Our Story…. Part three

It was January 2015. On the face of it, our life as a family was flourishing…. I was a home owner for the first time, the boys were settling into school and my business was quickly expanding. The reality, however, was that I felt like I was drowning in life. Alfie’s nighttime care was relentless, waking up to 20 times a night and every waking hour of evenings and weekends were spent trying to make the catering business a success.

It felt like I had created a monster with Mother Hen. The original premise of starting the business was that by working for myself I could schedule my hours around school hours and Alfie’s care and meet my goal of being financially independent. But month on month the business and work load was growing beyond my ability to keep up. Every weekend was a blur of frantically trying to cook and deliver up to 200 meals.

With my clients being mostly hen parties, I would spend my weekends surrounded by a gaggle of women seemingly having the times of their lives as I would stand on the edges washing up into the early hours. Almost weekly there would be a disaster. One weekend I was delivering a tea party to a group of glamorous actresses, I had the crates of cakes and sandwiches in the car amongst Alfie’s wheelchair. The aim was to drop the boys, and go on to the job. In my haste of loading the car, I had forgotten to secure the back of the wheelchair to the floor, when I hit the brakes, the chair flew forward (Alfie wasn’t in it thank God). All 150kg of the chair flew into the crates of food, crushing the cakes, and smashing the china. Already running late I had to attempt to save what I could. Needless to say the client was NOT impressed. I was rather cruelly dressed down in front of the group, calling me a disgrace and they refused to pay me a penny. It was probably fair enough, but after baking into the early hours and spending over a £100 on ingredients, it was tough to take. There were many occasions like this, where despite my best efforts balancing work and the boys proved impossible.

When I had received Alex’s email about meeting the boys a couple of months before, it had caught me completely off guard. From the beginning of my pregnancy, he was very clear he wouldn’t be involved – it was something I was at peace with and didn’t anticipate changing. However, there was never any doubt what my response to his email would be… of course he would meet the boys. I had always maintained that the best thing for their welfare would be for them to know their Dad on some level, if he was willing. The potential of a positive relationship was too great to ever deny them a chance. The mystery surrounding his identity was clearly quite dangerous, as I overheard the boys relaying elaborate stories over his whereabouts.

I arranged to meet Alex for a coffee before he would meet the boys. When the day arrived, I had all the classic intentions of a meeting with an ex… look good and act cool. However, with three catering jobs ahead of me that day, I turned up frazzled, sleep deprived and probably smelling of onions and as I walked into the cafe and laid eyes on him for the first time in years, my heart was in my throat.

We were both clearly nervous and I struggled to hide my shaking hands as they pawed over my coffee cup. I could barely make eye contact and felt awkward and defensive. I tried to focus as I navigated my way through my questions… I needed to know exactly what had changed and where he saw the initial meeting leading. Was it a one-off, or the start of a relationship with them? I was fearful that if he backed out it would have the potential to damage the confident, happy, little boys I had worked so hard at raising. I felt like a lioness who needed to protect her cubs.

Satisfied that his intentions were genuine, we agreed to go ahead with him meeting them the next day. The next morning we tried to keep the atmosphere as upbeat as possible, playing music and cheerily jamming every bit of of clutter into the downstairs loo to create an illusion of order. The boys were showing little signs of nerves… but as the door bell went, Charlie ran full pelt into my arms and clung on to me, burying his head into my neck.

I sat back and watched cautiously as the boys interacted with Alex and his brother. The boys were quiet at first but soon warmed up to be their usual extrovert selves. I tried to give them reassuring glances and a quick squeeze here and there, but inside I was horrifically nervous and felt uncomfortable observing the similarities between Alex and the boys. Alfie was the spitting image of Alex facially and Charlie’s mannerisms and expressions were identical to his. The mysterious pieces of their genetic puzzle finally made sense, they had a home.

