4) Saying goodbye

I wasn’t going to do a blog on Nicola’s funeral – the plan was to finally start banging on about life as a widowed daddy – but given the day had a pretty profound effect on so many people I figured I’d talk about it.

Funerals are strange. They’re a necessary evil, something you pretty much have to be dragged kicking and screaming to yet also the last chance to fully pay your final respects to the one you’ve lost.

We were keen to make Nicola’s send-off as happy and as colourful as possible. It’s not easy, given the devastation that everyone still feels having lost her, but her very nature was a bright, bubbly and colourful person and she’d requested her funeral reflect that where possible.

 

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The order of service front cover from Nicola’s funeral

To that end, we encouraged people to wear bright coloured clothing and whilst the service itself was tough going, even with a few quips thrown into the tribute I delivered, there were plenty of laughs and stories told at the ‘after party’ and later in the evening.

One of the ‘advantages’, if you can call it that, of Nicola knowing she’d be having a funeral in the near future was that she was able to plan much of it. As well as the bright coloured clothing request, she dictated where it would be held, what music would be played and which poem would be chosen to be read in church, which was ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling, delivered superbly by her sister.

The venue was an important one. Despite not being particularly religious people, we chose the church we did because not only had we married there eight years previously, but it was also where Nicola’s parents had married, where she’d been christened and where her maternal grandparents are buried – as she now is too.

It was the scene of our happiest ever day together, so the contrast of it then being the saddest ever day for many of us was stark, yet somehow comforting too.

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The rural church where we married, where Nicola’s funeral was held and where she is now buried.

The hours leading up to the service were difficult. I was dreading having to go for obvious reasons, and whilst being quite used to public speaking meant doing the eulogy itself wasn’t a concern to me, I wanted to make sure what I said was delivered well given Nicola’s entire family and group of friends would be present. Thankfully, I managed to keep my emotions largely in check and it went without a hitch. I was also pleased to be able to put smiles on tearful faces.

I hadn’t been to see Nicola since she’d died. She knew I wouldn’t, as it’s something I’d have found very hard to do. As explained in the last blog, I was there when she slipped away and for around half-an-hour afterwards, but didn’t want any subsequent memories to cloud the positive ones I had of her being alive and being herself, rather than just a relative shell in front of me.

Her mum and her sister had both visited her, which I was pleased about, but on a personal level I’d have found it too difficult for numerous reasons including those mentioned.

Therefore, seeing the hearse arrive at her parents’ house was hard. Her coffin was flanked by floral arrangements spelling out ‘Nicola’ and ‘Mummy’, which in itself was hard to see, but I was also closer to her in a physical sense than I’d been at any point in the three weeks since she died and it automatically made me feel a combination of comfort and sadness.

It’s surreal knowing that the person you love so much is just lying in a box in front of you and there’s no way you can communicate with them, yet I was also happy that she was there, safe, and we could accompany her on her final journey.

The church was barely a two-minute drive from the house so the journey didn’t drag on. Following Nicola into church was difficult, although my main concern was for her parents who were understandably upset too. Seeing a selection of photos I’d put together flashing up on a projector screen just before we walked in added a sense of surrealness to it all as well.

The service itself was, as anyone who has been through one knows, sad and poignant, but as mentioned already, my eulogy was designed to raise a smile or two with stories about Nicola and thankfully that’s what happened.

The burial took place straight afterwards. That was arguably the hardest part for me. Everyone gathered at the graveside and seeing Nicola lowered into the ground was emotional, as were the formalities of throwing soil and even a rose onto her coffin. But those things also helped with the closure element too.

As everyone dispersed, I made a point of returning to the graveside alone for 30 seconds or so. It was my last chance to be alone with Nicola before I could no longer ‘see her’ – albeit she was in a coffin – and I said a few words to her before walking away, knowing there was nothing more I could say or do.

I’ll return there on many occasions, of course, and I already talk to Nicola all the time let alone at her graveside, but I’m glad I had that final moment with her at that particular time.

The ‘talking to’ subject is a strange one. On one hand, you know that at a time like I’ve just mentioned, you’re merely talking to a person’s shell, and in this case located in another shell in terms of the coffin. Their spirit has gone and you know that the body in that form can’t hear you.

On the other hand, it feels like a natural thing to do. I find myself talking to Nicola at home quite a bit, not in a conversational sense where I’m sat frustrated that she’s ignoring me (not for the first time in our marriage…) but merely just telling her stuff and how I feel.

I don’t know what happens after death, we have no proof either way whether it’s just nothingness or whether there is some way that one can ‘look down’ and see and hear what’s happening. I admit to finding the latter scenario hard to logically believe to be the case, but I guess it only matters what people find comfort in and if Nicola is ‘up there’ listening to me and able to watch us then all well and good. If she’s not, so be it.

