Uncle Mat's Church Eulogy
2019 June 07
Created by Mathew on 02/07/2019
I've given too many eulogies in the past few years, but this is by far the most difficult.
Both my parents - Michael's grandparents - my Mum, Diane Jones, and my Dad, Clive Westhorpe - would have had a lot to say in these tragic, unjust circumstances. But they're not here. Like their grandson, Michael, they received a diagnosis in 2013 which subsequently brought the curtain down on their lives.
The difference is, rather than having decades of lives well-lived for us to remember and celebrate, Michael was born only a few short years before that fateful diagnosis. We're gathered here to find a way to celebrate his one-and-a-half decades of life and to find some solace, wisdom or peace in his journey.
So lets try.
On 15th April 2004, Michael Brandon Holyland was born in Leicester Royal Infirmary to my then 22-year-old sister, Laura, and her husband, Karl. Despite her being the youngest of three siblings, she was the first of us to have children and so Michael was the first-born boy in our family. Although it would only be a little over a year before his brother, Nathan, would arrive.
From then on, like it or not, they came as a pair; a small, highly mobile bundle of mischievous cuteness. Much to Mum's delight, Christmases were reinvigorated after years of sulky teenagers and ambivalent adults. We all doted on them and for all of the family, from grandparents to the horde of younger cousins who have since arrived, 'Michael and Nathan' soon became practically a single word. You couldn't say one's name without the other.
I recall their toddler years with fondness as they chased each other around sofas in a kind of endless leaflet relay, or the many times Michael dived for cover every time he heard a plane overhead. In hindsight, some of his cute eccentricities may have been a clue to his autism that became apparent later.
His literal interpretations of people's reactions for example: I recall efforts to encourage him to use his 'big boy words' to tell us what is wrong rather than him just crying going terribly wrong when our attempts to 'laugh off' a tumble or a collision led to him deliberately running into things to get a chuckle.
His responses to people's reactions were sometimes lightning quick too and I recall when his defiant nature was first revealed to me. It was when 4-year-old Michael was left in my care, we were playing table football and as I conceded a goal, I may have uttered a rude word. I would have got away with it too, except he cottoned on to my ashamed reaction - I recall the look of mischievous delight on his face as he started chanting the word over and over. My wife Jacqui and I couldn't get him to stop. I was mortified at my failure as an appropriate guardian and had to think quickly in order to avoid Laura and Karl's wrath later. I was left with no choice but to throw the match while exclaiming 'oh buttons!' after every goal I conceded. Thankfully it worked, and Michael spent several months shouting 'buttons' with a cheeky grin.
He wouldn't always be that easy to trick though and I'm fairly certain that word - and many others - made its way back into his vocabulary some time later. And were frequently used.
Laura and Karl have also never let me forget other acts of Michael's naughtiness for which I am apparently responsible. They claim that baby Michael's tendency to post things into video and CD slots was something I encouraged. I suspect they've returned the favour though as some years later our games console stopped working after several coins and beads were irreversibly jammed into it.
There have been countless fond memories of Michael and Nathan's childhood and Michael's love for his cousins was always on display. In his (sometimes bossy) way he would engage with the younger ones and take control of games they played together. He was similar in age to Holly and Keiran who would often visit, and he had a particularly strong bond with Rebecca, who was born a few years after. Emma tells me little Michael was very keen to meet the not-yet-born Rebecca, but was concerned about the nature of her arrival, telling his heavily pregnant Auntie Emma that she would have to open her mouth really wide.
Of course, it wouldn't be Michael I was describing if I didn't at least mention his temper. Which was short to say the least. It would often take us all by surprise but Laura and Karl soon became adept at managing him and predicting, or at least minimising, his more emotional moments. It’s a talent that often eluded us aunts and uncles and a testament to all parents of autistic children.
There have been times that I have been in awe of the patience and sensitivity that Laura and Karl have shown Michael, especially in the most testing of circumstances. Indeed, as Michael’s life grew more challenging, so too did keeping his emotions in check. They have been tested more than any parents should ever be, and they have given him their best.
As Michael grew, so did his fascination with cars, trucks, tractors and tanks. He often recounted the story of the time I let him drive my car around the field my wife and I were due to be married in. He was only five. He was mostly proud of the fact that he wrecked my suspension. What he didn’t seem to remember (and his parents don’t know), is that wasn’t his first driving experience. I vaguely recall a similar experience when Dad let Michael ‘drive’ around the car park outside Ponders End cinema a year or so earlier than the wedding field episode. So Dad should take the credit for seeding that particular obsession.
Another attribute that Michael had in abundance was bravery. During a family holiday to Rhodes in 2010, a thrill-seeking six-year-old Michael and a more cautious five-year-old Nathan found an opportunity for some fun and parent-terrifying when they saw lots of older children and young adults hurling themselves from a floating 20-foot platform into the Mediterranean sea. How they managed to swim out to the platform may have involved further bad-uncling, but I can assure you the cavalier leap from the highest point was all Michael’s idea.
Michael often reminisced fondly about that holiday and he hoped to go back there one day. Sadly, he never got the chance in life, but he did spend subsequent Summers (and other, less comfortable times of year) endlessly bodyboarding with Nathan on the beaches of Norfolk, which was a great example of his resilience and focus.
Sadly, it was only a couple of years after that that some erratic bruising that appeared on his body was quickly identified by Dr Latoy as a sinister sign and the diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia was made in November 2013.
He was nine years old.
That’s when his normal life stopped and then began a cycle of treatment and illness which brought out the best - and occasionally the worst - in Michael.
Michael’s view of the world was very black-and-white. He just didn’t do shades of grey. The characteristics which gave him the strength to face the challenges before him also made him a challenge at times. He could be uncompromising and unyielding.
But all of those personality traits - his defiance, his fearlessness, his resilience - held him in good stead. Throughout the six years that followed, through the pain of chemotherapy, eroding joints, fluctuating weight, deteriorating lungs, he marched into the breach every time and stood up heroically to everything life threw at him and he still demanded another burrito and some time on the Xbox. And tell the nurse to come back later, because he’s flying his spaceship online with his Uncle Mat.
There are so many people who helped Michael and his family through the darkest of times and I want to take some time to express gratitude to everyone who spent time with him, or used their time to help fundraise, or provided gifts that gave him so much joy, or administered him the treatment and care that got him as far as he did.
He went out with a hell of a bang - he rode in supercars, played with heavy weaponry, starred in a sci-fi audiobook.
He may have only had fifteen years, but he squeezed them for everything he could and he’ll always be that cheeky, defiant, abrupt, heroic little jedi; that lover of trucks, tanks, zombies and spaceships; a friend, cousin, grandson, nephew, brother and son who will be loved and remembered forever.
Rhodesian ice cream is tricky.