The dying promise

I'd given my word but now I could do nothing to stop it being broken

Published by: Laura Hinton and Lucy Laing
Published on: 6 September 2012

Dipping my toes into the swimming pool, I felt welcome relief from the heat.
‘Daddy!' my son, Louis, eight, squealed from his rubber ring. Next thing I knew, the cheeky lad had splashed me with water.
Jumping in with him, my other boys, Reece, four, and Charlie, three, soon joined us.
‘I'm coming to get you,' I yelled, chasing after them across the pool.
Coming up for air, I realised my wife, Kirsty, 27, was calling my name.
‘You really need to put on some more lotion,' she mouthed, holding up her factor 50. ‘Stop fussing,' I chuckled. ‘I put it on half an hour ago!'
But she rolled her eyes at me and I knew she meant business.
‘Come on then, boys,' I said, rounding up my troops.
Although we were all smiles now, we'd badly needed this family holiday. Me and Kirsty were desperate to put the horror of the last few years behind us. Two years earlier, Kirsty was brushing her hair one morning when she'd discovered a lump on her scalp. It turned out she had skin cancer.
‘It's so unfair,' I'd sobbed to her doctor. ‘It's not like Kirsty even uses sunbeds.'
She'd had the lump removed but the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes in her neck.
Thankfully, surgeons had managed to take them out, and she'd been given the all clear.
That's why we were here in Majorca. We had something to celebrate at last...
Back home, we were on a high from the holiday. We'd bought a new house and Kirsty had gone back to work.
But one night, when we were settled in front of the TV, Kirsty suddenly leant forward.
‘Feel my neck,' she said. It was another lump.
‘I've had the all clear for two years,' she said, shaking her head. ‘It wouldn't return.'
‘You couldn't be that unlucky,' I agreed. But fate had dealt us another unlucky card. The cancer was back. It'd spread to her lungs, liver and abdominal wall. She needed chemotherapy.
‘It's not the type where I'll lose my hair,' she said, the news slowly sinking in. ‘I'll get better.'
‘Of course,' I said.
Not losing her hair meant the boys wouldn't have to know either. ‘I've got to see the positive side,' she added. Even though the chemo made Kirsty sick, she was always incredibly strong. ‘I'm fine,' she'd tell me and, for a second, I'd see a flash of the old Kirsty.
Unfortunately though, life had become a routine of hospital appointments, scans, tests, results, and meetings.
After many courses of chemo, Kirsty wasn't seeing much improvement in her health. So she fought to be put on a new cancer drug. But the disease was taking its toll. I sensed her spirits were dipping. That's when I had an idea...
‘Let's book a holiday,' I said.
‘Actually, I would love to go back to Egypt,' she grinned, her eyes faraway and distant. We'd been there together before the children were born.
‘We could take the boys to see the pyramids,' she said. ‘Why don't we book it for after my 30th birthday?'
‘Sounds great,' I grinned.
And, soon enough, her birthday rolled round. We'd booked a meal and an overnight stay at a local hotel.
‘I've thrown in a little surprise tonight,' she announced when we got there. ‘Really?' I laughed, suddenly taking a step back. ‘Blimey, I wasn't expecting you here!'
‘Hello love,' grinned my mum, Janet, 66. ‘We thought we'd join you for dinner.'
‘And something else,' Kirsty added. ‘I thought we could renew our wedding vows.'
I was suddenly overcome with emotion. After all we'd been through together it was the perfect idea. She'd gone to the effort of planning it all. She'd arranged for the registrar to be there, along with 50 or so of our friends and family.
‘It's brilliant,' I grinned. ‘I love you now as much as I did eight years ago,' she whispered as we recited our vows.
Looking into her eyes, I was taken back for a minute to our wedding in the Dominican Republic. ‘You look stunning,' I'd told her, as she'd stood beside me in her flowing white dress.
I'd been so proud to become her husband. Now, with the boys by our side too, this couldn't be more perfect.
We jetted away for our break to Egypt a few weeks later. Lazing about by the pool, I looked across at Kirsty one
day and felt that familiar stab of pride.
‘I'm not going to spend my life blaming the sun,' she said, sipping a cocktail. ‘I want to spend my life enjoying everything around me.'
After our break in the sun, Kirsty started her chemo again. But it was obvious she wasn't improving. One day, I passed her a glass of water, but it just slipped through her fingers.
‘Oops, silly me,' she said. But I could see the tears pricking her eyes and knew she was putting on a brave face.
I noticed how breathless she'd become too - she couldn't even get up the stairs without help. Even though she now needed to use a wheelchair to get about, she told me she wanted to do the Race for Life.
On the day, her sisters Karen, 37, and Kerry, 35, pushed her around in the wheelchair. Waiting at the finish line with the boys, I couldn't believe it when she whizzed past, grinning at everyone.
‘We raised £1,000,' she beamed. But behind her smile, I could see she was exhausted. So, to give us a bit of a break, my parents took the boys on a caravan holiday.
While they were gone, Kirsty's latest test results came back.
