I first met Anna way back in 1985. We were both office workers for a company based in Uxbridge.  She was a quiet, unassuming young lady with a beautiful spirit, who walked like a dancer listening to a funky tune and dressed as if all her clothes were tailormade.  We spent most lunchtimes together, had a shared love for dancing (though I was never in her league) and a passion for fitted clothing especially skin-tight jeans; but our friendship was deeper than the usual office friendship. She had a high energetic spark about her incredibly petite form, despite the quiet demeanour and taught exercise classes in the evening. But neither of us could foresee how much that high energetic spark would stand her in good stead in the ensuing years. A slow smile and a happy, infectious laugh, along with a great sense of humour paired with kindness was the perfect antidote for my rather serious stance on life!

I was thrilled when Anna told me that she was pregnant with her first child. It was a concerning time as she suffered from eclampsia and toxaemia, but she took it in her stride; determined to do her best for her baby. It was an honour to be asked to be Patrick’s godmother, who made his entrance into the world eleven weeks early in January 1990!  Weighing in at just two pounds, he was the tiniest and cutest baby I had ever seen, and I was absolutely terrified holding him!  I was in awe of Anna, who was a fantastic new mother, settling into her role quickly – seemingly knowing instinctively what to do with her tiny offspring.  We fell back into our lunchtime chats when she returned to work, understandably fretting about Patrick being under the care of childminders and in one case – quite rightly so!  I had the absolute pleasure of meeting Anna’s family when she had a more formal wedding in Middlesborough and later for Patrick’s christening.  Anna looked stunning of course in her figure-hugging bespoke wedding gown, made by her mum Mrs Sammarone.  Her mum was everything Anna said she was, and exuded the same warmth that Anna had! A few years later, Mrs Sammarone made my own beautiful wedding gown and bridesmaids’ dresses and to this day, she retains a special place in my heart.

I married a military officer and was becoming acquainted with moving around every few years.  My own prolonged battle with endometriosis, endless operations and fertility issues locked me into a silent world of pain, despair, and isolation – even from Anna, as I felt that my struggles were minor in comparison to what her and Sean were going through. A few years after Patrick was born, Angelo their second son was came along and later Anna and Sean were told that their second child had an autistic condition and the first! 

“A mama bear will stand between her child and an entire army, fighting with every breath, every ounce of energy she has within her to make sure they are safe!” by Kayla Runkell.

my heart broke for my friend at what that meant, but Anna remained resolute in exploring the best help for her sons. Patrick could not get into a school in their locality and the impact it had on her was heart-breaking to hear. No family should be treated like that in this modern age!  Feeling totally useless, I could only listen as I heard the torment in my friend’s voice as she would list the battles they had with the LEA and the challenges faced as a family. But Anna coped in her own way with such challenges. I was stunned when Anna said that they were going to remortgage their house to open a school for children with autistic conditions.  Anna was now a mama bear determined to fight for an equal opportunity for her sons!

Over the years, Anna and I kept in touch albeit irregularly and Facebook became an easy way of keeping in touch with her and following her journey. My husband and I had the privilege of attending the incredible opening of her first school for children with autistic conditions.  I had no doubt that the school would be a success knowing my friend, but I was unprepared for the depth and strength of her passion plus vision in providing children with autistic conditions with a good education, a chance to shine, to be happy, safe and have a sense of belonging. Anna and Sean went onto successfully help other families in similar positions. In all this busyness, despite existing with very little sleep, she manages to summon up energy and drive to literally bounce from project to project – I have no idea how she manages!  Of course, exercise and dance has always been her go to stressbuster and I am always sent into fits of giggles when I see her videos still wriggling those hips! I was so excited and happy to see Anna on Strictly Come Dancing strutting her stuff, it was good to see her inadvertently doing something for herself!

I got into teaching rather late in life and because of Anna’s story and being Patrick’s godmother, the impact of my friend’s struggles had a profound impact on me. Each child with autistic conditions under my care reminded me of Anna and Sean’s struggles and how the parents were coping. I was keenly aware beyond my teaching training of the extra need to help children with autistic conditions in mainstream schools achieve, feel safe, and valued. This meant not just ensuring that my lessons were fully differentiated for such pupils in my class, but in creating the right environment, making sure that the pupils and their parents knew that I was there for them, as well as giving the pupils the opportunity to become confident in as many areas as possible.  It is important for me that when in my care, a child shouldn’t experience what Patrick went through during his childhood.  It has been brilliant to see how Anna has helped Patrick achieve in life, culminating in working and living independently; job well done my friend!

The great playwright Tennessee Williams declared: “Time doesn’t take away from friendship, nor does separation.” 

For the first time in thirty years, my husband was posted locally to Anna, and we had a wonderful catch-up in 2022 before my final move up North. All those years of not being able to meet had not estranged our friendship.  It seemed as if we were simply catching up after only a few months apart!  We laughed and giggled as we looked back at our younger selves, the things we did and our life journeys. I gazed at my friend sat across the table from me with pride, at her journey, her strength, drive and passion for her children and was grateful that she had been given that strong resolve which also helps many parents of children with autistic conditions.  

Despite her challenges, achievements and accolades, Anna is still the warm, lovely friend with the beautiful spirit that I had met all those years ago – just more dynamic! I just wish she could get more sleep!

 

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