Way back when, before I became a parent for the first time, lovingly holding my bump. I took a deep breath and waddled into Chelsea and Westminster hospital antenatal class. Anxious. Nervous. Determined to make friends.
I sat down and looked around. Eyed everyone up. Decided who I would like and who I wouldn’t like.Then it was time for couples to be paired up. The girl next to me, with long dark hair, turned round and said
“Hi, I’m Michaelagh and this is my husband Harry”
Before long, alongside Michaelagh and I, came An and Emma. And that was that. It was the start of spending the next five weeks together pregnant. Of cake. Coffee. And even a waddle into Bingo.
Then the babies arrived. One by one.
It’s a friendship that saw us discuss the trials and tribulations of parenting, of poo videos and Prosecco Fridays, walking through the park in the winter and venturing into swimming pools. And mostly, just talking.
Of everything. And it was during these random, rambling conversations that we learned of Harry’s brain tumour.
But this isn’t my story to tell. It’s Michaelagh’s.
My husband has a brain tumour
When I first met the girls I held back from them. I hadn’t told them the secret I was carrying round.
A couple of months later, squashed into our tiny London flats with these babies looking up at us I told them.
My husband Harry had a brain tumour
Life was pretty complicated and a bit scary because of it all, especially now with a newborn. These girls were lovely and simply offered me support and a listening ear when I needed it. To be understood without having to hold back something that permeated many aspects of our life, was crucial. Even though it changed nothing about the situation, at the same time, it changed everything. I had a tribe of fellow mums who had my back, and it felt good.
But that’s not the start of our journey.
It all began in 2005
My husband and I met at a summer camp in the United States. I’m American born, and had spent many years working at the camp. My English husband had just graduated from University and had signed up for a summer abroad through Camp America. We were young twenty-somethings. Yet we realised it was more than a summer fling.
We decided to try to make our relationship work long distance. A year and a half later, I was accepted onto a Masters degree course in Scotland. Soon after Harry moved to Edinburgh to join me. In 2011, we were married. And in 2012, with us then based in London, our first son Harry Jr was born – on our first wedding anniversary.
You might have noticed that what I’m leaving out so far is the part about my husband having been diagnosed with a brain tumour.
In 2009, barely into our mid-twenties, following some odd symptoms and an MRI scan, my husband received the phone call from a consultant. That phonecall told him that they had identified a large brain tumour that needed immediate surgery. The months that followed saw a gruelling operation, where the tumour was identified as malignant. Followed by radiotherapy treatment to stabilise the bit of tumour that was impossible to completely remove during surgery.
However, once treatment was finished, life slowly went back to normal.
We decided to move to London for a “fresh start,” and not long afterwards we welcomed Harry Jr into our lives.
My husband still went for six-monthly MRI scans to keep a watch on things, but in the interim periods, we enjoyed life and tried to focus on the positives.
Life as three was a wonderful thing.
Edging past five years
By early 2015, we’d edged past five years post-treatment. We clung to the idea that just possibly, my husband might beat the odds against having a recurrence.
We left London, moved to Edinburgh, bought a house and decided to grow our family once more.
I was about four weeks pregnant with my second son, Alex, when we found out that my husband’s brain tumour had started growing again.
Suddenly, our world came crashing down.
Life was about to change and the feeling of the unknown was terrifying.
We were able to wait until after Alex was born to start treatment. But ultimately, it had to be done. When Alex was three months and Harry Jr was nearly three and a half years old, my husband once again went in for the massive surgery to remove the growth. The second time around, his recovery took longer. He also needed six months of chemotherapy to treat the remainder of the tumour that again could not be entirely removed during surgery.
But through it all, we tried to focus on the positive and remain practical. For us both, one of the biggest practical matters at hand was how to support our older son, Harry Jr.
At three and a half, I knew Harry Jr would sense what was happening around him in the ways that baby Alex would not. Harry Jr would wonder where Daddy was going when he was away in hospital for a week, and would ask questions about the large bandage and wound on his head when he came back home. Why did Daddy need to rest in bed, and why couldn’t he take me to the park? Why did Daddy need “special medicine” and why did he have to go to the doctor’s so often?
Honesty is the best policy
In my heart, I knew I needed to be honest with my older son, but the exact way in which I did that took some time to figure out. I spoke with my health visitor and some lovely professionals at Maggie’s Centres, and, with the help of a few books I managed to find online, we explained to Harry Jr about the “bad cells in Daddy’s head.”
It was a huge relief to us when we saw just how well our son handled it all. He asked questions, and we answered them on his level. He went off and played, but would always come back to check on Daddy with cups of “tea” from his play kitchen, or with “tools” from his toy doctor’s kit. My son was attentive, sensitive and incredibly loving in the midst of a situation that often left us feeling very helpless. He had a beautiful innocence that somehow also implicitly understood what was happening, and I decided simply to follow my heart and intuition to help guide him through. Honesty and love were the foundation from which I built that support for my son.
Supporting my children through saying Goodbye
It was at the end of last summer that I decided the time had come to think about that support for my children in more depth. Alex is now two, Harry Jr is five, and we are grounded in the reality that although my husband is currently in remission, there will come a time when further treatment will be needed, since there is no way to entirely cure him. This also means there will come a time when my two sons will need to say goodbye to their Dad in a very permanent way.
My husband and I know this, and with that in mind, I realised I wanted to write something for our children to help them through that process when the time comes.
I began drafting the beginning verses of My Daddy Is My Superhero over the course of a few weeks, and within no time at all, I had something quite special in front of me. It was incredibly natural to write, and I simply used my experience of how we first began explaining my husband’s brain tumour to Harry Jr as the foundation of the “voice” within the text. The language is simple and at its core focuses on a loving relationship between a little boy and his dad, whilst I use metaphors and imagery to speak of the experience of eventual loss. In writing through the eyes of a young child, I chose to focus on love and beauty. Isn’t that what life is all about anyway?
A celebration of life and fatherhood
Ultimately, the book celebrates my husband as a father, and it is my hope that when we need to begin the next stage of conversations with our children, this book will be an indispensable tool for starting that journey together. The words I wrote for my children were written from my heart, with a mother’s love, and I hope they will provide comfort and reassurance for my boys when the time comes. The book will help us remember the happy memories we have made together, and tangibly commemorate the special relationship each of my children has with their Dad. My husband can somehow live on through the pages of the book for our boys, to remind them that he will always be there in their hearts as they grow up.
Their Daddy will always be their ultimate superhero, no matter what.
I also hope the book will go on to help other families with young children who are faced with similar situations, to remind them that whilst death is incredibly sad and difficult, the positive memories and love made along the way can stay with us for always.
My Daddy Is My Superhero is due for publication in May 2018. A portion of the proceeds from the book will be donated to Maggie’s Centres. To find out more, please visit Michaelagh’s website www.michaelaghbroadbent.co.uk.