Moving on after meningitis

24th May 2018

Our volunteer Community Ambassador Lesley Chandler-Clare recalls the darkest of days following her husband Kevin’s death from meningitis and how, 18 years later, she has rediscovered happiness, in a candid and moving account to inspire and bring hope to everyone affected by this devastating disease

Lesley

“Friday 7 January 2000, aged 46, was the day I really had to start growing up.”

“After five hours in hospital my husband Kevin died from meningococcal septicaemia. To say that my daughters Claire and Laura and I were in shock was an understatement. We had all felt unwell at some stage over the Christmas and New Year but had just put it down to winter bugs.”

“What was different was their father had phoned the doctor himself and had not had to be nagged to do so... but even so we did not anticipate the outcome. The family dynamic was altered forever in the blink of an eye. I lost the one person who knew me better than anyone else and the girls lost a father they loved unconditionally and who had guided them so skilfully and lovingly from birth.”

“Claire had just completed her first term at university studying her father’s teaching subject of Physical Geography and Laura was months away from her GCSEs. Now their father was dead.”

A complete wreck

“The first year was, to put it bluntly, horrendous. Kevin had taught at the same school all his teaching career and he was by anyone’s standards an exceptional teacher. The school took over the funeral arrangements as hundreds were expected to attend. Just as well, as I didn’t know where to begin. I was a complete wreck and on top of that the nearest we had ever got to discussing death was to joke that when he died we would ‘plant’ him in the cemetery next to the school... which is what we did!”

“It was hard seeing his face on the front of newspapers and on the local news, reminders everywhere of what had happened to him and us as a family. Sleep was almost impossible. If you slept it meant waking up and going through the reality of what had occurred all over again.”

“The three of us got through all the various religious services at the college Kevin and I had both trained at plus the memorial services at school. It was hard to even think about moving on, everything was such a hurdle. It was a time we only got through with amazing support from friends, Kevin’s colleagues and from people we didn’t know but had known Kevin. Meals appeared, practical help was offered and hundreds of cards and letters arrived with consoling words.”

So hard for the children

“Laura, mindful of her impending GCSEs, went back to school. It was so hard for her as she attended the same school where her father had taught. Now he was missing from school as well as home – no journeys together in the mornings, no bumping into each other in the corridor and everyone in the school knowing what had happened.”

“Claire had the opposite experience, going back to halls of residence where she had only spent a few months and hadn’t yet built up that network of friends.”

“I was on compassionate leave from my school; the days were long and I had a lot to learn. Like many working families there was a division of labour in the house and now I had to get to grips with all the things Kevin had done – banking, insurance, putting air in the tyres (though I still haven’t got the hang of that!), sorting out the utilities and so on.”

“In those early months everything was an uphill struggle, but as the weeks went by I had to start considering how life was to be. Did we stick with the routines we felt familiar with or did we start to do things differently?”

Thinking about our new lives

“One of our first steps forward was to cook something different each weekend. Such a little thing but at least we were thinking about our new lives. We then decided to ‘adopt’ a little Indonesian girl through Plan International. Yes, our lives were hard but in the big scheme of things there were people who had so much less than we did.”

“As teachers with a long summer holiday we had always camped in France. I couldn’t face doing that but we did drive down to Provence to stay with friends. Laura read the map and apart from ending up on the wrong side of the road in Le Havre and being escorted to our hotel by a carful of gendarmes we made it. The holiday gave us the semblance of our former life but was different and we all had to stand on our own feet and make the decisions.”

“Christmas had always been a special family time and we couldn’t face that first one without Kevin. Good friends had started teaching in Jerusalem and invited us to spend Christmas with them. Times were troubled there, which was a concern, but we went. That year Christmas Eve was spent in the bus station in Eilat while we looked for somewhere to stay and New Year’s Eve in a hostel. It couldn’t have been more different than our usual Yorkshire Christmas!”

