In 1981, during a family year away from New Zealand, four-month-old Alexander died in a London hospital.
The prologue in Jan Pryor’s memoir begins exactly thirty-three years to the day since her son died from cot death, and she is again in London reflecting on the journey she has been on and also to meet her grandson Findlay.
Jan, her husband Jim and their children Emily and Simon swapped their life in Christchurch with that of another couple in Hertfordshire in November 1980. They exchanged homes, dogs, cats and medical practices for a year, and when Jan arrived in the village she was thirty-five weeks pregnant with Alexander.
On his arrival just before Christmas in 1980 he was declared healthy and in a letter home to her mother Jan wrote, ‘he really is a dear little boy , with Emily’s colouring but very much Simon’s features.’
On April 10, while her sister was visiting her from Buckinghamshire with her baby daughter Rebecca, Jan found Alexander unresponsive after a long afternoon nap. A trip to the local A&E department led to Alexander and Jan being loaded into an ambulance on route to London with the family following behind. After forty-eight hours with machines keeping their baby alive the heart-breaking decision was made to let him go.
The reader is drawn into the anguish of the family as they struggle to understand what has happened and arrange a funeral, and there are a number of pages where Pryor shares her thoughts on religion. She offers consolation and hope to parents who have lost a child, as they travel the long twisting road to acceptance. The diary entries share the author’s hopes and fears as she copes with over thirty years of change with courage, sadness and optimism.
The inclusion of the poem A Blackbird Singing by RR Thomas was very appropriate as Pryor says she ‘has always been enraptured by birds’ and this is evident in many chapters of the book, ‘Blackbirds are optimism, hopefulness and joy as they sing slightly off-key, and without guile.’
It is a powerful family memoir, not an easy read but I enjoyed it and it will certainly be helpful to anyone experiencing loss, as well as being helpful for grief counsellors to recommend.
Jan Pryor was born in Blenheim and has lived and worked in both New Zealand and the UK. She originally qualified as a biochemist but while raising her family Jan took up teaching and then became a researcher of children and families at Victoria University, Wellington. In 2003, she established the McKenzie Centre for the study of families and then in 2008, she became Chief Commissioner of the Families Commission in New Zealand.
Reviewed By Lesley McIntosh
After Alexander, The Legacy of a Son
by Jan Pryor
Published by Heddon Publishing