The proposal was nothing fancy. Shawn Russell arrived at the pub, placed a pint on the table in front of Sarah Hodgetts and asked her to marry him.
“It was out of the blue, with no ring, nothing. And I thought: ‘Yeah, that’s a really good idea, we should just get married,’” says Sarah. “I’d been in love with him for ages.”
Their story began seven years earlier, in 2009, also in a pub in north London. “He was sitting in his flat cap, good Yorkshireman that he was, and was reading the sports pages. I had just got off the Tube after work. From my perspective, it was love at first sight,” says Sarah.
But dating wasn’t easy. Shawn, a boarding school-educated boy from an Army family, who had lost his mother to leukaemia when he was two, worked as a picture editor at The Telegraph. Although Sarah was down the road in Westminster, where she worked as a civil servant (and still does), their hours were long and their schedules largely incompatible. They managed just six months initially.
“It was a disaster trying to date, so we ended up with a firework display of an argument and decided there was no way we could,” says Sarah over coffee near her office.
Their split didn’t last, however; they had far too much in common. Besides his “ridiculous” sense of humour, Shawn was “so into news and politics, and I worked in politics, so we couldn’t not communicate. We realised we were incredibly good friends,” says Sarah. Plus, she adds with a smile, “he was a very attractive, 6ft 4in blue-eyed man who I was completely smitten with.”
Over time, they got back together in a non-committal way, sharing weekends when their busy lives permitted. It was during this period, three-and-a-half years ago, that Shawn, then 44, proposed. The following week, he moved in with Sarah, then 41, and her son Eddy, 10, from a previous relationship, in King’s Cross, and, like all newly engaged couples, they started making plans for their future. A pair of recovering workaholics, they were going to transform their lives.
“We decided we would have kids together before my biological clock shut down,” says Sarah. Shawn enjoyed being a stepfather to Eddy and wanted to be a father. They planned to buy a “cheap and cheerful” flat in Spain for holidays.
But fate had other ideas. In March 2017, while the couple were trying for a baby, Shawn developed bad toothache and had to have a molar removed. “It didn’t heal, and he was in loads of pain and discomfort,” says Sarah.
His doctor took a blood test, and when the results came back, Shawn had just arrived home from work. “He was on the phone as he was walking into the house, and it was the doctor telling him he needed to present himself to hospital tomorrow for another blood test. The first one was not good,” says Sarah. “I don’t remember the words he used, but it wasn’t ‘leukaemia’ or ‘cancer’ or anything.”
It wasn’t in Shawn’s nature to panic. “All he was worried about was that he had to tell work and he was meant to be on shift at 6am the next day,” says Sarah, who accompanied him to University College Hospital.
Their first shock came upon arrival. “This nurse walked past and said: ‘Ah, Mr Russell, you’re giving us a bone marrow sample…’ and walked off. He said: ‘Why am I giving a bone marrow sample? I’m here for a blood test.’ It was horrible.”
A doctor shed more light – or, as it turned out, darkness – on Shawn’s situation. His blood test results showed no white blood cells and a low red blood cell count. “He was in a really serious, critical condition and it was likely to be leukaemia,” says Sarah.
Yet apart from the extracted tooth that had stubbornly refused to heal, there had been little sign Shawn was ill.
“He worked so hard, he was always tired,” says Sarah. “He worked long hours and if I look back, he was very, very tired. If you put two and two together, he was dying at the time. He was really, really sick.”
Within an hour of the “incredibly painful and awful” process of giving a bone marrow sample, Shawn was given the worst possible news: he had acute myeloid leukaemia, and chemotherapy must start immediately. From this moment, he would be infertile.
“He just said to me: ‘Are you ok?’” recalls Sarah. “He was worried I wasn’t going to be ok that we weren’t going to have kids, and he held my hand and said: ‘I’m really sorry we’re not going to have that chance.’”
The doctor pointed out there remained a small window of opportunity for Shawn to give a sperm sample so Sarah could have IVF. So Shawn did, desperate to make good on their dreams of starting a family.
“He was an incredibly optimistic man like that,” says Sarah. “While I was busy googling life chances, he would talk about ‘the twins’ [we were planning to have].’ It was a way of diverting quite a lot of the emotional pain.”
Sarah was unable to be quite so optimistic. “I have a personality trait that gets me through life: I call it bracing for catastrophe, because if you brace, you’re prepared for the worst. So when they said Shawn has got leukaemia, my brain goes: ‘He’s going to die’.” And knowing Shawn I thought: ‘He’s not going to think he’s going to die, and we have to support each other through this and prepare for the outcome.’ We did a lot of crying and not a lot of speaking.”
Shawn didn’t ask for a prognosis. It was easier to focus on practical matters. He began treatment and Sarah, in time, began IVF, because despite her natural pessimism, “it’s impossible to believe the person in front of you is going to die. You just can’t, it’s really hard. He was 45 years old.”
The chemotherapy was never going to save him, but a stem cell transplant might, and a match was duly found in Germany. But the transplant never happened.
In June 2017, three days before it was due, he was spending a few days at home when he woke in the middle of the night. “He was feeling really sick and saying: ‘I really don’t feel ok’,” says Sarah. She drove him to A&E and he was readmitted.
The next day was Saturday, and Sarah was attending a barbecue when she received a phone call from the hospital.
“Shawn was really distressed and wanted to see me. I didn’t understand why he hadn’t rung me himself. When I got there, he had had a stroke that had paralysed his whole left side. He could speak when I arrived, but not a lot, and couldn’t understand what had happened, I’m sure,” says Sarah. “The doctor said: ‘There’s nothing we can do. You need to phone his stepmum, his sister. This is irreversible.’”
How on earth do you respond to news like that?
“I just got into bed with him,” says Sarah, breaking down at the memory of losing the man with whom she’d planned to grow old, so long before time, and so brutally.
“You just don’t want to have the last conversation,” she says through tears. “You don’t want there to be last words. All you can think to say is: ‘I love you.’ So we just said that to each other until he lost the power of speech. He was just too young.”
Shawn died on June 11, 2017, the day before his stem cell transplant. He had suffered the exact same disease that had claimed his mother’s life when she was only 23 years old. It is not a hereditary cancer; just terrible bad luck, which first robbed a toddler of his mother, then a woman of her beloved fiancé; a young boy of his affectionate stepdad.
Sarah still thinks about having Shawn’s baby all the time. “It would be amazing,” she says. “But in my dreams Shawn is there doing night shifts while he watches the newspaper reviews and any sporting events he’d missed on catch-up. And I am a realist: at 45, as a working single parent already, I don’t feel strong enough to parent another baby alone.”
She’ll carry Shawn’s memory into her future instead. “I’m still very much in love with him,” she says.
Our two other charities are Wooden Spoon, which works with Britain’s rugby community to raise money for sick, disabled and disadvantaged children; and The Silver Line, a 24-hour helpline and support service for lonely elderly people.