By Nem Tomlinson

Joe Ulleri was a much-loved core member in L’Arche Manchester. His death, three years ago, attracted national media interest last week when a jury inquest ruled that failures in his care, while in hospital, constituted neglect, which contributed to his death. In this reflective piece, Nem Tomlinson from L’Arche Manchester shares her memories and stories of Joe.

Alot has been written about Joe in the last couple of weeks. Those articles are important. They tell the story of a needless death, and a system that is fragmented and too complex to navigate. I want justice for Joe and I want hospitals to be safe places for people who are vulnerable. Joe’s death was unnecessary and the manner in which he died makes me both utterly bereft and furious. All of that is true.

Yet, somehow, there is another element to Joe’s death — and more importantly his life — which can become lost in the news stories. Perhaps what hasn’t been captured is how beautiful Joe’s death was; the kind of death that I would like to have.

Joe breathed his last breaths in a small hospital side room, crammed full of people belonging to the different parts of his life. His beloved family; long-term friends from Saturday Club of which he was a committed member; people he went to church with; friends with disabilities; and a whole array of us from L’Arche Manchester. People jumped on trains to be there and arrived just in time, and we shuffled in a little closer to make sure that they might fit. We kept squeezing in. All of us desperate to be there, to take it in turns to hold his hand, to tell the stories we had lived with him and to whisper ‘I love you’ again and again. We needed to make sure that Joe knew just what he had meant to each of us; just what he had changed. Friendships that spanned his whole life, and some that were new, all there in that room. It was a beautiful thing and a privilege to be there.

I have been trying to think in light of the news about the inquest into his death what I want people to know about Joe and the life he lived; what I want you to know of Joe as you read this. It has struck me once more how ordinary love is and how beautiful that is.

These are the things I want to tell you about Joe Ulleri.I want to tell you of the bold M&S trousers Joe always wore, accompanied by a hat and his bright red sneakers that I clutched to my chest after he died. I want to tell you of how it felt to open our front door and be greeted by him and Nia chopping the vegetables for tea, and how they’d watch MasterChef and slice in companionable silence, forty or so years between them.

Of how he would hold a baby on his knee and wrap them up gently in his arms to make sure they were safe as they’d poke his face and he would smile. I loved how he would stand whenever he appreciated music; on the radio, in the street, at church. His conduct graceful and stately. Or the time Martin learnt that he loved to be tickled and the chuckle that emerged out of him being a joyous surprise.

There were the evenings he would potter around; pausing and joining in with the late night keep fit session happening in the sitting room. How he adored women; all women, but particularly Laura. How when we went on holiday to Ireland he delighted in slurping back oysters. Or how after his morning routine — the one we would dance to as I helped him shave — I would tie his shoelaces as the finale and he would put his hand on my head like a blessing.

I think of the people who I love in my life. The ones who love me back. I think about how our friendships are built on these ordinary moments. The rituals of day to day life and the ways we show up for each other. I think how I helped welcome Joe into Heathside, but how really he welcomed me into my life here; through cups of tea and hugs, and in the safety of his presence. And how this is true for the many of us who loved him so much.

He fostered belonging and friendship, and so we sat next to him in his hospital bed constantly for three weeks because where else would we be, but with him.

The truth is that Joe lived an ordinary life in such an excellent way. In doing so, he has taught me what I want for my life. I want to be known. I want to dance in the streets and to hold babies close. To be confident in my ‘no’ and emphatic in my ‘yes,’ and take every opportunity to wear bold colours. And what I want most, in my vulnerable moments, is a room filled with love, and hands to encircle mine.