My story as a single parent began with the death of my husband, James, to bowel cancer in 2011. This was something we never imagined happening. We had three children, Lachie, Bella and Jessie, and we dreamed of a fulfilling life together. James was diagnosed with Stage IV bowel cancer right from the start and spent two and a half years undergoing several different treatments. After he had been diagnosed with such a catastrophic outlook, I remember we were sitting on our bed and he just fell to the ground, weighed down by his prognosis. He sobbed and sobbed and was so upset with himself for overlooking his health and the impact that was now going to have on our family. He kept repeating to me that he felt like such an idiot. All I could do was comfort and hold him.
He battled this disease with strength and fortitude. In the early days, he continued to work and was hopeful of remission. We even went on a family holiday and moved to a new house, that required renovating, which he embraced after resigning from his job. Relentlessly, the disease progressed and James turned his energy to setting his affairs in order, from setting up trusts to organising his memorial service. He chose the music, he invited friends and colleagues to give speeches celebrating his life, and he chose how he wanted to be remembered. His mother had painted a portrait of him several years earlier, and he wished it to be displayed at his memorial service.
During chemotherapy, he also painstakingly wrote a journal of his life story for our children to read when they were ready. Here is an extract:
“Today I kissed you all goodbye and headed off on a trip to Thailand. You and your mum are off to Maleny this afternoon and I am going to join you next week. Because my trip will give me lots of time to write, I’ve finally bought this book and began to put down my thoughts for you to read if you are feeling sad or you just miss me. I want to tell you stories about myself and Mum and remind you of the great times we had together. I want to tell you all the things that I wanted to tell you as you get older, but I won’t have the chance to say. Most of all I want you to know that you had a Dad who loved you deeply. As I started to write these thoughts Lachie is 8, Bella is 6 and Jess is almost 4. You are Mummy and my little treasures and we talk every day about how lucky we have been as parents. I will eventually write to you about my illness. For now I want to start by telling who your Dad is. So let’s start….”
Over two and a half years, we watched him slowly decline and deal with unbearable pain. After one bowel operation, I was driving him home and he was in excruciating pain. When we had to stop at a railway crossing, he dragged himself out of the car and screamed in agony.
During the last 6 months, James was very concerned that he be cared for at home. He did not want to be admitted to a hospital or palliative care facility. His GP and his surgeon came to visit him at home. A palliative care nurse was assigned to him and visited regularly. She also offered advice to me, as his primary care giver.
On his last weekend, he came to watch our son, Lachie, play soccer. I remember him sitting in a chair flanked by his parents, who had arrived from interstate several weeks earlier. James was very fragile and rugged up against the cold. He looked gaunt and skeletal even in his winter jacket. He had vomited up brown fluid earlier in the day. I remember talking to my friend, who is a GP, and she said, ‘he hasn’t got much longer now’.
Later that day, I remember we sat on the bed together and he held my hand and said, ‘just keep on smiling, you’ll be ok’. My mother remembers our youngest daughter, Jessie, lying on the bed beside him, while he stroked her hands and chatted to her. His facial expression conveyed so much sorrow and regret, that he wasn’t going to live to see them grow up.
We had some old neighbours visit us around that time. I remember James wondering what to say to them, as he was beginning deteriorate. This wasn’t like him at all. He was starting to lose oxygen to his brain. During the last two nights, he would cry out in his slept saying ‘no, no’ and recite things backwards. My mother and I were unable to sleep, anguished by these cries, helpless and incapable of easing his distress.
On his last night, his mother, slept on a mattress near his bed, to be with him. His father was staying with close friends nearby. James was calling out constantly during that night. At about 5am we called his father, saying that he should come here immediately. I remember we were in the kitchen when his father arrived. His mother then went in to check on James, as she wanted to change his colostomy bag. This was inserted as a consequence of bowel cancer. She gave an anguished cry and ran back out to us, crying to me, saying ‘Suze, Suze….’ She was understandably inconsolable. James died at 6.30am. It was Monday June 13th, 2011.
Our children, were five, seven and nine years old, and were asleep at the time. My mother and I woke them up and told them that their Dad had passed away and that our friends were going to look after them until a bit later. I called our friends and they came to get our children. James’ body had to be prepared for the undertaker. Later in the morning, our children returned home.
The impact of this on my life has been and continues to be life changing. To watch a loved one lose their life, someone who so desperately wanted to live and who was surrounded by love and devotion, and who had tried all possible treatments, made me reassess my own life and my approach to living it. I started to look at things (people, issues, problems) differently. I started to really appreciate how precious life is. I’d always known this but it wasn’t something I really appreciated on the deepest level.
During 2016, I moved through the grief I was feeling and felt gratitude, love and appreciation that James had been in our lives and we’d had 14 years precious years together. I was inspired to write a book for single parents called All by Myself & Rocking It! How to be Successful at Single Parenting. I was in such a new state of being and wanted to support and champion other single parents experiencing the darkness and the tunnel of loneliness, fear, anxiety, stress, overwhelm, uncertainty, emotional upheaval, physical upheaval and the multitude of other issues that arise when your life is turned completely upside down.
My children are now 13, 15 and 17 years old. We have grown and evolved together. They are my inspiration and my big reason why. To sort through all the turmoil of losing my husband and the impact that had on my children and myself, and come out the other end so that I can be the best role model for my children has been my greatest motivation.
About The Contributor:
Suzanne’s book published last year and is available at book stores around Australia and New Zealand and directly from her website https://discoverywithin.com.au/book/. 10% of the proceeds of my book go to The Shaun Miller Foundation. https://www.theshaunmillerfoundation.org/books
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