theguardian– Imet Emma at a horrendous “mingling event” one wet spring evening in 2015. We connected immediately, and after a couple of dates I think we both knew we had a future together. By Christmas, Emma had moved out of her flat in Hove and into the house I lived in for my job, as site manager for a Brighton primary school. We’d talked about wanting kids on our very first date; we were both in our mid-30s and it seemed important to be upfront.
Our son, Archie, was born in 2018 and by the time he was toddling he was like my shadow, following me as I fixed things and helping put away tools. It never occurred to me I might not get to see him grow up. I’ve always been fit and healthy, and when I suddenly started losing weight last summer my first thought was, “Great – now I won’t need to spend so much time at the gym.” But I was losing my appetite, too, and soon people were saying, “James, what’s up? You don’t look great.”
I did lots of Googling and decided I had gallstones. But after seeing the results of a blood test, my GP sent me straight to hospital for an ultrasound. Further tests followed, and I was told I had inoperable pancreatic cancer. With chemotherapy, I might have up to two years.
I felt like all the air had been sucked out of my body. There were many sleepless nights, but we tried to focus on the positives and imagined spending more time with Archie. I proposed one morning in the bathroom while we were brushing our teeth. Emma had been managing a hair salon, so every Saturday involved styling brides’ hair and listening to their plans. Our own ceremony would have to be a small affair. We started the ball rolling, with the intention of having Hove town hall as the venue; we found Archie a special outfit and bought rings.
Soon after, my liver function started to deteriorate and I was admitted to hospital. The wedding remained a focus for us, and my GP tried to get my treatment fast-tracked. But as my health declined it became clear I wasn’t going to make it to the town hall. One member of the oncology team, Charlie, really went the extra mile, trying to get the registrar to marry us at the hospital. This proved impossible due to Covid restrictions. We had accepted it wasn’t going to happen when Emma got a call from Charlie. She said: “Hi. You’re going to get married today. Can you be ready in an hour?”
It was 11 August and ridiculously hot. I’d been sitting in my pants all day, but Emma had insisted on always having a smart pair of shorts and a decent T-shirt on hand, just in case. She was wearing an old summer dress over a bikini and had her hair in a bun. Archie was at home in the paddling pool with Emma’s mum, who had to dress him, grab our rings and jump into a taxi while Emma rushed to the register office to sign the necessary forms.
I was given enough drugs to get through the next couple of hours and wheeled to the empty Macmillan centre over the road, where the registrar had agreed to carry out the service. Charlie had decorated the reception with balloons, scattered rose petals and left a card signed by everyone on my ward. She even managed to magic up a cake.
The registrars were wearing visors and we had to keep our masks on for much of the ceremony. The only photos were taken on my phone by one of the oncology nurses, but they reflect the joy we were feeling. I just remember thinking: nothing could have made this more perfect.
The following day brought us crashing back to earth. We were ushered into the “quiet room” for the results of the latest round of tests. When the specialist told me that I might, in fact, only have six to eight months, it came as a bitter blow. I was terrified, too, about what would happen to Emma and Archie after my death – our house came with my job.
But by the end of the year I’d retired from the school and, with the help of a crowdfunding appeal set up by a friend, we paid off the mortgage on Emma’s old flat and moved in. We were able to spend Christmas here. January brought a new prognosis cutting my life expectancy to just weeks, but the last few months have included some of the happiest days of my life. I’ve found great peace in knowing my family will have a home after I’m gone, and am determined to make the most of every precious day I have left.
• As told to Chris Broughton.
• James was interviewed late last year, and in January his health considerably worsened; nonetheless, he was emphatic he wanted his story published. Sadly, he died on 31 January. His wife Emma says he was surrounded by those who loved him, and “will be missed and remembered as a wonderful husband, amazing dad, dear son, caring brother, and kind and thoughtful friend”