After a couple of hours, Alex and his brother left and we sat down to take a deep breath and debrief. The boys were clearly excited and enthusiastic. However… over the next few days, Charlie fell apart. He was fiercely emotional – smashing things, shouting and crying. It was completely out of character and it was shocking. He wasn’t communicating that it was related to meeting Alex, but something had been stirred within him…and he had an inner rage he couldn’t contain. I did everything I could to comfort him, smothering him in love and even taking him out of school for special ‘Mummy Charlie time’. But nothing would cut it and it was clear we had a long and complicated road ahead of us.

Alex came back to Bath a couple of weeks later for a second meeting. This time we would meet in the park, and it would be just the four of us. Charlie responded well to seeing him again and was clearly desperate to impress Alex, throwing himself off slides he wouldn’t touch if it was just Mummy watching. Alfie on the other hand, was quiet and clingy. As I lifted him from his chair and sat him on my lap, I could feel the heat radiate from him and his chest rattle. I felt a wave of fear wash over me as it became clear he wasn’t well at all. I felt completely distracted and desperate to get him home, but just a couple of hours later, it became clear that it was hospital not home that was needed.

We left Alex and made the all too familiar journey to the hospital. Alfie was pale and breathless and I struggled to steady my nerves as we started the usual routine of admission. I took deep breaths as the doctor started the process of trying to insert a cannula into his tiny and invisible veins. Several attempts and many tears later, I breathed a sigh of relief as I watched the fluids and antibiotics drip through into his veins.

A couple of days passed and I was surprised when a doctor arrived at the door to say they felt Alfie was ok to go home and complete the course of antibiotics orally.  Although I didn’t feel like he was fully recovered, they clearly felt he was well enough, so I took their word for it and we headed home. But back at home I couldn’t take my eyes off him, his little chest was working overtime and he barely roused from sleep all day. I couldn’t handle another night of watching his every breath so I decided to take him back into hospital.

I tried to keep him talking but it was clear he didn’t have the energy to respond. I pulled up outside the children’s ward and carried him into assessment room. But after five minutes of waiting to be seen, his colour was changing and I couldn’t bare it any longer. I ran into the corridor, holding his little body and screamed for someone to help me. A nurse came and put him onto a SATS monitor, her face dropped in shock, and she hit the nearest emergency button.

Before I knew it there were about 10 bodies pawing over him, covering his little face with an oxygen mask whilst ushering me to the side of the room. I was shaking and crying, not knowing where to turn to. I couldn’t get close to Alfie and I was worried about him being scared without me in sight. I could hear by the tone of the medical staff’s voices something was seriously wrong, but I couldn’t make sense of it all.

After a while his oxygen levels were stabilised and I was able to be with him and make a tearful call to my Mum asking her to come in. It felt too much to face alone. The consultant in charge – a kind-faced, softly spoken Indian doctor, explained that the x-rays were showing that Alfie’s lungs were full to the brim with pneumonia and both his lungs had collapsed…he was a very, very poorly boy. They wanted to transfer him to the intensive care unit in Bristol but would have to ventilate him in order to transport him, which in itself was too risky. They didn’t want to do anything to tire his little body out any more.

My Mum called Alex to explain everything that had happened and he got on the first train back to Bath. Time seemed completely warped and before I knew it, she said he was waiting in the atrium of the hospital. I couldn’t bear to see him, I had no emotional capacity beyond sitting by Alfie’s bed willing him to survive. My Mum sent Alex away to stay locally and to keep his phone on so we could update him.

I was under instructions to keep Alfie calm with the hope of lowering his heart rate. So I stroked his hair and told him make-believe stories of adventures with his cousins, encouraging him to breath deeply and try to relax. The consultant’s shift was due to end at 8pm, but he stayed the whole night, often just sitting in silence by his bed. Whenever I was alone and felt sure Alfie was asleep and unaware of me, I would sob into a pillow praying for him to pull through.

In the early hours of the morning, I had drifted off with my head on his bed, when I was woken by Alfie’s little voice. He wanted to know what happened next in the story with his cousins. I could see on the monitor that his heart rate had come down and the fact that he had enough breath to speak was such a good sign, I couldn’t help but lean over and cover his little face in kisses.

