Portrait of an angel

Earlier this week, my father-in-law’s emotional, uncontrolled weeping as he sat next to me looking at my computer screen gave me serious cause for concern that my attempts to achieve something useful had, in fact, had the polar opposite effect. I was, as always, worried that I had inadvertently provoked this spontaneous, tear-jerking reaction and that he would never forgive me for my transgression. I know I’m a bit difficult at times, but surely not enough to bring a grown man to tears?

As I wracked my brain to consider the possibilities that may have led to this event, another, perhaps less rational part of my grey-matter began to muse on the following: angels live amongst us, of this I am sure. Sometimes, their presence is fleeting, so that we barely notice them until they leave. And then, when an inexplicable hole appears in our lives, we grapple with grief and anguish. Only occasionally do we realise that we have been touched by something celestial and awesome in the most inspirational sense of the word. Perhaps my action was the immediate trigger, but these heart-rending sobs clearly had a deeper, more visceral origin. An angel was affecting him, as she has done for every one of the sixteen thousand, six hundred and fifty-odd days since she left him. Her name is Tina Denise.

My biological father and I have never met, although I recently found out a great deal more about him than I ever had in the first half-century of my life.

My Daddy, the man who was married to my mother, died when I was eight years old. When my mother died five years later, I was looked after by my (much older) brother and his wife, along with their family of five children (my nieces and nephews) who were all of a similar age to me. It was a very complicated arrangement that many found difficult to understand, particularly when I went to the same school as my two eldest nieces who were both older than me. Other teenagers simply couldn’t get their heads round the fact that I was their aunt, yet they were older than me. Did that make my brother my father? This was a typically poorly considered question that I usually answered with a withering glare. Possibly, this was also (in part) where my rather bizarre sense of humour comes from.

What a charming young lad!
What a charming young lad!

So, having a father-figure in my life had been a tad hit-and-miss until I was eighteen and met my husband. My husband had a ‘Dad’ and I found this intriguing from the outset. I had no real idea of how to *be* around this man, who looked remarkably similar to my then boyfriend, just a few years older perhaps. There’s a number of hilarious stories involving Mark (my hubby) and his Dad in farcical mistaken identity scenarios resulting in the elder being thrown out of pubs at the age of around forty, whilst his seventeen-year-old son happily knocked back a few pints in the tap-room. Bar staff in local pubs simply couldn’t tell who was who unless they were standing side by side.

You see, Mark’s father had a very youthful appearance. as you can probably see from the picture … go on, have a guess at his age in this photo… what do you think, maybe fifteen? Sixteen? In truth, he was about eighteen when this was taken. 1957 -ish. I’ll just let you absorb that for a moment.

I found myself attached to his son a quarter of a century later and with my husband came his family. For many people this can be a difficult transition, meeting the family, hoping they’ll like you and that you will like them – but right from the start, Mark’s Dad became my Dad, with his warm smile, irrepressible charm and generous spirit; qualities that he had passed to his son osmosically. And yes, I know that’s a made up word. That’s how I roll. It should be a word and now, I’ve made it one!

I mention this because when you consider the traumas he had lived through in his life, it is utterly remarkable that he showed little evidence of any difficulties in his demeanor or visage. Not a crinkle or a wrinkle in sight. Clearly, some supernatural force is at work here! No-one looks that young for that long, unless of course they are policemen, who look younger by the day, I swear.

Not long after I met his family, Mark told me about their circumstances and the fact that he had once had two sisters, but that his youngest sister, known to everyone as Little Tina, had died when she was three, some twelve years before we had met. Leukaemia had been tragically diagnosed when she was very small and the young family had lived with the consequences for over eighteen months. She had responded well to treatment to start with and after initial hospitalization went into remission. Unfortunately this was not a permanent circumstance and shortly after her third birthday, in October 1968 she passed away. The only photograph her bereaved parents displayed was a very small oval picture of her in a little knitted dress, standing next to a bush in Seacroft Hospital gardens, grinning broadly, but clearly affected by her medication. The photograph had faded very badly over the years, taking on an unpleasant greenish hue that made it look overly antiquated. It almost felt as if she had faded into oblivion when I looked at this miniature portrait, as it became ever more ghostly.

