John & Mum

Liverpool, Merseyside

Could you start off by telling me a bit about the original photograph?

"My name is John Roberts and the photograph was taken at the Albert Dock in March 2015. It was the first day I'd seen my Mum since being told she had terminal cancer. We'd spent the day around the Tate Museum, having a lot of laughs inside there with my auntie and my cousin and on the way out as we were going home we took the photo together, silly-ly as we were, on our way back towards the train station."

Can you describe the day that the photograph was taken?

"I'd not long moved into Liverpool, Mum had been going through tests and so it was the first day that because of various work commitments that I had, it was the first day I could actually spend time and see her. That day we met up and went for dinner at the Bridewell, a pub which used to be an old jail in Liverpool, so all the rooms are in cells! We had a meal there together and laughs, and then we just decided to go to the Albert Dock. That wasn't a decision we'd made beforehand, we just went off the cuff and we ended up in the Tate, spending time together. There was one moment where she sat down and I sneakily took a picture of her and put it on facebook and called it 'old f-art', and then she obviously got a message on her phone in the middle of the Tate and just burst out laughing! We spent time going around there, making jokes of what we were seeing and at the end of that day we took the photo, which was more of a conscious decision from me because my sister and my mum always had loads of photos together, but I was really conscious that me and my mum didn't have that many, as so it was like, right, I've got to get this captured in a memory really."

It sounds to me like quite an enjoyable day, a fun time shared together in light of what was very serious news, is that what your relationship was like?

"Yeah. Growing up, the relationship with me and my mum was really strong due to various things that she went through with my dad, the divorce and everything that went on, so we had a really close relationship. So much so that we'd always be laughing and joking, we'd take the mick out of each other quite a lot. When friends who didn't really know us would come in, new friends especially would say, "I can't believe you talk to your mum like that!" or "I can't believe your mum would talk to you like that!" but that's just how we are, we're more like friends than that parent relationship. Obviously there are those more serious moments and those moments when you're at loggerheads with each other, but generally it was always a good time."

That really helps paint a picture of what she was like. How you would you describe her, what sort of person was she? 

"She was very strong minded. She knew what she wanted and if it didn't go her way there was trouble! She was always a person that everyone would go to her for advice, even her friends, she would be the go-to person. She was always laughing and joking, even through the hard times,  even right until two days before she died. We had a party for her with all her friends and family, and we didn't know she was going to die so soon after that, but we were laughing and joking. She was always bubbly, loved a laugh and if she was in a mood with you, you'd know about it! She just loved life. She was welcoming to everybody, there wasn't a time when I was growing up that if there were friends who were having a tough time or had been kicked out of homes or didn't have anywhere they would end up living with us. My friends used to call her mum as well, so they'd used to just come in the house, we had an open door policy in our house, so friends would help themselves to whatever was in the cupboards and that was the kind of crazy mad house we were living in!"


“There has been the confusion, there has been the anger, but I suppose its the thing that my mum would always instil which is always look at the positive side of life” 


She sounds like an amazing person! Do you see similar characteristics in yourself? Or are there things that you'd like to take on from her?

"I think so. I think we have a very similar sense of humour and a lot of people say my laugh is just a carbon copy of hers. I don't make rash decisions on meeting people and I think I learnt that from her. The openness of different people's lifestyles, different people's personalities, she would never judge anyone or criticise people for what they do. She'd always be there for people and I think I've inherited that side of her, that sort of welcome nature and the open house where anyone can come over and chat."

Is Albert Dock a particularly special place? Is it somewhere you go back to at all?

"I always remember going there when we were young, because we only lived 20 minutes down the road in Ellesmere Port, so Liverpool was always the city if we went on a big shop as a family, or if you had money for birthday's we'd always go. We had loads of day trips around the Albert Dock and when we were kids, This Morning was filmed there, so we'd occasionally go and see that being made, look through the windows and wave! As a location, there are lots of memories associated with it and I suppose that's the reason it's still one of my favourite places. I'm not consciously aware that that's why, but it's a place that if I want to think it's a place I find quite calming, it's just a really beautiful place on the waterfront."

