The first time I met Ripley, she was about six weeks old. I went to their old house in Epsom for the day and not being particularly comfortable around babies, mostly observed her with fascinated terror from a safe distance – from the other side of the room. After some time, I asked quite seriously, how they had known they wanted a baby instead of, say, a kitten. Fiona laughed and told me that they weren’t exclusive, you could have a baby AND a kitten. I asked why – in that scenario – you would not just get two kittens. I think we played this game up to five kittens.
I did become increasingly fond of her each time I saw her, although she largely remained entirely indifferent to me. Ripley was the first baby born to people I really consider friends, and I’m lucky that both her parents are friends I’ve now had for well over half my life. And I say lucky because it meant I had the privilege of seeing just how much they both contributed to the small person she became. I grew up with Fiona wanting any excuse to try on her mum’s old dresses from naval balls, and then watched as Ripley tottered about in her mum’s shoes that lit up or were covered in applique ducks. She’d already settled on a boldly alternative style, wanting to wear a princess dress with a Batman nappy, or a head to toe Minnie Mouse outfit with ears and a tutu just because it was Tuesday and she could. She had this tremendous attitude sometimes where you could tell she didn’t care what you thought of her, and in those moments all I could ever see was Ben. She had more books, and far more words than you would expect of a child of her age, until you looked to her parents and realised she was them. There were a collection of expressions on her tiny face that I’d seen play out on Fiona and Ben’s own faces a hundred times over the years.
And for 24 years I have found Fiona’s stubbornness hugely frustrating but now I forgive you it all, because it was another quality passed on to Ripley. That stubbornness, determination and refusal to ever fail or let anything go, meant that over the past 9 months we all continued to know a Ripley so full of personality, rather than her ever fading to a shadow of herself. Ripley who even at her most sick, you would call a monkey only for her to protest – almost insulted – that she wasn’t a monkey; who insisted on creating a castle within her hospital room for her incredibly grand wedding to her new toy koala; and who when she would only eat a few bites of food a day, was still all too happy to be bribed with chocolate buttons. And that is how on a cold wet night in January, I ended up running down the streets of Bristol in completely inappropriate shoes, searching for somewhere to source her third packet for the day, because she had promised us she would eat a little more pizza if only Auntie Alix could buy more buttons. And she had the audacity to claim she wasn’t a monkey.
During her time at Bristol Children’s Hospital, it became clear that Ripley would need a stem cell transplant. A lot of people here today immediately joined the various donation registers. That’s not surprising; any of us would have done anything we could to help and it was an easy gesture when we were all feeling helpless. What has surprised me is that number of people that I’ve talked about Ripley to this year, who have then told me later that they signed up to a process that many have misconceptions about. People who never met her. People who have never met Fiona, or Ben. Signing up for something that they thought might be scary or painful. Doing that for a toddler they had no connection to. I don’t know what the exact probability is of being picked off the register over the course of your eligible years, but it seems likely that with the number of people Ripley inspired and educated about donation, that eventually she’ll be the direct catalyst for saving someone’s life – or multiple people’s lives. Ripley, an overachiever, even now.
I do still feel that kittens are an entirely valid, and possibly superior, alternative to babies – but I am incredibly glad that Fiona and Ben felt differently. Because as excellent as kittens are they probably won’t go on to save anyone’s life, and they haven’t had near as much of an effect on my life as Ripley.
Ripley was the daughter of my oldest friend, and her husband, himself an old friend. She passed away on October 14th 2017, at the age of 2 years 8 months, exactly 9 months after she was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia. I wrote and read the above at her funeral and managed not to cry even though my heart is a little bit broken.
“And will I tell you that these three lived happily ever after? I will not, for no one ever does. But there was happiness. And they did live.”
― Stephen King, The Dark Tower