Twice the tragedy

I had to choose between my fella and my daughter

Published by: Laura Hinton and Grace Macaskill
Published on: 26 July 2012

As a parent, you're supposed to protect your child from everything bad in the world. For my 11-year-old daughter Jess, Mummy was the one she always turned to when she tripped over in the playground, or when she fell off her bike and scraped her knee.
But I couldn't kiss her better now and tell her it would all be okay. How could I, when I didn't know if it would be?
Leukaemia. That terrifying word still hung in the air.
‘Please,' I begged the doctor, as I clung to my partner Paul, 44, for support. ‘You have to do everything you can.'
I felt winded. Jess had been suffering from terrible headaches for the last few weeks, but never in a million years had I expected this.
‘She's strong,' Paul reassured me. ‘But we've got to tell her.'
He had tears in his eyes and I knew that this had hit him as hard as me. While Jess wasn't his flesh and blood, she'd stolen his heart from the moment they'd met seven years earlier.
‘Hello, Jess,' he'd smiled, holding his hand out for her to shake.
But she'd just grabbed it and pulled him down to play Barbie with her! An hour later, he'd still been playing with her, making up silly stories that had left Jess in fits of giggles. But nobody was laughing now.
I knew Paul was right. Jess deserved to know the truth. I just didn't want to admit that for once, Mummy couldn't make it all better.
Still, we explained to her the treatment that she needed in the simplest of terms, and that she'd have to stay in hospital for a while.
Her lower lip wobbled, but all she said was: ‘I've only been at big school two weeks.' ‘Well, you'd better get well, then,' I smiled, my heart melting at her innocence.
It was hard to believe that just six months before life had been so different. It felt like only yesterday that we'd gone on holiday to Turkey. I'd sat on the beach all day watching Jess and Paul play in the sea. In the evenings, we'd drunk sangria and danced until our legs were weak.
It'd been on one of those nights, Jess's 11th birthday in fact, that I'd suddenly heard Paul's voice calling me across the bar on the microphone.
‘What are you doing?!' I'd chuckled. Paul was normally so shy. But then he'd suddenly got down on one knee.
‘Will you marry me?' he'd asked, while Jess had jumped around excitedly beside him.
‘Please say yes, Mummy,' she'd begged.
‘Of course I will,' I'd laughed, and we'd all hugged. It was a far cry from where we were now.
‘The wedding needs to be put on hold,' Paul said suddenly. ‘Jess is our focus.'
Bless him. A couple of weeks later, though, I found myself looking after both Jess and Paul. He looked terrible and kept being sick. But even then, he was still doing everything he could to keep up my girl's spirits.
‘The needles are only tiny,' he kept saying. ‘You're such a big, brave girl.' Jess smiled, but she was so pale and weak. ‘I love you, Daddy,' was all she could muster. It broke my heart to see her so poorly, but I was strengthened by their loving relationship.
Later on, when I'd finally forced him to go home for a rest, my mum Sylvia, 67, helped me bathe Jess and wash her hair. She suddenly passed across a clump of my baby's long curly hair.
The chemotherapy was working...
I felt a tear trickle down my face, but Mum put a finger to her lips. Together, we worked as a team, collecting the hair and storing it in a small box. Jess had soon drifted off to sleep.
‘It sounds mad,' I worried to Mum. ‘But I think Paul might be having a nervous breakdown. He's losing weight and being sick... I don't know what to do.'
‘Well, it's the stress,' she said. ‘He loves Jess so much and must feel helpless.' I nodded. But two months on, Paul was even worse. He'd had tests, but I'd been so busy with Jess that we'd not even spoken about it.
Finally, we grabbed five minutes in the hospital cafeteria while Jess slept. Paul cradled his hands around his coffee mug, then...
‘I have a brain tumour,' he blurted out suddenly. ‘They don't think I have long.' A raw, hollow ache suddenly filled my chest, threatening to suffocate me.
‘They'll treat me as much as they can, but I'm too far gone,' he said, his voice trailing off.
‘No, I can't lose you, too,' I sobbed, breaking down. ‘I'm so sorry,' he whispered. How could life be so cruel? First my daughter, now my lovely fella.
‘I'm sorry I haven't been there for you,' I wept. But he shushed my tears away.
‘You had to be there for Jess,' he smiled sadly. ‘I wouldn't have had it any other way.'
He was so brave. I hadn't even noticed he was ill. Holding him close, I realised for the first time how much weight he'd lost. Paul had always been a big bloke. Now he was half the man he used to be. Well, I'd be there for him every step of
the way.
Easier said
than done. Jess needed me, and
I couldn't be at home as much
for Paul as I wanted.
‘I'm sorry,' I'd cry, rushing through the door to make sure he had some soup for dinner.
