Squeezing her hand, I smiled at my wife of two minutes. She was a vision in red.
‘Happy?’ I whispered and Mandy nodded. I’d never been one for romance or grandiose gestures of love, but right that moment, I’d never been more sure of anything. She was the one: my best friend, the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. And, luckily, Mandy, 28, felt exactly the same way.
I’d liked her the moment we’d been introduced at work three years earlier. She was a redhead, pretty and quietly confident. At first I thought she was shy, but she was simply happy in her own skin, and knew exactly what she wanted.
‘Get up, you silly fool,’ she’d said when I’d dropped to one knee to propose, hiding her ruby heart engagement ring in a cream cake. And when we began to struggle in saving up for the wedding and buying a house, she announced: ‘I don’t want a big, white do’.
So there we were at a registry office, with just 50 of our closest family and friends, at our £300 (Dh1,454) wedding, half of which had been spent on Mandy’s scarlet dress. The reception was back at our house, and we fell into our confetti-strewn bed that night exhausted but happy to be Mr and Mrs Margetts.
We couldn’t afford a honeymoon and so we both went back to work – me in IT and Mandy as a payroll clerk. When she wasn’t working, Mandy would sew, make greeting cards, paint or do pottery. She was artistic while I loved computers. It meant we rubbed along, content just to spend time together.
‘You’ll make a great, Mum,’ I’d tell Mandy. We didn’t talk about it at first but after a few years we realised the family we both wanted wasn’t happening. Doctors did tests and announced that we both had problems. It wasn’t anything specific – we were just subfertile and would need help to get pregnant.
Mandy took it in her stride. ‘We’ll do in vitro fertilisation (IVF),’ she said.
Five years after our wedding, we started treatment and after multiple attempts, we were thrilled to discover that Mandy was pregnant. Like all couples, we talked about our baby endlessly, discussing names and the sex. We decided if it was a boy we’d call him Nathan.
Mandy blossomed under the pregnancy. Then, at 34 weeks, there was bad news. We’d gone for a routine scan, and suddenly the atmosphere in the room changed. A doctor told us our baby had died. ‘We need you to come back tomorrow,’ he said.
It was awful. Mandy had to go through the agony of labour knowing that at the end of it there was only tragedy. Our son was stillborn. Doctors discovered there had been a tear in the sac, and all the amniotic fluid had drained. Nathan had failed to develop.
‘It’s all my fault,’ Mandy sobbed, and no matter what I or the doctors said, she wouldn’t believe that she wasn’t to blame.
Back home, I’d hold her as she cried, and she’d clutch her stomach where Nathan had been just days before. It was awful but eventually, I persuaded Mandy to have another go at IVF.
It didn’t work, and, devastated, we decided we couldn’t afford to go through it again, financially or emotionally.
‘Let’s adopt,’ Mandy said. I was 34 and she was 38 and we felt that time was running out. We wanted a family and knew we’d love a baby even if it wasn’t biologically ours. So we began the rounds of meetings and paperwork and after two years, in July 2001, we were approved to adopt.
Days later, we were offered a baby. It was a boy with blond hair, blue eyes and the biggest smile I’d ever seen. ‘He looks like you,’ Mandy said and we both knew – this was our son.
Four days later, Alex came to live with us at nine months old. My heart would melt, watching Mandy cradling him, the sparkle back in her eyes. She was a natural mum, just like I knew she would be, and she loved looking after Alex.
He was an easy baby and full of life. He walked at one year old and from that moment on we never relaxed! We’d be playing chase or hide and seek, or I’d be teaching him rugby. When he smiled at us, or held his arms up for a cuddle and said Dada, it was incredible.
Then, when he was three, we were asked if we wanted to adopt his sibling, a baby girl.
We didn’t hesitate. Now we would be a perfect family. Louise came to stay with us when she was seven months old.
It wasn’t long before we noticed something was wrong, but instead of voicing it we pushed any worries we had away. ‘Girls and boys are different,’ Mandy said when we saw that Louise wasn’t walking, or even attempting to roll over at 18 months. ‘She’ll catch up,’ I thought when she failed to speak until she was two.
