Here’s Andy’s story told in his own words in Take A Break magazine this week. Photo-features has worked closely with Andy and his family to arrange media coverage to help raise awareness and funds towards the retreat.
My daughter Poppy-Mai was the light of my life and I’d always said I would give her the wedding of her dreams. Now time was running out. By Andy Barnard, 31
The midwife passed me a tiny little bundle, and my heart skipped a beat. ‘It’s a girl,’ she said. I looked at my wife Sammi and smiled. We had already had two boys Rylee, four, and Jenson, two. Now, we had a daughter, Poppy-Mai, and I quickly learnt that everything they said about dads and their daughters was true.
I was besotted.
As I cradled her I told Sammi: ‘I’m going to make her my little princess. She’ll have the wedding of her dreams when she grows up.’ Time passed and Poppy-Mai grew into a beautiful, happy little girl. She loved having tea parties and stealing her brothers’ toy cars and we all doted on her.
But my job in the RAF meant I often had to spent time away from my family. When Poppy-Mai was 16-months-old, I was sent to the USA. I never liked saying goodbye but this time was particularly hard. Our usually playful little girl had been a bit off-colour for a couple of weeks, and had gone off her food and drink.
The doctor said she was just teething but I didn’t want to leave her. Days later, I’d just finished work for the day when I got a text from Sammi saying she’d taken Poppy-Mai to A&E.
I rang her immediately. When she answered, Sammi’s voiced sounded shaky. ‘Is Poppy-Mai OK?’ I asked.
‘No,’ said Sammi. ‘She has cancer.’
For a second I thought I’d misheard. But it was true. Sammi had found a lump under Poppy-Mai’s ribs, so she’d taken her to A&E where scans showed a tumour. The doctors suspected she had a Wilms tumour, a type of kidney cancer. All I knew was that Poppy-Mai needed her daddy.
I said: ‘I’ll get a flight and be there as soon as I can.’ That journey across the Atlantic felt like it took forever. As soon as I touched down, I drove straight to the hospital. When Poppy-Mai saw me her face broke into a grin and I ran to her side and scooped her up in my arms.
‘It’s OK, my darling,’ I whispered.
Poor Sammi looked exhausted. Later that day Poppy-Mai was transferred to Addenbrooks Hospital in Cambridge. There, she had more tests, which revealed her calcium levels were very HIGH.
The doctors needed DECREASE them before they could carry out a CT scan and start treatment. That evening I logged onto Facebook and tapped out a post. My little girl has cancer. When Poppy-Mai was born I promised her a massive wedding, when she pulls through from this, and she is older I will give her the biggest wedding in the world.
Days later a CT scan revealed Poppy-Mai had a mass on her kidneys and the cancer was spreading to her lungs. Just a week later it had grown even more and doctors diagnosed her with rhabdoid tumour, a rare and aggressive type of childhood cancer.
We were told her chances were slim. It was heartbreaking, but we had to stay strong for Poppy-Mai. As long as there was a chance, we had something to cling to. Poppy-Mai began chemotherapy and then a few days later she was sent for more scans.
Afterwards, a doctor took us into a room. SHE said: ‘I’m afraid we have found a tumour on Poppy-Mai’s brain. The size and position mean that it is inoperable.’ As I realised what he was saying, I felt dizzy. Beside me, Sammi burst into tears.
She said: ‘How long does she have?’
‘No, Sammi,’ I said. ‘I don’t want to know.’
‘We need to know,’ she said.
The doctor said: ‘Without treatment…two days.’
‘There must be something you can do,’ I begged.
The doctor explained they could continue with the chemo but it would make Poppy-Mai very poorly and all it would do was prolong her life. They also offered to fit a shunt to drain fluid from her brain, but warned she might not survive the op.
‘I can’t watch her suffering any more to save our own pain and grief,’ Sammi said. In that moment we knew what we had to do. If Poppy-Mai only had days left she needed to be at home with her family. I walked out of the room feeling totally stunned. Then I went to the bathroom and broke down.
