Jane did – and though it’s torn her life in two, she insists: I don’t regret a moment
By Jane Plume
Sometimes the most profound moments happen in the most mundane circumstances. Two years ago, I was having a cup of tea with my late best friend’s husband when four small words, uttered by me, made the biggest impact on my life I could ever imagine.
With those words, I made an irreversible decision that changed the course of not only my life, but those of everyone I hold dear. It would split my family in two, force me to give up my job and leave my days gnawed by guilt – but at the same time fill them with love.
The words were: ‘Of course I will,’ spoken in response to Shaun, husband of my best friend Gina, who’d been killed in a car crash two years earlier. In an extraordinarily tragic turn of events, Shaun had learned he was terminally ill with cancer just over a year before Gina died. He wanted to be sure their two sons would be cared for when he was gone.
There could be no more profound a question for one parent to ask of another. But I didn’t hesitate for a moment, even though I was a single mother to three children myself.
Of course it’s easy to make these decisions in principle, but it’s another matter when you are suddenly faced with the responsibility for two frightened, traumatised boys.
I know many people would have forgiven me for changing my mind, for placing my own family first. There are those – and they know who they are – who criticise me for putting the welfare of my friends’ children first. But I know I have done the right thing. I don’t see myself as a saint, just a good friend.
I know Gina and Shaun would have done the same for my children, and for that I feel blessed. How many other people are lucky enough to experience a friendship like ours?
Our families had been inextricably linked from the day I met Gina Hibberd back in 2000. We both worked for a pharmaceutical company in Loughborough and a mutual friend introduced us because, she said, we were ‘both as mad as hatters’ and would get on well. She was right. Not only was Gina great fun, she was easy to talk to. I found myself confiding in her about everything – including how I’d been orphaned at 16 when my parents suffered fatal heart attacks 11 weeks apart, leaving me in the care of my older brothers.
My beautiful, loving friend was gone. She was only 34
Of course, neither of us could have known how this trauma would become relevant so many years later. Do I believe in fate? I’m not sure. But being an orphan made me better equipped than most to take on Gina’s children.
She and Shaun were married when I met them, with a baby son, Lewis, who’s now 15.
Meanwhile, I was single mum to Marco, then six, and Millie, four, following the break-up of my four-year marriage the previous year.
We’d go to the park with the children, take day trips, or simply relax at each other’s houses.
Many men would have felt jealous of the time Gina and I spent together, but not Shaun. A professional driver, he was a gentle giant type.
Over the next few years, we each went through all manner of ups and downs which bound us closer together.
In 2002, I met a new partner whom Gina and Shaun welcomed into their lives. We ended up going through a pregnancy together: my daughter Anni-Mae was born in October 2005 – three months after Gina’s youngest son, Ashton.
When I found myself in hospital a year later, due to complications following childbirth, Gina visited me every day. And when I was allowed home, she came over most days after work, despite having her own family to look after.
Sometimes it was a flying visit to see I was OK. Other times she’d bring a casserole for dinner. Then she’d bathe Anni-Mae, put her to bed and ensure Marco and Millie didn’t want for anything. She became like a second mother to them; her children like brothers to my three.
When my relationship fell apart in 2008, Gina and Shaun picked me up and supported me. They helped me find a new home, 12 miles from their house in Shepshed, Leicestershire.
We spent that New Year’s Eve together, toasting the arrival of 2009. It was the last time life would be normal again.
The following months saw Shaun, a strapping rugby player, felled by what we thought was a chest infection. When his cough wouldn’t clear, he went for X-rays which revealed cancer on his lung. His condition could be managed, said doctors – but never cured.
Then, one afternoon, the words came out: ‘I’ll look after the boys when the time comes if you want’
I remember arriving at Gina’s after she called, to find my dear friend, deathly white, her eyes swollen from crying, and shaking from head to toe. Shaun was in shock – he wasn’t even a smoker. It was so unfair.
Thankfully, although chemotherapy could only curtail the tumours, Shaun responded well. So much so that he and Gina decided to renew their wedding vows that August in a deeply moving ceremony.
But just over a year later, on October 12, 2010, the unimaginable occurred.
I was at work when Gina’s mother rang. I picked up to hear crying. ‘It’s Gina,’ she sobbed. Unable to go on, she passed the phone to Gina’s dad.
‘She’s been killed in a car crash,’ were the only words he could manage.
My phone crashed to the floor. I couldn’t believe it. My beautiful, loving friend was gone. She was only 34.
We later learned that a speeding driver coming the other way had lost control, ploughing straight into her vehicle, killing both of them.
Later, I visited Shaun. He looked like a lost little boy. ‘I can’t believe it,’ he kept saying. ‘I was supposed to go first.’
Like a terrible, unspoken secret, we both knew what this meant for the boys. Then aged just five and 11, they weren’t yet fully aware how ill their father was.
At Gina’s funeral, I managed to keep myself together enough to speak from the heart: ‘There is a saying that friends are the family you choose for yourself. How true. Gina was my sister of choice.’
And that’s exactly how I felt. From that point on, I vowed to take care of her sons as best I could.
Despite his crushing grief, Shaun did an amazing job: the boys were always smartly turned out and well fed.
I helped wherever I could, sorting through paperwork and making calls. Then, one afternoon, the words came out: ‘I’ll look after the boys when the time comes if you want.’ Shaun just smiled and nodded, and we carried on.
