Taking the Next Step

Sam, Thomas and I have just returned from a week’s holiday on a farm in Cornwall. It was a big step for all of us. Dunc and I had booked it in January, in a moment of being unusually organised. When he died in April this year, I quickly realised that the holiday was looming and had no idea what to do. We were supposed to be going in July, to the same small cottage that we had stayed in previously. I knew that I couldn’t do that, but felt very strongly that the boys should not lose the holiday about which they were so excited, in addition to losing their daddy. Following conversations with Dunc’s sister, Sam’s fabulous Head Teacher, and the lovely folk at the farm, we rearranged our visit for last week, staying in a larger cottage with Dunc’s sister for company and support.

It felt very strange while I was packing for the holiday. I was confident that once we got to Cornwall, we would have an enjoyable time. I am learning that the boys are very good at getting involved in activities and distracting me from my deeper thoughts. However, it was also very sad to be packing for a holiday that Dunc and I had been planning with great anticipation, and which the boys and I would now be taking without him.

There were practical hurdles to overcome too because there were situations involved in holidaying with two small children where Dunc and I had developed very defined roles. For example: I packed the luggage; Dunc packed the car (having carried the heaviest bags down the stairs); I did the driving; Dunc read the map (whilst casually lobbing sandwiches/magazines/sucky sweets and the occasional admonishment at the boys in the back); Dunc made the sandcastles (for which you should read ‘complex systems involving diverted streams and intricate buildings, created only by people who have a degree in mechanical engineering’); I took the photos.

This year, I managed to heave the massive suitcase down the stairs myself, adding only a couple of small bruises to my shins in the process (and next time, I’ll pack it downstairs!). I did a fair job of driving and navigating, apart from a small oversight, when we ended up retracing our tracks for about 10 miles before realising the mistake. The photos I took on the beach suggest that the sand structure was sound, if a little less aesthetically pleasing than in previous years. I’m very much hoping that Dunc would have given me 10/10 for effort in each discipline at least (and it did feel regularly like I was participating in some crazy test of skill and endurance!).

The biggest test turned out to be our trip to the coast to scatter some of Dunc’s ashes. It had dawned on me during the summer that Cornwall was the obvious place to take a portion of them, as Dunc had proposed to me there and because we had planned to retire there. I wasn’t entirely sure that I was ready to take this step, but I felt that there was nothing to be gained by keeping them on top of the wardrobe for a year (and a trip to Cornwall can only really be an annual event when it involves a five hour car journey each way with two young children in tow!). 

I wanted to find a place that the boys would remember visiting with Dunc. I concluded that the natural choice was Tintagel, as we went twice during our holiday last year, and have lots of lovely photos of our visits. However, climbing the steep steps and footpaths there with two small children and a particularly heavy rucksack was a rather different proposition to the one we faced last year, when Dunc had ably carried Thomas most of the way! In fact, the ascent last week was relatively manageable. The descent was a different matter, when I realised that I needed to hold the rail to get down the steep steps, but also the hand of both boys! I found a logical solution and we made it down safely, but not before realising that I do need to seriously consider the potential problems that being a lone adult with two small children could cause on our adventures in the great outdoors.

The weather in Cornwall last week was pretty variable and the day we had allocated for our visit to Tintagel was extremely windy. Everyone who knew about my plan to scatter Dunc’s ashes had made mention of the importance of wind direction. In fact, it played a major part. It wasn’t so much a scattering of ashes, more a ‘make a nest in the long grass and place them carefully, leaving the wind to do the scattering for us’. If I’d ploughed ahead with the scattering plan, I think the ashes would have made it back inland a lot quicker than we did! Instead, I am happy that we have left that portion of them in a beautiful place, overlooking the sea, of which we have some lovely memories of visiting together as a family. It felt right. I didn’t feel upset, just a little emotional maybe. It was another step along our new path: taking care of another task that I hadn’t imagined I would need to do anytime soon; trying to follow what I think would have been Dunc’s wishes, and making it as simple as possible for all of us who remain to process and understand.

The journey home was much harder. After all, the last five months have been long and often extremely difficult. The week away had been a lovely change. We had concentrated on having fun together, not on completing endless paperwork; and on enjoying each other’s company, not on hiding from people who don’t know what to say to us. We were anonymous and it felt quite liberating. My smiles were mostly real, not forced, half-hearted efforts. And then, we had to leave our little Cornish haven and return to face reality – the difficult daily morning routine with two angry boys; steering them through tired bath-times; the empty half of our king-sized bed; the forthcoming family events, bonfire night (which was always previously my favourite night of the year), my birthday and, finally, Christmas. My spirits were low.

