It will be open-house tomorrow at Andy and Georgina Keeling’s modest but cosy home. The rooms will be filled with the sounds of chatter and laughter although the reason behind the gathering is a sombre one.
The guests will be remembering with love and deep affection the Keelings’ son Liam on the anniversary of his death from meningitis on October 27, 2009.
Only two weeks earlier they had been celebrating his 13th birthday. His loss, four years on, is still an open wound.
“I used to be contented – laid-back, just like Liam. Now I’m a sad person,” says Andy, a part-time postman from Cheslyn Hay.
Liam’s death was a terrible shock to his family. A star player for Wyrley Juniors FC, he was the fittest he had ever been and had shown no symptoms of the lethal disease.
The youngster, who also played cricket for Penkridge and Bloxwich, had picked up a cold the week before but returned to Cardinal Griffin Catholic High School in Cannock on the Wednesday for a school trip to the Black Country Museum.
On Thursday he had a sleepover with friends. They played all day and in the evening went to a race night. On Saturday afternoon Liam started being sick and developed a headache and temperature but by Tuesday, the symptoms had disappeared.
That day Andy took Hannah, Liam’s big sister, and her boyfriend to WaterWorld, near Stoke-on-Trent, for a day out.
Andy says: “I’d had a chat and a joke with Liam before we left. He was lying on the settee and my wife was on the computer beside him. He said he was going to have a nap but never woke up. Georgina called me saying ‘You have to come, it’s not good.’ When I got there the paramedics were with him.”
Liam died later that day at the Manor Hospital surrounded by his family.
Andy says: “It was such a shock. We didn’t know for five days, till the post mortem, what had killed him. My wife and I were interviewed separately by the police, for two hours each, like suspects. It was horrendous.”
Liam’s post mortem revealed he had been suffering from swine flu which, at some stage, turned to bacterial meningitis.
As they struggled to cope with their heartbreak, the couple were gripped by fear when just two weeks later, Hannah was admitted to the Manor with the same symptoms. To their huge relief, her illness turned out to be a viral infection. After Liam’s death, everything changed. Andy gave up his coaching at Wyrley Juniors where he had been Liam’s manager all the way through from the under-eights squad to the under-13 Panthers’ side. He also gave away father and son’s Walsall FC season tickets.
“I couldn’t face it anymore. His death is still very raw but you have to carry on. I’ve spoken to people who have lost a child. They say it’s like starting a new life but one without your son. But it’s a life you don’t want to start.
“For the first couple of years it was pretty bad. I didn’t have counselling but looking back it would probably have helped. It’s got a bit better since then but I’m definitely a different person now.”
Two things, in particular, have helped to ease the Keelings’ pain.
The most immediate medicine came in the form of fundraising. A match between Walsall FC All Stars and Wyrley Juniors was organised in Liam’s memory and a staggering £6,500 was raised for the charity Meningitis UK, marking the start of an incredible fundraising campaign.
Instead of quietly fading to a stop after the initial tidal wave of grief had subsided, the fundraising went from strength to strength. A committee was formed, which still meets every six weeks to organise events. Last month the fund topped £150,000.
Meningitis UK has described their efforts as ‘an incredible achievement and a testament to everyone involved’.
Andy, 53, says: “The time the committee puts in is amazing. We can’t thank them enough. Family and friends have all been wonderful. I’ve got a lot of friends from my days playing semi-professional football with Hednesford Town, Sutton Town and Rushall Olympics, also people I’ve kept in touch with over the years from playing Sunday football. They’ve all been involved.”
The family were also moved when their son’s old school named its new £800,000 sports pitch The Liam Keeling Arena in his memory.
Such was the school’s respect for the pupil, described in tributes as ‘a gentle giant and diamond footballer’. Andy played in the debut game last year.
The Keelings have thrown themselves into the charity work, taking part in sponsored cycling rides and completing a 201-mile walk in Ireland.
As well as boosting funds, they want to raise awareness of the disease and how quickly it can strike.
“It was hard at first, trying to cope with Liam’s death and finding ourselves the centre of attention,” says Andy.
“I’m a bit shy and although my wife is not, she’s a very private person.
“But the fundraising is a tribute to Liam and it helps keep his memory alive. A lot of people are doing things for Liam even now, four years later, and that helps us a lot.”
The other ray of light has appeared more recently. Last month, 19-year-old Hannah gave birth to Laylah, making them them grandparents for the first time.
Andy talks with pride about their daughter. “For the first three or four weeks after Liam died, Hannah slept with us in our bed. She found it terrible.
“But she’s gone on to do really well at school and she’s now in her second year at Birmingham City University, studying to be a primary school teacher.
“Laylah has given us another focus. It’s sad in one way because Liam is not here to see her but you have to think positive.
“I’ve changed my shifts at work so that I can babysit when Hannah is at uni and Georgina only works two days a week so she helps to look after her as well.
“I feed and change her, just like I did with Liam and Hannah when they were little. It’s kept us busy.”
The family have held an open-house every year on Liam’s anniversary.
“It was my wife’s idea, it was very hard the first year. But the house is packed for most of the day, it’s a bit like Euston Station. We’re very touched that his friends come and still like to remember him.”
The next fundraiser for Liam’s fund will be held at Bloxwich Memorial Club on November 23 when there will be music from Ian James, Ruby Spider and Dave Carnall. Tickets are £7 or £3 for children.