Double tragedy: Heartbreak before dying mum’s holiday

double tragedy heartbreak before dying mum's holiday

by take-a-break |
Updated on

After a devastating diagnosis, we wanted to make the most of what time we had left with Mum. But after setting off on a final family holiday, was another tragedy about to strike? By Gemma Pana, 36

Mum dies after holiday tragedy

I stuck my head out the window and felt the warm breeze through my hair.

I was eight-years-old and on a family holiday in France.

My dad Graham sat behind the wheel, with my mum Sandra in the passenger seat.

I wriggled along to try to create more space for my older sister Kelly, and my two younger brothers, Graham and Jordan, who sat next to me in the back seat.

Dad was a taxi driver. But luckily, he never tired of driving. So every summer, we set off on another family adventure.

As we drove through country roads in France, I felt filled with excitement.

‘Let’s stop here,’ Mum said, as we passed through a picturesque village.

That summer was a trip to remember.

And, in the years that followed, we enjoyed more driving holidays to France and Spain.

'Your dad will need support'

We created so many happy memories together, whether it was camping, caravanning, or exploring the countryside.

I’d been bitten by the travel bug, and when I was 21, I went to Greece to work in bars and nightclubs.

There, I met a man named Fitim, and over the next three years, Mum and Dad would fly over to Greece to visit.

Then I returned to the UK with Fitim, and we settled in Salford, Greater Manchester.

We married and went on to have three boys, and Mum and Dad were doting grandparents.

We were close to Dad’s three children from his first marriage. And in time, there were 21 grandchildren in total, and more family to enjoy holidays aboard.

mum dies after holiday tragedy

Life was great.

But then one day, Dad rang and sounded upset.

‘It’s your mum,’ he said.

Dad explained that mum had been for tests after suffering irregular bleeding.

‘She’s been diagnosed with endometrial cancer,’ he said.

My stomach dropped as he explained that the cancer had spread.

‘It’s terminal,’ he said. ‘Chemotherapy can only give her some extra time.’

Tears spilled down my cheeks.

Typically, Mum hadn’t been thinking of herself. She’d wanted to protect us. So she and Dad hadn’t told us about the tests.

Later, I cried down the phone to her.

‘Your dad’s going to need support when I’m not here,’ she said.

I reassured her that my siblings and I would be there to look out for him.

mum dies after holiday tragedy

Then I spoke to Kelly and said: ‘Let’s make her time left memorable.’

So we planned days out, meals and family gatherings.

Dad tried to smile and join in the fun.

But there was a sadness in his eyes, and we knew he was crushed at the thought of losing Mum.

We organised for Mum and Dad to have a holiday in Salou in Spain with Kelly and her family.

I planned to surprise my parents by booking a flight to join them there. It was going to be one big last family holiday for Mum.

Six months after Mum’s devastating diagnosis, they set off.

But the night before my flight, Fitim’s phone rang.

‘Hello, Kelly,’ he said.

I wondered why my sister was ringing Fitim instead of me.

'I want to take him home'

My heart hammered in my chest, as I snatched the phone from his hand.

‘Gemma, I need you to be strong,’ Kelly said. ‘I’m going to tell you something.’

‘Is it Mum?’ I asked.

But my mind raced.

I thought: The chemo was supposed to give us more precious months together.

Then Kelly replied: ‘No. It’s Dad.’

‘What?’ I said.

‘He’s gone,’ said Kelly. ‘I’m so sorry.’

I dropped to the floor on my knees.

I listened in tears as Kelly explained how they’ all gone out for lunch, followed by a stroll along the beach.

Then Dad had gone for a nap.

But when Mum had checked on him later on, she’d discovered he wasn’t breathing.

Kelly had attempted CPR, and when paramedics arrived, they’d fought to save his life too.

But it was too late.

mum dies after holiday tragedy

My wonderful Dad was dead, aged 68.

We’d been trying to come to terms with losing Mum, and we’d talked about how to support Dad when her time came. But now, she faced her final days without the man who’d been by her side for 37 years.

I cried and told Fitim: ‘They never spent a night apart.’

Next morning, I flew to Spain.

Mum’s face looked ashen, and I wrapped my arms around her.

We felt raw with grief. But we had to deal with the practicalities.

‘I want to take him home,’ Mum said.

But it would cost £25,000 to transport Dad’s body back to the UK. We couldn’t afford it.

Later, a postmortem showed he’d died from heart failure.

I thought: His heart broke at the thought of losing Mum.

The only way to get Dad home was to have him cremated.

I took one last look at his face as he lay cocooned in a silk cover.

After he was cremated, Mum said: ‘We’ll drive him home.’

Kelly’s husband Ryan took the wheel of Dad’s car to drive him back to the UK.

Mum sat in the passenger seat, clutching the urn with Dad’s ashes.

Memories flooded back of Dad pulling up whenever one of us had a whim to stop and explore a new location.

I could remember him pulling up at junctions and craning his neck to see if anything was coming.

None of us could have imagined our final family journey would end in this way.

Dad’s ashes were carried through Spain and France, then Calais to Dover, and finally, he arrived home in Bacup, Lancashire.

Mum tried to remain strong, and underwent more chemotherapy.

Then one day, she said: ‘I want to go to the beach.’

My grandmother and uncle took her to Tenerife, where she motored around on a mobility scooter.

She’d always wanted to fly in a helicopter. So when she returned from her holiday, I made that wish come true.

As she looked down at the tiny houses below, Mum’s face was filled with excitement.

When we landed and she climbed out of the helicopter, she said: ‘That was fantastic!’

Despite her illness and Dad’s passing, she hadn’t lost her zest for life.

And to satisfy her adventurous spirit, Kelly took her in a campervan to Snowdonia.

Then, I booked a luxury hotel break. Mum’s eyes twinkled as she gazed out over the Manchester skyline.

‘Wonderful,’ she said.

Her sister Pamela, who lived in Australia, flew to the UK to be by her side. They sat in their pyjamas and laughed and joked together.

But within weeks, Mum became confused and was admitted to hospital with kidney problems.

We knew the end was near.

‘I want to go home, ‘ Mum told the doctors. ‘I want to die at home.’

A hospital bed was set up downstairs in her house. I moved in to care for her, and an overnight nurse helped.

Late one night, the nurse gently shook me awake.

‘It’s time,’ she said. ‘You need to come down.’

I hurried downstairs and climbed into the bed with Mum.

In that moment, I missed Dad so much. But I drew Mum into my arms.

Minutes later, her chest rose and fell for the last time. Mum died, aged 59.

Now, it’s still hard to believe we’ve lost both Dad and Mum, within seven months of each other.

But it warms my heart to think of all the happy family memories we made down through the years.

We’d imagined Dad would be by Mum’s side when she took her final journey. But I find comfort in imagining them up there, somewhere, reunited at last.

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