The next day his blood results showed he was continuing to improve and we called Alex to come in and see him. I was utterly drained, I couldn’t hold up the same barriers and composure I had in previous meetings. If ever there was a situation to strip back the animosity and unite, this was it. We were parents who had nearly just lost our child and it felt strangely comforting to have him there.

 

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Alfie a few days into his recovery.

Alex stayed down in Bath, visiting the hospital each day. I could tell the boys were enjoying their time with him as they became natural and warm in their interactions. Alex took Charlie off to the local park one day and when they came back Charlie had a big grin on his face. When Alfie asked Charlie what he was grinning at, Charlie excitedly replied, “I asked Alex if I can call him Daddy… and he said yes!” Alfie asked if he could do the same and they both kept trying it out, finishing every sentence with “Daddy!” It was just the four of us in the hospital room when the boys realised that Alex and I were wearing identical trainers, we all laughed and as I looked up and we caught each other’s eyes, I realised I was going to really struggle to keep disliking him.

 

The intensity of the experience we had all just been through moved the pace of their relationship building to another level. Once Alfie was out of hospital, we started seeing Alex regularly. One Friday night before Alex was due to see the boys we decided to go for a drink to touch base with how things were going without four beady little eyes looking up at us. As we sat in a dimly lit bar chatting away, I couldn’t believe how natural it felt. It was like we were back in the summer of 2007, and as the wine slipped down, I couldn’t help but feel myself attracted to him.

The feeling didn’t sit well. After everything I had been through, all the years of struggle bringing the boys up alone, I couldn’t possibly like the man who had put me in the position of being a single parent in the first place. I tried to vilify him in my head, telling myself he was cold and cruel…but every interaction contradicted this version of him. He was warm, kind and a natural father instantly. It was like watching all the bits of two people I loved most in the world, amalgamated into a handsome 6ft 3 man.

Naturally friends and family were intrigued whether there was still an attraction there. I was quick to be defensive, denying the possibility. I told myself I hadn’t come this far only to go back there. I had never worried or felt concerned about meeting someone in the future, it had happened before and I knew it would happen again. The boys deserved someone in their life who was extraordinary, and I wasn’t willing to settle for any less. But thoughts of Alex kept plaguing my mind and however much I tried, I couldn’t shake them off.

By May, I felt confident enough to leave Alex on his own with the boys for the first time whilst I went to London for Birthday celebrations with friends. I spent the entire time eagerly awaiting text updates from Alex. My heart swelled as I saw photos of the boys grinning holding homemade light sabres, standing next to the fully built flat-pack BBQ I had been given for my birthday. Flat-pack furniture had never been my strong point – numerous Ikea pieces strewn across the house could have been easily taken down with a small knock. So when I was given the BBQ in a box, with what looked like a million pieces, my heart sank. Alex building the BBQ that day, opened my eyes to the possibility of a completely different life, one where not everything fell on my shoulders. As a single mum every small task from taking out the bins to handling hospital appointments fell on me, but what if there was an existence where I had a partner to share those responsibilities with?

I was never one to presume someone was attracted to me, but in this case it felt like the chemistry between me and Alex was undeniable. From the odd glance here and there to the tone of texts, it was clear that feelings beyond co-parenting were developing, but I didn’t know how to deal with the confusion these feelings created in my own head, let alone approach it with Alex or anyone else. I was left feeling isolated, as I was confused with feelings of anger about the past being met with feelings of excitement of a possible future. I worried people would see a relationship with Alex as pathetic and cowardly, the easy option. But I knew in my heart, that if we were to have a relationship, it would be far from the easy option. Most relationships start with a clean slate, ours would be starting with a whole host of complicated emotions that would need to be unravelled.

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Alex and the boys the summer they met

In June I headed away to Ibiza for one of my best friend’s hen dos. With time away from the confusion of the situation, after a few drinks, I was finally able to open up about how I was feeling about Alex. I was surprised by the response, my friends understood and even encouraged the way I was feeling. They could see that the potential, if all went well, was huge for the boys and me. Having had the chance to air my feelings, I knew I needed to take a leap of faith and approach Alex. Even if it turned out I had wildly misconstrued the signs, at least I could then move on and build a friendship with him for the boys sake.

