It was 2018 and just over a year after the Sun writer was diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer.
In her Sun online column, Things Cancer Made Me Say, Deborah told her mother, “I know your fear is that you might have to hold my hand one day too soon if things take a turn for the worse and I do my last breath But I’ll be fine because you’ll be there.
It was, as Deborah knew at the time, a fear that would come true.
Then 36, she didn’t expect to live to see Mother’s Day.
When Dame Debs was diagnosed with the disease at age 35, her chance of living five years or more was less than eight percent.
Even fueled by her infectious rebellious hope, she didn’t dare believe she’d go on to share four more Mother’s Days with her mother Heather, husband Sebastien and children, Hugo, 15, and Eloise, 13.
“Losing Deborah was my biggest fear, but when she took her last breath I was there, holding her hand,” says Heather, nine months after her daughter’s death in June 2022, aged 40.
“I’ve read that column many times, but mostly in the last six months. I will be forever grateful that we had another four great years together.
While cancer took Deborah away from her, the 65-year-old gym teacher says it gave her a chance to get even closer to her oldest son.
In January of last year, when Dame Debs was recovering in hospital from a near-fatal internal bleeding caused by a tumor rupturing a blood vessel, it was her mother who was by her side.
“The Bond Has Grown Deeper”
Heather says: “Covid rules at the time meant Deborah could only have one named visitor.
“I remember him turning to Seb and saying, ‘I love you, but I need my mom.’ From that moment until her death, I was by her side.
In the months before Deborah returned to her parents’ home in Woking, Surrey last May for her final days, the campaigner was well enough to leave hospital on only a handful of occasions.
One of those precious moments was Mother’s Day 2022.
Heather says, “Deborah was really sick but she was so thankful we could come here so we could have lunch together. She was very weak but we were all fueled by Deborah’s rebellious hope. I don’t think any of us really thought it would be the last Mother’s Day she had.
Even weeks later, when the family celebrated Easter and Dame Debs was once again cleared to leave the hospital, Heather had no idea what was to come.
She says: “Immediately before Easter, Deborah had another bout of sepsis and ended up back in intensive care.
“But she recovered from that and actually looked pretty good.
“She made the courageous decision to stay in the hospital for four weeks to try and overcome the infection, and we thought it had cleared it, but it had weakened her body.
“It was last April, and it was only when she returned home in May that I realized she was about to die. Until May 7th, I believed she would be fine, really.
When Deborah returned to her parents’ home, she had been given only a few days to live.
But the inspiring activist survived another seven weeks.
During that time, her husband and children, parents Heather and Alistair, siblings Sarah and Ben and their families stood by her side.
Watching her daughter slip away during those weeks had a profound effect on Heather, and while it was sad, it was a moment she will always treasure.
She says: “As a mother you should never see your child like this. But it was a privilege to spend that time with her. I’ve been with her all day, every day, for months, and especially in those last few weeks our bond has grown deeper and deeper.
“It’s like when you bring a newborn home, it depends on you and you create an indescribable bond. I had the opportunity to rekindle that bond with my baby.
“In those seven weeks when Deborah was dying I had my baby again. We had very special conversations in the middle of the night. She didn’t sleep, so we watched movies together. I will always have those memories.
“I would tell her how well she was, how strong she was.
“We got a lot closer. That’s why the loss of her seems so much harder to bear and make sense of.
When asked how a mother copes in that situation, Heather says, “Just do what you have to do.”
She adds: “I’ve never cried in front of Deborah. She was so strong for me and so I had to be strong for her. Deborah didn’t talk much about her death, she only mentioned it occasionally.
“He wanted to help me make sure I was okay. She did the same for all of us. She said to me: “It must be terrible to see your daughter like this.”
“It broke my heart but I never begged her not to die, I never asked her because I knew she couldn’t go on.”
Nine months after saying her final goodbye, Heather is overwhelmed by the legacy Deborah has left behind.
“I’m so proud of everything she’s accomplished, and in such a short time,” she says.
In her final weeks, Deborah launched her Bowalbabe Fund and raised a staggering £7.5 million to invest in cancer research.
She was also honored with a dame by Prince William, who visited her at her parents’ home, finished her second book, had a rose named after her, and launched a charity fashion collection with retailer In The style.
“She’s always been a kid who wanted more time in the day,” adds Heather. “I am in awe of what she has done and I just can’t believe she was my daughter.
“She was a determined child, adult, mother, wife, teacher and cancer patient. She was always passionate, whatever she set her mind to, she would go and do it.
That determination saw Dame Debs raise awareness of the disease that ultimately took her life, which resulted in a surge of people being screened for bowel cancer, hailed by the NHS as the ‘Dame Debs effect’.
It was that same determination that helped Deborah live her life to the fullest after her diagnosis.
And it’s that contagious love of life that he instilled in his loved ones.
Taste for life
“I never imagined how much Deborah would give me in life,” says Heather.
“Even dying, he taught me how to live. She totally changed the way I perceive life.
“In the past, I often said ‘No’ and avoided doing the things I really wanted to. It gave me the confidence to do things I never imagined I’d do, it gave me the courage to really live.
“She told me, ‘Never say no.’ , because you never know what tomorrow will bring.
“Deborah’s life was cut short, so I owe it to her to go and make the most of mine.”
It’s the same joie de vivre that Heather says she sees in her grandchildren, Hugo and Eloise.
“Deborah has been a wonderful mom and I’m so proud of how she raised her children,” says Heather.
“He told them to follow their dreams, he instilled it in them.
“He left them with such a strong belief that they will be fine.
“They have ups and downs, all of us, but I know Eloise and Hugo will live full lives, with no regrets, and knowing that they’ve harnessed their mom’s spirit.”
Today, as Heather tackles her first Mother’s Day without Deborah, she says the family is “breaking the mold.”
Every year, after Deborah’s diagnosis, they all got together for lunch at her parents’ house.
But Heather says, “If we all got together this year there would be an empty seat. Deborah would have disappeared and I’m not ready to see that. Alistair and I will be away on holiday, and we’re all doing our own thing.
“Five years ago Deborah shared my biggest fear in her column, now I have to face that fear.
“I will forever be grateful that I spent four more Mother’s Days with her, but this one is going to be very difficult.
“I treasure all those memories we created together and I hold on to his spirit. We were given the chance to get even closer and had the time few mothers and daughters get to share. But just when I got my baby back I lost her, that’s the hardest part.