A Love Letter to Caroline

My friend Caroline Ashby passed away suddenly, in her 50s, just over a month ago, with so much to live for.  She was a special woman who made a difference to so many – not least in brightening the timelines of the myriad of her Facebook friends. 

My heart now wants to share my story of her – including a number of postings from Facebook – the platform which she embraced so brightly and beautifully…

Caroline FB

I first met Caroline when I was a Director of an organisation called Damsels in Success, when she joined her local Group, which I ran, in Ashby de la Zouch.

We became Facebook friends that day and this is the first of many typically bright and breezy posts I saw on there, which I would soon come to take for granted as part of our everyday online lives:

I found out about Damsels in Success about 2 p.m., yesterday and went to my first meeting last night.  It’s only 19th January 2012, and already I have made a great move and become a member.  Thank you to everyone for making me feel so welcome and energised! X

She immediately became one of our most treasured and stalwart members, staying with us until the group had its last meeting 3 years later, when we took this picture:

Last Meet
Damsels Pauline, Sue R, Me, Caroline & Sue B

Damsels in Success (now known as Simply Sisterhood) is a network for women who work for themselves, with a philosophy that by creating a loving and supportive environment for women to be in – their natural essence – i.e. who they really are and what they bring to this party of life – blossoms.  Then, when such women come together, they can make a real difference to their own lives, the lives of their families, communities and the world.

For me that encapsulates why Caroline became such an important part of that particular community – since she naturally embodied and lived out those values.

She truly embraced everything we learned and shared in that setting.  In her typically generous and positive way, she let us all know how much being part of this community meant to her.  It meant so much to those of us who shared it with her, that she was part of it too.

As I grew to know her better, I realised this was just so beautifully typical of her…

Caroline was well known and loved not just in our local Damsels group in Ashby, but also with members UK wide, who she met at national events and on the web.  We had an online forum, where she was a bright presence on almost a daily basis – both sharing her wisdom and asking for support.

Working in my home office the week before her celebration service, a bundle of papers tied up in a pink ribbon, caught my attention.  I wasn’t looking for them, but somehow from the corner of my eye they sparked a memory…  I had saved them from one of our Damsels meetings where each of our members had written down a promise to themselves.  We were in the habit of transcribing our dreams and plans on paper, so as to commit them to our hearts and our futures, as the starting point for creating action to turn these wishes into reality.

And suddenly here in my hands, was a promise that Caroline wrote in her own hand:

Autism will be seen as a beautiful gift – showing the world how to live in the now and not stressing about the future.

Promise

In tandem with her membership of Damsels in Success and what she had learnt there, it was during this time that she developed the idea for her Autism Nanny Coaching business.  The Facebook page she created for it, has nearly 4000 members, with this as its stated ethos:
Helping families with autistic children, live a fun, creative, easy, fabulous life.

I can feel Caroline so much through those forthright and shining words…

Under the aegis of the Autism Nanny, she supported parents and families who had children on the autistic spectrum, providing them with practical and emotional support in a way which only someone who has a gift of a child like her own darling daughter – Emily, can; delivered in her trademark – pragmatic, yet joyful way.

I have a recording of when, in July 2014 she was a speaker on a BBC Radio Gloucester programme, where she talked about her learnings from her time spent with the Son-Rise program® in America and how these had informed her mission as a mother of a child on the autistic spectrum, and then as The Autism Nanny – which was fundamentally, about making a meaningful connection with your child, on their terms.  In her words, from that interview, this was about:

Trying to connect – be a real observer.
Stop trying to make them be like everyone else.
Then join them in that space and develop and move them forward.

Also in 2014 – both as a result of her being a true ‘Damsel in Success’ and her work with the Autism Nanny, she won the Most Inspirational Damsels in Success Member Award, at a sparkling awards ceremony in Birmingham, where we danced the night away to celebrate!

That was one of the proudest and happiest nights of my life…

Pres
At the Awards Ceremony with myself, Joanne & Sue – fellow Damsels members

As her mentor, Caroline made me feel like she was a number one fan and we watched each other with pride as we walked our own ways through life.  When I published my first book – Peachey Letters – Love Letters to Life, she told me again and again how much she loved it and how proud she was. And I watched her grow into her Autism Nanny business – with its ups and its downs, with more than matching pride.