Explaining things to Grace has also involved the kinds of what one might call spiritual ideology related to Nicola that will help her understand a little more what’s happened, but that’s for another blog.

Anyway, the rest of the day of the funeral saw us gather for the ‘after party’ and I recall seeing very few tears there, just smiles, which is how Nicola would have wanted it. Later on, we all returned back to our various bases and glasses were raised and more laughs had as we recalled the lady we’d lost.

The funeral created a large degree of closure for me. Whilst I’ll constantly miss Nicola and never forget her, getting that day out of the way was the trigger for me to start phasing back into doing some work and Nicola herself would be the first to be kicking me up the backside now and telling me to get on with life.

Four days on, that’s proving hard at this stage but I know it’s early. I still have a few formalities to finalise and a few more of her things to go through which in itself is very difficult, but if I let things stagnate for too long it will make the recovery process even harder.

Grace started nursery last week, which will form part of the next blog, so that has helped a lot too.

Life without Nicola will never be the same, but however hard it might be, it has to go on.

 

 

3) Nicola’s cancer journey

I can remember quite vividly the point at which our lives turned upside down.

I’d just been out to Zambia in Africa to be best man at my lifelong friend’s wedding. I was away for a week and being 6,000 miles away from Nicola and Grace (who was 10-months-old) was very hard as it was the first time we’d been apart for more than a couple of days.

However, things at that point were great. Grace was thriving, my own job was going well and Nicola, who was heading towards the end of her maternity leave, had just been appointed in a permanent role at a nearby primary school.

As I sat on the long flights home, I couldn’t wait to get back to them and continue where we’d left off and genuinely felt thrilled with how life was going.

I’d been back home for just a few days when Nicola first mentioned she’d noticed a lump in her right breast. This wasn’t entirely unusual, as she’d had the occasional cysts in the past and whilst initially we were keen to put it down to being another, I did tell her that a trip to the doctors was probably a good idea. She was never one to go running to a doctor, but I told her that if she didn’t book an appointment I would!

We had a weekend away with my family in Essex, then when we got back Grace was a bit poorly so she ended up being taken to the doctors first.

Eventually, Nicola got an appointment and sure enough the GP wasn’t entirely happy and referred her to the breast unit at the hospital so Nicola could have a biopsy.

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Nicola and Grace just a couple of weeks before the first diagnosis in June 2015.

At this point we weren’t all that worried. A large majority of biopsies result in lumps being confirmed as benign and even while Nicola was having it all done I wasn’t concerned.

However, when she returned to the room I was in her face told a different story. The docs had said that her lump was ‘highly suspicious’, to the point where they felt nigh on certain that it was cancerous and that we were to return the following week to discuss a treatment plan. To say we were knocked for six would be an understatement.

The following days were horrendous, mostly because at this point we didn’t know just how bad things were, whether the cancer was prevalent anywhere else and just what the prognosis would be.

When we returned to meet with the surgeon, she confirmed it was cancer but that she felt it was treatable and that Nicola could be cured. Strangely, this actually ended up being a big relief. A plan was put in place to give Nicola several bouts of chemotherapy in order to try and shrink the lump to the point where the more drastic surgery options may not be necessary.

I won’t go too much into what followed in the next few months, but it was very tough for Nicola as the drugs she was given were very strong and at times left her in a lot of pain and very tired. Her young age meant the assault on the cancer was that bit more aggressive given she could theoretically cope better with the drugs.

Eventually, with all of her hair gone and her body hammered by treatment, it was decided that a mastectomy was the best way forward after all, including the removal of the lymph glands under one of her arms, and that was then followed by some radiotherapy over the course of two or three months.

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Nicola at one of her chemo sessions. This one was just six weeks before she died.

Finally, in May 2016, it was revealed that Nicola was finally ‘cancer free’. They could find no further trace of it and she was told to go on and live her life and enjoy herself. Clearly, we were overjoyed and enjoy ourselves we did, with trips away and a great summer had by all of us, including Nicola belatedly starting in the job that had been held for her at the nearby school.

We even bought a new house. It was a bit of a project, but it was one we’d get our teeth into straight away and having got the keys and done a bit of initial work, we moved in during October.

Nicola was loving life at her school and things were going well, but one day she complained that she was feeling quite breathless and the symptoms got worse quite quickly. We’d only been in the house for four days.

Another trip to the GP followed, and although he said it could be a chest infection, he also dangled the possibility that the cancer could have returned – to Nicola’s lungs this time in the form of a pleural effusion which is where fluid builds up in the lung’s lining, making it difficult for it to fully expand.

