Six months ago Dave Hodgson died of skin cancer aged 41. In a frank interview, his wife Natalie tells Richard McComb how she and daughter Olivia are coping and how Dave’s wish to help other patients is being fulfilled.
Natalie Hodgson is recounting in plain, unsanitised terms the death of her husband, Dave.
She recounts the events articulately. She does not shirk details about the medical treatment, which at times was harrowing. Dave, who had skin cancer, would have wanted her to be honest, to be true to him, and she is honouring that spirit.
Natalie describes the last hours of Dave’s life in a Dubai hospital.
They were joined by one of Dave’s best friends, who had arrived hours earlier from the UK and stayed at the couple’s side, as Dave requested. The three of them – the wife, the husband and the friend – held hands and waited.
Natalie recalls that one of Dave’s last gestures was to express his satisfaction that his beloved football team, Wigan Athletic, had secured a draw with Stoke.
I didn’t know Dave that well, but I know he would want that recorded. Some of his ashes have been interred under the club’s pitch.
It is only six months since he died and I am surprised by Natalie’s composure, her willingness to talk frankly about what happened then, and what happens now. It’s not that she is emotionally detached; far from it.
She speaks candidly about her feelings and admits it is harder to talk about her emotions than it is to talk about the facts of the illness.
She does not break down or stumble with her words. So I have to ask her. How does she do it – and is she really coping?
“This is the weird part. It’s very hard to explain,” says Natalie. “You have to remember Dave and I were told that he had terminal cancer six-and-a-half months prior to him passing away.”
She explains she has been grieving since the day they were given the final, irrefutable diagnosis last June. She grieved for her husband while he was still alive.
The grief began as soon as the consultant said the cancer had spread to Dave’s liver and was inoperable.
He may have died on December 31 but Natalie has been mourning his loss for more than a year.
Dave, a former marketing director at Marketing Birmingham, had relocated to Dubai with Natalie and daughter Olivia to take up the post of director of corporate communications at Meydan race course.
He died aged 41 on New Year’s Eve, less than a year after he was diagnosed with melanoma.
Dave was determined to raise awareness about skin cancer and offer support to fellow patients and their families.
He built up a global following on the social networking site Twitter, posting unflinching updates about his illness.
Since his death, Natalie has passed many milestones. There was the cremation in Dubai followed by the funeral service, held at the church in Aston Cantlow, Warwickshire, where she and Dave were married eight months earlier.
There was the decision to return to Stratford-upon-Avon, where Natalie’s parents live, and the move back home in May.
Natalie and Olivia were joined by Honey, Dave’s beloved rescue dog, a Persian greyhound he saved from a Dubai building site and with whom he became inseparable.
Days after we meet, a container from Dubai is due to arrive at Natalie’s rented home.
It has all the couple’s furniture and their belongings, including wedding photographs and the videos Dave made for his family in the last weeks of his life. One of the films records December 25, when Natalie and Olivia brought Christmas into Dave’s hospital room.
Another milestone falls on Thursday night (July 5) when an important part of Dave’s legacy will be celebrated.
His desire to help other cancer patients – and his love of a good night out – will be marked with a “Go East for Dave” summer ball at Villa Park, Birmingham.
Proceeds from the event – featuring belly dancers and fire-eaters – will be split between the Skin Cancer Research Fund (SCaRF) and the adopted charities of Birmingham Publicity Association, which is staging the event.
Dave would have loved the evening. Natalie says: “It is everything he used to be involved in. There will be a lot of fellow marketeers and colleagues. It is lovely that people still want to do things to help.
“Dave had a great life. It was very short and he was taken too early. But he isn’t, by far, the youngest person this cancer has taken. It is so aggressive and it needs money for research.”
SCaRF is based at Frenchay Hospital, Bristol, which has an international reputation for the treatment of skin cancer, particularly malignant melanoma.
As she looks ahead to the evening, Natalie jokes she is no longer in the “black widow stage”. The emptiness and the loneliness creeps up on her “but not every day is hard”.
It is a world away from the day when the consultant delivered his devastating prognosis last June.
