Sun, Oct 16, 2011 - Page 13 News List

When a child dies

Nicola Streeten speaks about why she wrote a graphic novel describing the death of her young son

By Jon Henley  /  The Guardian, London

Billy, me & You

Billy Edwin Plowman Streeten died on Sept. 19, 1995, aged two years and two months. That’s where we have to begin. No point trying to fudge things. It is, anyway, the reason this article is being written. Or at least, not Billy’s death itself, but the way people — family, friends, strangers, colleagues, his parents above all — dealt with it.

“It’s OK,” says Nicola Streeten, Billy’s mother. “Honestly, it’s completely fine. It was 16 years ago. We’re all right with it now. We realized then we were going through something huge, something absolutely massive, but we knew that eventually it would transform itself into something else, and it has. It’s OK. Really.”

Part of that monstrous experience has been transformed into a remarkable book, Billy, Me & You, published this month. A graphic novel, or more accurately a graphic memoir, drawn from the diary that Nicola kept, it is searchingly honest, and desperately sad at times. At others, it is genuinely very funny. Quite a feat.

“My motivation,” Nicola says, “was to tell a story people couldn’t put down. Not just about me, but questioning people’s responses, society’s response, to trauma and grief. I wanted the laughing and the crying. Not a misery memoir, a book for people who’ve had shit thrown at them. It may be cathartic for some, but for me it was a work of art. Not therapy.”

It would have been different if she’d done it at the time. We’re at her friend and editor’s house next to the British Museum in London. Nicola, 48 now, talks fast and laughs often. The day we meet is, by coincidence, the anniversary of Billy’s death; she and his father, her husband John, 58, have come to London from their Lincolnshire home and had their annual commemorative lunch together. (By the same token, they place a small notice in the Guardian every Sept. 19: “Our equivalent of putting flowers on his grave.”)

“We’re not at all religious,” Nicola says. “We couldn’t do God. So we kind of invented our own superstitious belief system. And part of that is, every year, we come to London for lunch on the day he died, and John puts the in memoriam in the paper.”

But 16 years ago today, they were walking out of the Royal Brompton hospital, clutching their dead son’s possessions.

Billy was born when Nicola was 30. The couple were living in Crouch End, London; she teaching English as a foreign language, he an established artist.

“It’s the greatest thing that can happen, when your baby’s born,” she says. “We just wanted to enjoy having a child. We shared the childcare from the start. Thank God — that meant we’d both had a fair innings.”

All Billy’s early tests had been fine; he was a normal baby.

“Always on the bottom line of the graphs,” Nicola says, “but he never dropped off. We thought the doctors were being fussy. You never really know, though, do you, when it’s your first? You’re never really sure.”

When he was 1, Billy got pneumonia and had to go to a hospital for intravenous antibiotics. He recovered, but a shadow on his lung didn’t clear.

“Over the next year, they ran every test,” Nicola says. “Cystic fibrosis, cancer, heart, the lot. And he was running around, fine. You could never have told.”

Eventually, a consultant at the Whittington hospital concluded it was asthma. That winter, Billy got ill a lot; coughs, colds, trips to the hospital, lots of medicine. In the summer, just after his second birthday in early July, the family booked a holiday cottage in Orkney. There Billy got really ill.

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