A couple of weeks back, former Sky Sports presenter Simon Thomas and his son started a new bedtime ritual. Nine-year-old Ethan asked if he could say a special prayer each night for his Mummy.
So began the evening habit that now marks the end of Ethan’s day.
‘I hope you’re having a good time in Heaven,’ he began recently. ‘Today we had a fun run and you’d be really proud of us because Daddy did it too.’ This heart-rending mix of pathos and mundanity has come to define Ethan’s prayers.
‘I tell Mummy how much we love her; stuff like that,’ he explains. ‘And that I miss her cooking, her lovely hazelnut eyes, and her huggles.’
A couple of weeks back, former Sky Sports presenter Simon Thomas and his son started a new bedtime ritual. Nine-year-old Ethan asked if he could say a special prayer each night for his ‘Mummy’ Gemma
‘Huggle’ is Ethan’s word for an amalgam of a hug and cuddle: his mummy was especially good at giving them, he says. But now there are only Daddy huggles because 18 months ago, Ethan’s mum — Simon’s adored wife Gemma — died, with terrifying suddenness, of cancer.
Just three days after she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia — and only weeks after she became ill — Simon was given the prognosis that her condition was critical. That same day her laboured breaths fell silent. The shock to him, and his son, was seismic.
The mum Ethan describes as ‘caring, kind, sensitive and funny’; the wife Simon called his ‘soulmate’ had only just celebrated her 40th birthday. Simon had to do the unimaginable. He had to tell his son his mum had gone for ever.
‘My hands were trembling on his shoulders as I started to speak,’ he recalls. ‘I said, “Ethan, you know Mummy hasn’t been very well …?” He slowly nodded but said nothing. “Well, today Mummy became really, really poorly, which is why you came into the hospital to see her.”
He was silent and carried on looking intensely into my eyes, and my heart was beating faster and faster. I said, “I’m so, so sorry . . . the doctors tried everything to make Mummy better, but . . . ”
Gemma Thomas (pictured) died just three days after she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia — and only weeks after she became ill. Simon was given the prognosis that her condition was critical
‘Before the words could even form in my mouth, tears filled his eyes and he cried out, “Has Mummy died?” Every part of me wanted to somehow sugar-coat what I had to say, but I knew, for his sake, I couldn’t. His legs began to buckle and I said what I’d never imagined saying in my worst nightmares: ‘I’m so, so sorry, but Mummy’s died.’
It is hard to conjure up the scale of their shock and grief. But Simon does, in a powerful and moving memoir to be serialised next week exclusively in this newspaper. He began writing immediately after Gemma’s death when — sleepless with misery and despair — the only outlet for his anguish and sorrow seemed to be to pour his feelings in to written words.
The result is a book that is heart-breaking, tender and searingly honest. Simon writes about the depression that descended when, after failed IVF attempts, he and Gemma conceded they would never have a second child.
The mum Ethan describes as ‘caring, kind, sensitive and funny’; the wife Simon called his ‘soulmate’ had only just celebrated her 40th birthday
He records, too, the episodes of intense anxiety that have punctuated his adult life. He has worked as a TV presenter ever since his six-year tenure as a Blue Peter presenter began in 1999.
But still self-doubt besieged him. He recalls the panic that hit him one day before he went to present Sky’s Premiership football coverage. It left him crying uncontrollably. After Gemma’s death, panic came back to haunt him. He writes, too about the ‘messiness’ of loss; about how — despite a deathbed promise to his wife that he would remain teetotal — he lapsed into drinking to numb his grief, and twice contemplated suicide.
‘The reality is that life doesn’t feel worth living any more when you’re in so much pain. You think, “What’s the point?” You will have moments when you lose sight of what’s important.
‘I’m prepared for people to say I was selfish and thoughtless, but grief is messy. It snaps you in two. You think and behave in ways you’d never have imagined.’
He adds: ‘But thankfully both times I reached a really low point the thought of Ethan flashed into my head and gave me the strength and purpose to carry on.’
And the little boy — who seemed to have the capacity to jump in and out of grief ‘as if it were a puddle’ — took on the role of support and companion.
‘Dear Lord,’ said Ethan during one evening prayer, ‘Please will you help Daddy have a good time even without Mummy and we pray that he will be able to be really brave.’
‘Ethan has such emotional maturity,’ says Simon. ‘It’s a double-edged sword. I feel immense pride, but also sadness that his innocence has been destroyed so early.
‘He’s become aware so young that the world is a pretty brutal place, and he’s been forced to grow up in so many ways.
‘A month after Gemma died, on his first Christmas without her, he told me about the presents he wanted most: “The Playmobil island set I told Mummy about, a Lego Minecraft set, but most of all I want Mummy back.” ’
This simple but fruitless wish will always have the capacity to floor Simon.
‘Ethan takes on Gemma’s role, and he’ll tell me off if I get stressed at other drivers when I’m in the car. He’ll ask me how my day has been and how many marks out of ten I’d give it. If I say six, I’ll have to explain why. He wants to protect me.
‘He also wants his world to be secure. If I’m struggling it worries him. When I’m sad he says, “Turn that frown upside down.”
‘Three times a week he sleeps in my bed, where Mummy used to sleep; he sits in the front seat of the car, where she used to sit.
‘On the first anniversary of her death he said, “If you ever need a hug, just come and find me.”
‘He has a memory box and the thing he clings to most is a teddy bear made out of his mum’s dressing gown. It’s his most treasured possession. I squirt her perfume on it sometimes, and I’ve said he can have all his mummy’s rings to do whatever he likes with; perhaps give to his wife when he gets married.’
