Wednesday 22 May 2019

'The next time I saw Daniel was in the company of an undertaker': My precious last Christmas with my eldest son

His son had many demons but wanted to come and stay for Christmas. Campbell Spray found some help in making it happen

Daniel out in the Wicklow Hills over Christmas
Daniel out in the Wicklow Hills over Christmas
SON AND PROUD BROTHER: The order of service for Daniel Spray’s funeral, with Torrisdale Beach in Scotland in the background
Daniel with his brother Marcus in Dublin, Christmas 2014
Daniel walking in the Wicklow Mountains on Christmas Day

Campbell Spray

Christmas 2014 was going to be very special, just how special I wouldn't know until a few months later. Yet that Christmas needed more preparation than any other.

My 38-year-old son Daniel was coming to stay. He used to visit quite often around this time of year but this would be the first time he would actually spend Christmas Day with me and my partner and be around for the festivities with his Dublin-born half brother and sister, who were so keen to see him. It was also a very significant birthday for me on St Stephen's Day.

Bringing Daniel over that Christmas meant doing a lot more than booking a flight, preparing his room and wrapping a few presents.

As much as I loved Daniel we had to decide if we actually could cope with him.

Daniel holds his sister Laura in the bath
Daniel holds his sister Laura in the bath

You see, my son had a very troubled relationship with alcohol and drugs. Some of his previous visits had been marred by his nocturnal ramblings, staying in bed all day and being the worse for wear. The three demons: drink, drugs and depression had been firmly camped in him for some time.

Yet, if at times he was the most brilliant company, at others, he wasn't and over the past year things had taken a turn for the worse. He had lost his job, partner and a lot of self-esteem. In the Spring of 2014 he had taken heroin with a friend and woke to find himself next to a dead body.

A few years before, on my birthday, he had tried to take his own life with a massive cocktail of drugs. That he had survived that, other reckless episodes and his friend's death gave him a feeling of invulnerability; he believed he was superman.

But the death of his friend became a massive wake-up call. In the months leading up to Christmas, Daniel had been making a conscious effort to interact with psychiatric services, moved into his own flat and was using his long legal experience to retrain as a counsellor with the citizens' advice bureau.

Daniel poses more than 10 years ago while on holiday with his sister Rachael
Daniel poses more than 10 years ago while on holiday with his sister Rachael

Yet drink and drugs never left him, they were a constant threat and reality despite his best efforts. Just as a generation before I could tell if my alcoholic mother had been drinking again through slurred phone calls, it was the same with Daniel.

But he made promises, he was so keen to come over and like many families you just hope that everything will be OK. You love someone so much you want to trust them, despite the many times that trust has been broken.

But Christmas for a lot of families - both broken and seemingly normal - is a time for negotiation. Of not letting one person disrupt the many. Just as Daniel's friends were becoming wary of him, so were some of his family.

And before that Christmas visit, my partner - whose mother was also set to visit - was concerned that Daniel's visit would not be good for me. Should he come at all? It might be impossible to police a 38-year-old. If there were signs of drugs he would be out, if he hid in his room, he would be out.

Daniel with his brother Marcus
Daniel with his brother Marcus

But I wanted so much for him to come. I loved him to bits, he was in my image and - on the tightrope that was my own life - I could have so easily taken the same route. There was also massive guilt over not being physically there for so much of his childhood.

I decided I needed help in coming to terms with dealing with the visit, if indeed it should take place at all.

That help was found down the road in Dublin where, above an advice centre just where Cabra meets Phibsborough, the local Al-Anon group meets every Monday evening.

This support group for the families of those affected by alcohol and drugs was so welcoming, with a pure openness of mind.

The members calmed my nerves and through the sharing of absolutely harrowing stories they encouraged me to speak about my fears, traumatic experiences and real concerns.

I could talk openly about the horrors of living with an alcoholic parent just as vividly as telling of the time Daniel had viciously physically attacked me after I had flown over to Leeds to get him out of police custody.

The group gave me the support to know that if I said no to Daniel coming over, it would be as right as letting him come. The drunk or the addict must not have the power to disrupt others' enjoyment. The control stays with you not them.

The group all had experiences that matched or exceeded my own but through such openness, gallons of tea and real desire to help, there was such a feeling of support that when we stood at the end, held hands and recited the AA Serenity Prayer you felt you were making real progress.

I talked to Daniel many times in the days and weeks leading up to that Christmas and visited him in his flat a month or so before. Ground rules were set and looking into his beautiful eyes it was agreed that it would be a fine and happy Christmas.

And so it was. Daniel was great company - witty, knowledgeable, caring and totally engaged. There wasn't a hint of drugs, and if he did drink, it was within the agreed limits and always with someone.

On Christmas Day we went walking in the Wicklow Mountains together as a family and his sister Rachael ensured, through presents and canny buying in the sales, that he would return to Leeds with the guts of a new wardrobe.

So engaging and kind was Daniel that I especially thanked him for being so patient and attentive when hearing the same stories over and over from a relative who was showing signs of dementia.

"Don't worry mate," he said smiling with his pleasant Yorkshire accent, "When you have so many druggy friends like me you are used to hearing the same stuff again and again!"

I have so many happy memories of me, Daniel and my other son Marcus being so close on my birthday. We joked, laughed - and yes - shared a pint or two. This was what sons and father should be able to do.

I had my eldest son back and two children in their early twenties had their big brother in brilliant form. Visits were planned, a future was being mapped out, and the often talked of Camino trip seemed a reality.

When I dropped him off at Dublin Airport a few days later I knew that all the tear-fuelled sessions at Al-Anon had been worth it. We had a Christmas to remember, it was so special. It had been negotiated well.


The next time I saw Daniel was a few months later in the company of an undertaker at the Co-op funeral home in Leeds. He was very cold as I slipped a letter next to him and kissed his beautiful face. He had died from an overdose of heroin and other drugs on the anniversary of his friend's death. Superman was no more but his insistence that we spent that Christmas together seemed to have come from a higher power.

Read more: The day Superman was found lying in his boxers, very cold and dead

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