I’m finding it difficult to bear the news about Ugo Ehiogu. Not because I knew him, or supported Villa or Boro’, or have avidly followed his life and career inside or outside of football. Something has connected, though. I am genuinely saddened and undone in a way you’re going to have to give me time to describe, at a moment when words are inadequate.
Ugo was, to me, a really good player cut cruelly, cruelly short. I know nothing of him as a person but I promise you I totally get the weight of this. The depth of the grief, the merciless bleakness – the shock. Unbelievable as it may sound, I understand. For me and mine, this is about hearts.
It’s about hearts and possibly artsy indulgences – for which I should probably apologise in advance. However I want to make a contribution here, despite the likely inappropriateness, the embarrassment, the intimidatingly personal whorl I’m about to unleash; so I’m going on.
My dad was a sportsman and (actually, I came to realise) a great human. He died of a cardiac arrest, on a badminton court, playing with his mates, on a Sunday night, aged forty-four.
It was February. It was dark, it remains a blur.
I was sixteen or seventeen. Some word had come back that something had happened and my mother was whisked off. I remember one of my three brothers quietly saying to me, as I innocently got on with the most banal of things, that ‘ this really might be significant’. I had no conception of what he meant.
My mother returned, looking both shocked and calm. Her sister – who had ‘lost’ her husband (a doctor, at 38!) to heart disease about a year before – was physically supporting her. My mum said ‘I’m sorry to tell you, kids, that he’s gone – your father’s died. And there’s never been and never will be another one like him’.
My Auntie Marie couldn’t stop herself crying ‘yes… there has been – there has been’ before we wept, together.
I carry this loss every moment of every day. I have in some sense counted the days and years ever since with a shared, maybe schizophrenic focus;
1. to pour good energy in
2. to absolutely deny the possibility – deny, deny! – that I could leave my own wife and kids in the same situation.
I notched something when I went past forty-four a dozen years ago. I notched something too, later, when I had time in the back of ambulances, then hospitals, having mysteriously ‘gone’; when we had immense banter as some bloke put a ‘tinna sardines’ (an ‘at rest’ pacemaker) into my chest. I did this/do this utterly fearlessly, because I am recognising but denying – positively – still.
My next unspoken goal is to get both my kids past their teens and into Proper Adulthood (nearly there). Then there’ll be another marker-point, another effectively sub-conscious notch, done with that same unshakeable calm. Because I am not letting anything happen to me – because I do believe that I can, by act of will, persist into daft-glorious (in my case) Oldish Age.
But what’s this got to do with anything?
Our own family tragedies changed our lives. Sounds glib? Powerfully, devastatingly, inspiringly true. We learned about accepting sadness as part of the richness. I became powerfully angry and committed and I hope inviolably generous. I became (by all means chortle) An Artist Who Responds. I lost all that crap about being ashamed to say stuff deep or loving in public. My essence became truer and more determined, better… as a way of fighting back, perhaps?
I say all this because I think maybe the universe – maybe a particular family? – needs this kind of energy, today. Hearty stuff, stuff that’s de-baggaged, de-peer-group-pressured: fearless. I also want to say something about health – what health means.
The implication here is plainly that I do believe we can make some meaningful contribution to our own state of wellness by being positive and open. Let me both re-tick that box and contradict it by saying something about lifestyle and diet.
As a mob we’re a disgrace to our wonderful planet. We’re wasters, we’re soulless, medium-heartless irriots with an insultingly low capacity to think or act well. This applies particularly pointedly to issues around health.
Where to start with the examples? Parents with young kids get masses of pretty good information about healthy eating and exercise from Primary Schools yet virtually no families eat truly well. Kids grow up on coke and fanta and Mcdonalds; they eat pre-prepared meals. Hardly anybody cooks fresh on a daily basis. No matter your budget or your background, this is unacceptable. Our hearts – our systems – are paying for this.
So I suppose this is a warning.
Let me tell you another cruel story – one I hope certain members of my own family don’t read. I have a strong, childhood memory of being slightly in awe and certainly slightly jealous of the tray on our cousins’ kitchen table. On it were always three or four bottles of what we used to call ‘pop’.
We never had pop. But they had red or excitingly lime-green or yellowish pop. Always. On their table. This was the family whose father died at thirty-eight – the doctor.
I’m going to compound my judgemental rashness here by adding in that two of the children from this family – of which there were four – are now morbidly obese, with acute diabetes. Last time I saw one of them he told me fairly cheerily he didn’t expect to see sixty.
These are brilliantly clever people. They would have to concede that they’ve been relatively advantaged. I sometimes wonder if they haven’t got my Indestructibility Thing arse about face ; that they’ve got some death-wish going on – some self-hatred, some Punishment Thing as a result of their own heart story.
Now I know I need to say something about that use of ‘morbidly obese’. I accept it sounds horrendously judgemental – possibly unacceptable. But I cannot help but feel that those that are dangerously big have to accept some level of responsibility for their predicament. (And it is a predicament.) The warnings are out there – the tragedies, too.
I suspect more families exercise well than eat well – just not well enough, often enough or with enough enjoyment. Thus, as a race, we are unfit. (Again… pejorative word! But GREAT WORD!!) We have to work on this. As a society. By pressuring government and by making good choices.
One of the things I know my old man would be pleased about is that the bottom line with the thing I do – working for Cricket Wales – is it gets people moving about the place. He’d like that.
Keith Winston Walton was
a) (briefly) British Army 400 metres/yards champ
b) skipper of Macclesfield Town
c) (I think) bold enough to turn down Manchester City as a schoolboy, because he wanted to play full-back for Sale RFC
d) generally (weirdly?) a fit bloke
e) alongside my grandpa (ex-MU)) my hero.
Make that IS my hero. He was no intellectual, he was no artist but he poured out the finest, most positive energy into the universe that you could imagine. I grieve him still, because we lost him, crazy young.
So… I know it makes sense – it’s essential – to do the Good Healthy Thing. And – whatever the reasons for their own, terrible loss – I feel, for the family of Ugo Ehiogu, I really do.