‘There's nothing more we can do...' the doctor gently told us. ‘The cancer has spread to your spine. It's pressing down on the nerves.' I felt like the air had been sucked out of me.
‘W-what...?' I spluttered, my head spinning.
‘How long have I got?' Kirsty asked. ‘No,' I started to protest. I didn't want to hear it. But before I could finish, the doctor had answered. Just a few weeks.
My heart felt like it had been torn in two. Then I heard Kirsty let out a little gasp. ‘I'm here,' I sobbed, as she collapsed in my arms, shaking with fear.
Back home, Kirsty's condition deteriorated fast. She was rushed to hospital. ‘I have to hold out until the boys are home,' she kept mumbling.
‘You will,' I said, numb.
‘Remember that holiday in Majorca?' I added, thinking back. ‘It was great fun. Then we came back and bought our house... we were on top of the world.'
Tears were sliding down both our cheeks. And soon, the boys were back.
‘I'm going to heaven,' she whispered, as they huddled around her hospital bed. ‘Just think of Mummy as a star in the sky.' They all nodded as I watched, a heavy weight on my heart.
Later, Kirsty pulled me aside. ‘Promise me you'll look after our boys,' she said, her voice cracking.
‘Of course,' I sobbed, heartbroken.
After 15 days in hospital, Kirsty slipped away. ‘I love you,' I cried, clutching her hand until it fell limp. She was just 30.
At her cremation, Louis read out a little poem he'd written.
‘You'll always be my mummy,' he said, his voice shaking. I felt a lump in my throat. Despite my pain, I felt so very proud of our son. He was such a brave boy.
Somehow, we managed to carry on without Kirsty. It was tough because I was suddenly both Mummy and Daddy. I had to remember to do the washing on certain days, pay the bills on time, and make sure the boys were up and ready for school.
‘Packed lunches,' I suddenly remembered one day as we all piled into the car for school. I'd totally forgotten!
‘Here's a couple of quid for school dinner,' I told the boys, stuffing coins into their hands.
‘But Mummy always makes me Dairylea sandwiches,' Reece started to whine. ‘Well, this will have to do today,' I said, a lump in my throat.
After dropping them off, I drove home, made a cup of tea and started to write a shopping list. What would we need?! I didn't even know what the boys had in their sandwiches... Suddenly, overwhelmed by it all, I threw my mug into the sink. The water splashed everywhere and I completely broke down. Every day was a learning curve.
But then, just four months after losing Kirsty, Reece fell ill.
‘My eyes are sore,' he groaned. ‘I've got a headache.'
All of a sudden, his eyes started fluttering back in his head. Panicking, I picked him up and rushed him straight to hospital. They sent him for a CT scan and I was ushered into a private room.
‘We found a very large mass in his brain,' the doctor started. I felt a tight, heavy feeling in my chest.
I'd heard this before. No, we couldn't be that unlucky...
‘Reece has a brain tumour,' he finished.
‘I lost my wife four months ago,' I cried. This was so unfair.
‘We can operate,' he assured me. ‘But if you hadn't brought him in as quickly as you did, Reece would have died.'
Suddenly, I heard Kirsty's voice in my head. Promise me you'll look after our boys.
Tears filled my eyes. I had to keep Reece alive. I just couldn't break my promise.
But we had a battle to face. The tumour was a fraction from the optic nerve, wrapped around the pituitary gland.
‘A lump in your head is making you sick,' I told Reece.
‘It's all right, Dad,' he smiled. ‘I'll get better for you.' Three days on, he was ready for the op.
‘You'll be better when you wake up,' I promised.
‘Mummy's in the sky,' he mumbled, before slipping off into a deep sleep. Please, Kirsty, I prayed. If you're watching us, keep our son strong.
For the next few nail-biting hours, all I could do was wait. Then, I spotted the doctor again. I jumped out of my seat...
‘The operation was a success,' he said. ‘Thank you,' I gasped with relief.
Soon, Reece was awake. He had a big bandage wrapped around his head and was groggy at first, but he was alive. I'd kept my promise to Kirsty.
Just a few days on, Reece was even happier. The Sheffield United football team sent him a signed shirt after hearing about the tragedy in our family.
‘You'll have to be ill more often,' I joked, as he lay there proud as punch in his new shirt.
Now, six months on, Reece has gone back to school. He's been left with diabetes and needs regular scans. Apart from that, he's a regular seven-year-old.
We've been fundraising, too, in honour of Kirsty. Louis, now 11, and Charlie, six, held a sponsored silence at their school, and a friend of the family donated their funds from the London Marathon.
With the money Kirsty made at her Race for Life and a collection from her funeral on top, we've raised nearly £4,500. We're going to donate that to the local cancer centre.
Not only that, the organisers of a local music festival recently got in touch. They want to donate all the money they make to us. I couldn't have been more grateful.
I already know just what to spend it on, too... ‘We're going to Disney World next year, boys,' I told them. It's what Kirsty would have wanted.
I promised her I'd look after them and I'm doing just that.
We're living life to the full, just like she always did, and how she would have liked us to live, too...
David Winterbottom, 39, Sheffield, South Yorkshire