Cheers... and then tears

How could we be so happy one second, and devastated the next?

Published by: Tracie Couper and Kim Willis
Published on: 9 August 2012

Peering into the rear view mirror, I saw my son Owen, nine, was sat in the back seat. He looked as pleased as punch with himself.
‘I can't wait to see Tegan's face when we give her this present,' he giggled excitedly.
A little yap came from the box on his lap - his sister's gift. Inside, was a bundle of joy, a tiny Chihuahua puppy. Tegan had been obsessed with the cute breed since we'd seen one at Crufts dog show the year before. So, when I'd asked her what she'd wanted for her sixth birthday a couple of weeks before, she'd begged me for a pet.
‘A Chihuahua, pretty please,' she'd whined.
‘We'll see...' I'd said. Then a few nights later, I'd been flicking through the paper when I'd seen an advert for one. It had to be a sign!
‘What do you reckon, Owen?' I'd whispered across to him on the sofa. His face had lit up. He and Tegan were really close, there was only three years between them. If anyone knew what she wanted, it was him.
‘She'll love it,' he'd said, bouncing up and down.
Well, I suppose we'd had pets in the family before, hadn't we... a little West Highland terrier and a cat. Fortunately, the kids' asthma hadn't been bothered by the fur - they both had the condition, sadly, but Tegan's was milder than her brother's.
Owen had taken his asthma in his stride, always making sure he had his inhaler to hand. He couldn't play football in the winter with his big brother Ryan, though, because cold weather could trigger an attack.
‘I'll film Tegan on my phone when she sees the puppy,' he said when we pulled into the driveway moments later.
There she was now, running out of the door to greet us.
‘Happy birthday, love,' I said, handing over the fluffy pup to her new mummy.
‘It's the best present ever!' she screamed, smothering the bewildered dog with kisses.
‘I'll call her Poppy.'
Soon, the rest of our family and friends had arrived for her birthday party. They were all stroking Poppy's fur and making a big fuss of her.
I smiled to myself when I saw Tegan getting stuck into the cake. Meanwhile, Owen was laughing and had started kicking a balloon around in the hallway. He was almost more excited than the birthday girl!
Moments later, though, he was suddenly in the front room, coughing hard. ‘Inhaler...Mum...' he wheezed.
Sitting him down, I went and grabbed it from the kitchen. When I came back, he was still gasping for breath. His face was white. Putting my arm around him as he held the inhaler to his face, I watched as he took 10 puffs. He'd been like this before, but usually settled after a
few minutes.
Only this time he was still gasping. There was a terrible look in his eyes, too - he was really scared. ‘Ryan, get the nebuliser!' I called, my own panic rising.
The party stopped, no games, no excited squeals, everyone turning to look at my son, terrified. ‘You'll be fine, sweetie,' I whispered, rubbing my hand on his back like I had when he was a baby.
I popped on the oxygen mask. He still gasped for breath. ‘Call an ambulance!' I yelled. Owen's body began to shake. Then his eyes rolled back in his head.
Next thing I knew, I was following the operator's instructions on giving CPR...
Only moments before, we'd been having a whale of a time celebrating Tegan's birthday - now my boy was fighting for his life.
It was only when the ambulance arrived that I realised Mum had got the other kids out of the room. As the paramedics rushed off with him, I felt such a gut-wrenching ache of pain. Breathe, Owen, breathe!
Once at the hospital, I felt like I was left waiting forever. Oh, here was the doctor.
‘I'm sorry...' he began. No, no, don't apologise, it's good news, it has to be. ‘There was nothing we could do,' he continued quietly. ‘The asthma attack caused a panic attack, which made Owen's heart stop.'
Crushed. I felt totally crushed. The doctor said there was no way of knowing exactly what had triggered the attack. But I knew it was probably because he'd got so excited about his sister's birthday. It seemed so cruel.
Just an hour ago, he was laughing and joking at her party. How could he be dead? And how on earth was I going to tell Tegan...
Walking into the house, I sat her on my knee and wrapped my arms around her. ‘Owen's gone to heaven, sweetheart,' I whispered. She didn't say a single word. Just clung to me, sobbing quietly into my chest.
When he was buried a couple of weeks later, Tegan insisted on coming to the funeral to say goodbye. She wrote a little card to Owen, too, and we had it put in his coffin.
I love you and miss you lots and lots, she'd written. Tears streamed from my eyes when I read it.
But when the numbness and disbelief began to wear off, that's when the pain really crashed over us. That's when I spent hours watching a video we had of Owen at Tegan's party on one of our phones. There he was, just for a moment, walking down the hall. Looking so happy, so full of life. I found it comforting and heartbreaking at the same time.
I was so glad too that Tegan had Poppy to give her some comfort. I'd walk in her room sometimes and see the two of them cuddled up together.
As Tegan's seventh birthday approached, I worried - how could I make it a happy day for my little daughter? She deserved more than her birthday turning into a day of mourning. But, at the same time, it was also
the first anniversary of her brother's death...
So we had a big party anyway, with a bouncy castle and a DJ. It was good to see her so happy. That day was all about her.
Next day, we held a sponsored walk in Owen's memory. Me and Tegan held hands as we walked along beside all of our family and friends. It was a fitting tribute. If Owen had been there, he'd have been running alongside us, a huge smile on his face.
We raised £1,000, and all the money went to Asthma UK.
Two years on, Owen may be gone, but he'll live forever in our hearts. I'll always remember him as the happy little boy that he was, so excited to be giving his sister her birthday present.

Tracy Asker, 39, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk