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Modern families

A family used to be mum, dad, 2.4 kids and a Labrador. As we know, the modern world isn’t really like that. I’d like to introduce you to one of the most amazing people I’ve ever had the privilege to have in my life, my daughter, Rachel, who I first met in the pub when she was three.

I’d better explain. I was ‘dating’ her mum (now my wife) at the time, and Rachel was part of the package. A ‘special’ part as it happens and on our first meeting she spent half the lunchtime having a tantrum under the table because vinegar had been applied to her chips and that day was not a vinegar day. The rest of the time she spent investigating the pub, dragging a stool with her which she stood on when her height got in the way of seeing stuff.

Rachel grew up to be a prime example of nurture over nature and I struggle to understand the distinction some can make between a child who is yours by choice rather than birth. We had a very different relationship from the normal dad/daughter one. It was one of friendly rivalry as she had monopolised Vanessa’s time and I was a challenger. She also had a huge personal conflict; treating me like a father would be disrespectful to her father.

So we played a game and built a relationship around banter. Walking back from the shops one beautiful summer’s day up a back alley in Morecambe she says "teach me to spit properly Mike". I tried to resist but it wasn’t really a request, so I taught her on the promise that she would not tell her mother. Needless to say as soon as we got back to the house we were staying in she beamed to Vanessa, "Guess what mum, Mike just taught me how to spit" and I was in the dog house...

When she was 13, Rachel was rushed into hospital and after a fraught weekend was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system. If you had to have cancer as a young person it was the best one to have with a 95% success rate. Unfortunately, that percentage relies on one person in 20 not making it and as I said earlier, Rachel was special.

So as a family we entered a strange parallel universe, a twilight zone where your whole perspective of life is adjusted. Where every small win is valued and every major blow is taken, shaken off and you get back up and keep fighting. Luckily for us Rachel's positivity and determination helped us all through.

She had cancer for three years and seven months but she was never ‘ill’. She got to school when she could and despite missing 60% of lessons passed her GCSEs and started to study for her A Levels. She had a blue badge, so took and passed her driving test when she was 16 (only a few months after I passed at 36!). She went to New York and had a fabulous time thanks to the wonderful staff at the hospital who managed to get her bloods up enough so she could fly.

She had some dark times too, we all did. But Rachel never lost sight of the important things: living for today; people; nice food; clothes. Even when she knew the cancer wasn’t going away she just accepted that she would live with it for the rest of her life and then she focused on living that life. She never once spoke of how long that life would be and neither did we. And as far as she was concerned she was a fit and well young woman who happened to have a cancer that wouldn’t go away. I remember a time she was having a check-up with a load of trainee doctors watching. Her liver was close to packing up, she was so pale she was translucent and when the doctor asked how she was she said "pretty good thanks, my back aches a bit but apart from that I’m fine". I don't think they had ever experienced someone with that much life in them.

In her last few months getting around was more challenging, so we got Rachel a wheelchair. It gave her the opportunity to make me push her around shopping centres and she would get up, have a browse of the clothes and come back out. The last time she drove was on her 17th birthday in January 2001, taking her childhood friend Amy out for the day. She had enough morphine in her to knock me out, but that wasn’t going to stop her.

She died on St Patrick's day 2001. We knew that she wanted to be buried because one day when she was still in primary school she asked Vanessa "when I'm gone, you will put flowers on my grave Mum?". Her best friend from school, Sam, wrote a poem to celebrate her life and she read it at the funeral without wavering. It wasn’t a day for crying, it was a day of celebration.

So you’ve probably worked out that this isn’t going to be one of the stories I tell at an Art of Brilliance workshop, which is a pity, as Rachel is my best example of how to be your best self, brilliantly. She was positive, determined and fearless to the end of her time with us. If you met her you wouldn’t forget her and your life was better for knowing her. She did not live a long life but, as Diane Ackerman would say, she more than lived its width and she taught me what love was about and how to live.

The key messages from the Art of Brilliance are so simple that it is easy to overlook and ignore them. We talk about '2%ers', the small band of people who stand out for all the right reasons. I’m luckier than most as I had a young, beautiful, articulate, sometimes irritating person in my life for 14 years who demonstrated that life is not about what happens to you but is all about how you respond to those events.

She was and always will be my special 2%er and to use the words her best friend read out at the funeral - "I confess my admiration for a girl, I see a queen. The brave, courageous and most beautiful person I have ever known or seen."

I can’t help thinking that Rachel’s life is a lesson to us all.

Mike x

Mike Martin is our new boy. Oh, and he just happens to be Welsh. He’s taken on the challenge of embedding happiness and positivity in schools and business across the world, with a particular emphasis on his homeland. If you’d like further details please drop him an email:

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Posted by: Mike