We messaged our friends and family to let them know what was happening and later that day we took Poppy-Mai home. By now her skin was grey and she couldn’t smile or talk and she had lost so much weight she had baggy skin on her little body.
It broke my heart to see her like this. I was her dad – it was my job to protect her. Poppy-Mai and Sammi went in an ambulance while I drove my mother in law home. In the car my phone beeped.
It was a text from my friends Charlene and Lauren from work.Tomorrow Poppy-Mai is going to have the wedding of her dreams. She is going to marry her hero, her dad.
The text told me to be at the function suite at the RAF base at 12pm. I couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t how I imagined but I was going to keep my promise to my little girl and give her a wedding day.
Back at home in Thetford, Norfolk, I told Sammi and she started to cry. After that, WE had a horrible job to do. I went downstairs and sat the boys on the sofa. I said: ‘Poppy-Mai is going to fall asleep in a couple of days. Then she is going to go up to the sky.’
Rylee burst into tears and covered his face with his hands. Jenson didn’t understand but when he saw his brother crying he started too.
‘Maybe the other stars will fix her so she can come home again?’ he said.
I tried to be brave for them but inside I was broken. Then we gently lay Poppy-Mai in the middle of our bed and my two girls fell asleep side by side. I stayed up all night watching Poppy-Mai sleep, terrified she would slip away and I wouldn’t be there to say goodbye.
By the time morning came, our house was a hive of activity. Family members had driven through the night from across the country to come and see Poppy-Mai. Sammi’s sister Jenna brought a beautiful WHITE christening gown for her to wear for the wedding.
As we dressed her, I thought about Poppy’s future. I would never get to walk her down the aisle wearing a big white dress but today we could show how special she was and how much we loved her. As we drove to the function room, I had butterflies in my tummy. I didn’t know what I was going to say to people or how to act.
When we arrived I carried Poppy-Mae inside. As we walked through the door my colleagues flanked the entrance in in salute. When I saw their faces, tears filled my eyes. Charlene came over and hugged me.
‘Thank you,’ I said.
Charlene smiled and nodded. She couldn’t speak either. As friends and family took photos, all I could think was please don’t go, not just yet, darling. I’d written a few words to say as vows but in the end I couldn’t go through with it.
The atmosphere in the room was raw and most people didn’t know what to say. The truth was, neither did I, but I was so grateful that my friends had organised this for our gorgeous girl.
After that we had a buffet and there was even a princess cake with Poppy’s name on it. After an hour we took Poppy-Mae out of the dress and changed her into her pyjamas and dressing gown so she was more comfortable. Slowly her eyelids began to droop and she fell asleep on her mum
Then we thanked everyone and left. It was a million miles away from the wedding I’d had planned for Poppy-Mai, but it was just as special, in fact, more so. Now it’s been three weeks since the wedding and our carrier princess Poppy-Mai is still fighting. I think being at home, surrounded by her family has given her the strength to carry on.
We don’t know how much time we have left with her but we are making every day count. We’ve taken her to the zoo and to my football team, Blackburn Rovers. The hardest part about all of this was planning my precious little girl’s funeral while I still held her in my arms.
Recently we all released balloons into the sky for Poppy-Mai and wrote messages on them.
Rylee wrote: To Poppy-Mai, have fun in the sky xx.
Then Poppy began to deteriorate. I was sitting with her one day on the same leather couch she had been born on when I noticed her breathing change. I looked at Sammi and we both know. Sammie stroked her hair and said: ‘ Don’t be scared darling, there’s nothing to worry about because we will both be with you wherever you go.’
Then our little girl took her final breath. She was 18 months old. We showered her face with kisses and told her how much we loved her over and over again. Finally she was free from pain. It was out only comfort. Now we intend to set up a Poppy-Mai foundation trustto build a retreat for families of children with the disease. I also plan to write a book to help raise awareness and celebrate her life. Poppy was my one true love. Sammie, the boys and I are so lost without her. But we are determined that her memory will live on. She will never be forgotten.