“I went to bits, couldn’t say anything at all,” recalls Natalie, who is 30. “It’s like a brick wall falling down. I was quite ill, then and there.
“Dave started ringing his friends. He rang all the boys and he told them he had 12 months to live. He was so blasé. Every time he said it, I heard the guy on the other end of the line falling apart. And I fell apart all over again.”
As time passed, she and Dave started to look ahead to their uncertain future. “The worst thing about it was that I felt like I was grieving him, even though he was still sitting in front of me. I knew I was going to lose him. We’d talk about things and make plans.”
Natalie is a self-confessed “Christmas freak” and the couple had wanted to take Olivia to Lapland last December.
When Dave’s condition deteriorated, they made arrangements for Natalie to take seven-year-old Olivia to Finland this Christmas. They did it knowing Dave would no longer be around.
“We were planning things and he was not in the picture. I grieved for Dave while he was still with me. It sounds weird,” says Natalie.
“You start planning your future with someone you have just married without them in it. It creates a lot of sleepless nights and stress. It causes all the side effects of grief.
“When we first lost Dave, I remember talking to Mum and saying I needed the physical pain to go away. When you lose somebody, there is a very definite physical pain you feel.
"They say your heart breaks, the pain you feel in your chest... There is a physical pain to grief. The constant sickness and the aching of all of your joints is phenomenal.
“I had all of that when we first lost Dave, but I remember having all of that when we first found out (that Dave had terminal cancer).”
Dave was so concerned about her health he suggested she should see a doctor. But Natalie says she was not “unwell” as such – she was just sick with loss.
“I even said to Dave, ‘It’s grieving. I am grieving. But you’re here’ and all he would do was throw his arms around me and say ‘I’d rather you grieve with me than grieve without me’.
“I think he found comfort in making plans because he thought it would help me have structure and if I went into the black widow stage I’d get off my arse and actually do things.”
So Dave made sure funds were set aside for Olivia’s first car. They know it will be a Mini because she always told her daddy she loved Minis.
“When you lose somebody, you do your utmost to honour their last wish and memory. Dave was always so keen on Olivia swimming and riding that I knew wherever I was in the world Olivia was going to swim and ride,” says Natalie.
For the same reason, there was no question of leaving Honey in Dubai. “I knew that no matter what happened in the world, Honey had to be with me because Honey couldn’t go anywhere else,” adds Natalie.
She says her life needs direction now, which is what Dave would have wanted. She has had to learn to cope, both for her sake and for Olivia, and it isn’t easy
“Whenever you are scared or unsure if you are doing the right thing, you used to have somebody else to ask, someone to turn to, to hold, to hug, sometimes just to shout at. And you don’t have that. Your mum doesn’t make up for that. Your friends don’t make up for that. That’s where I am struggling.”
She finds it harder to talk about her feelings, of grief and loss, than discuss Dave’s illness. The cancer “is what it is.”
“Talking about the memory of him is harder because that’s what we are talking about now,” says Natalie. “I always encourage Olivia to talk about it. She says goodnight to him every night through the window. That usually gets me.
“That’s hard. I used to cry every single time she did it. Now I let her do it on her own. She is fine. It’s her thing. The other weekend she won a rosette in riding so she told him that night.
“Olivia has seen me cry. I have no problem with her seeing me cry.
"But I don’t want her to see me cry all the time. I don’t want her to worry about talking about Daddy. No child wants to see their parent cry. If they start talking about someone who makes their parent cry they will stop talking about them. I don’t want that.”
She says the loss of Dave, and her love for him, have made her a different person; she is more open and understanding.
“You judge people less. I think it’s taught me it’s the small things in life that count. These are the things I find hard and I miss.
“When you are with somebody, you take for granted holding hands, sitting on the sofa and watching the world go by.
"It’s those things that you take for granted. You take for granted that you can have a really crap day and then just give someone a hug.
“You see people arguing and bicker and I think, ‘Don’t be together’. Nobody forces anybody to be together.
"And if you can’t take pleasure out of being in someone’s company, even silent company, don’t. And that wasn’t me before.”