Vanessa was the original Queen of LCFN, and for that I will forever be indebted to my good friend Brogan Rogan. But she was more than that: for a decade, V was the beautiful face that proved that there was life outside of neuroblastoma. She was the proof that a strong family and a strong fighting spirit could give this obnoxious disease more than a run for its money. Vanessa’s was the cool face of being in the front line. And we all loved her for it.
The first time I met her was at Celtic Park: Saturday November 1st, 2014. I am seriously starting to hate the first day of every new month. Inspired by people who had first supported Vanessa, then Oscar and finally Mackenzie, I plucked up the courage to ask V if she would share my 10,000 mile stone. Actually I didn’t ask Vanessa, I asked Chris, her dad. The irony of the timing was that it came in the week that Celtic were due to host my team, Inverness Caledonian Thistle so I approached Celtic to see if they could accommodate an outsider on matchday. Those events helped to shape this journey forever.
I was late, which didn’t get things off to the best of starts. As luck would have it, we were playing host to my niece, her fella and his boys that weekend, and all being mad football supporters, we elected to take the boys to the game. But more than that, it was also a Celtic Foundation foodbank collection day so armed with carrier bags full of stuff, we set off for the train into Glasgow and the subsequent route march out to the ground. We underestimated it with four kids and a load of food: Chris phoned me a couple of times to see if we’d got lost en route to the stadium. No, we were just slow. Cue hugs all round on arrival.
Once inside, we were introduced to Tony Hamilton, head of the Celtic Foundation, who explained the protocol. Vanessa and I were going to share our moment on the hallowed turf at half time, together with the LCFN banner. Let me tell you that this was a big, big deal for me. Not only was I getting to step out with royalty, I was doing it right in the backyard of the very people who had inspired me and supported me from the word go. See the connection with the whole Celtic charity thing: I get it, and that day spent with Vanessa just reinforced it. To this day, there are folk who believe that my allegiance was turned but it’s simply not true. I just got turned by the humanity of people who understand what my bike ride has always been about. After the game, we all went to the pub, Vanessa and her family, me and my family, and reflected not just on the events of that afternoon, but on the journey that lay ahead. But before we leave the game itself, I have to tell a wee story about the half time walk. V and I were walking out from the halfway line, forwards with the LCFN flag, while Chris was walking backwards, ahead of us, taking photos: what he didn’t see, was the sprinklers coming on and he got absolutely soaked. How V laughed…
While we were waiting pitchside just before the interval, Vanessa and I were chatting about school, about exams, and about her ambition to be a nurse: to be able to give back to people just like herself: and even before she said it, I had a sixth sense of what was about to come out: a kind of bond between helpers if you like.
I didn’t have to wait long for the next time and for that I thank my good friend Mouldy. It’s kind of difficult to put into words how totally networked the NB supporters actually are: even though you might not physically see each other for months at a time, picking up the phone or diving onto messenger is absolutely the done thing. You are never more than five seconds away from someone who totally gets the way you feel the way you do. That was Mouldy n me in December 2014. We’d both planned to do Cycling Santas at the start of December: Mouldy had his name down for the whole gig from London, despite having only jetted back in from the States three days earlier. Me, I was still protecting my old body and with only a heavy touring bike for company, I’d thrown my hat into the ring for Edinburgh Sick Kids to Glasgow Yorkhill followed by the Belfast tour hosted by Stephen and Leona Knox. Mouldy phoned me at work late on the Tuesday afternoon just after the NCCA cancelled the Belfast leg through lack of support, and he wanted to know if I’d do it with him, just the two of us. Bear in mind that we’d never actually met at this point: the aura of the other was all we had to go on. But that gig made us. When you experience thunder and lightning at Cairnryan ferry port at half six on a bitter December morning, you know you’re onto something special.
But I digress. So let’s roll the clock back twenty four hours to the jaunt across from Edinburgh.
I remember a lot of things from that day, but more than anything I remember the warmth and care of Chris Riddle. The weather was wretched, into the teeth of a winter gale carrying a payload of sleet, and as luck would have it, I ended in the train (a term borrowed from Chris’s Irvine based Fullarton Wheelers). Connie, Vanessa’s mum, was aboard a separate train fifteen minutes up the road: cue some mega tipping of the bike helmet in her direction for leaving us blokes in her wake. But I guess that’s the spirit of the family: they just had it, they always had it.
Once we pulled away from the lunchtime rest stop in Armadale, the combination of the cold and the pace did for me, and I fell off the back of the train. I was strong enough to make Glasgow under my own steam, but believe me riding solo into a winter headwind in the late afternoon is no joy. Chris Riddle waved his team farewell and detached himself off the back of the group to look after me. He dropped the pace, took the wind and got me home to Yorkhill. And unbeknown to me at the time, Mouldy was doing precisely the same job with his mate ten minutes back down the road.
Inside the warmth of the Schiehallion ward, that had once been her home for eighteen months, there was Vanessa. Cue more hugs; more smiles; more banter; more tea and biscuits. Then we all piled off to the pub, the Curlers Rest on Byres Road: more blether. But that gig at the pub was way more symbolic than just a wee catch up: it was the day I first met Eileidh. And it was the one and only time that Vanessa and Eileidh were in the same place at the same time. Queen and Princess as one.
Then our paths deviated, albeit that Chris and I kept in touch through social media and messaging. Vanessa was three months removed from our Joe so they shared many anniversaries and experiences together in their respective school years. I remember Chris relaying tales of trips to Germany for treatment between Standard Grade exams and that left me with the lasting impression that you can keep the disease at bay, but stable normality is a luxury never afforded to families of children with the disease.
And there’s another reason why I stepped back: Vanessa and her family deserved the privacy of their own lives without the intrusion of an outsider, for at the end of the day, that’s what I am. I did the same for Gail, albeit that Gail knew she could pick up the phone at any moment, as often she did, and I would do whatever I could do. You’re there, but you’re not there, if you get what I mean. And that’s how it stayed until I went to the Solving Kids Cancer parents’ conference last November, with Gail, and met up with Chris, Connie and Vanessa once again. Beauty had taken a real hold of her, so much so that she had now refocussed her attention into that becoming her life. She could barely have picked a more fitting career because it truly reflected the person that she had become.
No child deserves to lose a battle with neuroblastoma, but Vanessa’s passing is particularly cruel. From living in an isolation bubble in the Schiehallion ward in her primary school years, to almost ten years in total fighting the disease. Vanessa was for me the original warrior: Puddles may have pinched her crown as the mischievous Princess but Vanessa was forever the Queen of cool: she was the big sis’ who showed neuroblastoma who was boss, and for so long.
But neuroblastoma is a bastard of a disease and now it’s taken her away. In just a few weeks from now, I will fly out to Australia to do the Ride 2 Cure tour. The sole aim of that journey is to do what it says on the tin and help fund laboratory research into a lasting cure and to understand why. Vanessa would have been proud of that, just as I, and thousands of others worldwide, were, are, and always will be proud of her.
Sadly not for victory but always, always for Vanessa.