LITTLE Freddie Bland had not yet turned three when his world changed forever. His first day at pre-school was supposed to be September 5 last year.
LITTLE Freddie Bland had not yet turned three when his world changed forever.
His first day at pre-school was supposed to be September 5 last year.
Instead, Freddie found himself in his parents’ bedroom, where his mum had died hours earlier.
Rachael Bland, a familiar voice on BBC Radio 5 Live, had passed away from breast cancer aged 40, two years after her first diagnosis.
Her husband, Steve, said: “Freddie knew that Rachael had been unwell, and she had been in bed for four or five days.
“She died at home, at about 3.15am. Around mid-morning, I took Freddie into our room.
“I explained as simply as I could that she was very ill, that the doctors couldn’t help her and she had died.
“It’s the worst thing you can imagine having to do.”
Rachael touched people through her blog, Big C Little Me, and her frank and funny podcast, You, Me and the Big C, which she co-presented with breast cancer survivor Lauren Mahon and Sun columnist Deborah James, who has bowel cancer.
Steve, 38, recalled: “She knew she was dying. At one point, she fell into my arms and told me, ‘I can’t do it anymore, I just want to go’.”
‘I don’t know what to tell Freddie, when he asks for Mummy’
Today, watching Freddie play at their home in Knutsford, Cheshire, Steve admits he doesn’t know what to say when his son asks “Where’s Mummy?”
He said: “There are times when he’ll cry about something else, like a broken toy, and he’ll say afterwards, ‘I was just upset because I miss my mummy’.
“At this age, their grief comes in waves.
“On the Rachael died and I took him to our room, he burst into tears. Then he was off playing with his toys again. He doesn’t really understand it yet.”
‘It’ll be alright Daddy, don’t worry’
But Freddie, whose face is etched with his mother’s features, is a huge comfort to his dad.
Steve, a former Radio 5 Live producer who met Rachael at work, said: “I once shouted at him over something. I felt terrible immediately and started to cry.
“He asked, ‘Are you crying because of Mummy?’ I said yes, and he said, ‘It’’ll be alright Daddy, don’t worry.’
“It was amazing. He’s a very sensitive boy.”
‘I’ve shut her things away to deal with them when I can’
Upstairs, there’s a room full of Rachael’s clothes and belongings, with the door firmly shut. It is Steve’s way of coping.
He said: “There’s no right way to do it but I didn’t feel like I’d be able to function properly if everything was exactly the way it always was.
“I’ve shut it away to deal with when I can.
“I’m doing alright. There are good days and bad days, but what option do you have but to get on with things?
“I’ve heard people say they feel guilty when they have a good day, so I’m trying to allow myself to feel alright.
“I can’t think of anything Rachael would have wanted less than for me to mope around for months on end.
“Her message through the podcast and the book was about enjoying life and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
‘Rachael was worried Freddie wouldn’t remember her’
Since Rachael died, Steve has given up his job.
Life now revolves around pre-school and walks in the woods with Freddie and their beloved golden retriever, Bodie, and spending precious time with friends and family.
Steve has been busy working on the release of Rachael’s book, published later this month, For Freddie.
Addressed directly to her son, it was Rachael’s way of passing down her life stories and advice when she wouldn’t be here to tell them.
She was working on the book right up the moment she died.
Steve said: “Rachael was worried about Freddie being so young and not having any real memories of her. She wanted him to know all about her past.”
‘Falling pregnant was one of the best moments of her life’
The couple met through work, in 2011, after Rachael moved to Salford, Manchester with the BBC.
They married in 2013, in Rachael’s native south Wales, and honeymooned in the Maldives, forming happy memories of gazing at the stars together.
Standing in the family’s lounge, is a new high-tech telescope, bought by Steve on a “whim” so him and Freddie can look at the same stars.
Rachael says that one of the “best moments of her life” came in January 2015, when she fell pregnant with Freddie – and she tells her son there is a memento marking the occasion.
She wrote: “Should you wish to check it out for yourself I’ve even kept the test in your little box of baby things!”
‘We were trying for a second baby when Rachael was diagnosed’
The devastating cancer diagnosis came just after the couple had started trying for a second baby – a sibling for Freddie.
She wrote: “I would have loved to have had three children altogether, as I always think there is safety in numbers.
“And I’m so sorry, Fred, that I wasn’t able to give you a sibling.”
Just like her award-winning blog, there is no anger or bitterness, no “why me?” over her cancer in the book.
‘She blamed herself… she believed drinking too much when she was younger was to blame’
Instead, she blamed herself.
Steve said: “You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t think it was unfair at times, but Rachael knew it was pointless to think like that.
“From day one, she believed she had caused it by drinking too much when she was younger.
It ate away at her a bit, and no one could convince her otherwise.”
In the book, she pleads with Freddie to never start smoking – and also questions if that also had something to do with her cancer.
She wrote: “It’s an awful habit and one which I always question whether it contributed to getting cancer at such a young age.”
Although the book details her cancer experience it is also full of amusing anecdotes about her life.
Her working life was full of laughter. She cracked up on air on Tony Livesey’s late night show when discussing famous ‘Randys’. A listener texted in a US politician by the name of ‘Randy Bumgardener’.
During a news broadcast she thought that Mercury Prize winning band The XX was a mistake on the script – because the name had not yet come through.
Rachael also recalls how she narrowly avoided huge embarrassment at her wedding. She decided to get her whole face threaded (when someone uses cotton to remove facial hair). But she had a bad reaction to it and her face swelled up. She had to get a prescription from a doctor pal to calm it all down.
‘Her legacy is Freddie’
There is, of course, poignancy throughout the book.
She writes about her plans to bake Freddie a Peter Rabbit birthday cake for his third birthday – one that, tragically, came 11 days after she passed away.
Rachael left a few instructions for Steve and Freddie.
She put Steve’s sister Claire in charge of Freddie’s haircuts for a start, tasking her with keeping it “Boden-model long”, just like the boys featured in the upmarket clothing catalogue.
Another friend was asked to find Steve a reliable cleaner.
In the book, Rachael wrote of her hope that Steve will take Freddie skiing in the future, to share with him one of her great passions in life, and make sure he listens to her favourite Killers songs.
Those personal wishes will live on, sealed on the pages of her beautiful final gift to her son.
But Rachael left another gift too, a far-reaching legacy that has brought about a new dialogue about cancer.
“She would say her legacy is Freddie,” said Steve. “But she was very, very proud of what she achieved through the blog and the podcast.
THINGS CANCER MADE ME SAY
“We’ve had messages from oncologists and consultants saying that the podcast has changed the way they’re talking to patients and the way patients are looking at death.
“Charities dealing with end of life care say Rachael, Lauren and Deborah have made it easier for people to deal with their situations.
“We’ve even heard from a nurse who plans to specialise in cancer now, all because of the podcast.
“Those things are amazing and Rachael would be so proud.”
For Freddie: A Mother’s Final Gift to Her Son by Rachael Bland is published on 21st February 2019 by Michael O’Mara Books (hardback, £16.99). A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to the charity Breast Cancer Now.