Alex’s mum found the answer when her husband suffered a fatal heart attack, as she reveals in this heartbreaking but utterly inspiring account
- Elke Barber had to tell her three-year-old son his father had died
- Martin Barber was just 34 when he was killed by a heart attack
- Three years after his death she was diagnosed with cancer
- She has written a book about her story to help other parents
Alex Barber was just three years old when his father died, and as the two of them had been together on a special ‘boys-only’ holiday when his dad became gravely ill, it fell to the little boy to get help.
Martin Barber was 34 when he had the first of two successive heart attacks, the second of which, en route to hospital in the ambulance, was fatal. Alex, now seven, remembers the sequence of events clearly.
‘Daddy and I had bacon sandwiches for breakfast, with tomato sauce,’ he recalls, ‘Then Daddy felt poorly and he told me to go and find some help.
Brave boy: Alex with his father Martin, who died of a heart attack when Alex was just three. The pair were on a boy’s holiday when the tragedy struck and Alex ran to get help
‘I ran out, but there was nobody there. So I ran a bit further, all round the holiday park, until I found the owners.
‘Then the ambulance came and took Daddy to hospital, and I didn’t want him to go. But I played with the holiday park owners’ pet lamb for ages, then suddenly I saw Mummy and I shouted: “Oi! No girls allowed!”
‘I asked Mummy: “Is Daddy coming back in a minute?” And that’s when she knelt down and held my ear against her chest.
‘I could hear a funny bump, bump, bump. Mummy told me it was a heart. She said everyone has one, and when it stops beating you can’t breathe any more. Or run, or walk, or laugh, or tickle anybody.
‘And then she said Daddy’s heart had stopped beating and he was never coming back.’
Questions crowded in on Alex. He wanted to know if his father had said: ‘Please can I go back and see my little boy?’ Had he tried really hard and said: ‘Please, please, please?’ and, ‘Excuse me, please?’
Elke Barber with her children, Alex and Olivia. Elke and Alex have co-written a book to help other children cope with the devastating loss of a parent
His mum Elke assured him Martin had not wanted to leave them, but his body had broken and couldn’t be fixed.
So the awful, unfathomable truth about the finality of death settled into Alex’s young mind.
Had he been an adult, grappling with such a profound loss would have been overwhelming enough.
For a small child who was only just starting to frame thoughts into cogent sentences, it was both inexplicable and unimaginable.
So Elke asked herself: how could she help him — and, in time, her baby daughter Olivia, who was due to reach her first birthday four days later — grasp the incomprehensible and cope?
‘Children need honesty,’ she says. ‘They don’t understand metaphor or euphemism. So if I’d said: “Daddy’s gone to sleep,” Alex might have thought he’d just gone to bed and would wake up soon.
‘He had to understand that death is irreversible, but that Martin hadn’t abandoned him and didn’t want to die.’
Despite the weight of her own despair, Elke, now 38, a graphic designer, cast around for help.
‘I thought somebody must have published a book about bereavement for young children,’ she says.
‘But I looked everywhere and there was nothing.’
She pondered the dilemma and the solution slowly dawned upon her: she and Alex would write one together, based on their own experience.
She duly wrote the book and found an illustrator, Anna Jarvis. But before she could finish the project — and when Elke was still immersed in her own dreadful sorrow — there was a fresh and devastating blow.
In March 2012, less than three years after Martin’s death in April 2009, Elke was diagnosed with a virulent form of breast cancer.
‘I’d had an infection in my breast and they referred me to the breast clinic just in case,’ she recalls.
‘There I had an examination, then an ultrasound scan, then biopsies, then I saw the surgeon — all in the space of two hours.
‘He was saying: “Probably a lumpectomy would do it,” and my world just stopped.
‘I thought: “I’m going to die. What’s going to happen to my kids?”
‘I said out loud: “I can’t die because my children are only three and six and my husband is already dead.”’
A second shattering blow: In March 2012, less than three years after Martin¿s death in April 2009, Elke was diagnosed with a virulent form of breast cancer
For the ensuing week, she tried to quell her panic and disbelief. Then she returned to the hospital.
‘The surgeon could see the emotional distress I was in. I said: “Are you going to make me feel better?” And he said: “It is cancer, but you’re not going to die.” I think he was my guardian angel.’
Then she was presented with a schedule of treatment: chemotherapy to shrink her tumour, surgery to excise it, then radiotherapy.
Elke’s mind was in a tumult of terror, but she clung fiercely to the strand of hope the surgeon had proffered. So when Alex asked the question she feared most, she was able to reassure him.
‘I said: “The doctors have told me I’m not going to die.”
And when Alex asked me: “But what if the medicine doesn’t work?” I still reassured him.
‘I said: “A lot of people die of cancer, but the doctors have told me I’m not going to be one of them.” ’
‘That was the best I could do,’ she adds, and then she beams: ‘And luckily, I’m still here.’
Last November, Elke’s radiotherapy ended and her recovery spurred her to raise £12,000 through crowd-funding (money-raising via the internet) to help pay for the book’s printing and illustration.
The result, Is Daddy Coming Back In A Minute?, is a touching and honest memoir about Martin’s death, seen through the eyes of his small son.