We always knew there was a high risk of the cancer returning one day, but for it to seemingly be happening just four months after Nicola had been declared cancer free was tough. Another hospital visit confirmed the worst, but with this being secondary breast cancer, it wasn’t just any old diagnosis.

This time Nicola couldn’t be cured. The treatment they put in place was merely to try and contain things and improve symptoms, with the hope that the cancer wouldn’t spread anywhere else too soon.

It was tough to handle. Going through it all once was bad enough, but to be told this was now a terminal illness clearly affected us all. We tried to keep optimistic as the treatment had positive effects initially, but Nicola was not only having to cope with the physical battering but also mentally, not knowing how long she’d survive and how much she’d see of Grace growing up.

Again, in an attempt to summarise given the horrendous months that followed, things were very hit and miss and it was then revealed in February that the cancer had spread to her liver. That left Nicola very weak much of the time, needing a wheelchair whenever we went out and requiring a garage conversion to give her a downstairs bedroom at home given it was hard for her to use the stairs.

There were times when she amazed us. A birthday party we threw for her in April saw her energised and loving every minute of having loads of people around – she even managed a boogie on the dancefloor!

She was then adamant we throw Grace a memorable third birthday party in July which we did, with a house and garden full of people and even professional performers hired to sing and dance as the characters from Frozen – with Nicola again joining in with the dancing at one point!

But just three weeks later things took a final and dramatic turn. I was awoken in the middle of the night by Nicola shouting for me and when I walked into her room her eyes were wide open but she couldn’t see. Unsurprisingly she was panicking but as I attempted to calm her down she suddenly went into a considerable seizure.

It was terrifying to watch, mostly because I knew neither what was happening nor why. Grace was asleep upstairs and at one point I had a 999 call on one phone and my mother-in-law on another trying to get Nicola’s dad over to watch our daughter – who ended up sleeping through the entire drama.

Nicola gradually came round as the ambulance crew arrived about 20 minutes later, although it took a while for her to come out of her confused state.

Once at hospital, a CT scan confirmed that the cancer had spread to her brain. Another seizure followed later that morning but with the doctors talking me through it, this one wasn’t quite so scary even though they’re never pleasant to watch. No long-term damage was being done, not to the brain anyway.

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Nicola and Grace just days before Nicola went back into hospital for the last time.

However, Nicola was now in a lot of trouble and over the coming days she would get weaker and weaker as the cancer in her liver (which had been initially due to get more chemo thrown at it the day after her seizures) started to take hold on her body and the issues in her brain started to leave her confused and tired.

The hardest bit for all of us was not just seeing her suffer (again) so much physically, but her well-renowned and much-loved personality and sparkle began to fade and were gone entirely in her final days.

Two days before she died, she was unable to even make her own way to the toilet anymore and at that point I saw, for the first time, her fight was gone.  It was heartbreaking, particularly watching her hug and kiss Grace for what I just knew would be the last time, although Nicola wasn’t particularly lucid at that point so it didn’t affect her in the same way – which was perhaps a good thing in some ways.

I’d spent ten hours a day, every day, in hospital with Nicola for a week-and-a-half, but it was the last one that will live with me forever.

Gradually her body was shutting down and in the final hours her various faculties went too. In some ways I’m glad she wasn’t fully aware of what was happening. She knew she was dying, but seemed to just let it happen. She knew there was nothing else that could help her and her body simply couldn’t fight anymore.

Late on a Thursday night, she passed away with her mum, dad, sister and I all around her. She knew we were there and managed to talk a little, slipping away in no pain at all and with us holding her hands. Even though we’d known for a while the moment was coming, nothing could have prepared us for it. I’m only glad she was pain free and that we were all there.

I couldn’t face staying in the room with her for too long. My mum was at home with Grace and I felt I needed to be with them. Having done everything I possibly could to help Nicola over the course of the previous two years and make her more comfortable, for the first time I suddenly realised that neither I or anyone else could do any more.

The next blog will focus on the immediate aftermath of what had happened and the very first steps on the journey that inspired this blog in the first place.

2) Let me tell you about Nicola

I guess it would be a good idea to tell you about the lady who is the reason I’m writing this blog in the first place.

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Nicola in York, May 2016

I spent 11 years with Nicola – eight of those as her husband – and we had a fantastic and fun-filled life together. Having met through work, it very quickly became apparent to us both that we’d spend our lives together, to the point that we talked quite frankly about getting married barely a month or so after moving into our first house.

Nicola was clever, beautiful, bubbly, happy, friendly and one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. She’d be the last person to admit to any of those things, being the modest type, but there was no denying it in my eyes.

When we met, she was a receptionist at one of the papers I worked for, but being a graduate she always possessed the ability and desire to truly fulfil her potential and not long after we married she decided she wanted to pursue a career in primary school teaching.

