Gillian Heath gave birth to Charlie, Lewis and Joe Heywood-Heath while undergoing treatment for lung cancer on January 27, 1998.
At the time, the 33-year-old, of Park Hill, who had already survived breast cancer, spoke movingly about how she was determined to beat the disease so she could see them bring home the first picture they drew at school.
She sadly died on May 14, 1999, a few months after their first birthdays.
But as the boys celebrated turning 21 on Sunday, the aunts who have cared for them as their own said how much the trio reminded them of Gillian and how proud she would be of them.
Charlie, the eldest by a minute, was taken in by Gillian’s sister Debbie Flowers and her husband John, who live in Hemsworth; while Joe and Lewis were cared for by one of Gillian’s other sisters Niki Jolly and her husband Colin, of Manor.
The triplets were too young when Gillian died to remember her, and they call their aunts ‘Mum’, but Charlie told how although she is no longer with them she lives on in the traits they have inherited.
“People say we take after her because we’re all very hard-working, driven and determined in our own ways,” he said.
“We’re also told how she had lots of friends and was a bit of a party girl, so I think we inherited her sociable side.
“From the photos I've seen, she would have been in the middle of the dance floor at our birthday party, giving it large and enjoying herself, and I think she would have been proud of how much we drank!
“She lives on in both us and the rest of our family, who also share some of her traits.
“Although she’s no longer with us, she’s still a big part of the family because of the influence she continues to have.”
Charlie, Joe and Lewis attended All Saints Catholic High School together and Charlie told how they have remained very close despite being brought up in separate households.
Charlie is in his second year studying social research at the University of Sheffield, Joe is in his third year reading history at University of Leicester and Lewis plans to begin a sports science degree next year after finishing his studies at Rotherham College.
Gillian also had an older child, Jack, who is now working at a solicitors firm in London, having graduated with an honours degree in film studies. He was raised by their nan, Mary, who sadly died five years ago.
The aunts who took the triplets in both say how proud they are of the them, and how Gillian would be thrilled to see how they have turned out.
Niki said: “What I’ve noticed over the years is how you are all similar to your mum in ways. She loved life and I see that in you all….
“Your mum would be proud of you all because you have grown up to be happy, hardworking, decent men who care about family and friends.
“I think as you have grown older you have actually grown closer together. The bond between you is stronger than it’s ever been.
“I am so happy and blessed to have such a wonderful extended family and you guys are at the centre of this family.”
Debbie said: “Gill would have been so proud of you all and how you have turned out to be handsome guys.
“You all have done so well in your careers and achieved so much. You have all put so much time into studying and being a part of your family….
“Gill would be so proud to see how you’ve turned out. We miss her so much but we all can see Gill in you and that keeps us all going.”
Charlie said he and his brothers were incredibly grateful for everything their aunts and uncles, as well as the cousins who have been like brothers and sisters to them, have done.
“They’ve been amazing, welcoming us into their families and treating us as their own from day one,” he said.
“We’d like to say a huge thank you. You have gone above and beyond what anyone would expect of an aunt or uncle.
“You have given us opportunities and lives that, funnily enough, leave me feeling lucky and blessed to have the family we have.
“You have always said how Gill lives on in us but you should also know they you live on in us and inspire us to be better, kinder and greater people.
“No one can ever take away what you have done for us and you should be proud of that.”
While Charlie and his brothers were too young to remember Gillian, he said his elder ‘sister’ Jess described her as the ‘fun aunt’ and had tried to be the sister to him that Gillian was to Debbie, taking him to gigs and parties.
He also explained how Gillian, as the eldest of four sisters, had been ‘like a second mum’ to Debbie, who was the youngest, and told Charlie how she saw raising Charlie as a chance to ‘give back’ to the sister who had done so much for her.
In a heart-wrenching interview, shortly after the triplets were born and before she resumed chemotherapy, Gillian said: “It has renewed my will to fight. Sometimes when I am on my own I get a little frightened, but you have to dispel the doubts.”
Charlie said he and his brothers would be eternally grateful for the sacrifices she had made.
“It’s one thing being pregnant with triplets but to find out your cancer’s returned must have set off a whirlwind of emotions,” he said.
“There are so many different choices she could have made. For her to have made the decision she did, that’s someone I will always be proud of for giving us the chance of life and for ensuring the preparations were in place to give us the best chance after her death.”