But once Louise went to nursery, they told us she had problems communicating and asked us to take her for tests. Doctors said she might have autism, Asperger’s or dyspraxia – a developmental coordination disorder – but I knew deep inside it wasn’t that.
Yes, Louise had some symptoms of all of those conditions but she looked different too. She was tiny, and her facial features were different – she had thin lips, no lines under her nose, and her eyes didn’t have that fold in the corner like others do.
Louise was three and a half years old when we found that she had foetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Her mother had drunk throughout the pregnancy and as a result, the baby’s frontal lobe had failed to develop properly.
‘She will never recover,’ doctors said. ‘She has been left with brain damage.’
The shock left us both reeling. But it didn’t mean we loved Louise any less. It just meant we knew now why her development was delayed.
It was around then that Mandy started complaining of chronic chest pain. She was forever rubbing the area and throwing up frequently. Scans showed she had gallstones and a huge mass inside her stomach, and further tests in 2008, including a biopsy, showed she had ovarian cancer.
The mass in her stomach was so large that it was producing fluid, which was leaking into her fallopian tubes and pushing her ovaries up into her lungs and diaphragm. It meant that as well as the pain, she could hardly breathe.
Mandy struggled to remain her cheerful self although she was in pain. I sat down Alex and told him without going into too much detail the problem that had affected Mandy and he seemed to take it in his stride. He was mature for his age and would frequently hug Mandy, who had given up her job as she was too unwell.
The diagnosis floored me, especially as it came on top of the news about Louise. I didn’t know what to do. Both my girls needed me, but Mandy was very practical and matter-of-fact. ‘It will be fine,’ she’d say, hugging me.
Soon, she had a lumbar puncture to drain the fluid so she could breathe again, followed by a full hysterectomy and then chemotherapy at a hospital near our home in Birmingham, in the UK.
While I juggled work and looking after Alex and Louise, Mandy lost her hair and got sick from the chemo. ‘I’m still here,’ she would joke after each session, as chunks of her red hair came out.
Her bravery was incredible. She was fragile but she always found the strength to cuddle Alex and Louise, and make sure they weren’t worried. ‘I love you,’ she’d tell us all with her huge smile. If she was scared, she hid it from us, and her positivity worked, as two years later she was given the all-clear.
I felt my whole body relax, relieved, but then there was a different problem to contend with. Louise was getting bigger and having temper tantrums. They were a symptom of her condition, but weren’t like the tantrums other children have. Hers were all-consuming and violent – she would scream, shake, kick and punch if we tried to get her out of bed for school and attack Mandy for asking her to do simple tasks.
One morning in 2009, when Louise was around six and going berserk, Mandy tried to restrain her and hurt her left shoulder. ‘It’s really sore,’ she said the next day. ‘I think I’ve ripped a muscle.’ She thought the pain would go eventually, but it grew stronger, radiating down her left arm and back.
Mandy went to see her GP who sent her to the hospital for scans. Doctors called her in for the results and told her that instead of a ripped muscle, her cancer was back, this time between the ribs. It was huge – the size of a sausage – and was touching a nerve that was giving her the pain.
Doctors gave her morphine and Mandy began radiotherapy and chemo again. ‘I’ve beaten it once,’ she said, smiling. But the pain was so bad on some days that Mandy would knock her head against the wall just to have a different kind of pain. ‘It helps,’ she’d say.
We thought she could have the lump removed, but it was inoperable as she’d have to lose two ribs. So we hoped the chemo worked. Mandy acted as if nothing was wrong. ‘I’m fine,’ she’d insist. But the lump was so big I’d see it sticking out from her ribs.
Mandy was prepared to do anything to be cured, even take drugs, one of which sent her crashing until she was 30 seconds from a cardiac arrest. Luckily she was in the hospital so they saved her, but in typical Mandy style, she laughed it off. ‘I’m alright,’ she said.
Doctors bombarded the tumour with radiation to kill it. But it was too strong and Mandy would reel in agony. I took time off work to look after her, the kids and the house. Mandy had treatment to cauterise the nerve endings in her spinal cord in November 2014, so she couldn’t feel the tumour pressing on it. It dulled it a little, but she went downhill fast. A couple of months later she went into a hospice, which was very close to home, as she was hardly eating and had a morphine drip for the pain.
