Real Life

My beloved Charlie lives on in our son

The grieving Dad holds his wee boy close

Every time Shawn Elsmore cradles newborn baby Ryder, he’s reminded of the beautiful woman that gave him the gift of a child. Just weeks after Ryder was born prematurely, his mother Charlie Nicholson passed away at 38, after a short battle with late-stage melanoma.

“I miss Charlie every day, but in Ryder, she left me a piece of her forever,” tells Shawn, 35, who says his late partner was an amazing and happy person who drew people into her heart. It is a small consolation that before she died, Charlie spent precious time with Ryder, her only and much-desired child.

“Charlie wanted to be a mum for a long time,” says Shawn. Kissing the top of his son’s head, he whispers, “I’m going to tell you all about your mummy when you’re older.”

Before Charlie’s diagnosis, the Gisborne couple were deeply happy in their dream house on Wainui Beach, with a baby on the way. But when she was six months pregnant, Charlie was diagnosed with late-stage melanoma. Amid fears the cancer would affect her unborn baby, doctors waited until Ryder was strong enough, then delivered him by Caesarean at 31 weeks.

By this stage, the cancer had crossed the placenta and was dangerously close to Ryder, but so far he has been miraculously healthy. “He’s my little man,” says Shawn, who gave up his job as a printer’s apprentice to care for his son. “I have to keep going for Ryder’s sake.” Shawn first clapped eyes on Charlie at a Gisborne party when he was about 15. “She was a beautiful free spirit and a happy soul,” he recalls. “Her eyes drew me in.”

The pair didn’t get together until Valentine’s Day 2014, but soon after that, they moved in together and were both “over the moon” when Charlie became pregnant. Two years before the couple had met, Charlie had a mole removed from her chest, which left a big scar. It was a melanoma and Shawn has since found out that Charlie was advised by doctors not to have a baby for at least five years.

In the time he knew her, she didn’t have any check-ups but seemed healthy. However, last September, something mysterious happened. Charlie woke up covered in moles. “First there were 30 on her chest,” remembers Shawn. “Two days later, she had 100 of them on her arms and in her hair. She was popping up with moles everywhere.”

Charlie’s doctor suspected the moles were a hormonal reaction to the pregnancy, but two weeks later, she developed sore ribs. After one of the largest moles was removed for biopsy, Charlie, then six months pregnant, was diagnosed with stage-four melanoma. Nevertheless, she and Shawn were both surprisingly positive about the future. He recalls, “Charlie felt fine. She wasn’t even tired. We both thought we’d beat this thing and get on with our lives.”

However, Charlie was soon referred to Auckland Hospital, where life became a finely balanced race against time. Ryder was too young to be born, yet Charlie couldn’t have treatment while she was pregnant. For three weeks, the couple anxiously waited while Ryder gained precious weight and his little lungs developed.

Meanwhile, the cancer spread to Charlie’s liver, lungs, kidney, spleen and even her brain. “Every day, there was more bad news,” Shawn says. “We needed some good news, so I knelt next to Charlie’s hospital bed and proposed.”

Just two days later, Shawn and Charlie were married at the hospital chapel, with their family and friends supplying the couple with a gown, cake, food, flowers and a vintage wedding vehicle.

“At such short notice, it was testimony to the sort of person Charlie was – people just loved her,” smiles Shawn. “It was an amazing day. It all worked out the way it was meant to.”

“In Ryder, she left me a piece of her forever,” says Shawn, who married his beloved Charlie at the hospital chapel.

A smiling Charlie – who had wanted to be a mum for a long time – was overjoyed when her precious boy arrived safely.

Joy & heartbreak

Four days afterwards, on December 2, 2015, Ryder Michael Manaia Elsmore was born and placed in neonatal intensive care while his mum continued her brave battle. “She was thrilled he’d arrived safely but sad that we were about to leave him,” says Shawn.

Because Charlie was born in Australia, her oncologists thought her best chance of survival would be to access ground-breaking drugs that were publicly funded across the Tasman, so the couple travelled to Melbourne for treatment. “At that stage, Charlie felt fine,” Shawn tells.

Three weeks later, they returned to New Zealand to pick up their son, but Ryder’s lungs were too weak for him to be discharged. While they waited for him to gain strength, Charlie began to go downhill, struggling to talk and walk.

Thinking it was their last chance, the couple made the heart-wrenching decision to return to Melbourne without Ryder. But by then, the cancer was advancing in Charlie’s brain. “That’s when she started talking about dying for the first time,” tells Shawn. Gravely ill, Charlie returned to Auckland on January 28 to spend her final days with Ryder. “She wasn’t strong enough to hold him by then, but she was with her baby,” says Shawn. She passed away on Valentine’s Day 2016.

In four short months, Shawn went from “happy and in love” to a grieving single dad. Although he feels broken and says he’ll miss Charlie forever, Ryder gives him purpose each day and he looks forward to when he can take his “little man” hunting and fishing.

“I love Ryder with all my heart,” says Shawn, “but I have mixed emotions. I’m stoked I have a part of Charlie, but he’s also a daily reminder of what I have lost.”

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