Ah . . . weddings. The subject has been preying on Ethan’s mind, and he has already grappled with the idea that Daddy could marry again. Indeed Simon, 46, has a new girlfriend. He is reticent to talk about her, but Ethan has noted, with delight, the joy she has brought his dad.
In one of his ‘Dear Daddy’ letters he writes to Simon regularly, he acknowledges her part in Simon’s last birthday celebrations.
‘Happy Birthday, without Mummy, but you have me and Derrina and your family. In conclusion I LOVE YOU!!!’
Simon also acknowledges the role his 28-year-old girlfriend has played in his life: ‘An amazing woman who has stood shoulder to shoulder with me in some of my darkest hours and has become a rock not just for me, but for my boy, too.’ Ethan has also already discussed with his Dad the (as yet hypothetical) idea that, one day, there may be someone else in his life taking on a parenting role.
‘He asked me, “Would I have to love her as much as Mummy?” and that stopped me in my tracks. I explained that if — and I put a lot of emphasis on the if — I ever did get married again one day, I’d hope he loved that lady lots and lots, but that he’d never do so in the same way he loved Mummy.
‘And I think he was asking these questions because it was his way of recognising his world would never be the same again, but also wanting some kind of normality and structure, that solidity of a family around him again.’
Ethan has also asked about siblings. If his daddy had children with someone else, ‘would they actually be my brother and sister?’ Simon assured him they would, ‘because you’re part of me and they would be, too’.
It is half term when I meet Simon and Ethan in Cromer, Norfolk, at the terrace cottage in the shadow of the town’s parish church where Simon’s mother Gill lives. His father Andrew, 77, was curate here for three years, and Simon — who has two sisters, Rebecca and Hannah — spent his early childhood in the seaside town.
Andrew, now frail, is in a nursing home. But Simon counts himself blessed that he still has two living parents.
Simon and Ethan are touchingly close. Ethan snuggles shyly in his Dad’s lap answering my questions quietly as Simon — tanned and handsome, with striking blue eyes — strokes his son’s hair.
They are holidaying in the camper van Simon bought for their first summer together without Gemma. A life insurance payout on her death has enabled him to give up work temporarily to look after his boy, and this week they are combining a father-and-son road trip with visits to Granny, Auntie Becky and her son Thomas, 11, (who is Ethan’s best friend).
‘When Mummy died I felt sad and surprised,’ says Ethan, choosing the epithets carefully. ‘I was surprised because I thought she was going to get better.’
He talks about highlights in his life he would have most liked his mum to have shared. ‘I was England mascot and I got to go out at Wembley with the (then) England captain Eric Dier, and afterwards I felt happy and sad and tired.
‘I loved being the mascot but I wished Mummy was there to see me. She would have said, “I’m really proud”,’ He says this in a small, faltering voice, and I worry that he is close to tears.
But then he is running to the mantelshelf where he finds a photo of Gemma, lovely and smiling, with his face pressed against hers.
‘Mummy used to make me laugh,’ he says. ‘She did funny faces. She pouted and made her eyes go crossed.’ He demonstrates.
I ask him about his Dad’s cooking — Gemma was a superb cook and Simon’s early efforts amounted to little more than Marmite on toast. But Ethan says he has improved.
‘His speciality is omelette,’ he says. ‘That’s what I used to do,’ adds Simon indignantly. ‘What about my roast lamb? Didn’t you say it was nearly as good as Mummy’s?’
Ethan concedes he might have done. He’s ready to go out with Thomas — who has been with him in the camper van; a Boy’s Own style adventure — to the arcade.
‘Grandma Gill has given them a tenner,’ smiles Simon. ‘They can’t wait to spend it on some expensive plastic tat.’
Simon says sorrow never leaves him; it just takes a subtly different form as months pass into years.
‘Time changes things, but it’s not a great healer,’ he says. ‘You get to a point where you accept that grief will always stay alongside you. But it has changed from an oppressive force to a kind of unwelcome companion that walks with you.
‘It is the years Gemma has lost with me and our boy that saddens me most. I miss her wisdom, particularly as I’m bringing up Ethan on my own.’
He continues: ‘I’ll look at Ethan’s school reports and I can’t say to Gemma, “What do you think?”
‘I just miss doing life with her; the small things like texting her at the end of the day to tell her when I’ll be home, and waking up beside her — all the things you took for granted because you thought they were going to be there for ever.’
More urgent than ever is his hope that he will be alive to pilot his child into adulthood and beyond.
‘I have this awful fear of leaving Ethan an orphan,’ he says.
‘You can’t dress it up. You live with it. You feel the pressure acutely to hang around.
‘You think, “I should be eating better. I should be going for a run.” It makes my blood run cold to think how it would be if he lost both of us.
‘People say, “You don’t need to worry about that,” but of course you do.
‘I want to say to Ethan, “I will always be there for you.” But how can I promise that?
‘And he worries, too. If the word “cancer” is mentioned anywhere he locks onto it just like that,’ (he clicks his fingers).
‘He said: “If you get it, too, Daddy, I won’t have any parents,” and that reality is heartbreaking.’
Alongside sorrow, there is, however, a skein of hope like a golden thread.
Simon has learnt that life does get easier, that children are incredibly resilient, and that kindness is everywhere.
He recognises, too, that Gemma would not want him and Ethan to be locked in a world of gloom.
He believes he will see her again but has doubts about the idea that she is ‘watching over them’. ‘If she was, I think she’d be asking, “Why did you wait for me to die before you got the new floors done downstairs?” ’ he laughs. Yes, he concedes, he’s starting to laugh again — and that’s OK.
What irks him most is people who carp about getting older. ‘Celebrate every year of your life, and recognise that getting old is a blessing, not a curse.’