What was it like when I asked you to find a picture? 

"The tricky thing with trying to find a picture for this project was, apart from one or two photos, most of them were all silly photos where we're playing tricks on each other or doing silly things. There was one serious photo, which was at a friend's wedding in Wales, it was a nice photo, but for me it doesn't sum up the kind of relationship that we had, so I picked the photo at Albert Dock because it's a really poignant day, but also it sums up the kind of relationship that we had together."

What was it like going back there today and retaking it?

"I don't think, emotionally, it was as bad as I was expecting it to be. Because I live here in the city and I go past there all the time, sometimes it's absolutely fine, but other days there'll be a little thing that might trigger off a memory or a thought process, so it's constantly up and down. I think that spot now will be a special place. We used to spend a lot of time going down to London to go and see shows together and I found that going back to London for the first time was a lot harder than this, I suppose."

Are there particular things that instigate memories, or is it fairly random? 

"I think generally it's getting easier. The sadness starts to become more happiness as you remember those times. I suppose, in a lot of senses, it's still quite fresh, because it's not even a year since she passed away. There are moments, I'll be on a bus and I might read something and think, yeah, she'd love that. Our family have kept her facebook page quite active as well. Rather than turn it into a memorial page, so we can post, me and my sister have access to that, and it might sound crazy, but we still send her messages on facebook, it's our way of dealing with things I suppose. 

Different memories will trigger different things and some days it won't even compute and other days you just go 'bang' because it does. Me and mum used to go to the theatre quite a lot, so especially if it's a show that we'd seen together or had quite a good laugh, those moments come up in your mind and it takes a few moments to compute everything that's going on. Just readjust, sort it out and compartmentalise them into different places really, and it's getting easier to turn them into positive memories, looking at the moments you shared together and the joy that it gave, rather than the sadness."

That's certainly a process that each person goes through in their own time and I don't think there's any need to feel like you need to hurry that process, you have to accept it as it comes and be aware of how you're reacting to certain stimulus. It's a lovely thing for you to be able to say, that things that brought up negative emotions, now you're able to feel like you can celebrate those moments, which is a really good thing to be able to hold on to.

"Yeah, that's something that my mum was really strong about, you can look at the sad things in life or actually you can celebrate what they're about and whether that's lost friendships or something, they're all there and everything has it's moment and it's place, so it's about celebrating those times I guess. Even at her funeral, well it wasn't a funeral really, it was a celebration. She was adamant that no-one was allowed to wear black, everyone had to have purple, which was her favourite colour. She had us on the door making sure that everyone had something purple on! So even till the last moment she was cracking the whip!"

It sounds like there are a lot of fresh memories, do you feel like photographs have helped shape those at all?

"Oh yeah, our family have huge boxes and my sister is in the middle of trying to digitally archive them just in case. There's photos that I'd totally forgotten. You see them and all of a sudden that memory just snaps back into place and you can remember being there. It was funny, I was looking through photos the other day, just going through loads of things, and I found a photo which I'd never seen before, which was of me and my mum when I was a baby, relatively new born. There's a running joke in our family that there's no pictures of me as a baby with my family, so they say I'm adopted, a running gag. It was actually quite touching to see that photo, because I'd never seen it before, didn't even know it existed and there it was. I think photos are important, especially because 30 years ago photography wasn't done in the same sort of way, so it was quite expensive to get photos done, so those moments are even more special. I suppose nowadays you sort of take photos for granted, but I kind of like that, even if there are photos of everyones life flying about, but it's quite nice having that digital archive of everything that you do making those memories more implanted."

Even that picture that you didn't know existed, that feels to me like it adds a lot of significant to where you fitted in within the family. That gives you an impression that you never would otherwise have had?

