Together in heaven

For the first time in 26 years, I'm facing that dreaded anniversary on my own...

Published by: Laura Hinton
Published on: 26 July 2012

Her hand felt so frail in mine. The tears threatened to spill, but I pushed them back. I had to stay strong.
Although my wife Diana,
67, had come round from the operation hours before, she still had that empty glaze to her eyes. And I was terrified.
The doctor had told me that she'd suffered a stroke and lost all her memory. When they'd stopped the haemorrhage in her brain, they'd discovered she also had very early signs of Alzheimer's.
‘The stroke has simply sped things up,' I'd been told.
I didn't want to believe it, though.
How could she have forgotten all we'd been through?!
‘Dog,' Diana suddenly spluttered. ‘Roundabouts.' My heart leapt - she'd spoken! But that was soon replaced by a hollow heaviness in my chest. She was muttering nonsense. This wasn't my Diana.
‘Everything's fine, sweetheart,' I said,
my voice cracking with sadness. My words soothed her. Soon, she'd drifted off to sleep.
As I sat watching my wife, I went over what had happened. The quickness of it all - that was what was so cruel about this. One minute she'd been the bright and lively woman I'd loved for so many years, the next she was gone.
Just like our daughter, Suzy.
We'd been at a conference together when Diana had suffered the stroke. She'd been working on her speech for days. You see, we'd hoped to secure some fundraising for the Suzy Lamplugh Trust. It meant so much to her, to us.
You've probably heard of Suzy, the 25-year-old estate agent who went missing in July 1986. Well, that was our daughter. She'd gone to show a man called Mr Kipper around an empty house that was for sale. She never returned.
It was a huge case. The police had followed thousands of lines of inquiry, but after years of agony we'd had to accept the worst. Suzy's body was never found, and she was officially declared dead in 1994.
Together, me and Diana had learned to live with that loss, to cope with the unanswered questions. We'd created the trust in Suzy's name, to offer practical advice to women on how to keep safe - and to bring some light to all that darkness. Only now, I felt trapped in that darkness again. I felt so lost, so desperate - just like I had when my girl disappeared.
‘You remember Suzy, love?'
I urged Diana. She looked back, blank. ‘Remember how she'd always come home and chat away about everything going on in her life? How she always said life is for living?' I studied Diana's face, desperate for some flicker of recognition. But there was no knowledge of Suzy. Nothing either of the married life we'd shared. She didn't know who the children were... or even what children were. I was heartbroken.
Although our kids, Richard, 43, Tamsin, 41, and Lizzie, 33, were incredibly supportive, it was Diana I needed. ‘The doctor thinks she needs to go into a care home,' I worried to Tamsin.
‘If that's best for Mum, then she needs to go,' she reasoned.
But you see, Diana had always been by my side over the years. When Suzy disappeared, she'd worked tirelessly to find out what had happened. Together, we'd faced the appeals and the reopening of the case in 2000. Later, the police had named a convicted murderer and rapist, John Cannan, as our daughter's likely killer. But they never got a confession, or brought him to trial. Cannan always denied involvement.
‘After this, we'll stop,' she'd said, as we'd sat in yet another press conference at that time. ‘Suzy would want us to get on with our lives,' I'd added, echoing her thoughts.
Now, though, it was like a piece of me was missing. In the months after Diana's stroke, I was lost in the tragedy of it all. I'd already lost a daughter in the physical sense. This time, I'd lost my wife in the emotional sense.
Before, Diana had always been the person to jog back the old memories of Suzy. I was worried I'd forget my own daughter.
Yet as time slowly passed, I realised I couldn't let my wife's illness beat us. I'd just have to create a new life for us to lead.
Even though she was living in a care home, I spent nearly every day with her. We'd go for tea and ice cream at the Coach House Cafe in Twickenham. In the past, we'd always taken flowers to Suzy's grave on her birthday and the anniversary of her disappearance. Now, going to the cafe was enough.
‘I can't confuse Diana by taking her to the graveside of a daughter she won't remember,' I explained to the kids. Of course, they understood.
‘Vanilla ice cream today, your favourite,' I said to Diana one day, as she sat lost in her thoughts. ‘Whenever we went on holiday to Spain, it was always the first thing you asked for!'
I remembered family barbecues when the kids were young, trips to Wales where we'd go swimming in the sea... those carefree times before our lives were turned upside down. Diana wouldn't respond - she never did. But she was content, and I could pretend for just a little longer that she was still there. I sometimes caught a sparkle in her eye, too. A part of the old Diana was with me, I was sure of it.
I suppose over time a part of me had almost become relieved that she couldn't remember Suzy. Her mind was free of that pain.
When the cafe owner told me they were facing closure a couple of years on, I was devastated. ‘You can't close!' I told him. ‘This is our place.' So I did everything I could to keep it open... and it worked! A local woman agreed to run it with me, as a non-profit service for the community. I was so happy. At least there was something from the past I could cling to.
When Diana then suffered another massive stroke, doctors told me she didn't have long. That last night, I held her hand and cherished our final moments. She'd lost her memory, but I'd enjoyed another eight years with her by my side. I was so grateful.
‘I love you,' I whispered, tears stinging my eyes. ‘We did all we could to find our Suzy.'
The following morning, Diana, 75, passed away. My girls were together again. Just a few months later, the Suzy Lamplugh Trust celebrated its 25th anniversary. We had a ball to celebrate. I felt sad for all that I'd lost, but happy that I'd spent so much time with the ones I loved.
Now, aged 82, I've accepted I'll probably never know what happened to Suzy. But I do know she didn't die in vain. The trust has helped thousands of people.
In a few weeks, it'll be the 26th anniversary of my daughter's disappearance. For the first time, I'll be facing that milestone without Diana. It'll be tough, because I'm taking on the burden of that heartache by myself. On the day, though, I'll go to the Coach House Cafe and have a vanilla ice cream. I'll just sit and remember Suzy and Diana with that twinkle in their eyes, happy and full of life. That's who they'll always be to me.

• For information about the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, visit

Paul Lamplugh, 82, Richmond, South London