‘ALL OF MILES’S LIFE WAS IN HIS ROOM’
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
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
CONFRONTING THE PLACES HE LIVED BEFORE HIS ACCIDENT WAS TO CONFRONT THE LOSS OF HIS VIBRANT POTENTIAL
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
DISPOSING OF MILES’S THINGS WAS ANOTHER DEATH, ANOTHER FAREWELL”