The next weekend, when our plans for a weekend at the seaside fell through, the boys were only consoled by the possibility of staying with Daddy in London. So we packed up and headed to Peckham.  I knew there was a conversation that needed to happen that evening and as we walked around the Science Museum, I couldn’t help but feel a tingle of hope that we could one day live up to being the happy family unit that we looked like to the outside world that day.

That evening, as the boys went to bed, I popped to the local shop to get some much-needed wine. After a couple of hours and a few glasses, the conversation finally turned to the subject I had been so desperate to breach; us. I breathed a sigh of relief as Alex explained how he felt. I hadn’t been imagining it, the feelings were mutual and we were both terrified about what that might mean. As the evening went on and we shared a kiss, I felt overwhelmed with emotion but also consoled to finally have our feelings out in the open.

The next morning, I woke to the sound of happy chatter from the boys downstairs and Alex appearing at the door with a cup of tea. I felt a deep sense of contentment, it was the first occasion the boys and I were being looked after without the need for a thank you or feelings of guilt. I had spent so many years in brace position, waiting for the next wave to come and knock me down. But here was the possibility of a life where we would ride the waves together.

The boys and I headed back to Bath that evening and Alex and I arranged to go on our first date back in Bath the following weekend. The date didn’t disappoint. The conversation flowed and the physical connection between us was so strong. My head was telling me a million logical reasons this shouldn’t be happening but my heart and instincts were throwing me into the situation full pelt.

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The first photo of Alex and I together

Over the next few weeks Alex and I were like a couple of school kids. Sneaking kisses here and there and squeezing each other’s hands under the table. We wanted to know we were 100% sure about giving things a proper go before the boys finding out anything. But by July, we were using the big old scary L word, and we felt ready to let the boys in on our little secret. We explained that Mummy and Daddy were going to be together as a couple and in their sweet little five-year-old innocence, they exclaimed, “We thought you were already!”

 

The boys thrived in our new little family unit. They embraced a whole new set of family they never knew existed with open arms and without question. But without the blissful naivety of a five-year-old, I started to struggle with feelings about the past. I struggled to put aside feelings of resentment about the ease with which this family, especially Alex, had been able to come into the boys’ lives after so many years. I had done literally thousands of bedtimes alone, worked tirelessly to provide for the boys financially and emotionally, and it had taken its toll. It had exhausted me to the bones and made my twenties a constant uphill struggle.

Of course, I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. Bringing up the boys had been hugely formative. Those years taught me to fight harder, and love deeper than I ever could have imagined. In the darkest times, I’d discovered an inner strength and resilience I knew could carry me through. But equally, I knew that true love could be the invisible thread of calm when everything else was chaos… and I longed for that calm. I was in love, and I wanted to embrace everything that it entails, the good and the bad. I knew that I would need to accept that no, I hadn’t forgotten the past, but I would need to forgive if we were going to move forward.

When you start a relationship with two kids already under your belt, things move fast. By September, Alex had a new job in Bristol and moved in with us. My friends and family could see how happy we were and were, as ever, incredibly supportive. But it was a big adjustment for everyone. Suddenly the people we had been blaming in our heads were family and the feelings had to be set aside. There was so much pain and trauma from the past 6 years, however hard I tried, it was impossible to just put it in a box and forget about it. I knew that if we were going to have a lifetime together, we would need a safe space to talk without emotions getting in the way.

Alex and I decided to see a counsellor, not because things were terrible, but because we knew if were going to commit to a life together, we needed to give ourselves the best chance possible.

The process was hard, it felt impossible to sympathise with his experiences at first, but when you’re sat in a room with a stranger, you have no choice but to listen. So I did… I listened, he listened, and over the weeks we both found a sort of peace. We came to accept that it is possible for there to be two rights, and that just because your version of reality and history is different from another person’s, it doesn’t have to sabotage the chance of a happy future together.

