Our hero in heaven

All McKenzie wanted was to see his little brother...

Published by: Jean Jollands
Published on: 14 June 2012

The joy on my little boy's face lit up the room. McKenzie flung his arms up in the air, kicked his little legs excitedly. ‘Gooooal!' he whooped as his idol Steven Gerrard slammed the ball into the back of the net.
‘That was brilliant!' grinned my partner Neil Yates, 31, giving McKenzie a high-five.
Today, just like always when their beloved Liverpool were playing, they were snuggled up on the sofa together. To see my little lad, not quite three, cheering and jumping around in his seat, you'd think he was just like any other boy.
But he wasn't. He was dying from a brain tumour.
Just days before, doctors investigating him because of a limp and a persistent cold had broken the news. ‘All we can do is give him radiotherapy and chemo to extend his life,' they'd admited to us.
He had two years left at most. So I was determined to burn into my memory every precious moment with him. The way his blond hair naturally spiked on one side at the front, the way his blue eyes crinkled when he smiled, the sound of his laugh. I tried to lock it all away because, all too soon, he'd be snatched away from me.
That night, after football, I sat down beside McKenzie and tried to prepare him for the gruelling hospital treatments that lay ahead - no way was I telling him he was dying though.
I stroked his hair gently. ‘You're a very special little boy...' I began, ‘...that's why you need to go back to hospital for some more medicine.'
‘Don't want to!' he said, eyes filling up.
‘It's okay,' I promised. ‘Mummy will stay with you.'
Over those next weeks of radiotherapy, followed by endless chemo, I didn't leave his
side. A tube was inserted into his tummy for his anaesthetic. ‘It's Mr Wiggly,' McKenzie giggled at the tube.
Somehow, he stayed upbeat despite the treatment hitting him hard. Steroids made his weight soar - but he was still my beautiful McKenzie. Exhausted from treatment, he sat on my knee.
‘Twinkle, twinkle, chocolate star...' he crooned, making up his own lyrics to the nursery rhyme. I should have been making him smile, but it was the other way round.
He only started regaining his strength when his chemo finally finished 18 months later. One afternoon, I watched him in the garden kicking his football.
For a few precious moments, I almost forgot just how ill my little boy was. Almost thought doctors had it wrong, and he'd get better. Almost.
I was so consumed with looking after him that it was a shock when I realised I was pregnant again. Neil and I were thrilled but so, so scared. Would McKenzie feel pushed out?
‘We won't tell him about the baby... just yet,' Neil said.
I agreed. ‘He needs to be the centre of our world right now.'
There was little time to think of the tiny mite growing inside me because, over the next few weeks, McKenzie's face drooped and his left side became weak. Soon, we had to push him everywhere in a wheelchair.
McKenzie's tumour was growing again.
Doctors attempted two more rounds of chemotherapy but nothing could slow it. Time was running out for my little lad.
At the 20-week scan, I discovered I was having another son. Now was the right time to tell McKenzie...
‘Mummy's having another baby, a little brother for you,' I explained to him.
Those piercing blue eyes of his widened with joy. ‘Will the doctors put it through our letter box?' he gasped.
‘I think he might be a bit big!' I chuckled.
‘Well, he can share my cars when he comes,' he decided.
Please let him see his baby brother, he'll be so kind, so loving...
As my belly grew, I felt tiny kicks so I placed McKenzie's hand on my belly so he could, too. ‘That's mad!' he chuckled, awe-struck.
‘We'd like you to choose a name,' smiled Neil.
‘Jake!' my son shouted, thinking of his favourite CBeebies show. ‘Baby Jake'!
Every day after that, he'd stroke my tummy and ask: ‘Is Jake coming today?'
‘Soon, angel, soon,' I hushed. Not soon enough, though - I still had five months to go, and McKenzie was fading fast.
The thought of seeing his little brother sometimes felt like the only thing giving my son the strength to keep going.
The last time he'd kicked a football was a distant memory and, even when matches were on telly, he didn't have the strength to wave his arms around or yell. He still had his grin, though - a great big smile that lit up the room.
On his fourth birthday, my friends Lindsay, Emma and Michaela, put on a surprise party for him at the local community centre.
He was too weak to leave his wheelchair but he still loved the life-size Peppa Pig, and joined in playing pass the parcel.
And on the big day itself, we arranged for a fire engine to come to the house. ‘This is fab, Mum,' he said, as a fireman popped a helmet on his head.
But there was one thing McKenzie cared about more than anything. ‘Is baby Jake coming?' he pushed.
‘Soon, sweetheart...'
A few weeks later, the Make A Wish charity arranged a family weekend for us at Center Parcs. But just a few hours after we got back home, McKenzie became dizzy and weak.
We rushed him to hospital. ‘It's just a matter of time now,' the consultant admitted.
My beautiful boy was transferred to Bluebell Wood Children's Hospice in Dinnington. I wanted to beg him to hold on, to fight to see his brother. But I had to accept that he'd given everything battling cancer. Now he'd no strength left. I had to let him go.
It was only when he was asleep, I let the tears come. ‘Jake will know all about his brave big brother,' I whispered.
Just 11 days later, I cuddled him as he closed his eyes one last time... ‘Goodbye, sweetheart,' I wept. He'd never meet his baby brother.
We buried him in his Liverpool away kit with a number ‘four' on his back - his age. As the anthem You'll Never Walk Alone played, I didn't think I could go on.
Then Jake gave a little kick and gave me strength.
Just four months later, in February this year, I gave birth to my healthy 9lb 4oz bundle of joy. He was the image of McKenzie when he was a newborn - that same hair and big blue eyes. That comforted me.
‘Mummy loves you so, so much,' I whispered, imagining the smile on McKenzie's face if he'd been here.
Jake's 16 weeks old now and, every time I say his name, I think of the brave brother who named him. I know he's watching over him in heaven.
Stacey Winnard, 22, Barnsley