“It’s agonising to watch the person you love die”

Magteld and Gordon. Picture: Gordon Darroch

Magteld and Gordon. Picture: Gordon Darroch - Credit: Gordon Darroch

After a family adventure turns to tragedy Norfolk-born Gordon Darroch tries to make sense of the trauma in a heartbreaking memoir.

Magteld with Euan and Adam on Cromer beach. Picture: Gordon Darroch

Magteld with Euan and Adam on Cromer beach. Picture: Gordon Darroch - Credit: Gordon Darroch

Gordon and Magteld had a new start planned; a new country and new language to learn for their boys. But the dream turned to nightmare as they were forced into the terrifying landscape of serious illness, where the language they had to learn was ugly with symptoms, treatments, dosages, side-effects and survival rates.

Instead of moving to Magteld's native Netherlands, the couple and their two young children became the reluctant latest residents of a parallel country where the main features were clinics, hospitals, disease and dread.

Gordon grew up in Banningham, near Aylsham, and Horstead, where his parents still live. He became a journalist, but the hardest story he ever had to write was his own.

All the Time We Thought We Had is the almost unbearably sad, but breathtakingly beautifully-written, story of a family shattered by cancer. It is a love story too. The love of a lad from Norfolk and a girl from the Netherlands, meeting as teenagers and overcoming the barriers of sea and language to marry.

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It is also about the love of parents, battling to do their best for their two autistic sons. Gordon and Magteld, and their boys, then aged 10 and eight and both with a diagnosis of autism, were about to move to the Netherlands when breast cancer struck. Despite Magteld undergoing a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, the cancer clung on and spread. But the idea of moving hung on too and, as Magteld negotiated what is sometimes called the cancer journey, she was also planning a complex move to The Hague, organising a hospice for herself alongside a home for her family and schools for her disabled sons. She survived just long enough to complete the move.

Today Gordon works as a writer and translator and has written All the Time We Thought We Had for people going through similar trauma, and for their friends and family wondering how to help.

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'It wasn't so much about wanting to write it as needing to write it,' said Gordon. 'So much happened in such a short time that after Magteld died I had trouble untangling it and making sense of it all. At some points I couldn't even work out what order things had happened in – if I hadn't had her Facebook posts to refer to I'd never have put the memories back together.

'So I wrote it partly as a kind of therapeutic exercise, but also because I realised there weren't many memoirs about cancer written from the carer's perspective. It's agonising to watch the person you love die, in so many ways: firstly, there's the sheer awareness that they're not going to be with you much longer, then the physical demands of pushing wheelchairs round and fetching medicines in the middle of the night and, above all, the emotional toll. You're both tired, anxious and permanently staring into the abyss and there's very little anyone can do to relieve your pain.

'People feel helpless when they're confronted with this kind of deep despair and grief and their first instinct is to run away and hide and my main message is: don't. Anything you can do, however small, makes a huge difference, even if it's just a phone call or a cup of tea.'

Since then Gordon and the boys, now teenagers, have continued to live out Magteld's dream of a family life in the Netherlands, although they regularly return to Norfolk to see grandparents.

'The first year and a half was very hard and there was a phase when I really doubted if we'd done the right thing,' said Gordon. 'But looking back I have no regrets.'

All the Time We Thought We Had by Gordon Darroch is published by Polygon for £9.99.

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