I was with Debs every day until she died – I had my baby back… and I was in awe of her, says mum of Dame Deborah James
FIVE years ago on Mother’s Day, Dame Deborah James wrote a letter to her mum.
It was 2018 and just over a year after the Sun writer had been diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer.
In her online Sun column, Things Cancer Made Me Say, Deborah told her mum: “I know your fear is that you might have to hold my hand one day too soon, if things take a turn for the worst and I take my last breath. But I’ll be OK because you’ll be there.”
It was, as Deborah knew at the time, a fear that would become a reality.
Then 36, she had not expected to live to see that Mother’s Day.
When Dame Debs was diagnosed at the age of 35, her chance of living five years or more was less than eight per cent.
Even fuelled by her infectious rebellious hope, she did not dare believe she would go on to share another four Mother’s Days with her mum Heather, husband Sebastien and children, Hugo, 15, and Eloise, 13.
“Losing Deborah was my biggest fear, but as she took her last breath I was there, holding her hand,” Heather says, nine months after her daughter’s death in June 2022, aged 40.
“I have read that column many times, but particularly over the last six months. I’m for ever grateful that we got four more lovely years together.”
While cancer took Deborah from her, the 65-year-old gymnastics teacher says it gave her the chance to grow even closer to her eldest child.
In January last year, when Dame Debs was recovering in hospital from a near-fatal internal bleed caused by a tumour rupturing a blood vessel, it was her mum who was by her side.
‘Bond grew deeper’
Heather says: “Covid rules at the time meant Deborah was only allowed to have one named visitor.
“I remember she turned to Seb and said, ‘I love you, but I need my mum’. From that moment, until she died, I was by her side.
In the months before Deborah returned last May to her parents’ home in Woking, Surrey, for her last days, the campaigner was only well enough to leave hospital on a handful of occasions.
One of those precious times was Mother’s Day 2022.
Heather says: “Deborah was really poorly but so grateful to be able to come here so we could have lunch together. She was very weak but we were all fuelled by Deborah’s rebellious hope. I don’t think any of us really thought it would be the last Mother’s Day she had.”
Even weeks later, when the family celebrated Easter and Dame Debs got the green light to leave hospital again, Heather had no inkling of what was to come.
She says: “Immediately before Easter, Deborah suffered another bout of sepsis and ended up in intensive care again.
“But she rallied from that and actually looked quite well.
Debs was honoured with a damehood from Prince William, who visited her[/caption]
“She made the brave decision to stay in hospital for four weeks to try to get on top of the infection, and we thought she’d beaten it — but it had weakened her body.
“That was last April, and it wasn’t until she came home in May that I realised she was going to die. Right up until May 7, I believed she was going to be OK, I really did.”
When Deborah returned to her parents’ home, she had been given just days to live.
But the inspirational campaigner survived for another seven weeks.
For that time, her husband and children, parents Heather and Alistair, siblings Sarah and Ben and their families were by her side.
Watching her daughter slip away in those weeks has had a profound effect on Heather, and while it was sad, it was a time she will always treasure.
She says: “As a mother you should never have to see your child like that. But it was a privilege to have that time with her. I was with her all day, every day, for months, and especially in those final weeks our bond grew deeper and deeper.
“It’s like when you bring a newborn home, they depend on you and you form an indes- cribable bond. I got the opportunity to rekindle that bond with my baby.
“In those seven weeks when Deb- orah was dying I had my baby back again. We had very special conversations in the middle of the night. She didn’t sleep, so we would watch films together. I will always have those memories.
“I would tell her how well she was doing, how strong she was.
“We grew so much closer. That is why her loss feels so much harder to bear and make sense of.”
When asked how a mother copes in that situation, Heather says: “You just do what you need to do.”
She adds: “I never cried in front of Deborah. She was being so strong for me and so I had to be strong for her. Deborah didn’t talk about dying much, she only touched on it now and again.
“She wanted to help me to make sure I would be OK. She did the same for all of us. She would say to me, ‘It must be awful to see your daughter like this’.
“It broke my heart but I never begged her not to die, I never asked that of her because I knew she couldn’t go on.”
Nine months after saying her final goodbye, Heather is overwhelmed by the legacy Deborah has left behind.
“I’m so proud of everything she has achieved, and in such a short space of time,” she says.
In her final weeks, Deborah launched her Bowelbabe Fund, and raised a staggering £7.5million to invest in cancer research.
She was also honoured with a damehood from Prince William, who visited her at her parents’ home, finished her second book, had a rose named after her and launched a charity fashion collection with retailer In The Style.
“She was always a child who wanted more time in the day,” Heather adds. “I am in awe of what she did and I just can’t believe she was my child.
“She was a determined child, adult, mother, wife, teacher and cancer patient. She was always passionate, whatever she put her mind to, she would go and do it.”
That determination saw Dame Debs raise awareness of the disease that ultimately cut her life short, which resulted in a surge in people being checked for bowel cancer, hailed by the NHS as the “Dame Debs effect”.
It was that same determination that helped Deborah live her life to the full after her diagnosis.
And it’s that infectious love of life that she has instilled in her loved ones.
Zest for life
“I could never have imagined how much Deborah would give me in life,” Heather says.
“Even in dying, she has taught me how to live. She’s totally changed the way I perceive life.
“In the past I would often say, ‘No’, and shy away from doing things I really wanted. She gave me the confidence to do things I never dreamed I’d do, she’s given me the courage to really live.
“She told me, ‘Never say no’. She might be gone but I still feel her around me and I’m reminded every day to go out and live my life, to be kind and make the most of every day, because you never know what tomorrow will bring.
“Deborah’s life was cut short, so I owe it to her to go and make the most of mine.”
It’s that same zest for life that Heather says she sees in her grandchildren, Hugo and Eloise.
“Deborah was a wonderful mum and I’m so proud of how she raised her children,” Heather says.
“She told them to follow their dreams, she instilled that in them.
“She left them with such a strong belief that they will be OK.
“They have ups and downs, we all do, but I know Eloise and Hugo will live full lives, without regret, and knowing they harnessed their mum’s spirit.”
Today, as Heather faces her first Mother’s Day without Deborah, she says the family are “breaking the mould”.
Each year after Deborah’s diagnosis they would all get together for lunch at her parents’ home.
But Heather says: “If we all got together this year there would be an empty chair. Deborah would be missing and I’m not ready to see that. Alistair and I will be away on holiday, and we’re all doing our own thing.
“Five years ago Deborah shared my greatest fear in her column, now I have to face that fear.
“I’m forever grateful to have had four more Mother’s Days with her, but this one will be very difficult.
“I treasure all those memories we made together, and I hold on to her spirit. We were given the chance to grow even closer and had time few mothers and daughters get to share. But just as I got my baby girl back I lost her, that’s the hardest part.”
- Contribute to Dame Debs’s fund at bowelbabe.org/the-fund.
Source of data and images: thesun