By Nicola Streeten
Sixteen years ago, 19th September 1995, Nicola Streeton and her partner John lost their first child, Billy, aged just two years old. He died following heart surgery for problems that were diagnosed just two days earlier.
That’s the starting point for Billy, Me & You. The very first image is of Nicola and John walking out of the Royal Brompton, Billy’s things in their hands…..
Streeton kept a diary through the days and years following Billy’s death, a diary she’s now transformed into this graphic novel, this memoir, this look at surviving the worst imaginable thing that can happen to parents.
Billy, Me & You is described, at one point on the press release as a book that “will be relevant to anyone who has experienced the loss of someone they love“.
But that’s too limiting. This has a universal, empathetic appeal. For me, it captures all the fear and horror of being a parent, that inescapable, utterly ridiculous fear of losing your child, and the contemplation of the unimaginable vacuum that such a tragic and horrific event would leave. It isn’t limited to those who’ve lost someone they love, not at all, it’s a universal fear, given reality and a profound truth in Streeton’s words and pictures.
In truth though, we have no idea. We simply can’t imagine what it would be like. We can contemplate all we like, but thankfully, few of us will ever suffer this.
All the way through this, I selfishly kept thinking, “thank god, thank god this wasn’t us, how would I cope, how could I possibly cope?“. A terribly selfish thing to think. But I read it and realised Streeton wouldn’t see it like that. I like to think I’d be one of the people she met, the people she awarded marks to based on their responses, who’d just stand there shocked and worried that the best I could ever come up with in situations like this was a pitiful “I’m so sorry…..”
Her diary entries are so enlightening, so simply true. This is so very real, and you can feel it on every page. The movement through the years of abject grief, of recrimination, of guilt, of questioning, and every other possible emotion and action in between is captured in these 200 pages so very well.
To say it’s moving really undervalues Billy, Me & You. It is, of course, how could it not be, given the subject matter. But it’s so much more than that. For a start it’s a page turner, a single sitting read, a truly satisfying journey undertaken with the author. You share in every emotion on display, from the depths of grief, up to the anger, the hopelessness, even into the ridiculous situations Streeton sometimes finds herself in, the ridiculous people she meets along the way.
There’s moments of quiet reflection, catharsis, psychiatrist sessions, “dead baby clubs”, memories of the event, near madness, intense guilt, terrible sadness. It’s all here, an avalanche of emotions and moments, all tied together in Streeton’s narrative. There’s a scattershot feel to it all, and quite rightly so, it just emphasises the unreality of the terrible events and the experience is one of sharing headspace with Streeton throughout.
How she does it is amazing, but there are even plentiful moments of comedy all the way through Billy, Me & You, moments where the insanity of the world takes hold and there’s nothing left to do but laugh along.
Streeton’s artwork is rough, you can clearly see that. But it suits the story she’s telling in the manner she’s telling it. The emotional intensity comes through her art, and its openess and roughness is endearing, welcoming, personal and real.
In the end, this is a hugely personal memoir that serves so many purposes. Most of all, it makes us move beyond trite clichés and see things as they really were for Streeton and John. We learn so much, we feel the sadness, the rage, the impotence, the despair. But we also see the moments of absurdity, the funny stuff that happens along the way to the healing Streeton talks of.
And strange as it seems with such a subject, it’s a hugely entertaining book. I think Streeton would be happy with that. And she should be. This is entertaining, original, thought provoking stuff.
Billy, Me & You is published by Myriad Editions on the 27th October.