‘An uncrushable spirit’
Mike and Wendy Early were married for 63 years before Mike died in December 2021. Mike, 85, was a carpenter by trade and was diagnosed with mesothelioma after having been exposed to asbestos during his career. We recently sat down with Wendy to hear about their experience with St Wilfrid’s, find out what the secret is to a long happy marriage, and how Mike is being remembered.
When Mike first received his diagnosis, it came as a shock to Wendy. She, herself, has been living with cancer since 2015 while Mike was relatively fit and healthy.
‘Mike initially went to A&E because he’d got a huge splinter in his finger. They had kept him in for three or four days to do tests, so by this time he knew what the doctors were going to tell him,’ Wendy told us. ‘He used to call us bookends because my cancer is in the left lung and his was in the right!
‘His cancer was aggressive, so we were put in touch with St Wilfrid’s straight away. He was cared for by the Community Team, but he did go to the hospice for six sessions of counselling which I think he found helpful. His one wish was to die at home. He’d spent a week in the hospital and absolutely hated it – the Nurses were brilliant, but he hated the way the other patients spoke to them,’ she continued.
‘Mike was very active and very sociable. One friend described him as “an immensely warm and always enthusiastic man with an uncrushable spirit”. He was an avid mountain climber, he sang in the London Welsh Male Voice Choir as a top tenor, and he loved sailing.
‘When he was given his diagnosis, he said: “I’ve had a wonderful life. I couldn’t have asked for anything better. I’ve done everything I wanted to do. The only thing I haven’t been able to do is learn to fly.”’
Mike was born in Jersey but grew up in London where he met Wendy at a church youth club around 70 years ago. They moved down to Brighton in 1963 and have now been living in Seaford for around 30 years. They have three children – ‘we’re a close family, we’re very lucky,’ said Wendy.
So, what was their secret to a happy marriage? ‘I think a lot of it comes down to allowing each other to have your separate interests. He did a lot of things that I didn’t want to do, like the mountain climbing, but I didn’t stop him. His friends used to call him a married bachelor!’ she told us.
‘His first love was his steamboat, Emerald, and we spent a lot of time on the water as a family. Twice a year we would tow it up to Lake Windemere and one or two of the other lakes. We had a lot of fun.
‘Around September (last year) Mike had started to worry about what would happen to Emerald. He wanted to give her to his friend who was a fellow member of the Steamboat Association of Great Britain. His friend, however, didn’t feel comfortable taking the boat without giving Mike some money because it was worth a few thousand pounds. I proposed that he made a donation to a charity for whatever sum he wanted and suggested St Wilfrid’s. It put Mike’s mind at rest.’
Wendy has continued to support the hospice since Mike’s death and asked for donations in lieu of flowers at his funeral. ‘They have done so much for us,’ she said. ‘Even after Mike died the hospice has kept in touch with phone calls and the Nurses have popped round a couple of times to see how I’m doing.’
Although grief is never easy, Wendy has found ways to process her emotions and finds comfort in having Mike’s ashes at home.
‘I find the mornings are the hardest. When I wake up, I automatically reach across to Mike but then the harsh reality hits me. However, I do think the tears help me to deal with losing him and I have a lot of friends who I know are only a phone call away. I have a lot of support from the family, too. We talk about Mike all the time.
‘In the hospice’s bereavement pack there is a list of things that people find helpful when grieving. One of them was writing your feelings down, a bit like a diary, so I bought a writing pad and I write about my day as if I’m writing to Mike.
‘I have put his ashes in the wardrobe for now so I can sit and talk to him. Another of his wishes was for our ashes to be mixed together. It’s a sad thing, but when you get married you know that one of you is going to be left on their own, that’s just the way life is. I think it helps to talk about these things and try and find out what the other one wants.’
If you have recently lost a loved one, our Bereavement Support Service is open to anyone living in our catchment area, regardless if there is a connection to the hospice or not. You can also click here for a useful booklet on bereavement. If you would like to find out how you can pay tribute to your loved one, visit our In Memory pages.