Wed, Jan 22nd, 2014

Freddie’s mum is dying but her love will live forever: Cancer will kill her in months so she’s written cards to celebrate all his birthdays up to 21 – and even his wedding

  • One month after giving birth to Freddie, Rowena started experiencing pain
  • Eventually Rowena was diagnosed with bowel cancer
  • With not long to live, she is coming up with ways he can remember her
  • She has recorded a CD of her favourite songs and nursery rhymes for him
  • And Rowena has handmade cards with inspirational messages in them

Teddy bears are awfully clever these days. Take three-year-old Freddie Darby’s bear who, it seems, is not only good for a cuddle, but has special powers, too.

If ever the little boy wants to speak to his mother and she is not around, he whispers into teddy’s ear and – as if by magic – Mummy can hear everything.

‘I’ve told Freddie that his teddy bear has a hotline to Mummy for when I’m not there,’ says Rowena, 33, who lives in Bolton, Lancashire, with Freddie and husband Phil, 34.

Made with love: Rowena shows three-year-old Freddie two of the cards she has made for him to remember her by

‘So, he talks to him and can tell him anything he wants – and I’ve told him his teddy will pass it on to me, no matter where I am.’

It’s a charmingly simple idea for any child experiencing separation anxiety when Mum or Dad is away from home. But there’s an achingly poignant reason why Freddie is so attached to his stuffed bear. Rowena has only months to live. Diagnosed with bowel cancer shortly after Freddie was born, she knows that time with her little boy is running out.

Now, in a bid to ensure that he is as prepared as possible, she is spending her last moments dreaming up ever more imaginative ways in which he can remember her.

The clever trick with teddy is just one idea. She has also set up an email account in his name, which he can access it when he’s old enough. He’ll be able to read the emails she’s written to him during her illness, giving him insights into her life.

She has also recorded a CD of her favourite songs and nursery rhymes for him and even plans to write some children’s stories and film herself reading them.

Perhaps most personal of all, she has hand-made beautiful cards that Freddie will receive on each birthday and Christmas until he is 21. There are also cards for his first day at school, his graduation, even his wedding – events that, sadly, Rowena is unlikely to see.

Inside each card are simple messages. From prosaic pieces of advice such as ‘If you can’t say anything positive, don’t say anything at all’ to more lump-in-the-throat inducing expressions such as: ‘Every time you look at the sky, remember that’s how big my love is for you.’

It’s a heartbreaking task. But Rowena says that preparing her little boy for life after her death is keeping her going.

‘I can’t waste any time crying,’ she says. ‘Of course, there have been tears and the last thing I want to do is leave Freddie. But I can’t let my time be taken up by being upset because what good is it going to do? The important thing is to spend time with Freddie, give him lots of lovely memories and make sure he can cope when I’m no longer around.’

Rowena, an actuary, always wanted to be a mother. She met husband Phil, 34, a former financial adviser who is retraining to become a teacher, in their first term at York University in 1999. They married exactly ten years later.

‘I always knew I wanted four children,’ she says.

By September 2009, her plan was on track and Freddie was on the way.

But it was during her pregnancy that Rowena started suffering symptoms of bowel cancer.

‘I was passing blood when I went to the toilet, but at the time, the doctors said it was normal and pregnancy-related,’ she says.

‘I don’t blame them. It’s rare for a young woman to have bowel cancer and there’s no history of it in my family. But if I’d known then what I know now, I’d have asked for more tests.’

Freddie was born in June 2010 weighing a whopping 10lb 13oz.

‘He looked like a three-month-old,’ laughs Rowena. ‘I was exhausted, but Phil and I were over the moon.

‘I loved the birth, I thought it was brilliant and, with hindsight, knowing that I’ll never do it again, I’m so grateful I experienced it.’

But it was in October of that year when Rowena began experiencing pain. ‘It was constant and underlying, 24 hours a day,’ she says. ‘The doctors still said it was piles or a fissure and gave me strong painkillers.

‘Six months later, I had an internal investigation that found nothing, but I was still in pain. Then in May 2011, I had a colonoscopy (an examination of the colon) and I knew immediately that something was wrong because it was really painful. More scans followed.

‘In June 2011 – a week before Freddie’s first birthday – I was told I had cancer.’

Faced with such a shocking  diagnosis, most people would immediately grieve for the life they were to leave behind.

But not Rowena. She was already thinking of the future.

‘I know it sounds odd, but I really wasn’t shocked or devastated because I’d already suspected it, so I’d had time to process it,’ she says. ‘My main priority was to find out what treatment I could have to beat it.

‘My first thought wasn’t about dying or Freddie, but about whether I could have more children. But I was told that  the cancer treatment would make it impossible.

‘Phil felt exactly the same. Because I’d waited so long for a diagnosis, we’d had all the difficult conversations already. We’d talked about what would  happen if I died; we’d been angry, upset and devastated and got through all that.

‘So, when the doctor’s confirmed it, it was almost simple to cope with. We were both like: “Right, OK … what do we have to do?”

‘By complete chance, the following day I was at the right point in my cycle to start IVF injections if I wanted my eggs frozen. We went for it. Phil wanted children in the future, too.

‘They managed to collect 11 eggs. It means that – if I am able to live for much longer – we could have another child by a surrogate. I know that it’s incredibly unlikely, but you can’t live without hope.’ Rowena began radiotherapy treatment followed by chemotherapy tablets and an operation to remove the tumour.

In January 2012, she was rushed into A&E with bowel cramps and it was then that the doctors discovered a cyst on her ovaries, which she was told was probably cancer.

Birthday boy: One-year-old Freddie unwrapping his presents

Happier times: For Rowena, the most important thing is to give Freddie lots of lovely memories of their time together

‘I knew at that point that it was terminal without them even having to tell me,’ she says matter-of-factly.

‘I’m an intelligent person. I had read up on it and I knew my odds. It might  sound strange that we didn’t crumple up, but neither of us are overly  emotional – I think that’s why  we’re so good together. We’re pragmatic and practical.

‘But the doctors were still hopeful that surgery might help, so in April 2012 I had a full pelvic clearance.

‘They took everything – my ovaries, uterus, part of my bowel and abdomen. I didn’t care. It’s what I had to do to live longer and be with Freddie and Phil. I was like: “Get rid of it if it means more time to live!” ’

But just four months later, Rowena was given the devastating news that the cancer had spread to her lungs, liver and pelvis.

‘It broke me,’ she says. ‘The one thought flashing through my mind was Freddie and what I needed to do in terms of getting things ready for when Phil is alone with him. I was so sad at the thought of leaving them.

‘But I made up my mind early on that I needed to accept what was happening. If I was angry and crying and stressed, it wouldn’t help me at all. I needed to be at peace with it.’

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