David Smiley

David died on 30th December 2011. He was 23. For two days before, we had been together as a family playing Pictionary in the lounge and enjoying being together. We have the usual photos and mobile phone footage of people being silly and enjoying themselves. Actually, these are so helpful now to look back on with fondness.

On the day he left to go back to Kent to get packed for his skiing holiday to Bulgaria, David delayed his departure to come with his younger brother and me to the driving range at my golf club. Many times before, as they were growing up, my sons and I had a laugh trying to hit balls straight and eventually be good enough to go on a par 3 course. I was quite surprised and delighted to notice how much David had improved. His swing was smooth, controlled and elegant. He let it slip that he had bought a set of second hand clubs and wanted to play more to improve his game and join in with some of his work colleagues. We agreed that the next time he came to visit I would take him out for a round at my club. He felt uncomfortable hugging me, his father, but I was able to put my hand on his shoulder and stroke his arm just before he got in his car and drove off. And thus, he left me to drive to Kent and start his skiing holiday with three friends. He knew I loved him.

Three days later at 2.30am the phone rang. The words from David’s mother, “Steve, David’s dead”, her voice incredulous, shaky, shocked, still with me, never to be forgotten. She had been woken minutes earlier by one of David’s friends who was at the hospital near the skiing resort of Borovets. Jacob had been sharing a room with David and woke at midnight and noticed that David’s breathing was erratic. When he realised that something was wrong he tried to wake David, which he couldn’t. He alerted the other two friends and then roused the hotel owners to call for an ambulance.

They said that it would take too long to come so David was carried to the hotel car and it was driven to the hospital while one of his friends heroically carried out CPR in the back seat for the duration of the journey (40 minutes). The others followed in another car. David was pronounced dead at the hospital soon after he arrived. It has turned out that they had no hope of resuscitating him, but boy, did they try!

They had arrived the previous day, collected their hire skis and boots, had a meal and a drink, thrown a few snowballs and gone to bed excited at the prospect of the following day’s skiing. Instead, the three friends had to endure police interviews and the knowledge that their friend had gone – all in a foreign country where very few people could speak English. We contacted the Foreign Office night desk and they arranged for an email to be sent to the Bulgarian Embassy ready for opening later that morning. Unfortunately, because it was the New Year period, the whole country was winding down for a long holiday and news was hard to come by. The Embassy officer was only able to do so much and we knew that we would have to wait until 3rd or 4th January before any further news would be available. I was told that there was absolutely no point in going out to Sofia although I wanted to accompany David on the flight home. They had no idea when they would be able get him on an aircraft.

Repatriation took much longer than we wanted and then there were more delays when the English coroner wanted another post mortem. Funeral plans were made but then had to be delayed. During this time too, I had contacted CRY and followed up on the advice of having the family given medical checks – that is David’s three brothers, his mother and me. From early on, when the news broke, we began to receive letters of condolence and sympathy from so many people who had known David. We knew what a lovely person he was, but to find out how many others thought the same just filled us with many emotions, most of which resulted in us crying.

He had been coaching tennis in a girls’ school for over a year and to see how his death had affected many of his students and the staff was heart wrenching. His mother and I were still in states of shock when we went to a memorial service at the beginning of their spring term, but their caring attitude made us see why David had enjoyed working at that school. It made us proud that they had thought so highly of him. He was loved, too, by the adults he taught, by the parents of tennis club members, by the people he was working with to improve public tennis facilities in Whitstable, Kent, and his many friends.

We talked about and have passed out many CRY leaflets and I’m really pleased how the suggestions of raising money for CRY have been taken up. Money has been raised in David’s name by people doing sponsored walks; a 24 hour Squash event; the 10k Hastings run; the Podplus 3 lakes 5k run in Ashford, Kent; a 24 hour swimming teachathon; various tennis events; and, of course, donations keep coming in from individuals.

When we were able to have David’s funeral, the church was packed as the local community came together to both mourn and celebrate his life. It was a wonderful service, as they go, and we felt that his life was marked fittingly. At the beginning and end of the service the organist played some of David’s favourite tunes from Coldplay, Athlete, Snow Patrol and other groups. It was very moving as music can be. Again, we felt proud of our son and brother, but the strongest feeling is that of, “What a waste!”. He had started on his life, so full of promise, and was making it a success. There is no way we could have guessed he was a young man at risk.

At the time of writing we have a date for David’s Inquest but everything points to something which could not have been diagnosed. So we have to carry on with our lives, support the other three children and continue to miss our David. As well as thinking of him every day, I particularly hurt on some days: his birthday; his brother’s wedding; Wimbledon (when we would discuss on the phone the day’s players and matches coming up); the Olympics, when David would have been a volunteer Gamesmaker working behind the scenes at Wimbledon; annual events when we would be together as a family; and when I’m on the golf course I think of what we might have shared.

Steve Smiley