I was always a daddy’s girl. I followed him everywhere. When I was little, I even got mum to buy me the same trousers as him so we could look alike. I was only 19 when he died in 2003.
It was an unremarkable day. Dad had come home from work as usual, had dinner and then went to a committee meeting at the yacht club.
I was on my bed upstairs, home from university for the summer, when the phone rang. Mum shouted up that we had to go to the yacht club. I can remember hearing panic in her voice but it didn’t occur to me to be worried about it. This was my dad. He was 51 years old. I would never have imagined anything could happen to him.
When we got to the yacht club, friends took mum inside but I slipped away from the car into the pitch black. I walked to where the paramedics were working on dad. No one noticed I was there, watching them. A female paramedic was on top of him, working on his chest. I saw them inject the adrenaline into him. I saw them use the defibrillator paddles on him. And then I heard them say “that’s it- that’s enough.”
I walked over to him and looked into his eyes. I have exactly the same colour of eyes as him. People always said we had the same eyes. But when I looked into them, somehow they weren’t his eyes anymore. There was nothing there.
I was 19 years old but I was so sheltered and so naive. Nothing bad had ever happened to me. But at 19 to see my dad die changed everything. My life changed. My family changed. My mum changed. Watching my mum go through losing the man she adored was really hard.
I took time off university and to be honest, I lost my way a bit. Mum kept me grounded. I moved back in with her and she got me through it. Mum was everything, absolutely everything. What we had been through made the three of us – mum, me and my big sister Victoria – so much closer, with mum at the centre of it all.
It took the three of us along time to get back on track but we did. The birth of Victoria’s first daughter Pippa in 2013 really helped mum. She looked after Pippa every day. They were inseparable. Pippa would copy mum’s mannerisms and the things she said. Pippa gave mum a new lease of life.
Then in June 2016, Victoria’s second child, Charlotte, was born. She was 6 weeks premature, which at the time was a worry, but now Victoria and I are so thankful as it meant that mum had more time with her.
Mum was at Charlotte’s birth. She then looked after both girls and it was lovely to see her with the two of them.
On the 17th September 2016, I was been on a charity sponsored walk then went into Belfast city centre with a friend. Victoria phoned me and asked if I had heard from mum that day. I hadn’t but had arranged to go to her house later, so hadn’t expected to hear from her. I told Victoria that if she was worried, she should call round and see mum. I was calm on the phone, but when I came off the phone, I felt uneasy.
It took a while for Victoria to call back and the sense of unease increased. Finally she called me. I can remember exactly what she said: “you need to come here.”
I knew. I sat down on the pavement and started to shake. I just knew.
I told my friend I needed to go home. I can remember the look on his face. It was full of pain, pain for me, and seeing his expression made it real.
At 32 years old, my first thought was to run away. I thought that if I didn’t go to mum’s house, it wouldn’t be real. I told my friend I wasn’t going to go home, but he said I had to. I got into the car but I genuinely didn’t know what to do. My head was all over the place. I phoned my best friend and he spoke to me all the way home. He is the calmest person I know, so hearing that calmness was a big help.
When I arrived, the paramedics and a neighbour were there with Victoria. Mum had died from a massive heart attack, aged 67 years old. She had a congenital heart problem. When I was 18, the year before dad died, it was discovered that one of mum’s arteries went around her heart instead of straight into it. The procedure to correct this would have been more risky than the actual condition, so it was left.
The paramedic said that mum’s mobile was still in her pocket so she probably died immediately. That is a great comfort to both of us.
Mum was active and had a good diet. But she smoked. I hate smoking but I never got cross with her for smoking. I thought it was her one pleasure in life after all she’d been through. But of course now I wonder whether it would have been different if I had nagged her and she had given up.
I suddenly realised that it was just the two of us. I turned to Victoria and asked, “Are we orphans?” At aged 32, I have nobody apart from my sister.
It is horrible to realise that the one person who you would turn to when you need something is no longer there. Even if I had another 40 years with mum, it wouldn’t be enough. There are things that I will go through in my life that she won’t be there for. But I can’t mope. I have to get up, go to work and keep going
About a month before she died, I sent Mum a text message. I’m not usually open about my feelings, but I sent her a message to say how much I loved her and to thank her for all she has done for me. I never got to say that to dad and something made me say it to mum. I got a reply back saying “Everything I do is for you girls and I am so proud of you. You are always in my thoughts.” I am so thankful I have that message. I will keep it forever.
After the funeral, I had to step back from some things, like playing hockey. Mum used to help Victoria with the children so I help her now. I still play hockey but no longer for the first team.
The hockey girls are like sisters. They were all there at the funeral. They are a great group of friends. Without mum, I wouldn’t have got through dad’s death, and without my friends, I wouldn’t have got through mum’s death.
I want to raise awareness of heart disease. That is why I am taking part in Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke’s Red Dress Run on Saturday 11th February. A few years after my dad passed away, I myself started having heart palpitations. I had an ECG and had my heart monitored and a small irregularity, a flutter, was discovered. But it was nothing to worry about. I am fine. But I am glad I got it checked out and would encourage people not to ignore things like that.
Look for the signs of heart disease, not only in yourself but also in your parents. Encourage them to go for a walk, or reduce their salt etc. A small change might mean you have longer with them.
People often think “It’s my life. I can eat what I want, smoke if I want, not exercise. It’s my body.” But what about the people who will be left behind?
I don’t want to cause pain for Victoria. Even if I didn’t want to look after my health for me, I would for her. She has been through enough. I don’t want something happening to me that will cause her further pain. And I would hate Pippa and Charlotte to go through what Victoria and I have been through.
My two messages are:
- Even if you don’t want to make changes for yourself, think of the people you will leave behind and make changes for them.
- And tell your parents what they mean to you. You never know when it will be too late.
Find out more about the cardiac support services that Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke offer.