As we motored up the M5, however, we narrowly avoided a major accident which happened about one hundred metres in front of us. It was enough to shake me up, to make me thank my lucky stars that we were all still in one piece, and to remind me that, while we might not have chosen the path that we are currently taking, we should still be very grateful for everything that we have and for the wonderful people who are walking it with us. We finally reached home, the boys whooped with joy upon being reunited with their toys and I faced the mountainous pile of washing that only a holiday can create. The week away was timely – I took the opportunity to reflect while we were there and now feel (slightly!) rejuvenated and a little more prepared to face the challenges that lie ahead as we take the next steps along our new path.

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Matters of the Heart

Aside

I am confident that anyone who knew my husband, Dunc, would say he had a big heart. He was kind, generous, friendly, warm and, indeed, the most well-liked person I have ever met. Sadly, the pathologist who carried out the post-mortem examination after Dunc’s death, found that he also had an enlarged heart in the medical sense. He had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. To you and I, this effectively means that his heart muscle was considerably thicker than normal. The consequence was that his heart developed an arrhythmia during a friendly game of football. Despite prolonged efforts, the medics were unable to get it back into a normal sinus rhythm and Dunc was pronounced dead about an hour later.

Just prior to Dunc’s death, we had watched a documentary about Fabrice Muamba, the Bolton Wanderers footballer who collapsed and suffered a cardiac arrest on the pitch, during a televised FA Cup match at White Hart Lane, in March 2012. Fortunately, a cardiologist was watching the match from the stands and he, along with the medical staff from both teams, gave CPR and other vital medical support immediately. Muamba apparently maintained a shockable heart rhythm and, after 78 minutes he was revived, subsequently making a good recovery. Unfortunately for Dunc, there was no crowd of supporters at his game, no medical team and no cardiologist in the vicinity.

The documentary about Muamba raised concerns for me that Dunc was playing football once a week without maintaining any underlying fitness, having given up his gym membership shortly after Thomas was born in 2010. (One of the cardiologists that we have seen since Dunc’s death, due to the fact that the boys have a potential risk of inheriting the condition, told me my concerns were actually valid. Those of you who play a game of football / squash / netball each week, without doing any exercise in between, please take note!) Anyway, I discussed my feelings with Dunc, but he felt that I was worrying about nothing. I have since learnt that a newly-installed health check machine at work also suggested that he had high blood pressure. Of course, Dunc didn’t tell me that…

It is only since Dunc’s death that I have become more aware of the prevalence of people with underlying cardiac conditions collapsing whilst doing sport. This is often due to the extra strain that exercise puts on the heart. The charity Cardiac Risk in the Young (CRY) (http://www.c-r-y.org.uk) has been supporting us since Dunc died. Its research says that twelve young people are dying each week in the UK as a result of undiagnosed cardiac conditions. Often, they have had absolutely no warning signs at all, until they simply collapse and die, sometimes whilst participating in sport and sometimes just engaging in their normal day-to-day activities.

CRY is doing amazing work on several fronts: it carries out research into these cardiac conditions that are silent killers amongst the younger population; it supports bereaved families with counselling and advice; it provides a specialist cardiac pathology service, and it provides screening sessions around the UK for people between the ages of 14 and 35. In order to do all of this, the charity requires a vast amount of funding. I have received two of its regular updates in the last few months and it is clear that there are a lot of supporters out there raising money in memory of friends and loved ones. In fact, I find the publications very difficult to read, as it really drives home the vast number of young lives that have been lost, and the family lives that have been shattered as a result.

Dunc would have celebrated his 40th birthday next March and I am intending to mark the occasion by holding a fundraising event for CRY in his memory. However, the main reason for writing this post today is to raise awareness of the conditions that are cutting short the lives of young people before they have really begun. If, by reading my blog, just one of you decides to get yourself or a loved one checked out, I will feel that I have done something worthwhile. It’s all very well CRY holding screening sessions around the UK, but I suspect that persuading some people to attend them can be difficult. I know that if I’d asked Dunc to attend one, he would never have got round to it. Other people might not wish to confront their own mortality. Until you know someone who has died, or who has been personally affected, it is very easy to ignore the possibility that one day, you, or a loved one, might just become another statistic. So, please take action if you have a close family member who has died from a cardiac condition at a young age, or if you experience:

• light-headedness or blackouts
• palpitations (a rapid and/or irregular heartbeat)
• chest pains (often as a result of physical exertion)
• shortness of breath (often as a result of physical exertion)

Don’t assume that your symptoms are normal / will pass / are just because you are a bit stressed. Do something about it. Do it for yourselves, for your loved ones, for Dunc and I. Don’t let your partner / children / parents / siblings / friends suffer in the way that we are all suffering right now. For the sake of a quick trip to a CRY screening session, or to your GP, it is just not worth risking your health and the future emotional well-being of your friends and family.

