Gary’s Story by Lesley Pope

July 16th 2011 was the day that changed our lives forever. Around 5.30 a.m. I was woken by my mobile phone and saw Gary’s name, wondering why he would call so early whilst on holiday in Portugal?

It was his girlfriend. My memory of that dreadful time is very poor but I recall standing in the middle of my bedroom, hearing this quiet voice speaking to me and the indescribable physical sensation which shook my whole body, asking; What do you mean Gary’s dead? How can he be? He is on holiday. He only recently texted me. The mix of anger; pressure that I had to sort out the mistake; knowing I had to pull myself together. My husband Roger standing in the middle of the room staring at me, barely speaking; my son Robert, in the doorway with an unforgettable look of terror on his face slowly backing away as I walked towards him; delaying telling my daughter Louise, wanting to protect her for as long as possible – and how Robert strode up and down the landing – seemingly for hours – waiting for his sister to arrive.

Gary had recently celebrated his 30th birthday a fit and healthy young man. How could someone just die suddenly in their sleep with no warning and without being unwell? There must have been some kind of accident. So many thoughts in my head and I couldn’t make sense of any of it. I kept panicking whether Gary needed us; worrying that he was frightened. Feelings that appear so irrational now. I kept telling him, in my head, that we were coming to bring him home. I think I believed once we were in Portugal, everything would be ok, I just had to get there. So much to do and arrange yet I barely had the energy to breathe. Robert stayed with his sister Louise while we were away. They needed to be together and have been almost inseparable since.

Our visit lasted 5 miserable days. I kept seeing Gary’s name on all the paperwork and the word deceased appeared to jump out at us. Someone handed me Gary’s passport which had been taken away the morning he died. Now it had a large piece cut off the corner. I couldn’t take my eyes off it, held it, thinking, how can this be happening? Where is my Gary? All I wanted was to see my son. 3 long days later, when the post-mortem and legal paperwork were completed I was able to tell him we were taking him home.

Once home, a second post-mortem was done, also inconclusive, so the coroner asked our consent to send Gary’s heart to Dr Mary Sheppard and told us about CRY. I could not accept death by natural causes. There was nothing natural in my young healthy son dying in his sleep. Dr Sheppard’s report found no abnormalities. Gary’s heart looked healthy and her conclusion was that it was probably an arrhythmia. We were astounded. I could not understand why Gary had died from something I had never heard of. There were so many questions. Our daughter contacted CRY who immediately offered their support; sent literature, and we learnt that 12 fit and healthy young people die, like Gary, in the UK every week. The nightmare escalated when we realised our other 2 children could be at risk and CRY offered us all fast track screening at St George’s Hospital. I learnt I possibly carried the Brugada gene, which was probably what killed Gary.

I felt physically and mentally exhausted and didn’t know where to begin when I realised that we now had the dreadful task of arranging our son’s funeral, something no parent expects to have to do. Looking back, we were fortunate that so many people asked to be involved in the planning of Gary’s service. It was their energy, I believe, that gave us, his family, the strength we needed to cope. We soon realised that arranging this service was going to be one of the last things we could do for our son. I remember little of that time but do recall 3 of his friends individually began their tribute “Gary was my best friend”. We knew Gary was special, but it was lovely to hear that others felt the same. Another of Gary’s friends owned the village pub and requested the honour of holding the wake there. Once again it was another of Gary’s friends who took the pressure and worry from us. His friends have continued to support our family and been greatly involved in our fundraising for CRY, holding many events at the same pub since.

I have never been the same person since the moment I heard the terrible words that Gary had died. I know a part of me died with him. We were in dreadful shock that morning and felt the world was collapsing around us. I knew then that our lives would never be the same again. Our old life ended that day and we started a completely different one, without Gary. It was too painful to contemplate and at times still is. I truly believe I have had the best times of my life and will spend the rest of it learning, understanding and hopefully passing on anything positive it may have taught me.

In spite of the love and support of my husband, children and extended family the feeling of loneliness was at times overwhelming that first year. Strangely I often preferred to be on my own, craving peace and quiet. Sometimes I felt I wanted to run and keep running but understand now it was the reality of all that had happened I was trying to escape from. I thank God for my husband and my children. I couldn’t imagine where I’d be now without them.

Gary’s death has changed us as a family in so many ways, Roger, like me, finds it very difficult to socialise and plan ahead. Robert is no longer the happy go lucky person he once was, saying “Not only have I lost my brother, I’ve lost my best friend”. When I’m having a bad day I am comforted by Louise’s words “Don’t worry Mum, Gary went to sleep happy, looking forward to the rest of his holiday – for him, he is still on his holiday”. Those words have helped so much, and are what enables her to cope.

As I reflect on our time with Gary I can recall every one of his 30 years and feel privileged to have been his mum. He had a happy fulfilled life and achieved and experienced so much. As a child he enjoyed many hobbies, playing football for his local team, judo, cricket, fishing and learning several instruments. His passion for music never left him. After graduating from university he travelled through Thailand, and lived in Australia for a year. Once home, his love of travel took him to Europe, South Africa, Egypt, The Gambia, and America to name a few. He had just purchased his first property and not long started an amazing new job in the city. All his plans and dreams seemed to have come together.

We have lived 3 years now without Gary. I no longer feel the loneliness I once did although I often still feel lost without him. I miss and think of him every day and occasionally feel him near. I worry that as my life moves on those moments may fade. I have found that I get swept along with life’s routine but mostly feel like a spectator watching everyone else. I have learnt that life goes on. We have 2 young grandchildren now and they will grow up knowing about their Uncle Gary as he will always be a part of our family. We speak of him as though he is still with us.

I asked myself what Gary would have made of this tribute. He was one of the most modest people you could meet, and never spoke of his achievements but it’s a mum’s prerogative to be proud. Although the quietest of my 3 children he had a great sense of humour and his family was probably the most important thing in his life. I feel sure he would want us to build it back together somehow, and we are on that journey now. I know Gary will be with us every step of the way.

Gary Pope Memorial Fund