Thursday 17 April 2014

Our beautiful boy inspires me to write

After his beloved four-year-old son Adam died, Benji Bennett found solace in creating bedtime stories to serve as Adam's legacy

Winning author Benji Bennett at home in Blackrock, Co Dublin, with his wife Jackie and children Molly, Harry and Robbie. Photo by Ronan Lang

As I ponder the publication of a seventh book, I find myself in the fortunate position to have been blessed with life's most precious gift: family love.

Being blessed with four children – Adam, Harry, Robbie and Molly – I am also lucky to be married to Jackie, a most extraordinary woman who has helped me to realise that love, laughter and fun in the family is the most powerful and enduring force that protects the human spirit from obliteration when faced with fear, pain and loss.

However, acquiring this feeling of contentment has been hard fought and seemed an impossible dream six years ago.

It was then that our world imploded when Adam – our four-year-old beautiful golden-haired, brown-eyed, giddy giggler – was lost to us within hours of taking ill with an undiagnosed brain tumour.

As dawn approached on an August morning, tranquillity and peace transcended on the intensive care unit where Adam lay still and Jackie and I lay beside him, cherishing what we knew to be our final moments with our son.

Just as Adam had arrived into the world with a ray of sunshine kissing his head, so too had he left us at dawn in loving silence surrounded by adoring parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents. In a puff, he had gone to his cloud.

Shock, disbelief and denial were followed by desperate attempts to wake myself up from a relentless and enduring nightmare from which there was no escape.

Squirming, clutching my stomach in a feeble attempt to ease my gut-wrenching pain, I begged for relief as I sat broken on the couch in my sister's house.

Life was over, there was no air, the simple act of drawing a breath became panicked, claustrophobic and, at times, seemed pointless.

Then out of nowhere came a moment, a simple moment of hope, where I took a breath and realised it happened all by itself.

This simple act of being able to take a breath without consideration, or being accompanied by an entire respiratory system spasm you would usually associate with a child recovering from the trauma of losing their favourite toy, was a welcome relief from an incessant battering of my mind, body, spirit and soul.

As each day, week and month went by, these moments became more frequent and endured for longer. Like a tide covering the sand on the shore, so too did these moments of relief cover my pain, even if only for a brief moment.

As time went on, this new tide of tranquillity seemed to come and go without fuss, like small waves lapping gently upon the shore on a humid summer morning.

This would become a new friend who would gently come to ease my pain and peacefully tend to my deep wounds that were showing signs of healing.

With Jackie's strength, love and outlook on life, and with the responsibility to preserve the magic of Harry's childhood as well as his strength, I knew something had to be done to rebuild our lives in an attempt to create a meaningful existence without Adam.

It is only now, as I reflect on my journey, that I realise there was a commanding driving force powering this emotional tide and which gave me moments of peace.

The epicentre of this force was Adam's message of love, laughter and play in the family.

But without the love and strength of Jackie, the prospect of a baby on the way and my responsibility as a dad to Harry – who had lost his best friend – I would never have had the will to get up in the morning, let alone embark on a crusade to immortalise Adam and deliver his message.

As my confidence began to grow, so too did my passion and, armed with a simple message to encourage parents to have more fun with their children, create magical moments and constantly tell them they are loved, my first book was conceived.

Safely backed up on crumpled pieces of paper that were constantly stuffed in my pocket, I shared my various drafts and updates with anybody who cared to listen and the reaction, naturally enough, was very positive.

In fairness, who was going to tell me that my book was a pile of drivel when they were confronted by a person who had a sorry excuse for a scruffy beard, wore his jumper inside out and back to front and looked like they were going to burst into tears if you asked them if they wanted a cup of tea?

Then came the idea of publishing the book myself and that is when my family began to worry about my sanity. Mad as it would seem, there was no plan, expectations or rationale to my project.

Every decision and action taken was driven by a burning ambition to write and publish a book in memory of Adam that would be filled with everything beautiful, innocent and fun about him in the hope that parents would share in his magic.

The prospect of a parent snuggled up under the duvet with this book expressing affection for their children would prove not only to be a wonderful legacy for Adam, but also something to get me through life's journey.

Jackie discovered we were to have another baby on the day we collected Adam's ashes; we knew it was a very clear sign that he would take care of us and guide us to do the right thing.

After a frustrating and fruitless search for an illustrator, I happened to catch a glimpse of a colourful book in a shop window. Written on the front were the words "Illustrated by Cartoon Saloon", so I got in touch with them that same afternoon.

Without knowing anything about Adam, a then unsuspecting Roxanne was appointed illustrator. Once my very long brief hit her desk, she immediately understood the magic and wonder of Adam and became in tune emotionally with him and his message.

As the draft illustrations began to come through they brought with them powerful and uncontrollable waves of emotions for Jackie and me.

In a strange way, the tears were not as painful as the ones I had become accustomed to but, instead, were wonderfully soothing and sprinkled with a sense of happiness.

So much so, that our need to get updates more frequently intensified and reached an addictive frenzy until Roxanne had completed them all.

With the production work completed, the next decision was how many books to print. This is the point where ignorance is bliss. I hadn't a clue so, to keep my unit costs down, I printed 10,000 copies.

Considering that selling just 350 copies in one week can potentially see your book hit the No 1 spot, the quantity I printed was absolutely off the scale insane. I had no PR, no publisher and nobody knew who I was.

The commercial business case was even worse. It seemed inevitable that every member of my family would have to buy 500 copies each and stuff them in the toilet under the stairs. In an odd way, I never had any doubts that the book would sell as Adam was on our side and after interviews with Ireland AM, Ryan Tubridy and the Irish Independent, word got out and people began to buy 'Before you Sleep'. They enjoyed the experience of reading it to their children, who loved being told they were loved in a book.

Within six weeks, I was back to the printer for the second print run and sales have continued to grow.

The following April – nine months after it first appeared 'Before you Sleep' won book of the year at the Irish book awards.

As my name was called, my immediate thought was for Adam and the excitement of winning was somewhat dampened.

Even though I received a standing ovation from a room of highly acclaimed writers and professionals, all I wanted to do was crawl under the table and scream Adam's name and tell him I did it all for him because he chose me to be his father on the day he was born and to deliver his message.

Adam, you're a good boy and we all love you very much and thank you for the gift of your message and your story.

'When you were Born' – this year's Specsavers Children's Book of the Year – is published by Adams Printing Press and is available in selected Dunnes Stores and other bookshops nationwide.

Irish Independent

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