Ultimately the process of counselling clarified that our goals for the future, for how we saw our lives, were the same. We came out confident that we had the tools and desire to work together to make those goals a reality. The pain of the past was never going to disappear, but there was too much potential for a beautiful life together to let the pain overshadow it. Over the months we learned to accept our differences and embrace the excitement of this new family unit we were creating. I would often find myself just sitting back and watching Alex with the boys unable to stop smiling, I could relax in a way I hadn’t in years and embrace the happiness that comes with companionship.

When winter approached that year, I felt the release of no longer being on my own. The dread of hospital admissions subsided as I knew I wasn’t facing them alone and the long evenings felt less grim in company. I didn’t fear my vulnerability in the same way, I knew I didn’t need to be the best version of myself at all times for Alex to still love me. It felt like my shoulders were dropping and I didn’t need to hold it all together for the boys at all times.

That spring, Alex and I went away for a night to celebrate my birthday. After spending the afternoon being blissfully pampered in the spa, we were upgraded to the most beautiful room I had ever seen. It spanned across the whole top floor and the balcony looked out onto the beautiful grounds and lake. As I stepped excitedly out on to the balcony where I could see a small table, covered in a white table cloth with champagne on ice, I called out to Alex to come and see what they had left for us. But as I turned around, he was immediately behind me… down on one knee, holding an open ring box. His words were poignant and perfect but I barely let him get them out before we were both in tears and I was shouting, “YES YES YES!”

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We were on cloud nine. I was never more sure of anything than wanting to spend the rest of my life with this man. Of course, our journey hadn’t been the way I had envisaged, but I had total faith that on some level it had happened for a reason. I was the happiest I had ever been in my life and our boys had a secure family unit.

A year of wedding planning flew by and we embraced every bit of the process. Life was full of enough stresses that were beyond our control and we were determined that the wedding wouldn’t add to the mix. We would be married in the local church in front of 180 of our nearest and dearest, followed by a reception on my mum’s farm in tipis. Every detail of the wedding reflected who we were and the journey we had been on.

When the day finally came around, I was on top of the world. I was surrounded by six bridesmaids who I’d known for a minimum of 15 years each and had become family to the boys and me. We drank prosecco, we laughed and we cried and as the morning passed, I couldn’t wait to get the church and make Alex my husband.

Peter, my dad’s best friend came to collect me from the house to take me to the church. He had been our family’s rock since my dad’s death and it felt incredibly fitting that he would walk me down the isle. As we arrived at the church he squeezed my hand and told me my dad would be proud of me. I took a deep breath and tried to hold back the tears, but the moment I stepped outside the church and saw my two little page boys, bow ties and smiles galore, I knew it was going to be an emotional day ahead.

As I entered the church and saw all of the faces of the people I love I felt overwhelmed. All of these people had been part of our journey, whether it had been separately or together, they had carried us to this place. There was no way I would have made it through those years without the love and support of the people in that room and as I looked around and saw the smiles and kind eyes, I felt more grateful than ever for everything they had done for the boys and me .

As I turned the corner down the aisle and my eyes met Alex’s, my composure crumpled and we both began to cry. I couldn’t possibly have felt more in love with the man I was about to marry.  As the ceremony went on I swelled with pride as our little boys stood in front of the church full of people and perfectly delivered the poem they had written with a great friend of ours. I felt proud of us all, of the journey we had been on and how hard we had worked to give ourselves the best possible chance of a happy future. It hadn’t been a fluke, it had been tough, but we knew it would be worth it.

The rest of the day exceeded all our expectations. We took a tractor and trailer with our wedding party down to my mum’s house, the sun shone and the beauty of my family home stunned our guests. As the African band played in the garden and the familiar sounds of my childhood filled the air, I could feel my dad’s spirit surround me.

 

When the speeches came around, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Alex’s words were full of humility, emotion and humour. We had already had our private moments of recognition of the past, but for many, this was the moment they had needed. As the evening set in, we took to the dance floor for our first dance, Mumford and Son’s “I will wait for you”. Not because either of us had consciously waited for each other – the 22 and 24-year-old versions of ourselves would have never worked together – yet through our individual journeys, here we were, with our boys, ready to embrace the fairy tale that life had thrown our way.

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