"The earliest photograph that remember being taken was probably when I was about 3, and me and my sister who was probably 2 at the time had a photograph session in the living room of our house. I can remember someone coming in, the fluffy white carpet over some steps, and that to me, is the first memory that I can recall, so photography for me is significant in that sense, but you're right, it is nice to know that I wasn't forgotten as a child! The photos did exist, I just hadn't seen them, various family members had them!"

How do you feel about the experience of going back over things, looking over photos and revisiting the docks, how has that felt? 

"I suppose it's quite cathartic. Obviously it's sad, but those memories bring great times and they flash up joy and happiness and you can really picture what happened in those times. I think it's been a real learning curve because both of my parents have now died, so loosing my mum made everything, well, that line suddenly goes completely, so it's a really different adjustment that you have to make. It's that point at which where you think you're actually on your own now. It's still a big learning curve. There are still things where you have to adjust, but our family is really close, so those people like my auntie and my sister, my brother-in-law and my niece, we're all quite tight, so we're all helping each other through constantly. It is going to take time, but I suppose as long as we keep pushing on those good times then we'll get through it. I think it's quite a cliche, the whole we'll get through it, but it's true, I don't think until you're in those positions, as the saying goes, you are stronger than you actually think. Those moments come and they test us in different ways, and I suppose that makes us stronger."


"You never know how long you're going to have. That to me really is the crux.  the learning curve is, you do have to treat every day almost as if it's your last, to cherish those things and find those things that make each day really special."


For me, the over-riding thing has been the positivity that has been instilled into you during such a difficult situation. It's always a whole wash of options, but for you to be able to talk about the joy and happiness in this scenario is really commendable.

"There has been the confusion, there has been the anger and the why us, because as a family we've been through quite a lot over thirty years that I've been around, but I suppose its the thing that my mum would always instil which is always look at the positive side of life. If you look at the negatives constantly then you'll go on a bit of a spiral. Even since Mum died we've been through lots of troubles, sorting out and resolving those unwrapped issues that in reality turned our family upside down, having to sell the family home because of various things, there's been lots of change. But I think what we take from it is, when we found out my mum had cancer, she was always positive about it. Yes, there were moments when she was upset, but she planned everything, she knew exactly what she wanted, even to the final details, the final moments, what music she wanted playing and who she wanted playing it. She had her favourite artist, who I'd actually worked with, called John Owen Jones who was Phantom of the Opera and Jean Veljean in Les Miserables and worked on Broadway, she wanted him playing, well his music playing, so that was always there. He found out that mum was ill in hospital and she was dying and he sent an email to me saying how she'd touched his life because she was a fan.

When she died there were messages coming in from people all over the world, that I'd never even known that she'd met, who were touched. Various stories like when she was on a mission trip and she was working with a couple and they couldn't afford a coat so she'd gone out and bought them a coat each, things that I had no idea about. People in Malaysia who called her 'Auntie Steph' because of how she had connected with the family, it's like this is madness! People in Kenya, a priest in Kenya who she'd worked with when she'd gone there! There's this whole other area of my mum's life that I had no idea about. I kind of knew it existed, but not to that extent! I suppose you can take a lot of joy from the fact that even in her 53 years she'd touched and blessed so many other people through various things. You can take great comfort in that I suppose."

That's a magnificent thing to have, she sounds like an absolutely wonderful lady! I wondered if there was anything else that you wanted to add that had come to mind?

"For me, the period of her finding out she had terminal cancer to dying was relatively short, it was a period of about 3 months and came as a surprise. She'd had skin cancer, and had treatment and got given the all clear in November, but she found over Christmas another lump and went in. By the time they did the tests they found it had spread really quickly, apparently one of the most vicious forms of skin cancer. You never know how long you're going to have. That to me really is the crux. In one sense, it sounds weird, but I'm glad we knew because we had that time to resolve things and solve certain things rather than it being just completely out of the blue, but for me, the learning curve is, you do have to treat every day almost as if it's your last, to cherish those things and find those things that make each day really special. That will always stick with me and that's what she's inputted into me over my life, every day has something special, take it, grasp it and cherish it."