With an estimated 2.5 million people in the UK today who have had a cancer diagnosis, the number of family members caring for them is also growing. Jeff Chandler takes an intimate look into the life of a local woman who discovered the harsh realities of caring for her sick husband…and what was through the other side.
“Sorry I’m late, I’ve been in the pub this afternoon. I’m a little tipsy”.
She tucked her strawberry blonde hair behind her ears and rummaged deep into her bag for the house keys. She seemed distracted. Then as the front door swung open, she added, “I collected my husband’s ashes this morning”.
Debbie Connolly is a woman grieving. She is coming to terms with the death of her husband any way she can.
I first met her a week earlier at the Macmillan coffee morning she was hosting. “I raised over £300”, she said as she filled the kettle. “When I first put the invitation through people’s doors, I had no idea how many neighbours would turn up. The support was overwhelming”.
Manchester-born Debbie, 54, originally moved to London to pursue a career in Property Services. It was during a stint of volunteering at a local school, however, that she first met Stephen.
“I had known him all of five minutes when he had me laughing, I knew instantly that this was the man for me”.
And they spent a wonderful 26 years living together as partners. “Marriage was never something we talked about. We were happy as we were”.
Then one day Stephen started hiccupping. Every time he ate, it would happen again. In the May of 2014 he went to see a specialist and was diagnosed as having cancer of the oesophagus. It was terminal.
“Suddenly our world imploded and everything changed, almost overnight”. In the months that followed, Stephen’s condition worsened and it became increasingly difficult to care for him. It was during one of his chemotherapy sessions at Guy’s hospital that something occurred to Debbie. “I remember a nurse asking me if this was my partner. I suddenly realised that, for me, it wasn’t enough anymore. When you’re with someone you know is going to die, a part of you is dying too – I’m with this person, I am part of him, and wanted to be recognised as such”.
Much to Debbie’s surprise, Stephen proposed the following week. The couple got married a month later in an intimate ceremony surrounded by close friends and family.
But the honeymoon period didn’t last long.
Romance gave way to drips and commodes and sleepless nights. “I eventually had to make the difficult decision to move his bed downstairs. He didn’t like it one bit and we would argue all the time. He was fiercely independent”.
As rain began hammering loudly on the conservatory roof, Debbie’s mood changed. “It all happened so quickly”. Her words came out slow and deliberate as waves of disbelief washed over her face. She was reliving the moment all over again.
“Cancer changed him. It got inside of him and ate him up, in all senses of the word. He was in a constant state of anger and we would fight for no reason”.
On the day he died, Debbie had a sense of what was coming. “I was very tearful that morning. We had argued yet again and I was feeling frustrated that he had given up on the fight”. They cried. They laughed. They took selfies together. By late afternoon Stephen was growing weaker by the minute. “I knew it was time as he reached up to touch my face. He whispered the words, ‘It’s been great…been great’. And then he slowly drifted away”.
Days turned into weeks into months. Debbie never once left the house.
“Friends would come over all the time with dishes they had prepared. I was surrounded by people who loved me, but I had never felt so alone”.
Then, one morning, she found herself watching her usual programme, when a woman started talking about how she had also lost her husband to cancer. “She spoke about her struggles and how she eventually came through the other side. The woman said ‘Happiness doesn’t come knocking on your door, you have to go out and get it!’ And that’s when I knew something absolutely had to change”.
Bit by bit, she began pulling the pieces of her life back together. She joined a Pilates class, started dancing again and embarked on a fundraising drive.
“I am very excited to be doing the ‘Shine Night Walk’ in September. I was inspired after the success of my coffee morning. I now realise it’s all about giving back and supporting one another. If I can help just one person going through something similar, then I have achieved the wonderful. It feels like I’ve been given a second chance, and I’m going to grab it with both hands”.