One of Leah’s close friends has written this beautiful tribute to her, called Who She Was To Me.
The Bristol visit she refers to was in October ’13, but to me it feels like it was only yesterday.
It was Leah’s 14th week away from home and in another country. Much of that time had been spent in isolation. She had been horribly ill, enduring countless side effects from her treatment. She had become very lonely and longed to see her immediate family and close friends.
Children/young people with serious or life threatening illnesses sometimes get visited by well known singers or actors to cheer them up.
Leah wasn’t interested in seeing anybody famous, but she was really cheered up (and so was I) by the two separate visits that we had that week from young people from back home. They were in England for other reasons, but they both took the time and trouble to get to Bristol Children’s Hospital, to enter our world and brighten our day:
She smiled a lot. Like most people, she was most beautiful when she smiled. I remember once describing her as a diamond; the pure white light of Christ shone in and what came out was the refraction of a thousand shades of colour, flowing bold and bright onto everyone around her. And, like a diamond, she shone brightest against the blackness of this world.
I met her when I was sixteen. She was wearing a “To Write Love On Her Arms” band around her wrist and instantly we clicked. Several weeks on it was like an ancient bond, something God himself put into motion.
One time in particular, I remember, after Youth Fellowship at her church her mother came to pick her up but my dad was typically running late. As any fifteen year old girl is aware, mummy wouldn’t be too pleased waiting in the car-park for longer than a few minutes. But she waited. She waited with me until my father pulled up in the red Passat. She hugged me tight and skipped off down the steps. That was the kind of person she was though. She would put others before herself; if you were happy she would rejoice. If you were worried or unhappy or lost she would empathise and intercede in prayer. She was a selfless being.
I didn’t realise is at this point, that one day this young girl would change my life.
“I haven’t been feeling too well for quite a while now. So mummy made an appointment and I have to go for bloods on Tuesday. There was almost worry in her eyes, but not quite- she wasn’t a worrier.
“The bloods were clear but ‘cause I’m still not better I have to go to Belfast for more tests. And one of those scans.”
“They didn’t find anything again. They want me back for an MRI next.” Before I left her this time, I made her a little card. A pathetic folded piece of pink paper with a flower on the front and a little word of encouragement on the inside. Petty as it was, she looked at it as though it was made of gold because she knew it was made of love.
It’s vivid, this part. When I dwell on it, it plays like a GIF on my mind. My phone rings as I exit Ebrington Square with my mum.
“It’s Leah,” he almost hesitates, “She has cancer. Her sister just told me, bone marrow cancer.”
I climbed into the backseat of the Passat with confusion stinging my eyes and explained to my parents what the subject of the call had been.
Facebook and texts kept us in contact. She and her mother created a Facebook page on which we were regularly updated. She told me she had to go to Bristol for treatment. I vowed I would visit her there. My cousin lives 20 minutes from where she’d be and I’d go to see her when I was over next. I promised. I kept that promise, even if it took a while.
I saw her once before this in Altnagelvin. She fell significantly ill right as her GCSE modules were approaching. Something called febrile neutropenia. She could have died if she hadn’t been treated right away. Rather than accept defeat and miss her GCSE modules, she sat in isolation and took her exams. That’s the kind of person she was; she battled when it seemed the fight was against her. She gained As and A*s in every one of them. I went to her on the evening of the Maths exams to give her mother a short rest. I gave her the small shell decorated bracelet I bought on holidays, and tying it around her wrist she gave me that same look she gave me when I gave her the petty card, as though I had given her gold. I remember the apple juice cartons on the bedside table; the way the old leather visitors chair creaked and my yelp as the scalding tap water touched my fingers and her voice filtered through the bathroom warning me a little too late that the water was boiling hot. I remember how we talked about the difficult things in our past that were so similar, and the way she couldn’t remember the name of that song and I began to tear up as something in me knew exactly which song it was and as I started to sing, she welled up too because she knew there was no way we were an accident.
In October, almost 5 months after I last saw her, I made it into Bristol. I waited outside for a few minutes before I turned to her husky voice calling me and her mother just behind her. I hugged her so tight! Not too tight, though. I knew she was still tender and I was afraid to hurt her. Her mot showed me up to the room which was home for the entire time she spent away from her old, normal life. I saw the giant Gromit statues painted all around the hospital, the ones from her photos and I smiled.
Through my time there, I was introduced to Leah’s new way of life, a life she was soon to leave behind. I met her nurses, doctors and tasted the tray-bakes they loved to share- fifteens, without the cherries. She asked to me tweeze her eyebrows. She joked at how although her hair was missing, her eyebrows didn’t co- operate, and if I made a mess of them, we could blame the chemo. That’s the kind of person she way. She wasn’t afraid to laugh amidst the adversity; to see the joy in life. I painted her nails. She liked to have her nails painted to mask the discolouration from treatment. I stayed a few hours, just to be with her. To see rest in the face of the girl who saw life as beauty everywhere. To see her smile in my company made me feel amongst royalty.
We never finished that last conversation. I never prayed with her that last time as was the only desire in my heart. We didn’t take a final selfie together. As the cannula in her arm spilled a pint of blood right before she got up for a scan, my empty stomach rushed me to the toilet as she was escorted to a familiar area of the hospital, which was of course in another building. The nurses refused to let me follow her until it was certain I wasn’t going to faint. An unfamiliar labyrinth of corridors met me and 20 minutes later my lift out of Bristol arrived. I stood outside contemplating running back inside only to be greeted with a beep of the horn and a text simultaneously- from Leah: “Where did you go? I’m back in my room now. Can you come back??” But I couldn’t. And that’s the way it went.
She came home again, to a new house. But home is where we belong and she belonged with her mother and father, her brother and sisters. Her friends and boyfriend.
On Boxing Day, Leah took difficulties breathing. They realised it was a difficult infection in her lungs, complications after treatment. She spent her sixteenth birthday in isolation on a ventilator and posted a selfie with her mummy. That’s who she was. She loved through everything that was against her.
On January 16th, sixteen days after her birthday I received a text from her mother reading “At…pm today, Leah went to be with her Lord…” and I collapsed. I wasn’t as strong as she had been all that time. She went home then. Real home; home to her Father. The One who taught her perseverance, to battle, to love unconditionally as she was loved unconditionally. Taught her to find joy amongst the pain. And she taught me. That’s who Leah was.