We stayed friends after the Damsels group closed and she brightened my Facebook world daily, not just with her Emily updates, but also her constant affection, support and comments on my own posts there.

The woman I knew was garrulous, funny and colourful in every sense.  She was caring, determined and all embracing.  Somehow she seemed simultaneously childlike and incredibly wise.  She soaked up knowledge like a sponge and gave wings to her thoughts and wishes. This woman was an action taker and so much of a giver.  You would know exactly how she was feeling and always, whatever was going on, the glass was at least half full.  If I did something daft, (which I am prone to), she would say “I still love you.”  And I have to say ‘thank goodness’ that I told her I loved and appreciated her too – it is one of the things that gives me comfort now she’s gone.

When she moved to Brighton from the Midlands, I was sad, since it would be harder to meet, but knew that she was doing this for Emily, to get her the very best support at a college there.  And so her Facebook posts then told of the new home that she, Robert and Emily created.  It wasn’t all plain sailing though.  The local authority had different plans for Emily… So then Caroline and Robert had to fight for her to have a place where they knew she would get the best support.  It took a lot of time and energy and also the services of a barrister.  Caroline, most definitely was not going to give up on everything they had worked towards and relocated across the country for.

They won their case and the posts showed her daughter blossoming more and more.  In between we chatted about meeting up and what the future held – not least that whilst the Autism Nanny had been put on hold during the move and settling Emily in, now she wanted to start it up again.

On Facebook, the world shared all the show reel moments of their lives.  Here is one of the posts Caroline made on the occasion of Emily’s 21st Birthday:

HAPPY 21ST BIRTHDAY EMILY

21 years ago today, I walked (ok staggered) into the Maternity Unit in Gloucester. I knew that within 24 hours my life would change forever, but had no idea how massive that change would be.

Emily was born at 2.47 p.m. on 13th August 1997, weighing 8lbs 6 ozs and I was the happiest person on earth. She was and still is the most precious person on the planet to me and she has given me so much. Being Emily’s mum has not always been easy, but what a journey we have all been on together.

Tomorrow, when Emily turns 21 years old and becomes a young woman, I will be so proud of her. To live for 21 years, with little language and understanding of the seemingly random acts of people, in this crazy and often complex world and to have such a sunny disposition and be so gorgeous, is wonderful.

Emily is my inspiration for everything I do, both within my own family and in helping other families with autistic children and she remains my most powerful teacher … live in the moment, always try your best, laugh when you want, cry when you want and never let anyone else live your life for you.

Thank you so much for being in my life, my beautiful Emily. I love you to the moon and back. Happy, happy 21st Birthday.

Before she posted the news about her brain tumour publically, Caroline shared her diagnosis with me.  I was scared and shaken by her news, but given her generous and positive nature, she made it easy to discuss.  As always, even in the midst of trying to process it all, her courage and humour continued to shine through.  When I asked her about Emily’s understanding of what was happening, not least the surgery she was scheduled for, her response was “Obviously… that will be a really new experience for both of us.  I am thinking colourful headwear for the winter would be good.”

So I planned to surprise her with a beautiful scarf in her favourite colour – purple, after the surgery had taken place…

With typical brio, she soon shared the news on her Facebook timeline too:

I took the view that if anyone had a good chance of beating something like this, then it was Caroline.  Her sudden passing therefore, 4 days before the surgery was scheduled, and only a day after this post, was a terrible shock…

Robert Ashby Announcement

The scarf arrived in the post after she had gone.  It was pretty, purple and sparkly, just like Caroline.  When I saw it I cried and was comforted simultaneously.  Instead of giving it to her, I got to wear it at her Celebration Service instead, along with a beautiful purple dress she would also have loved…

After the shock wore off – grief and sadness set in, as I started to process what had happened.  And yet also, in the strange soupy and complex mix of emotions I’ve been going through – none of which I could quite accurately label, I have also been resonating with the sheer joy and blessing of having known this genuinely unique and beautiful soul.

