Today, 9 May, was the birthday of a very special woman. Her name was Clare Spink, she was the mother of my first husband, Geoff, and she was part of my life for twenty-four years. When I first met her in 1995 she was already seventy-four years old and I clearly remember her saying to me very early on “I’m not long for this world”. But Clare was wrong. She lived to be ninety-eight and today would have been her ninety-ninth birthday.
Clare was a rather extraordinary woman. At first sight she seemed, perhaps, merely a sweet old lady – and she was – but she was so very much more than this. She led her life in a way that we all could learn from, quietly demonstrating to me and many others how it is possible to follow your dreams, overcome adversity, build resilience and love unconditionally.
Clare – in many ways – had a tough life, yet she never felt sorry for herself or complained. After leaving school she went to work for an insurance company which meant she didn’t have to volunteer for war service. She had a keen sense of adventure though, and soon decided to “see the world at the King’s expense”, and she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. She travelled to Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Cyprus and Jordan and she used to talk very animatedly about those times.
After the war she married and had a family. Geoff was her fourth and youngest child. He was born with disabilities caused by the drug Thalidomide. This was a huge shock, of course, but Clare and her husband Harry dealt with the situation with the calm stoicism they showed in the face of all life events, and Clare went on to be Geoff’s greatest champion when confronted with doctors who wanted to perform what she saw as unnecessary surgeries to make him appear more ‘normal’. Her quiet determination that Geoff should live his best possible life contributed in large part to making him the person he is today.
A road accident in 1980 nearly killed her, but Clare pulled through. The accident meant a long stay in hospital and left her disabled – her right side full of metal – and in severe pain for the rest of her life. When the weather got cold the pain worsened and I remember her showing me a drawer full of fingerless gloves made by her best and lifelong friend Pat – one in every conceivable colour to match all the outfits in her wardrobe. She wore these to prevent her right hand from getting cold and aching dreadfully. I know she was in tremendous pain most of the time but she was determined not to let it stop her from getting on with living her life to the best of her ability.
Tragically, Clare’s beloved husband Harry became ill and died only a few months after his retirement in 1986. She was devastated. He really was her soulmate. She never experienced quite the same happiness without him, but thanks to the strong network of friends she had built in her home village of Cosby in Leicestershire, who held her in the same affection as she did them, she learned to live her new life and be content in a different way.
I remember Clare as a very kind, loving woman who adored nature. She derived great pleasure from her lovely garden and the view from her house across to the brook overhung with beautiful trees. She spent many happy hours watching the birds feeding and bathing in her garden, and there was nothing she loved more than a visit to a garden centre, preferably one that involved a cream tea.
After Geoff and I divorced I kept in touch with Clare and I wrote to her telling her how much she meant to me – something I’m so glad I did. A measure of the affection she inspired in those who crossed paths with her was that my parents continued to send flowers to her on her birthday and at Christmas every year for the rest of her life. Together with my parents I was invited to both Clare’s 90th and 95th birthday celebrations (photos of which you can see here). As she grew older and less able to manage, her far-flung family enabled her to stay in the home she adored by employing a team of carers who looked after her with skill, concern and love. They became her friends and part of her extended family. A specially adapted vehicle was bought to accommodate her wheelchair and there was no end to the places she would visit in her latter years. It was a delight to see her adventures captured and posted on Facebook by her carers and it was a lovely way to continue to keep in touch.
Why am I writing about this you might wonder? Because, for me, Clare embodied the saying “it’s not what happens to us … it’s what we make of it that matters”. Despite the hardships and trauma she experienced during her life, she never allowed her zest for life to fade, her friendships to falter or her love for her family to diminish. She was a wonderful example to many without knowing it, and would probably be embarrassed by this blog.
Happy Birthday Clare. Thank you for everything. You are missed more than you know.