I was empathic, for I too had suffered similar calamities and it was one more thing that seemed to bind us together. I didn’t, at that point at least, consider the actual impact on Mark’s parents until we had children of our own. I visited Little Tina’s grave with my fiancée and lent my moral support whenever and wherever I could. I had always found that those people who had experience of such losses were more understanding of my plight as an orphan and that they usually offered few words – perhaps knowing that words are generally less comforting than actions: so I complied with the general rule of mentioning her only very, very rarely, if at all.

But as time passed, I found myself weeping silent tears for the loss of this small child, especially when our second daughter was born, as she had so many similar characteristics;  a startling physical resemblance coupled with some uncannily agnatic mannerisms and personality traits. I was painfully aware that Dad found being around Natalie when she was between two and three particularly challenging. Part of me was ever-so-slightly upset for my daughter, after all, it wasn’t her fault that she had this genetic link and shared so many idiosyncrasies with her deceased aunt.

Seeing him suffer, albeit in silence, tugged at my heart-strings though, much more firmly than my concerns for my own child. I began to consider what it must have been like to lose a cherub at such a tender age. Mark had often mentioned the frequent stints spent at his gran’s home (where he was born) mostly after school or at weekends or during school holidays, when their parents were busy at the hospital with their sick child. Dad would return to pick them up and walk them home, telling stories to them all the time; frequently he would be sporting a new tie that had been cut, up near to the knot at his neck, as Little Tina had been holding tightly to it as she fell asleep. His mother was equally torn between spending time with one child at the expense of the other two. It must have been an agonizing choice.

And then I realised how very young they must have both been when this  all happened – in 1968, Dad was 29 and Mum only 26. The cost of travelling to and from the hospital must have been a heavy financial burden as well as physically and emotionally draining. The incredible uncertainty of the unknown – would this treatment work? would she improve sufficiently to come home? how long would she suffer? – must have also taken a significant toll on their sanity as well as everything else. Yet, they came through and were able to pull together, regroup and get on with their own lives as well as their surviving children, giving them an otherwise remarkably happy and settled childhood. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how much bravery this must have required from them both. I cried a river mourning for them and for the lost relationship with my unknown sister-in-law.

And so, when Dad asked me for a little help in restoring a long-lost photo of Tina Denise (Little Tina’s full given names), which was taken in the hospital activity room, whilst she was receiving some treatment, I agreed instantly. He said that he’d heard I was a bit of a whizz with Photoshop and could I do anything with the photo, even though it was badly showing its age, with not only faded colours, but several large cracks when the paper had been bent and folded in the box. I didn’t hesitate to agree. How could I refuse?

Here’s the original photo he gave me to work with:

Original photo of Irene and Tina Denise
Original photo of Irene and Tina Denise

He wasn’t wrong… it was in dreadful condition. He instructed me to do whatever I could with it, maybe take his cousin Irene (the lady with blonde hair on the left) out of the picture, so that it could just be a picture of Tina knitting. You can see the concentration on her face; you can also see the canula taped to her cherubic, chubby left arm, a stark reminder of the circumstances. His voice cracked just a tad as he spoke to me on the phone about the project. I reassured him that I’d do whatever I could to give him a picture he could treasure. I’m not sure he believed me. I’m not sure I had any confidence that I could do a good job. But I was determined to give it my best shot.

So, here’s my best shot:

Tina Denise Gregory - 31st August 1965 to 19th October 1968
Tina Denise Gregory – 31st August 1965 to 19th October 1968


When he saw the image for the first time, his silence was devastating. I was terribly concerned that he was disappointed or annoyed that I had not done a good enough job.

When I looked at his face, I saw the tears, streaming down his face.

For the first time in over forty six years, he could see his little girl.

She was real again.

His eyesight, which had never been spectacular even in his youth, has been fading steadily for many years and the tiny oval photo’s evanescent countenance had blotted her from view. But here she was, in full colour, looking remarkably lively and cheerful.

He loved it.

Hence the tears. Happy tears.

An angel touched him once more. I’m so glad I was able to bring them both back together.

Thanks for reading. 





6 Replies to “Portrait of an angel”

    1. Thanks you so much for reading it John! I’m very pleased that you clearly enjoyed reading it and I hope to continue to write pieces that people can connect with so effectively.


    1. Like calls to like, dear friend, and I’ve always felt that we are connected in many more ways than seems immediately obvious. I am just immensely glad that you and Mairi are both my friends and I truly treasure your friendship. I’m glad you enjoyed reading about this. x


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