Alison Williamson's heartbroken husband climbing Britain's four highest mountain peaks in memory of wife he lost to cancer
This Friday, Barry Williamson, an electrician from Tandragee, will set out to scale Britain's four highest mountain peaks in just 48 hours in memory of his adored wife Alison, who died aged 31, just five months ago. He tells Una Brankin about the vivacious and inspiring woman whose loss has left him and their young children absolutely devastated.
Little Mya Williamson started 'big school' last month, sadly without her mother to see her off at the school gates. Pretty, popular Alison Williamson died in May from a rare and aggressive type of lymphoma, a cancer of the blood, at only 31 years of age.
And as the Tandragee family's loss was so recent, it was with heavy hearts that Mya (12) and her little brother Rhys (8) celebrated their birthdays on the same weekend at the beginning of this month.
The brave youngsters marked the occasions by visiting Alison's grave, a daily occurrence for their father, Barry. The 33-year-old electrician is absolutely heartbroken.
He breaks down frequently when talking about the loss of his soulmate, who he met in 2003 and wed in 2012, apologising for finding it hard to get the words out.
That raw, deep-seated grief makes Barry's simultaneous determination to climb Britain's four highest peaks for Lymphoma and Leukaemia NI all the more admirable.
Along with his two brothers, cousin and six friends, Barry will attempt to scale Snowdon, Scafell Pike, Ben Nevis and Slieve Donard within the space of 48 hours this Friday and Saturday.
"It is a massive challenge for us, but I know Alison will be there in spirit willing us all on," says the young widower.
"I want to keep her memory alive through raising money for Leukaemia & Lymphoma NI (LLNI), which is a charity that was dear to her heart. She was the most amazing girl and the best mum ever."
The couple met socially 13 years ago and quickly fell in love.
"It wasn't love at first sight, no, but it developed soon after that night," Barry recalls with a smile. "We had the kids first, then got married, four years ago. She was the most beautiful bride.
"I haven't wanted to release her picture for the fundraising and so on up until now, but now I think it's good for people to see her at her best, and full of life."
Alison was a classroom assistant at Tandragee Primary School. She loved working with children and like the rest of her friends - and most of us women - found actor Jamie Dornan very dishy. Always lively and vivacious, her high energy levels began to dissipate towards the end of 2014.
"She'd come home from work and sleep on the couch, which wasn't like her," says Barry. "She'd no energy and she was losing weight; she knew something was wrong but it was five or six months until she was diagnosed.
"There were times when we had to sit in A&E all night waiting, her doubled up in pain, and they'd send us home with no answers. I don't know why it took so long to find out what was wrong. I have no answers."
After a series of inconclusive tests, Alison had her spleen removed in a Dublin hospital. The bean-shaped organ, which sits under the diaphragm, was found to be grossly enlarged (the spleen typically weighs 150 grams - 5.3oz - in an adult and spans about 11cm - 4.3 inches - vertically in its longest dimension).
"Alison's was a foot long and two pounds in weight," Barry explains. "They did blood tests after that - one of them came back very low. They called us back to the hospital for the results - we went in together.
"They were very blunt. They said there was no known cure and we had a long journey ahead of us.
"It was very frightening, for me the most, at the time," he admits. "Alison was very brave. She said she was going to beat it. She did everything she was told by the book; she didn't do alternative treatments."
Alison's devastating diagnosis of Hepatosplenic T-Cell Lymphoma, a very rare and aggressive type of blood cancer, was followed immediately by 50 days of chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant. Overtaken by emotion, Barry falters when he tries to describe his cherished wife's ordeal.
"She went through a lot ... she spent a long time in three different hospitals and had to take 53 tablets and four litres of water a day. It was a horrendous and arduous journey of sickness, pain and suffering for her, but Alison was prepared to undergo any sort of treatment available that would give her the opportunity of having more time with her family. She never complained or worried about herself. Even on her darkest days, she could still manage to smile and give you a thumbs-up."
Although he was advised not to look into lymphoma on the internet, Barry did some research into it and found two people in remission from the disease, one in England and one in Belfast. The two patients remain in remission.
"That gave us hope," Barry continues. "After the transplant, Alison had chemotherapy, but she was able to come home for Christmas and we had a very nice Christmas. She even cooked the dinner. She felt OK; she was doing well.
"She did have pain, but it was controlled. She fought it all the way, right up to the very last day. She stayed positive and she was determined to the end; it was just her weakened body, ravaged by disease, that couldn't take any more."
Alison died peacefully in hospital, with her family and parish rector by her side on Saturday, May 14, this year.
"She didn't know it was the end, but I did," Barry says, his voice wavering. "She wasn't conscious at the end. She had faith, very much so, and that has been of some comfort to me. The local rector, Reverend Shane Forster, has been very good to me, very supportive.
"It's very difficult in general. You battle on through, but it catches me at times, all of a sudden. I'm sorry, it's still a bit raw. I go to the grave every day and sit and talk to her. I feel she's still around."
Rev Forster has known Barry for nearly 20 years. He officiated at his wedding, in Tandragee parish church, Ballymore, and where he led the congregation at Alison's funeral in May.
"Alison was a much loved and a truly inspirational young woman," said Rev Forster. "She died after a very courageous battle. I was at her bedside with her and Barry when she died and he is now left to raise their two children.
"He is an amazing individual, too, in that he has set his mind to raising money for Leukaemia & Lymphoma NI in memory of his late wife. His story is one of great courage and devotion."
In the last eight weeks since Barry launched his fundraising appeal, he has raised more than £34,500 for LLNI. He has been training hard for this week's mountain challenge, scaling 14 miles of Slieve Donard last weekend.
"Alison wasn't one to just lie down and take bad news, so I plan to keep the fundraising going in her name," Barry says.
"People have been so generous and supportive. After the funeral there was a steady stream of people calling and helping out.
"There has been a lot going on, between the climbs and the Sunday School events and so on. Even Mya helped out at a coffee morning we had recently. The kids have had it tough, but they're getting on with it as best as they can. Alison would have been very proud."
Through the mountain challenge and more fundraising events in the future, Barry hopes to raise awareness and provide financial support for the LLNI, a cause which means so much to him, his family and many others.
"We're doing this for those who have fought and lost, for those who have fought and won and in loving support for those who are still fighting," Barry concludes. "We feel the best gift we can give in memory of Alison is the gift of helping others.
"As I said at her funeral, when she walked into a room she didn't just light it up, she set it ablaze with her energy, her zest for life, her positivity and also, of course, her laughter and her mischievous sense of humour.
"No one could have failed to have noticed that glint in her eye - that sense of fun. Happiness and love just radiated from her."
- For further information and fundraising T-shirt sponsorship, Barry can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. Donations can be made on https://www.justgiving.com/remember/364855/Alison-Williamson