‘Hi! My name’s Stephen and I am pretty much like your average teenager – except forthe last three years now I’ve been battling cancer.’
This is how 19-year-old Stephen Sutton introduced himself on the Just Giving internet page which he set up to raise money for the Teenage Cancer Trust (TCT). Sadly, Stephen himself died of bowel cancer in the early hours of 14 May 2014. Later that day, charitable donations pledged via his site reached £3.6 million – more than the TCT knew what to do with.
Stephen’s mother Jane announced on Facebook that her ‘inspirational’ son ‘had passed away peacefully in his sleep.’
In a Press Association photograph featured in the Daily Mail’s coverage of Stephen’s death, she appears as a strawberry blonde wearing a strawberry-print blouse, half-smiling (her lips have managed the right shape but her eyes are struggling), standing next to her emaciated son.
Not that long to go now. His jaw too big for a frail neck, arms much thinner than the arm cuffs on the hospital crutches he’s using (lightweight walking forearm crutches, approx £50 a pair).
In Stephen Sutton’s eyes at that moment, I think I can see something not much noted: a touch of what might be adolescent anger; just a little bit Liam (LG); echo of Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, declaring ‘a pox on both your houses’; in this case, the living andthe dead.
To do anything at all in the face of death, while looking down the barrel of the last syringe, surely calls for a do or die attitude; even a touch of the impious attitude ofJames Joyce’s Stephen Hero, who refused to re-enter the Church despite his mother’s pleading – and she on the point of dying of cancer. Likewise, our new Stephen Hero keeping death waiting for his dominion, must have been something of an act of teenage rebellion.
A mother who survives her son’s death from cancer must be entitled to say whatever she likes about him – or, if she prefers, nothing at all. He will have been her inspiration for as long as she carried him. In the womb, in her arms, toddling through schooldays and holidays all the way to his death bed. Now she will have to carry his not being there to see her grow old.
Stephen’s mother’s grief can hardly be straightforward; its complications could last her a lifetime. But many of those who hardly knew him, or not at all, who’ve rushed to find him ‘inspirational’, seem to have simplified Stephen Sutton to suit themselves.
In their rendition of him, the last few weeks of Stephen’s life were a saintly progress ofsmiling through adversity; his death, not much more than a lethal course of morphine – letting go, letting go, letting go.
It’s as if they are laying him out in clothes they’ve had the cheek to choose for him; and in the act of finding, defining him so, while acknowledging Stephen as hero, aren’t they also pursuing a claim on him, their ticket to today’s Priority Area?
Of course I may be guilty of same. But I simply can’t believe that n-n-n-n-nineteen was ever that simple.