Be under no illusion – I might usually encourage my natural optimism to shine through in my posts about the new lives of Sam, Thomas and I, but I wouldn’t wish our recent experience on anyone. It is horribly hard, endless and lonely. Losing someone you love is shocking, heartbreaking and utterly devastating. The undiagnosed cardiac conditions that are killing young people, and that a simple, painless ECG test can detect, are treatable. You just need to know that you need the treatment. Without screening, you might not live to find out. On this one occasion, I make absolutely no apology for promoting my cause. Please share this post widely, especially with those that you know and love, and always hold them tight.

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Dunc, Sam and Thomas exploring our local woodland together, Spring 2012.

Memories Old and New

One of my earliest memories of Dunc is of him wearing his Homer Simpson slippers. This seemed anomalous to me, as he owned his own home, held down a professional job and drove a silver saloon. In fact, he was really quite mature, and yet, he wore Homer Simpson slippers. I think they had been a gift, and, thankfully, Dunc soon wore them out because he was extremely fond of wearing them. It transpired over the years that this fondness was not confined to Homer Simpson slippers alone – he just liked wearing slippers generally. He took them to our neighbours’ house when we were invited round for dinner, and he took them whenever we went to stay at hotels. In fact, the only place I don’t recall him taking them was camping! Slippers were indicative of Dunc’s laid back attitude to life and he scuffed them along the carpet as he took each relaxed step. When I returned from the hospital on the night that he died, I noticed his slippers at the bottom of the stairs. They had been cast aside when he had swapped them enthusiastically for his football boots several hours earlier. It was a poignant moment.

Since Dunc died, Sam, Thomas and I have created memory boxes. I could have put his slippers in mine, as they were such a big part of who he was. However, they were also old, holey and, dare I say it, a little whiffy. I chose instead to put in his cap and his woolly hat. Much as I loved spending a quiet night in with Dunc and his slippers (and a glass or two of red wine), my favourite memories are of the adventures that we shared. Due to the fact that he was somewhat follicly-challenged, Dunc was never seen exploring the great outdoors without a hat of some description. His khaki cap saw him through the summer months, and his brown, woolly hat through the colder months. His cap reminds me of strolling through the sunshine, hand in hand, on Cornish beaches before the boys were born (or running frantically after them since!) His woolly hat conjures up memories of kicking beautiful autumn leaves in parks and arboretums, and of laughing as he hurtled downhill with the boys on the sledge just last winter.

Recently, I have begun to sort through drawers of ‘important’ things that Dunc had squirrelled away (or filed creatively out of sight, so that I didn’t complain about the mess). In doing so, I have found a number of old cards that we sent to each other on Valentine’s Day and wedding anniversaries. He was most unusual for a bloke, in that he often wrote lovely, long messages in cards to me, and these are particularly special now. They have been added to my memory box to be treasured forever, as a reminder of how romantic we were, especially in the early days, before we had the boys to look after.

Last weekend, Dunc’s old work friends went camping together. He had been to the annual reunion virtually every year since I had known him. Dunc always looked forward to his weekend of escape from the family and the opportunity to bike, walk and drink to his heart’s content with some of his best friends. It was odd to think of the ‘boys’ (mostly aged 35 – 40), enjoying the activities without him, but many of us are feeling the need to take time together to reflect on our loss, and to make some new memories in Dunc’s absence.

During the summer holidays, I have made a particular effort to plan activities that will help Sam, Thomas and I begin to create new memories. It has been sad to revisit places that hold memories of outings we enjoyed in the past as a family of four, but I am determined that we won’t avoid them. It has felt strange to try new things without Dunc, knowing that he would have loved every minute. While his friends were on a mountain bike trail in North Wales on Sunday, Sam, Thomas and I marked the weekend by cycling five miles around a local reservoir together. It is clear that the boys are growing to love the excitement and thrill of freewheeling down hills just as much as Dunc and I did. (In fairness, I don’t think Thomas had much choice in the matter, as his understanding of braking is still a little sketchy, at the age of just three and a half, but he seemed to enjoy it anyway!) I heard them say Dunc’s favourite phrases, “Awesome!” and, “Get in!” at several points. Whenever we do something new, I glance up at the nearest cloud, where the boys and I like to think that he is sitting, and think, “This one’s for you, sweetheart!”

Our lives will never be the same without Dunc. I owe it to him, and to our two lively boys, to make sure that we cherish the memories of the fantastic times we had together, whilst finding our way forward without him, making new memories as we go. I am totally convinced that this is what Dunc would have wanted for all three of us and would have expected of me. There have already been times when the boys have wanted to go higher or faster than is my natural inclination, and they make me smile wryly. It is then that I picture Dunc giving me a gentle shove from behind, or a quiet, reassuring word in my ear, as he did in the past on the odd occasion when my legs were tired, or my nerves threatened to get the better of me. So far, this has helped me to rise to the challenges that the boys are setting on a fairly regular basis. I am determined that they will not miss out on making these new memories just because their daddy is not here to share his climbing expertise or his enthusiasm for speed in person.

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Dunc and Sam reading a map on holiday in Cornwall, September 2010.