Anniversary of Kevin’s death

“Then came the first anniversary of Kevin’s death. We had a big party to thank all the friends who had helped us in so many different ways. It was the best way to get through a difficult day. The following year we spent Christmas skiing in France with friends. The third Christmas we again felt we could celebrate at home.”

Steve Dayman came into our lives early on and was a huge support, popping in when he was in Yorkshire and ringing me every week. Slowly we felt able to do bits of fundraising. This again was taking us out of our comfort zone and doing different activities and meeting new people. Claire ran the London Marathon, Laura sold badges in school and took part in sponsored walks and I helped with events, gave interviews and further down the line volunteered to be a Community Ambassador. Meeting so many people who had gone through experiences like ours helped.”

Big decisions to make

“I then had some big decisions to make after returning to work three months after Kevin had died. I had difficulty concentrating at the same level, lessons seemed more difficult to plan and would take so much longer and besides, teaching was something we had done together though in different schools.”

“We also had a large house and garden and soon Laura would be going to university and I would be rattling around in it on my own. Staying where we were would always be a reminder, so just over two years later I made the decision to leave teaching and do other things and also to downsize. It was another steep learning curve, selling the house and making financial discussions on how I would manage.”

“On top of this I was realising that most of my social life revolved around school. It was suggested to me by a colleague that I should join an activity-based group for single people. With great trepidation I took this on board. The first meeting at a pub in Harrogate was nerve-racking but within a few months I had met new people with new interests. I took up French jive and went to dances and events.”

Felt disloyal

“It felt disloyal. I’d had a wonderfully happy marriage to a man I knew I would marry from the outset, but two years on I was still missing him and our life so much. I was grieving not just for what we as a family had lost but also what he was missing. That list of life events is so long now; Laura gained excellent GCSE, A-level and degree results. Claire gained her degree. They both met and married lovely young men. I now have two super little grandsons and a giggly 18-month granddaughter. How he would have loved being part of this extended family and he would have been so incredibly proud of his daughters.”

“My plans went ahead but now I had met Jeff. He had been part of the group of people I had met in Harrogate. We were often at the same events and struck up a friendship. He was wanting to do something different with his life and we talked of buying a French house and doing it up. He became a frequent visitor to the house and the girls got to know him.”

“Telling them that Jeff had asked me out was very difficult, though later they said they knew "Daddy would have liked Jeff". Over the years my life became very different. We bought the French house, living there for months at a time. I got to know Jeff’s family and I took some exciting holidays. He became an important person in our lives. He has been there to give advice, practical help with DIY, been there at weddings and also sat around in hospital corridors waiting for grandchildren to be born.”

“He has supported me in my volunteering for Meningitis Now. We have counted thousands of pounds in the back of cars, given out thousands of symptom cards and he recognises that Kevin will always be in our lives. Claire asked him to be one of her daughter’s godparents, a gesture that really touched him.”

Proposal of marriage

“Last October, on the final night of a backpacking holiday in Greece, Jeff completely surprised me with a proposal of marriage. It was something we had never talked about but it felt so right even at this stage of our lives in our mid-60s and so, in January this year, we were married.”

“We had a wonderful day with our family and friends. My daughters walked me down the aisle as I had done for them. We were accompanied by our grandchildren and the service was full of happiness and laughter.”

How lives change

“Eighteen years ago I could not have envisaged how our lives would change after such a devastating event but it is good both to be loved and love again. Grief never goes away and you learn to accept and live with it, but I am enjoying being a wife again and to have someone to share the ups and downs of life with, especially as we approach the potentially most problematic stage of our lives.”

“On this journey we have shared our story with whoever will listen. Hopefully others have benefited from knowing that meningitis can affect anyone. I just wish the first doctor who saw Kevin all those years ago had known that.”

“Moving on has taken many tears, new experiences and thousands of small steps, big leaps of faith, the support of friends and family, having faith in ourselves and of course, finally growing up.”