A few years ago, when Caroline suddenly lost one of her precious pets, I penned these words for her and now, somehow she has given them back to me:

That you were on loan for us for such a short time feels hard to bear.  But what a gift you were and are!  We have learned so much from you, gained so much laughter and light and so now let’s choose your loving legacy.

It feels like you were taken from life too soon.  Too soon for us, anyway.  Is that fair?  That is what I have felt, but not what I know, when I think with love of where we are.  For me, the knowing is that you had your time.  You see, that was the thing about you, it was always YOUR time and so thank you, so much for giving it to us.  For that gift was a rare one, indeed.

We now have to allow time to grieve and be sad, for that honours what we felt for you.  Because you gave us so much, we feel so much now.  But I want to celebrate you too.  To celebrate the distinct sparkling light that you were.

In the days before her Celebration Service I felt sad that it was time to say farewell and yet also joyous that I would somehow be close to her again.

Despite the fact that I traveled to Brighton the night before the service, I still managed to be a few minutes late and it had already started…

Feeling flustered, I dashed in, round the front of the service hall, squeezing pass her casket – rather than entering quietly through the closed back doors. I flung myself into the nearest chair trying to be inconspicuous, yet Robert – Caroline’s husband smiled at me – all was well.

I took in the sight of her wicker casket, with purple banding woven in, adorned with flowers.  Beyond it a glass wall was opened out and I could see over the natural burial ground, to the South Downs beyond. To make the scene even more heart breakingly beautiful, the sun was shining in an almost cloudless sky…

The Humanist celebrant conducting the service, told Caroline’s story, most of which I knew – as one does with a friend – like random pieces of a jigsaw, scattered through time.  All those pieces were now being assembled into a portrait of her life with new ones added in to create a more complete image.  I smiled my way through, but wondered how I would hold it together when a recording of Aretha Franklin singing ‘Bridge over troubled water’ was played. Her family gave readings and poems.  I laughed and sniffed away my tears simultaneously.

Lucie Bradbury – the founder of Damsels in Success, had snuck in to the service even later than me, but just in time to hear some of my words, read by the celebrant, about Caroline’s time with Damsels and the Autism Nanny – my sharing of that part of her glorious story.

One of Caroline’s brothers also read out many of the Facebook postings which had poured out after her passing was announced.  Her family had the quite brilliant idea of doing this by printing them on cards, dropping them into one of Caroline’s many colourful hats and then asking members of the congregation to serendipitously pick them out.

The service drew to an end and it was time for her committal.   We filed outside and I held back to greet Lucie, who rushed towards me.  I could see that she had been crying, so my own tears fell unchecked as we hugged long and tightly. We then took each other’s hand and walked to the graveside.

The celebrant finished her ministrations before the casket was lowered into the ground. “Now” she said, with solemnity “it’s time to say good bye.”  She then had to pause as a train noisily rumbled by somewhere in the ether, before she could continue.  Inwardly I smiled – “you did that on purpose, Caroline – trust you to have the truly last laugh.” For me that moment was Caroline telling us not to be too serious.  It was another joyous moment in a truly celebratory day.

So everyone there said goodbye to that earthly part of her and later gathered together for the Reception.  I had carried with me the promise that Caroline had written some years before, that:
Autism will be seen as a beautiful gift.  I slipped it into the Remembrance book, happy that I had finally returned it to her.  This ‘beautiful gift’ was just one of many that she gave to us…

One of the things I gave her was the nickname of ‘My Sparkly One’ – both for the constant sparkle in her eyes and her vibrant personality…

Me & C
She & Me: Purple & Peach

Thank you for so much, my Sparkly one – “still love you.”

Heavenly hugs,
Sandie xxx

Caroline was a true advocate for Autism, which was in every way, her life’s work. Her family have therefore set up online links to various charities in support of her memory, including Research Autism:
www.justgiving.com/CarolineAshbyResearchAutism,
as well as Cancer Research UK (she had a brain tumour) and Humanists UK (she had a beautiful Humanist Celebration Service).  It would be amazing if you could make a donation.  Thank you…

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