‘It's okay,' he'd say, taking my hand. It wasn't, though. He was dying, and I couldn't be with him... because my daughter was fighting for her life, too. No matter where I was, who I was with,
I felt guilty.
Being torn in two constantly was exhausting. But it was so much harder for Jess and Paul. They missed each other like crazy. ‘Where's Daddy?' Jess would whisper. It broke my heart.
‘He's making sure the house is tidy,' I'd tell her. ‘He wants it to be nice for when you come home.'
Truth was, he was now so weak, he couldn't shower himself or get to the loo.
Soon, he made the decision to move into a care home in Hull, near his family. ‘No, you're my fiance,' I sobbed. ‘I should be caring for you.'
‘We both know it's for the best,' he smiled. I wanted to argue, but he was right.
‘I'll visit when I can,' I vowed.
Almost as soon as he went, though, Jess developed blood poisoning. She was placed in a coma so her body could battle the infection, and put on a
life-support machine. I was told to prepare for the worst.
Holding her hand, willing her to live, I wished Paul could be with me. He'd always been the one to reassure me, give me strength. Now, though, he was 65 miles away. And he was dying.
If only I could be in two places at once. Instead, I'd just have to make the most of where I was. ‘Fight harder than you've ever done before,' I urged Jess.
After a week... ‘Mum,' she mumbled to me, all disorientated and confused.
‘You did it!' I sobbed. ‘You were so strong.'
Her battle had only just begun, though. She needed to start another gruelling course of chemo. This time the effects were even worse. She suffered terrible migraines, some were
so bad they'd leave her paralysed.
One day, I walked into her room in the hospital and found she couldn't speak. ‘Don't worry, darling,' I whispered, even though fear rocked through me. ‘Mummy's here.'
Poor Paul, he was going through it all, too. He'd now been moved to a hospice, and was only getting weaker.
‘You know he doesn't have long left?' Mum said, gently broaching the subject one day. ‘Jess is better at the moment. Why don't you both visit?'
Great idea. Taking Jess out of hospital for the day to drive to his hospice, I wheeled her into
Paul's room, and her face lit up. Paul's didn't, though -
his tumour had got so big, it now blocked his sight. He was blind.
‘Daddy!' Jess cried, climbing on to the bed beside him. That's when he broke into a smile that seemed to take all his strength.
It was heartbreaking. Paul was a shadow of the man he'd been - the bloke who'd played with my daughter in the sea, who'd got down on one knee
and declared his love for me...
‘I love you, Daddy,' Jess whispered.
I put on our favourite song, I Don't Want to Miss a Thing by Aerosmith, and he grabbed my hand and squeezed it as tightly as he could.
Later, we got to spend some time alone when Jess went to play with the nurses. The lyrics of the song washed over us as it played.
‘I don't wanna close my eyes,
I don't wanna fall asleep, coz I'd miss you baby, and I don't wanna miss a thing...' I whispered, quietly singing along.
For a minute, I was back in Turkey, when all this illness hadn't been a part of our lives. We'd never had the chance to marry, but that didn't matter. What was a piece of paper when we already had so much love?
‘Are you frightened?' I asked him suddenly.
‘No,' he admitted. ‘We'll see each other again.' Blinking back tears, I knew then that it was time to say goodbye. Every part of me wanted to stay and be there for him until the end, but I couldn't.
‘Jess is my priority,' I said, my heart breaking. ‘She needs to get back tonight for her treatment.'
‘Go,' he smiled, his voice strong. ‘She needs you.' Such strength, such sacrifice. If he was afraid to face death alone, he didn't show it, even for a second.
‘I love you,' I wept, kissing him. Tears streaming, I walked out and got Jess.
The next morning, one of the nurses came to see me on Jess's ward. ‘Paul died last night,' she gently told me, tears in her eyes.
I nodded. ‘Daddy's gone,' I said, turning to Jess, who started to cry. I had to bury my pain, be strong for her. Life was so unfair. A year after my daughter had been diagnosed with leukaemia, my fiance had passed away.
A week later, I left Jess at the hospital and travelled back for Paul's funeral. ‘You were never second best,' I whispered under my breath, as I watched his coffin pass by. ‘I loved you so much.'
As he was cremated, I blocked out the painful memories of his death and focused on the happier times instead.
I remembered how we'd go to Hull Fair every year, just so Jess and Paul could ride on the dodgems. It never mattered that he wasn't her real daddy - he'd taken on that role and showered her with love.
Holding on to that love, Jess and I battled on. Soon, days
had turned into weeks, weeks into months. Somehow, against the odds, despite her grief, she pulled through.
Jess, now 13, is in remission and is so full of life. Every day, I thank my lucky stars - and that's why I can't regret the decision I made. I know it was what Paul wanted. But I miss him every day.
Deborah Thompson, 49, Hull, East Yorkshire