Widowed at 25, mother of two Emily Williamson’s story of fighting her way out of the bleakness that threatened to engulf her is as inspirational as it is heart-rending...
MORNING. Chinks of harsh winter daylight are insistently pushing their way through the curtains.
Their 15-month-old daughter Angel is romping around on their bed, eager for the new day to begin.
Emily Williamson smiled sleepily. Nestled into her husband Leigh’s back, their second child curled just as neatly and securely in her womb, her life seemed as brilliant as those rays of early morning sunshine.
The 20-week scan just two days before had revealed they were expecting another baby girl. How could she be any happier than this?
But then, in the half-light, she heard a strange sound. It was coming from Leigh; a low, rumbling growl.
Was he playing a game with Angel? She switched on the bedside light to see, and found herself staring into her husband’s terrified eyes.
“He started to foam slightly at the mouth. I realised he could only breathe out, not in. I could see in his face he couldn’t control what was happening to him and that he was very afraid.”
Within seconds she was dialling 999, being told to perform mouth to mouth and chest compressions and trying desperately to remember what she’d been taught on first aid courses.
“The voice on the phone kept up the instructions but nothing I was doing was helping. Angel was holding Leigh’s hand and stroking his arm. She knew something was happening to her daddy and refused to leave his side.”
Emily, pale-faced, still swamped with sorrow three and a half years on, has every detail of that morning, the last morning of that golden life, locked in memory. It will remain forever as crisp and sharp as sunlight piercing curtains.
She remembers that the paramedics couldn’t find their Stoney Middleton home, so she ran out into the street in her dressing gown, child in one arm, waving frantically with the other.
The first response team ran past her, took one look at the man she had loved, and then turned to her with serious faces.
She remembers willing the morning rush-hour traffic to let the stranded ambulance through even though, by then, it was too late.
“They think he died while Angel and I were on the bed with him, holding him,” she says. Though she never did find out why. Not really. There was a post mortem and an inquest; the cause of death was recorded as pulmonary edema – fluid in the lungs.
But no-one could tell her what had caused it.
Why him, a fit 39-year-old, a footballer all his life, a train driver regularly scanned for his health as a matter of course by his employers?
Leigh smoked and drank, but in moderation. He had never taken drugs. He had rarely been ill since the day she met him four years before, through friends, and fallen for him on the spot.
It turned out they were from the same village; in fact, her dad had been Leigh’s family GP in Chapel-en-le-Frith.
She was 21 and studying law at Sheffield Hallam University. Leigh was 34 and a separated dad of two. Her family worried about the age difference, but Emily knew this caring, confident, gentle man was right for her and moved into his Stoney Middleton home within three months.
They got married in Calver Village Church and she fell pregnant with Angel in her final year at university.
It was hard, juggling studies and part-time work at a local hotel, all while pregnant. She fainted in an exam and had to re-take another year.
But, determined to become a solicitor, she finally gained her degree in law and business and was studying for her LPC legal practice certificate when she got pregnant again – and then her husband’s sudden death brought her whirlwind, hectic, happy life to a crashing halt.
“I was so overcome with grief I couldn’t function. I knew I had to wake up in the morning for Angel and the baby Leigh would never see, but work, my career, me – that didn’t matter,” says the young woman who bottled up her pain, refusing to take calls from concerned friends and family. Her release valve was Facebook. “If the phone rang, I froze. I couldn’t engage in a conversation and I didn’t want to be anyone’s burden. Facebook was the only way I could speak about how I felt. It was like a parallel universe. Late at night I’d write blanket messages people could pick up the next day,” she admits.
Emily was 20 weeks pregnant when Leigh died.
She went through the last few months of what should have been one of the happiest times in her life in total despair, but vowed to herself that the arrival of the new baby would mark a turning point for her. She would put her grief to one side and focus on creating a happy, stable life for her children.
She was determined to go through the birth she and Leigh had planned – at home. Her mother and sister were with her and within an hour, her new daughter had been born. Emily named the baby Star, the name Leigh had announced was his favourite the day before he died.
“I didn’t like it at the time – I’d hoped he’d change his mind as the months passed,” she smiles. “But how could I have called her anything else?”
I look back and see I’ve come a long way
At 25 and a widowed mother of two, Emily set about living up to the promise she had made herself.
“It was so hard. But I had to stop wallowing in self-pity for my children’s sake,” she says. “Angel would hear my crying in the night, come into my room, put her arms around me and tell me: “It’s OK to cry, mummy.” There was a lot of weight on her little shoulders.”
When Star was three months old Emily resumed her law studies in Manchester, but eventually had to accept it was too hard a task – and finally abandon her dream of becoming a lawyer.
“I felt a failure. Like life had conspired against me,” she recalls. “But I pulled myself together and decided I needed a job.
“I had a small widow’s pension and money advisors were telling me the best thing would be to forget about working altogether; I’d be better off on benefits.
“But I just couldn’t do that. Leigh had always been a hard worker and so had I. It felt extremely important I showed our daughters the importance of earning a living; of working to be able to afford nice things. And I desperately wanted to be financially independent, to take care of my own family.”
She landed a post with Peak Edge, a new hotel opening in Ashover and did so well she was promoted to business development manager. Career aspirations kicked in and she now works in a similar role at the Hotel Du Vin chain in York, leaving home at 7am to travel to work every day.
It’s a gruelling lifestyle; her childminder sleeps over and takes the girls to school and Emily strives to get home in time to read them a story and put them to bed. Many nights she arrives home to find they are already fast asleep.
“I am missing out on a lot of things with my children and I get very tired. If Leigh had been alive, we would have been sharing all the daily tasks and the workload. But he’s not here and I have to get on with fighting for structure and stability in our lives. I think it’s a good thing for the children to see me doing that and I think Leigh would be proud of me.”
“The three of us live for our weekends together. We cram so much into those two days,” says Emily.
It’s over three years since he died on that January day, but Angel and Star talk about him constantly. “He’s still a presence in their lives; I make sure of that,” she says. “I have a great deal of support from family and friends and we talk all the time about our memories of Leigh. The house if full of photographs of him. All his possessions are still there; his clothes are still in the drawers. Their daddy is all around them.”
The girls are both her comfort and her reason to be strong.
“People say to me: you must regret having your children so young and finding yourself in this situation. But the exact opposite is true,” says Emily. “The girls are Leigh’s legacy. I see him in their faces and their ways every single day.”
Juggling a career, single motherhood, her sorrow and sometimes her anger that her children cannot have what others have, she ploughs on determinedly.
“People say time heals, but it hasn’t,” she says, eyes moistening with tears. “But I have learned how to cope. I don’t look too far ahead, I take each step as it comes.
“I look back and I can see that I’ve come a long way; I thought I was in a massive hole I’d never get out of. But I did and can now feel real gratitude for the things life has given me; my children and the real love I had with Leigh. I am so lucky to have known that.”