At first, she’d go in for the odd respite night, but then she was kept in. ‘I can’t fight it anymore,’ she told me one day, and I could see she’d had enough. Doctors wanted to take her for more scans to see what was happening, but Mandy refused to go. ‘I’m OK here,’ she insisted and I didn’t fight her.
I was scared. I couldn’t imagine life without my Mandy, and I wanted her to rally on but she couldn’t. She was deteriorating and sometimes I’d sleep overnight in a chair by her bed.
Louise’s birthday was approaching on February 25, and I wanted to do something special for her. She and Alex knew Mummy was ill, and it was hard for them too. So I planned to spoil her, but at 4am, the phone rang. It was the hospice. ‘You need to get here,’ they said. So I organised for my sister-in-law Elizabeth to come around to look after the kids and rushed to the hospice.
Mandy was unconscious and rasping. I sat holding her hand as she sucked in air, then she took six more breaths and nothing. Her chest was still. I waited for her to breathe in again but she was gone. I sat, clutching her hand, remembering all the good times we’d had, the smiles, the fun, and I couldn’t believe I wouldn’t hear Mandy laughing again, calling us for tea.
‘I love you,’ I finally said, kissing her goodbye. It was 11am.
I left to pick up Alex from school. He cried when I told him, and sagged against me, but we’d been expecting this.
‘Let’s get through today, it’s Louise’s birthday,’ I said. ‘I don’t want to spoil it for her.’ I didn’t tell her what had happened and sat through her birthday tea at Frankie and Benny’s in a daze. Louise opened her presents, chatting to us, and all I could think was that Mandy, who was just 54, was gone, and we’d never see her again. We’d been married for 25 years.
The next day I sat the children down and told Louise the truth. ‘I’m not going to the funeral,’ she said. And I didn’t make her. Alex came and was a massive support. He was 14 and so strong.
Afterwards, when all the colleagues, friends and family had gone, and it was just the three of us again, the enormity sunk in. There was a huge gap where Mandy had been, and I had to be a parent enough for both of us now.
I had to do everything, and it was hard while my heart was grieving, but I had to act strong for Louise. She was missing her mum and didn’t know how to express it. She’d have bad days when she’d stay in her bed all day and scream and cry, refusing to get dressed or have a temper tantrum that lasted five hours. I wanted to do the same, but I had to somehow hold it all together.
Slowly over the weeks, then months, the pain dulled a little. I organised a carer to help me get Louise ready for school before I went to work, and rushed around trying to do everything when I got in. It was chaotic, and birthdays, Father’s Day, and even Christmas were a mess. I joined a support group, Widowed and Young, and found it comforting to talk to people in the same situation who didn’t judge if I admitted that I cried while doing the dishes because it reminded me of Mandy or had forgotten to buy a present for some family member. It meant I had somewhere to go, chatting online to other widows and widowers, where I didn’t have to pretend to be strong for Alex and Louise, and could grieve.
Over the next few months I began talking to one woman, also called Mandy, and we agreed to meet, just for a chat. It was 11 months since my Mandy had died, and it felt good to be talking to someone who had lost their best friend and partner too.
Mandy Wilde, 44, was kind and sweet, and slowly we realised we had a lot in common and introduced our children. We meet often with them and have lovely get-togethers. It’s early days, but we are getting to know each other and talking about a future together. I know my Mandy would approve. She wouldn’t want me to be alone, and the children really like her.
No one can take their mother’s place, and this year we are planning to celebrate every birthday and occasion too. We are a family, and we have survived the worst – losing Mandy. It shows how strong we are and we will celebrate that strength. I know that’s what Mandy would want us to do.
Alex is doing well; he’s a brave young man who does his best, and tells me he loves me all the time. Louise can’t show her emotions and hasn’t hugged me for two years, but I know she loves me.
We let off a helium balloon for Mandy recently, and Louise looked up to the sky, then back at me. It reassured her to know I was here, looking after her, celebrating her mum’s amazing life. ‘She’ll always be your mum,’ I told her. ‘Nothing is going to change that.’ And I’ll always be their dad – maybe muddling through but loving our kids for the both of us. I owe Mandy that.
Daren Margetts lives with Alex and Louise in Northfield, Birmingham.