home we cleared im­me­di­ately. Af­ter his body was taken away, we packed up his CDs and books and took down the mon­tage of pho­to­graphs that had been as­sem­bled so lov­ingly, an at­tempt to re­mind peo­ple what an ac­tive, vi­tal young man he had once been. Any­thing the care home could use we left. The re­mains of his di­min­ished life were jet­ti­soned: soft boots to warm his mar­ble-cold feet, baggy track­suit bot­toms nec­es­sary to ac­com­mo­date his rigid legs, the T-shirts care­fully cho­sen to re­spect his taste.

Look­ing back, the ur­gency with which we emp­tied that room was an at­tempt to clear away the last five painful years of his life. If we could elim­i­nate all ev­i­dence of that time, we could erase his suf­fer­ing dur­ing it. But con­fronting the places he lived be­fore his ac­ci­dent was to con­front the loss of his deeply lived 29 years and the loss of his vi­brant po­ten­tial. Dis­pos­ing of these pos­ses­sions would mean ac­knowl­edg­ing what we had spent so long deny­ing.

Months passed. Then one day Will and I de­cided to sort through Miles’s room. I’m not sure why it fi­nally seemed pos­si­ble. Per­haps it was that to put it off longer had be­gun to feel as though we were dis­hon­our­ing his im­por­tance in our lives. We set to work.

All of Miles’s lived life was there, each item a graphic rem­nant of what he had been, each evok­ing a mem­ory. His clothes, his mu­sic-mak­ing equip­ment, his mo­tor­bike ac­ces­sories, the watch his sis­ter had worn un­til long af­ter it stopped tick­ing, his bat­tered leather wal­let, his box­ing gloves; on and on. Most painful of all was the pile of snow­board­ing clothes he had been wear­ing on the day of his ac­ci­dent, the vest that still held his smell as I buried my face in it and his snow­board, stand­ing like a rid­er­less horse af­ter a fall, in­no­cent of the dis­as­ter it car­ried.

Around us lay the residue of Miles’s life, sorted and la­belled in black plas­tic bags. Most of it went to the lo­cal hospice shop. His vest I have kept; it re­mains wrapped in tis­sue at the back of my cup­board. What later hap­pened to the snow­board is a mys­tery. None of us knows. We have oblit­er­ated the mem­ory.

For a long time Miles’s room re­mained un­used. Then, slowly, it be­gan to take on a new life as the room for vis­it­ing grand­chil­dren. It didn’t need re­dec­o­rat­ing; the paint­work is plain and the orig­i­nal wooden shut­ters have al­ways served as cur­tains. But now, next to his old bed, which is strewn with ted­dies, stands a cot. Chil­dren’s books fill the shelves. The bed is bounced on by the older grand­chil­dren. They al­ready know Miles in­ti­mately; we have al­ways loved to talk about him. The lit­tle green room at the top of the house is still re­ferred to as Miles’s room.

Be­yond the High Blue Air, Lu’s mem­oir of the years fol­low­ing Miles’s ac­ci­dent, will be pub­lished by Atlantic Books in pa­per­back on 5 Jan­uary, price £8.99. To pre- or­der a copy for £7.19 (a 20 per cent dis­count) un­til 7 Jan­uary, visit you-book­shop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on or­ders over £15


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