The most vivid memory I have of my fiancé Ian is of our first date together six years ago. He whisked me off to Stratford for the August Bank Holiday and, as we walked through the park, the sun beating down on us, I felt great. Holding Ian’s hand felt natural but exciting and I knew then that he was the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. Tragically that never happened. Four years later, Ian died from Sudden Adult Death Syndrome (SADS).
Before that I didn’t even know SADS existed, but I’ve since found out that it kills up to eight young people in the UK every week and that it’s the most common cause of unexpected death in people under 30. What’s worse, sufferers are often incredibly fit and well and there are no signs that a fatal attack can strike.
Ian was always really healthy, chasing a ball round the football pitch, and he’d never shown any signs of being ill – not even the odd cold. But in November 1999, he suffered a blackout and we were told he had asthma. We accepted the news and carried on as normal – but now I’ve got to carry on without him.
Ian was always in my life. Since I was little, I remember him as my older brother’s cheeky mate and I guess I looked up to him. When he wasn’t entertaining people with his football skills on the local team, he was going out of his way to make people laugh. In fact I still remember one time when he was messing around at the factory where we worked in Oxfordshire – I was a customer services assistant and he was a furniture upholsterer. As I walked past Ian he started muttering A, B, C, D, working his way through the alphabet until he yelled: ‘Hello K’ at the top of his voice. Everyone was laughing and I felt such a buzz that Ian had singled me out. We both had a giggle about it and when Ian asked me out I said yes.
He was the ideal boyfriend. Not only did I fancy him, especially when he wore his favourite faded baseball cap, but I loved his attitude too. He was a proper lad with his football and bloke jokes but with the slightest touch or smile, he could also make me feel like the most important person in the world, It seemed natural for us to have kids and when I told Ian I was pregnant he said it was the best day of his life.
Just before Hannah was born in November 1998, lan and I went to Weymouth for a weekend to make the most of our time together. As we took a romantic walk along the beach at midnight Ian turned to me and said: ‘Next time we go away, we’ll have a little person with us.’ It hurts so much to remember that, as we never got to go away as a family.
But I take comfort from the fact that Ian had time with Hannah. As soon as she was born he was a natural father, getting up to cuddle her in the night until she fell back to sleep. In fact, if I tried to take her from him she’d put her head on his shoulder and refuse to move. At the time, I’d get really upset – but now I think it shows what a great dad lan was. Even though he worked full-time, he would take Hannah out at weekends, insisting I put my feet up and have a rest.
A month after Hannah was born. Ian asked me to marry him. He’d stolen one of my rings from the bedroom to find out my size and gave me a beautiful emerald – my birthstone – set in gold. I said yes straight away and when we got to the pub we cracked open the bubbly and told all our family and friends. From then on we were always making plans for the future – a quiet wedding and another baby as soon as Hannah was three. I thought we’d grow old together.
Saturday January 15, the day that Ian died, was just like any other Saturday in our lives, I was at work, Hannah was with my mum and Ian was at football. But half an hour into the match, he collapsed. Our friend Shane called my mum straight away, having failed to reach me on my mobile – it was the one day I’d left it at home – and my mum then left a message at work for me to come home immediately. I remember laughing with the receptionist, telling him Mum was probably just fretting. But when I got home she told me Ian had collapsed.
My brother must have broken the speed limit driving us to the football club and as I ran into the changing room I felt sick at the sight of the other players. All of them were sitting on the benches, white-faced and wracked with sobs. One of Ian’s friends came up to me and through his tears he kept saying: ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.’ At that moment I knew Ian was dead. As the tears started to roll down my face, I became hysterical, tearing at my hair and screaming: ‘He can’t be gone. He can’t leave me and Hannah, he can’t.’ I just couldn’t accept that he’d leave us.
Even as we drove to the hospital I convinced myself that Ian would be OK, that I’d find him sitting up in bed, smiling at me. But the doctors took me into a room and told me that they had failed to resuscitate Ian. A month later, after an autopsy. I was told Ian had died from Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Cardiomyopathy, a hereditary heart defect.
To this day I still don’t remember the six months after Ian died. I lived them in a grief-filled daze and, without my family and the fact I had to stay strong for Hannah, I don’t think I could have gone on. I lost nearly a stone in the week between Ian’s death and funeral as I was too upset to even think about eating – the smallest mouthful of toast would stick in my throat — and I felt sick from the lack of sleep. Every night I would wake up thinking it had all been a terrible nightmare, but when I remembered the truth and felt the empty space beside me, I would lie in bed crying into the early hours of the morning.
At the time Hannah was too young to understand what had happened to her daddy but now she’s older she asks me what he was like and how much he loved her, I sit her on my lap, show her pictures of Ian and tell her that her daddy has gone to heaven.
To be honest I don’t really know what else to say, but since Ian died I’ve kept a little book for Hannah in which I jot down all the silly things I remember about him, like the way he’d stroke her hair and tickle her.
If I read the pages back it breaks my heart, but it’s important that Hannah knows how loved she was. lan thought the world of his ‘little poppet’ and she’s the image of him, a true Willoughby. Sometimes it’s like I’m looking at Ian’s miniature – Hannah has his beautiful long eyelashes. I find that comforting because of Hannah I’ll never forget the person he was. Ian’s death has made me over-anxious about Hannah though, I rush her to the doctor with the slightest sniffle as I couldn’t bare to lose her too – and she now has to have a heart scan every year until she is 10.
Sometimes I still panic, though, If I can’t remember Ian’s laugh or the sound of his voice, so I put on a video of him to remind myself. My favourite one is of Ian singing Happy Birthday to Hannah – I’ve spent many an evening watching that, laughing and crying. The pain’s still so very hard to bear as Ian’s death was completely unexpected. It’s not like losing someone to a lengthy illness, watching them slip away. One minute I was kissing my healthy fiancé goodbye, and the next thing I knew he was dead.
It’s hardest for me when Hannah is in bed and I’m on my own. It’s the stupid things you miss like making a cup of tea for each other or just sitting down and chatting over a Chinese takeaway. I miss Ian so much that it feels like 10 years since I last saw him,
It was a year before I could sleep properly, but I’m getting my life back on track. People ask me now if I ever want to meet someone else but I can’t even think about that. I know that Ian wouldn’t want me to be on my own, that he’d want Hannah to have a father figure and maybe one day I will find someone else. I’m just not convinced that anyone could ever replace him.
That’s why I’m so keen to keep his memory alive. Every year we have a social evening to raise money for the charity CRY (Cardiac Risk in the Young), so that we can buy the equipment to test all children for signs of heart defects. At the moment children are only tested if someone in their family has died from Sudden Adult Death Syndrome – but that means someone always has to be the first. In Ian’s case, no one in his family had died from a heart condition and so he was never given a test when he was younger.
Now I wish a million times over that we’d insisted on seeing a specialist when Ian blacked out. Even now, two years after his death, I can’t help thinking that Ian could be alive If he’d only had the right medication, not the asthma inhaler he was given. I constantly torture myself, playing his death over and over in my head, but my family tell me there’s nothing I could have done to stop him from dying. If Hannah and I can help raise awareness, we can maybe stop another family having to go through what we have. Of course, I thought I would grow old with Ian, that he would be my first and last love, but it wasn’t to be. Still, I’m grateful for the precious time we had together and it’s made me look at things differently. I never take anyone for granted any more as there’s no way of knowing how long they’ll be around.