On the day I visit Elke, Alex and five-year-old Olivia in their modern, airy house in the village of Gorebridge south of Edinburgh, they do not talk about Martin in hushed or reverential whispers.
Actually, theirs is a happy house, flooded with sunshine and hope, and Elke remembers her husband with pride.
Martin, a policeman, was, ‘a gentle giant,’ she says. ‘He was 6ft 4in; very caring, calm and reliable. Everyone felt safe with him.
‘His colleagues tell me even now how much he was liked. He loved his job, his children, his family . . . and he loved me.’
They had been together for 13-and-a-half years and married for four when Martin died.
Elke remembers their final embrace on the day he and Alex went off together on their adventure in the Lake District — their first ‘boys only’ trip, staying in the static holiday caravan owned by Martin’s parents.
‘Alex was really excited. It was his first big adventure with Daddy — while I had some bonding time with Olivia — and they were going on a steam train and a boat trip,’ Elke recalls.
‘When they left, Martin thought I was a bit silly because I wanted to give him an extra hug. I still remember that hug, his arms around me . . . ’ her voice trails off.
They spoke on the phone two or three times each day, and on the day Martin died, Elke remembers he did not sound like himself.
‘He said he was just tired, but that he’d see me in the evening. I had absolutely no reason to think I wouldn’t,’ she says.
She was feeding Olivia at lunchtime when the message that destroyed their settled, happy lives came through on her mobile. She listened to it with mounting dread.
Last November, Elke¿s radiotherapy ended and her recovery spurred her to raise £12,000 through crowd-funding (money-raising via the internet) to help pay for the book¿s printing and illustration
‘It said: “Your husband has been taken seriously ill. Please call the caravan park.”
‘I went hot, then cold; blank and panicky,’ she recalls.
There ensued a succession of calls, first to the park owners, who assured Elke that her son, unaware of the seriousness of the situation, was playing happily; then to a succession of hospitals, none of which could tell her where or how Martin was.
‘I assumed I’d be someone who crumpled theatrically on to the floor, screaming and howling, in such a situation. But actually I was very logical, very sensible — and very blank,’ recalls Elke.
She made considered decisions: she ate, fed Olivia, even remembered to pack a toy ambulance before she left with Martin’s parents for the 200-mile drive to get Alex.
En route, she took a call on her mobile. ‘A woman’s voice said: “Where are you? Because we need to send a police officer to meet you.” And at that point I knew,’ says Elke.
‘I said: “I’m a police officer’s wife. Is my husband dead?” and she said that, yes, unfortunately he was.
‘Even then, there were no tears. I just sat there, staring out of the car window as my father-in-law drove, thinking: “What on earth am I going to say to Alex?”
‘There were calls from Martin’s “police family”, who rallied round to support us. It was all a blur. And in my head I kept rehearsing what I’d say to my son.
‘When we arrived he was holding the hand of the lady who owned the caravan park and he looked really carefree and happy.
When he spotted me, he said, “Oi! No girls allowed!” I just thought: “I need to say what I’ve rehearsed in my head,” and it was just like pressing play on a CD player.
‘I knelt down and told Alex to listen to my heart, and explained that Martin’s had stopped beating and he wasn’t coming back.
So then Alex said: “Where is Daddy?” and I told him that some people think dead people are up in the sky, like stars or a cloud, and that’s when he started crying.
‘He said: “I don’t want Daddy to be a star. I want him to come back down.”
‘I explained that he wanted to, but he couldn’t, because his body was broken and even the ambulance men couldn’t fix it.’
Elke reflects that had her husband lived, Alex would have been hailed a hero for running to get help.
‘As it was, he felt almost responsible for his death.
‘I’m still not 100 per cent sure that he doesn’t feel some guilt that he could have done more, even at his age,’ she adds. ‘I’ve asked myself, too: could I have saved him if I’d been there?
‘But I spoke to the consultant. I came to the conclusion that even if Martin had had his heart attack in the cardiology ward, he still would not have lived.’
In the weeks after his death, Alex told his mother about the events that led up to his father’s first heart attack: Martin’s retching in the bathroom; the little boy’s brave search for help.
Elke had to preserve a semblance of normality while coping with her own grief, piloting her children through the funeral and having to explain the macabre mystery of cremation.
Then Alex wanted to know what would happen to him and Olivia if she died. ‘We sat down and wrote a list of all the people we love very much who would look after them,’ recalls Elke.
Within three years, of course, Alex’s question had acquired a dreadful pertinence because his mum was diagnosed with breast cancer. But today Elke, who is full of vigour, counts herself fortunate.
‘I’m so lucky they found the cancer when they did. I think someone’s looking after me, I really do. I feel blessed,’ she smiles.
Alex and Olivia are sweet and endearing children.
Alex talks as easily about his dad as he does about his passion for judo: it was his decision to keep a little bottle containing some of Martin’s ashes in the bookshelf in his bedroom.
‘He is very emotionally intelligent, kind and caring,’ says his mum. ‘He can be boisterous, but he always fights for justice. If you left him in charge of the sweetie jar, he wouldn’t take one.’
Is it nature or his early experience of death that has shaped him?
‘A bit of Alex is what he’s been through,’ says Elke.
Then she smiles: ‘But he’s also just the image of his dad.’