This didn’t surprise me – Nicola was always great with kids who without fail responded well to her and the thought of her being a big influence on young lives pleased me greatly. Sure enough, she took to studying for her PGCE like a duck to water, won an award in the process for outstanding academic achievement and before long was marshalling classes of four and five-year-olds with great expertise.

The children loved her. We can probably all remember our first teachers, some fondly, some perhaps not, but Nicola without question is one that will always be remembered with great affection as her pupils grow up. That’s been highlighted by messages I’ve seen from some of their parents since she died.

I remember Nicola returning home at the end of one of her placements whilst she was training. She’d only taught at the school for a couple of months but the pupils were sad to see her go and showered her with cards and gifts.  One card stood out and it was from a parent – it read: “Thank you for everything you’ve done for my daughter. She used to dislike going to school and cried about it a lot, but your influence has made her love going to school again and she’s progressed no end.”

That about sums up how good Nicola was and during her tragically short career, in which she ended up working at schools where some children had come from quite tough backgrounds, she continued to inspire them, sometimes even galvanising one or two from being largely illiterate and uncommunicative pupils to thriving ones.

 

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Our wedding in 2009

 

It broke her heart when her illness forced her to halt the career she loved.

Away from work, Nicola was just as influential. Despite being very different in many ways, we complemented each other perfectly and whilst she sometimes couldn’t work out why I loved her so much – and vice-versa – we just did, and it worked perfectly.

As is quite often the prerogative of young, childless couples, we wanted to make sure we made the most of life with just the two of us before the burdens of careers, parenting and age potentially took over.

We loved to travel. We took in a great number of city breaks and sun-soaked beaches across Europe and spent a three-week honeymoon visiting parts of the USA, including a week-long cruise around Hawaii.

Having always loved travelling before I met Nicola, doing so with her was something I was always keen to do from the off and I’m so glad we got to see what we did, when we did. The memories created are priceless.

Nicola got the travel bug too and whenever the chance arose we’d be off somewhere, even if it was a break away in this country. With her family having built a house in Ireland – where we both have roots – nipping over there for a few days also became one of our favourite excursions.

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The two of us in Hawaii

Back at home we enjoyed socialising with friends and being uncle and auntie to our nieces, something which gave us a degree of experience for what was to follow when our daughter arrived.

The decision to start a family wasn’t taken lightly – Nicola’s career was in its early days, mine kept me busy too and we were loving life together. But we both had a desire to be parents and given we were in our thirties it was probably a case of now or never.

So, when Grace arrived in 2014, our lives were complete. Nicola loved being a mum and her bond with Grace was as special as you’d want any maternal bond to be, likewise my own with our darling daughter.

It could well have been that we’d have had more children (although probably only one more for my sanity’s sake…) but when Grace was 11-months-old our perfect lives would be turned upside down, and that’s where the next blog will pick up the story.

 

 

 

1) So why on earth am I doing this?

cropped-20170710_185720.jpgI’m writing this first blog just 12 days after my wife, Nicola, died aged 35. It was cancer that did it, but there will be more on that in the next blog.

The reasons behind me opting to do this are numerous. Firstly, I’m a journalist by trade, so splurging out lots of words in an attempt to tell a story comes rather naturally.

Secondly, it’ll probably be something of a cathartic exercise. Talking to people is one thing, but being able to sit down and put ‘pen to paper’ on something that has had a profound affect on you is quite another and is probably that bit more effective when it comes to both successfully communicating your feelings and also ensuring your words are processed as desired by those reading them.

I also want this to help people. That might refer to people in my own circle of family and friends who will initially read it out of sympathy and then realise it’s actually not that bad after all, or it could refer to those who discover it by accident and find it helps them with a similar situation they might be dealing with.

It’s pretty specific. I’m a 38-year-old man who has just been tasked with the job of bringing up my beautiful three-year-old daughter, Grace, whilst trying to maintain her mummy’s influence despite her not being around anymore. Quite how that’s going to go, I have no idea, but at least doing this blog from the off means people can experience that journey with me if they so desire. I don’t know how long I’ll blog for, perhaps until people stop reading or if I feel like neither I or anyone else is getting much benefit from it for whatever reason.

Either way, whilst it’s true the situation I now find myself in is far from unique and there will be others who have been through very similar scenarios, this is about us and if people like what this blog will provide then that’ll do for me.

As I write this, I’m in something of a haze given how recently Nicola passed away, and that in itself will probably provide the background for a future blog. Nevertheless, having spent the last few days talking, reminiscing, laughing and crying about the wonderful woman who has just left us, I feel the clarity of my feelings can only improve by refusing to bottle them up.

So, stay tuned as I attempt to prove it.