The hands on the clock ticked by slowly, as I curled my daughter Emma’s hair in our living room. I was about to meet the new man in her life, Michael Gilhespy, 28. She’d not stopped talking about him.
They knew each other from high school, and had recently started talking again through Facebook. When they bumped into each other on a night out, they fell for each other instantly.
Eagerly, I asked: ‘What time did you say Michael was arriving?’ Emma replied: ‘Why do you seem more excited about seeing him than me?’
Then there came a knock at the front the door and jumping up to answer, I said: ‘Sounds like he’s got good strong hands.’ Rolling her eyes, Emma replied: ‘Oh god, stop it mum!’
‘Hi Mrs Grice,’ Michael said, politely.
‘Nice to meet you,’ I smiled. ‘Now, what are your intentions with my daughter?’
Michael adored Emma and three months later they moved in together. Emma had a son Callum, now five, from a previous relationship but Michael treated him like his own.
I’d never seen Emma so happy until one day, two years on, when she popped round for a coffee. Opening her mouth, she pointed to a small yellow bump on the tip of her tongue.
Emma said: ‘I’ve had it for weeks and I keep applying Bonjela, but it won’t shift.’
I replied: ‘It’s probably nothing love, but I’d get it checked out anyway. Maybe you’re a bit run down?’
Making an appointment with her GP, Emma was then referred for a biopsy. When she went to collect her results a few weeks later she took Callum along.
Later that day, I was at home when my phone rang…Emma’s name flashed up on the screen so I answered cheerily and asked: ‘Hi love, how did your appointment go?’ My body tensed at the moment of silence on the other end until Emma spoke: ‘Mum, I’ve got cancer.’
The words swam around my head and my heart began to race. Frantically, I said: ‘Wh-what? What do you mean you’ve got cancer? How?’ Bizarrely calm, Emma explained: ‘The spot on my tongue is cancerous…but they’ve said it’s curable.’
A month later, Emma was booked in for an operation to have part of her tongue removed. In the weeks leading up to it, the ulcer grew bigger. Half of Emma’s tongue was covered in yellow mucus, which meant more needed to be cut out.
After cutting the cancer from Emma’s tongue, surgeons used skin from Emma’s left arm to make a new one. Unable to talk or eat properly, she had to stay in hospital for four weeks to recover.
The surgery had been a success and Emma was in the clear, once a six-week course of radiotherapy was over. But when angry red blotches appeared on Emma’s neck four weeks into her treatment, our world crumbled.
Sitting beside Emma, the hairs prickled on the back of my neck as the consultant explained: ‘There’s no easy way to say this, but I’m afraid I’ve got bad news. The cancer is back and has spread to your liver, lungs, neck and pelvis.’
Emma gasped: ‘What does that mean for me now?’ My beautiful daughter was being taken by this terrible disease, and there was nothing more anyone could do. Chemotherapy might buy her more time and it was the best we could wish for.
When Callum’s first day at school came around, Emma was weak but determined. She said: ‘I’ll take him in today mum. There’s already too many important events in his life I will miss.’ A sharp pain shot through me imagining a future without my daughter.
Michael worked in the RAF but came home to be with Emma. The chemotherapy made her sick and when clumps of hair appeared on her pillow, she made a decision. With the razor in my hand, I asked: ‘Are you sure?’ Emma replied: ‘Just do it.’
Just two sessions into a course of chemotherapy, doctors made the decision to stop. It wasn’t working. We were devastated.
As Emma prepared to move into St John’s Hospice in Lancaster for respite, she called me with amazing news, saying: ‘Mum, I’m getting married. Michael proposed last night.’
A huge grin spread across my face, and butterflies fluttered around my stomach. I said: ‘That’s brilliant news, darling. Congratulations. I’m so happy for you.’
‘Thank you,’ Emma said, her spirits high. ‘I can’t wait to be Michael’s wife.’
Emma planned the wedding for November 28, so she told the hospice about her plans. She told me: ‘They said they’d decorate the room with flowers and they’ll put on a spread.’
‘Sounds great,’ I said, enthusiastically. ‘I’ll start looking for a dress.’ I was determined to make Emma and Michael’s wedding a day to remember.
Then, Emma’s health deteriorated much quicker than we’d expected. The wedding was a week away. Emma was in the hospice by then and one of the nurses took me to one side and
said: ‘I think we’re going to have to bring the wedding forward.’
Confused, I asked: ‘Why? Is the hall not free that day?’ Softly, the sister said: ‘It’s touch and go to whether Emma will survive the night.’ It felt like she’d punched me in the stomach.
It was less than a year since Emma’s diagnosis, too soon so say goodbye. Michael broke the news to Emma and said: ‘I think we should move the wedding to tomorrow.’ Shaking her head defiantly, Emma said: ‘I don’t want to. We’ve already decided on a date.’
Michael looked over at me, his face pale and helpless. I stepped in and said: ‘It’s just in case you’re not well enough next week, sweetheart. We just want you to enjoy your day the best you can.’
Reluctantly, Emma finally agreed.
The next morning, at 11am, Emma and Michael married at the hospice in front of close family and friends. When I went in to help Emma get ready, it was as if she had been given a new lease of life.
She couldn’t stop smiling, and she beamed as her dad, Dave, 55, wheeled her down the aisle to Michael. As I watched the couple take their vows, my face flooded with tears of joy and sorrow.
It was beautiful to watch their love for each other, but cruel to remember death would part them so soon. After the ceremony, we raised our glasses to the happy couple, and nibbled on the spread.
After a couple of hours, I could see Emma was tired. I said: ‘Right, let’s leave these love birds alone and continue the celebrations down the pub.’ Kissing Emma goodbye, I said: ‘I love you. Have a good night with your husband.’ Emma smiled, and said: ‘Thank you, mum. I love you too.’
Down at the pub, the bubbly flowed as we toasted to the new couple. All of a sudden I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket…it was Michael. I answered and said, smiling: ‘Shouldn’t you be spending time with your new wife?’
His voice trembling, Michael replied: ‘Debbie, she’s gone.’ I said: ‘What do you mean? She’s left the hospice?’ Michael went on: ‘No. She’s gone…’
Emma had died peacefully in her sleep with her new husband by her side. I was completely heartbroken and at Emma’s funeral hundreds of people came to pay their respects. It brought comfort, knowing how much Emma was loved.
Emma had organised some of the funeral herself, and we made sure she had everything she wanted. Her Coffin came in to Ed Sheeran, as a collection of pictures she’d chosen flashed up on the screen.
Poignantly, Emma was buried in her wedding dress, forever the gorgeous bride. Now, my focus is Callum, and helping raise him up in a way his mum will be proud. He is now living with his natural father, but myself, Michael and the rest of the family, see him all the time.
I’ll never stop telling Callum what a brilliant and brave woman his mum was. Her life was cut short, but her memory will live on.
Have you or someone you know been affected by cancer and you’d like to help raise awareness? Leave your details on our homepage – www.sell-my-story.com