When Laura Jones, 40, went for a picnic with her husband Neil, tragedy struck. But out of the sadness came love, with his friend Paul Dennis, 43…
Chatting to the other mums in the nursery playground in 2002, I waited for my youngest daughter Freya, now 10.
As someone unfamiliar arrived to collect Morgan Dennis, Freya’s class friend, we fell quiet, realising what had happened.
Morgan’s poor mum Jane had been battling cancer for a long time and we knew she was seriously ill.
My heart went out to Morgan and his dad, Paul, then 36. I wondered if I could help in some way.
‘Let’s ask them both over,’ said my husband Neil, a few weeks later.
That weekend, we invited Paul to a barbeque.
Neil and Paul bonded over motorsport, while Morgan played with Freya and our older daughter Lydia, now 14. I hoped we could lighten his load as a single parent.
I had a wonderful family, but Time with Neil was often precious as he worked long hours as a company sales director.
At Easter 2005 we went on a walking holiday in the beautiful Yorkshire Dales along with my mum Meryl Handy, 74.
Neil had to drive home early for work and we decided to have a day to ourselves before he left.
We kissed the girls and their granny goodbye and set off to climb Kisdon Hill, Swayledale, with a rucksack filled with picnic food.
We sat at the summit, amazed by the bright blue and white sky, and started munching on our ham and cucumber sandwiches and fruit cake.
I felt so happy, being all alone on the peaceful hilltop with my husband.
But after a few minutes, Neil began grimacing. ‘I’ve got a pain in my chest,’ he said.
Then, struggling to breathe, he hunched forward – his entire head was saturated with sweat.
Panic struck. I looked for help but remembered how isolated we were.
Holding his shoulder, I propped him up and led him along the grass.
But suddenly he slumped over in a heap.
Fighting for breath, I gave him CPR but it was no good.
With no warning at all, my beloved husband of 12 years had dropped down dead in front of me.
Trembling, I kissed him goodbye and ran for help.
Eventually, I stumbled upon a couple out walking.
‘You’ve got to help me – my husband’s died up on the hill,’ I stammered, my eyes filled with tears.
The lady accompanied me to re-join Neil, while her husband ran to get an ambulance.
Six hours after Neil’s heart attack, we heard a truck’s engine – it was Mountain Rescue at last.
As we crunched up the drive in a police car, I saw Mum and Lydia’s worried faces peering through the windows.
My heart sank and I took a deep breath. Thankfully the policeman broke some of the news with me.
The following two days were horrendous and the girls were hysterical.
Then suddenly it was Neil’s funeral, on 6th April at Greyhill Crematorium, Gloucester. I was still shocked to the core and didn’t know what to think or say.
But when Paul came by several weeks after Neil’s death, I felt relieved.
‘How are you doing?’ he asked gently ‘So, so, ‘ I said.
It was an unspoken bond – he knew what I was going through, because he had been through it before. Knowing I didn’t need to explain anything, I relaxed.
In those first months, I felt emptier than ever.
If I hadn’t had my daughters to take to school in the morning, I would have lacked all purpose.
But I had fantastic friends who got me out of the house. And Paul, who offered his support in the first few weeks, continued to make sure we were ok.
Every so often, the doorbell would ring, and seeing Paul through the window clutching a bottle of wine, I’d relax and invite him in.
When I saw my daughters’ faces light up when he came to take them on a bike ride with Morgan, I felt content.
Gradually, Paul’s presence became as familiar as the photos on our walls.
But as we sat happily chatting and laughing over dinner one evening, a sudden uncomfortable thought came into my head.
What if Paul was more than just a friend? I wondered. Was I trying to replace Neil? And was it too soon to feel this?
Eventually, several months later, and a year on from the tragedy, Paul and I had dinner. After a hesitant pause we suddenly blurted out our secrets.
‘I think I may have feelings for you,‘ we said, almost simultaneously, looking into each other’s eyes.
Suddenly I felt lifted. I wasn’t hiding it from him anymore – and I knew he felt the same.
We took it slowly for several months before telling the kids.
Relieved, they all reacted well – I think they had already guessed anyway!
By then they knew Paul wasn’t trying to take Neil’s place, just as I wasn’t trying to take Jane’s.
We realised that after losing a husband or wife, there is never a right time to become involved in another relationship again.
Neil and Jane’s pictures are on the walls and we still miss them a lot.
But through both our tragedies, Paul and I have gained more strength and happiness than we ever believed possible.
Image courtesy of MudflapDC