Real-life Special: Circle of Life

This season’s Real Life Special delves into the stories of three truly inspirational families all exploring parenthood in three very different ways.

Having a child is one of life’s major perspective-inducing experiences. It jolts us out of the everyday, and makes us think about the bigger picture – and about the circle of life, and where we fit into it. Many parents mark this sense of continuity by naming their child after a beloved parent or grandparent, and some experience the bittersweet convergence of the death of a relative and the arrival of a new baby.

Not every story can have an unambiguously happy ending, but Gemma and David Corcoran’s comes pretty close. The couple were completely shocked when they discovered that they were expecting naturally conceived triplets – and they already had their hands full with a toddler daughter. But they rallied to the challenge of three newborn boys, and, having more than made their contribution to the next generation, they’re excitedly anticipating the fun ahead as a family of six.

Edward Butler was more fortunate in the outcome of his brush with illness and, having already undergone chemotherapy, as well as IVF treatment to conceive their son, he and his wife, Fiona, mustered their combined strength to deal with another challenge, when they discovered that Ollie had been born with a duplex kidney.

However, when the death is a generation closer, and when it’s the death of one of the parents themselves, it’s harder to reconcile. Jessica Tutton has been brave enough to share with us the story of her husband Matthew’s terminal battle with a rare cancer, and the subsequent birth of their second daughter, Matilda.

ou’re meant to be happy – and I was, because I really wanted another baby, and Yzzie was desperate for a sibling, but we were so unsure of the future.” Unlike most couples, when Jessica and Matthew Tutton discovered that Jess was pregnant with their second child, having another baby was the last thing on their minds.

Just a few weeks previously, all had been normal in the Tutton household. They had even discussed providing five-year-old Yzabella with her much-wanted brother or sister. Then Matt found a tumour in his mouth, and everything changed overnight.

Matt, who also had two children and two stepchildren from a previous relationship, had, for many years, an auto immune condition called Lichen Planus, which affected the lining of his mouth. However, when he’d found a lump there the previous year, he’d dismissed it as nothing to worry about. “I told him to go to the doctor then,” says Jess, “but being a typical man, he didn’t want to. I nagged him for a while, but eventually I gave up – I very much regret that now.”

However, when Matt discovered that the lump had changed form, in May 2012, he was worried enough to visit the doctor. “He mentioned it when he came in from work, and I called the GP first thing the next morning,” remembers Jess. “When the doctor looked inside Matt’s mouth I could see his concern.”

Jess and Matt were given an appointment with a consultant. “That was the beginning of our fatal journey,” says Jess, “just a few days before Yzabella’s sixth birthday.” Matt was given a biopsy a week later, which aggravated the tumour’s growth. “It began to spiral out of control from that point.”

A few weeks later, Matt went into hospital for a twelve-hour operation. He stayed in hospital for two weeks, and while he was there Jess tried to hold everything together. “I tried to be brave – for Yzabella, for Matt, and for Matt’s other children, but I was terrified inside. I took annual leave from work, and my daily routine involved taking Yzzie to school, driving to London and spending the day with Matt, coming back to pick Yzzie up, doing her homework, tea, bath and bed – to try and keep things normal for her – and then driving back to London in the evening to staying with Matt until late in the night.”

Under so much pressure, Jess didn’t pay much attention when she began to feel ill. “I wasn’t really looking after myself and I wasn’t eating well – just snacking and grabbing coffees. So when I started to get dizzy, I put it down to exhaustion. In the turmoil of the previous few weeks, I’d probably also forgotten the odd pill, but I didn’t even notice that I’d missed a period.”

When Matt came home from hospital, however, Jess took a pregnancy test – and it was positive. “It was a strange feeling. When I told Matt, he cried. We talked about it for a few days and decided that it was meant to be.”

Two weeks later, Matt was diagnosed with a new, even more aggressive strain of cancer – and the doctors weren’t sure that they could help. “As we drove home from that meeting, Matt said that he knew that the cancer would kill him. I was scared. Scared of a future without him, and scared of being a widowed parent with two young kids.” While Jess dealt with morning sickness, Matt underwent a gruelling regime of radiotherapy and chemotherapy. “I felt dreadful, but, in comparison to Matt’s sickness, mine was hardly relevant.”

Matt had further surgery in October 2012, and was seriously ill afterwards. He was eventually able to return home, but just for a few weeks before he was taken into hospital again. This time he had pneumonia, and Matt and Jess were told that the cancer had spread further. “Matt said that he knew then that he only had a few days left,” remembers Jess. The weekend after this diagnosis, Jess had a 4D scan, and discovered that she and Matt were expecting another girl. “We decided together that we should call her Matilda, so that we could remember Matt.” Later in that same week, Matt died.

Despite the enormity of her loss, Jess knew that, for the sake of both of her daughters, she had to carry on. It was, inevitably, a struggle. “I was crying constantly and I was very snappy with Yzzie. My mum had to force feed me on occasion, and remind me of the baby. Although being pregnant probably didn’t help my emotional state, knowing that I had a baby growing inside me did make me stronger. My focus turned to making sure that she was healthy. I tried to do things to stay calm and relaxed. I started to have massages and facials regularly, and I joined a prenatal yoga course.”

Jess also began bereavement counselling with the charity Cruse. “It was a massive help, and I knew that I needed it. I needed someone to talk to, and I’m so glad that I did it.”

Trying to keep busy, Jess concentrated on preparing the house for Matilda, “I was given lots of hand-me-downs by friends – clothes, a cot, a pushchair. It was a massive help. Matilda’s nursery was ready by January – I needed to occupy myself with something, and I was also desperate for her to be here. She was going to be our focus, and our saviour. There was a lot resting on her little shoulders.”

In April 2013, Matilda finally arrived. “I had the most amazing midwife. She was a massive support to me throughout my pregnancy, and had met Matt and Yzzie numerous times. She came into the hospital on a Sunday to induce me – I think she knew that I needed the continuity of care.”

With her mum and her best friend, Jo, as birth partners, Jess gave birth to her daughter. “I was nervous that her arrival was going to bring back emotions that I thought I’d dealt with, and I was scared that Matt wasn’t with me. When they passed Matilda to me she was blue, and she wasn’t breathing. I started to panic, but my midwife said that it was just because she’d come through the birth canal very quickly. Matilda started to cry, and my heart melted. Mum and Jo said that she looked just like Matt, and I scanned her from head to toe for things that reminded me of him. I was completely in love all over again.”

Back at home with her two daughters, things were never going to return to normal for Jess, but, gradually, she is carving out a new life for her daughters. “It’s hard work, but staying busy is my key to sanity, so from that perspective hard work is a good thing. Yzzie was so excited to get a sibling, let alone that it was a girl. She’s very helpful, though sharing my attention is taking a bit of getting used to. She’s having bereavement counselling, from a charity called Daisy’s Dream, and they’ve helped her to deal with those feelings as well.”

“My family are amazing, and friends are always there to lend a hand. We would be lost without this support. There’s always a way through, no matter how bad life gets, and you need to use all the help that’s available to you – whether it’s friends, family or charities. You think that you can manage, but you have to recognise when things get hard and not be ashamed of asking for help.”