It was a year before he raised the matter again. By this point his health was failing and he was spending long periods in hospice care.
I was working with a community nursing team – a job I loved, but gave up to help keep this precious little family together for as long as I could. You might think me mad, but I had truly thought of Gina as a sister. Wouldn’t you do the same for your sibling?
I’d get up every morning at 6am to tend to my three, before driving to Shaun’s house to make packed lunches and see the children off to school.
Dinner was also prepared every day with two households in mind. A lasagne would be split and transported. I’d oversee bedtime rituals twice.
Just hours after he was orphaned, I held Lewis in my arms and promised: ‘I’ll always be here for you’
By now, Lewis knew that their Daddy wouldn’t be around for much longer. Shaun had prepared him, but Ashton was still too young. The only thing left to do was to formalise what would happen when the terrible day arrived.
One day, as we sat sorting through more admin, Shaun asked suddenly: ‘Did you mean what you said about taking the boys?’ I didn’t even look up from the paperwork. ‘Of course I did,’ I said. And there it was. My pledge.
We agreed I would only have the boys if all five kids were in agreement, and asked them all individually. The two youngest, Ashton and Anni-Mae, were easy. Aged six, just three months apart, of course they wanted to live together.
Shaun broached the subject with Lewis, then aged 12. He, too, wanted me to look after him.
But what about Marco and Millie? How would they feel about sharing their mother? Then a very mature 18 and 16, they didn’t bat an eyelid. ‘Of course you should look after them,’ said Marco. ‘They’re already like our brothers.’
Which just left the matter of where. There were two houses to consider. I couldn’t live in both.
Marco came up with the answer: he and Millie were at college, so they would stay in our family home, while I would move with Anni-Mae to Shaun’s.
Meanwhile, Shaun was keen to get everything in place. His will stated I would become his boys’ legal guardian, but he went to court to get an official ruling as well.
Just a few months later, on November 5, 2012, Shaun slipped away aged just 40 – with me, his brother and my brother at his hospital bedside.
We were chatting about nothing in particular when the room went eerily quiet. Shaun had stopped breathing. I shook his shoulders: ‘Shaun, wake up, please wake up.’ I pressed the nurse call button and they came immediately.
‘I’m sorry,’ a nurse said gently. ‘He’s gone.’ All three of us were sobbing.
When we returned to Shaun’s house, I went up to Lewis’s room, where he lay wide awake. He had been told already.
‘I’m so sorry,’ I said, as I cradled him in my arms, letting him cry.
Eventually, I left him with his head buried in a pillow, hoping he’d sleep, and said: ‘I will always be here for you, Lewis, I promise.’
As I slowly closed the door behind me, I heard him sob deeply. It broke my heart.
That night, I sat up in the kitchen making a to-do list. In the early hours, Ashton, then seven, appeared. ‘Can I have my breakfast please, Auntie Jane?’ he asked. ‘I need to talk to you first,’ I replied.
He clambered up on my knee and I said: ‘Ashton, I’m sorry, sweetheart, but Daddy has died. He has gone to be a twinkle star with Mummy.’
His little face crumpled and he buried his head in my shoulder. I made him the same promise I’d made his brother.
On average, five people die in Britain every day in car accidents and 63 people are seriously injured
Days later we held a funeral in the same church where Gina’s had been. As we braced ourselves to enter, I stood between Ashton and Anni-Mae, clutching their hands. Lewis, Marco and Millie were behind, holding hands, too. Our families had been brought together by love: it was fitting that in the midst of such sadness we were united as one.
A typical teenage boy, Lewis didn’t like showing his feelings, but every so often he’d confide he was having a tough day.
Ashton went through a stage of waking in the night, crying for his mum and dad. I would lie with him and remind him of something good they had all done together: a party, a holiday, a dress Mummy liked, a joke they shared.
With five children and two houses to look after, life was – and remains – a whirlwind. Financially, I just about get by. My part-time job as a dinner lady at Anni-Mae and Ashton’s school helps pay the bills, as do contributions from Marco and Millie, who now have jobs. I also receive child benefit for the boys.
It’s exhausting, but largely I thrive on being busy. I couldn’t have done it without Marco and Millie’s maturity. I sometimes feel guilty about what I’ve asked of them, and about leaving them in our old house, but they’re quick to reassure me we’re doing the right thing.
Thankfully, Lewis and Ashton’s family have embraced me and my children as family, and likewise my relatives have embraced Lewis and Ashton. We are seen as Jane and the five children. Gina’s boys don’t call me Mum, I’m Auntie Jane, their mum’s best friend.
One of the things I love about them all is that they are so close, yet they have such different characteristics.
Marco, nearly 20, is the joker, but he is very sensitive and worries about me and his siblings constantly. Millie, 17, is beautiful, intelligent and ambitious, but family and friends are her world.
Lewis, 15, a keen rugby player like his dad, is very mature and thoughtful for his age. Ashton, eight, has us all laughing, if not always intentionally. And Anni-Mae, also eight, is strong-willed, creative and loves to look after others.
My favourite times are when we all pile round the table for a family dinner. We try to ensure that happens twice a week.
Sometimes, in the middle of the cacophony, I find myself looking around the table and seeing the scene through Gina and Shaun’s eyes. In those moments I feel they are there with us.
Through the boys they live on and I get to feel close to my best friends every day. How could I ever regret a decision like that?
Adapted from Please Don’t Cry by Jane Plume
Source: Daily Mail