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Friday, 25 July 2014

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I spoke to my dad before and after he died – I hope our talks can help others

It was the phone call she had been dreading but when it rang Michelle Chambers knew exactly what it would be about.

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Happy times: Michelle Chambers with dad Jimmy on her wedding day and, left, Michelle today

It was the hospital in Manchester. Michelle’s dad’s health was deteriorating and the family should come to be with him.

But on the drive there Michelle knew that it would be too late – and when they arrived Jimmy Ward had already passed away.

“On the day he died I had a dream just before I got the phone call,” she recalls. “There was a body on a bed and all I could see was hospital staff putting a cover over it.

“I told my husband that he had already died.”

It was November 2008 that Jimmy died of lung cancer and Michaell’s pain and grieving, as well as conversations she had with her dad before and, yes, after he died, led Michelle to put pen to paper.

She wrote her feelings down in a series of poems and the collection of these heart-felt words, Conversations with Dad, was published in February.

The feeling Michelle, who grew up in Nenthead near Alston, had on the day Jimmy died wasn’t the only premonition she had.

“I’m a bit psychic,” she says. “For a long time I’ve had funny feelings where I feel the symptoms of people when they are ill.

“Before my dad got ill I began to feel ill. I started getting breathless, had pains in my chest and mucus in my throat. These are all symptoms of lung cancer.

“It was like I already knew he was ill before he was actually diagnosed so I started to prepare myself because I thought he was going to die very soon.”

Jimmy had radiotherapy and while the hospital said this would slow the cancer down Michelle, 35, had a feeling that it was going to happen very soon.

He died six weeks after being diagnosed.

“I started hearing somebody in my head saying that he wasn’t going to be here for Christmas,” she recalls. “I talked to him about all this and what was going to happen.

“I think a lot of my poems are linked to this.”

Michelle had started to make a memory book of photographs but Jimmy died before she got chance to show him.

“I didn’t get chance to say all I wanted to say to him,” she says. “A lot of the things I wanted to say to him were in the book.

“I never had the chance to say goodbye.”

She started to write poems on the back of these feelings and after Jimmy died she had trouble sleeping.

Michells would wake up in the middle of the night and write down the feelings she had in her head.

“They were words from dad and my responses to them,” she explains. “That’s why I’ve called the book Conversations with Dad.

There are 85 poems in the book, including chapters about Michelle’s mum Janet and her childhood.

Janet died at the age of 55 of bowel cancer seven years before Jimmy died.

“I was there when she died and we did talk to her,” she remembers. “I think not being with dad when he died was why I suffered so much.

“When my mum died I was 26 and she was 55. I felt robbed.

“After that I felt I could deal with anything so when dad died I was shocked by my reaction.

“When you lose your second parent you lose a part of yourself as it’s the last link you had to your childhood.

“I feel I have lost a part of my childhood.”

When Michelle started writing her poetry she wasn’t sure whether to get them published so looked at different forums for writers on the internet and started writing her own blog.

“It helped build up my confidence and encouraged me to publish my poems,” she says.

“I thought that if my poems can help someone else then I should publish them.

“It is very simplistic poetry.

“I want to reach out to as many people as I can who have been in a similar position.

“It was an unbelievable feeling when the book arrived and I held it in my hands.

“I was stuck for words.

“It was an incredible sense of achievement.”

When Michelle looked back on her poems on the first anniversary of her dad’s death she couldn’t believe that she had felt that way.

The final poem in the book is The difference a year makes.

“I didn’t recognise the person who wrote the poems,” she reflects.

“I couldn’t believe how far I’d come in a year.

“I was in a raw grievance stage when I started but as the book progresses the poems get more positive.

“The last poem gives the book closure.

“There are still difficult times. You never know what’s going to set grief off or what wound may get opened up.

“I have expressed my innermost feelings which I found hard as I’m a very private person.

“I have put myself in a very vulnerable place.

“People have emailed me saying they can relate to the poems and how tearful they have made them.

“I’m a positive kind of person so it’s funny it has had that kind of effect.”

Jimmy lived in Nenthead for 23 years until the year after Janet died, when he moved to Manchester. Michelle still has family in the village.

Michelle went to high school in Alston and then to college in South Shields to study catering and hotel management but major back surgery in her late teens meant this wasn’t the ideal career for her.

She joined a modelling agency and worked as a model and booker in Newcastle for six years after the photographer at her sister’s wedding when Michelle was 19 said she’d make a good model and put her in touch with an agent.

Her time modelling included commercial work promoting the Metro Centre.

She then moved to Leeds and continued modelling until she moved to Wakefield 10 years ago and started a family.

She now works as a help desk administrator and continues writing poetry in her spare time and has enough material for a second book about how you look at life.

“I enjoyed writing my first book and I still get a lot of comfort from it,” she says.

“I always choose to have a positive outlook and look for ways to make myself feel better.

“I think you can go through something really tragic but can come out the other end a more positive person.

“My coping mechanism is that there is always someone else out there who is worse off.”

Conversations with Dad is published by AuthorHouse and is available at Waterstones in Carlisle and from online bookstores including Amazon.

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