Irish man (23) completes skydive in honour of mum who died of stomach cancer aged 47
When Marcus Dalton lost his mother to stomach cancer, he wanted to channel his feelings of loss into something positive so he faced his fear and did a skydive to raise funds in her memory
While Marcus Dalton waited for his turn to jump out of a plane last month, he was undoubtedly going through mixed emotions - fear at the prospect of letting go, proud to be raising money for a worthy cause, but also deeply saddened that his beloved mother was not there to witness the event.
Pamela Dalton died on Christmas Day 2014 after a short battle with stomach cancer and her second eldest son decided to honour her memory by facing up to something that scared him.
As part of the Irish Cancer Society's (ICS) new Fearless campaign, Marcus is among the first to embark on a challenge to raise funds for cancer research, while at the same time experiencing a tiny sense of what people with a terminal illness face on a daily basis.
"My mother Pamela was a really fun-loving person and would have been really tickled at the idea of me doing a skydive," says the Dun Laoghaire man. "I obviously felt fearful at the prospect of falling out of a plane at 10,000 feet but I knew it was nothing compared to how my mum must have felt when she discovered she was going to die.
"She had a few stomach pains last June (2014) and lost her appetite, but after various tests, it was thought that she may have had an ulcer. The symptoms, however, got worse and in September, she was eventually diagnosed with stomach cancer. We were all shocked, but none of us ever entertained the thought of death."
Marcus, who has three brothers - Eoghan (25), Fionn (9) and Oisin (7) - says he and his siblings rallied around their parents, Pamela and Mark, as they tried to remain positive about their mother's diagnosis. "Even when we were told my mum had cancer, we were very optimistic and did our best to help her through the treatment, which was very intense," recalls the 23-year-old. "But in November, we were told that the chemo wasn't working and her cancer was terminal. We had tried to remain positive but suddenly my mum was faced with the reality that at just 47 years of age, she wouldn't live to see all of her children grow up.
"I can't even begin to imagine how scared she must have been, but she tried to keep up a strong front for us, particularly my younger brothers, and would never cry or be downhearted in front of us - she was incredibly brave throughout it all."
Because Pamela's cancer was quite advanced at the time of diagnosis, there was little anyone could do to save her and doctors were unable to predict how long the mother of four would have left. But she set her own goal and was determined to reach it.
"The medical team weren't sure how fast my mum's cancer was progressing but when they told us in November that she wouldn't survive, mum said she was determined to make it to Christmas because it was such an important day for the younger boys," says Marcus. "I'm not sure how she did it, but she reached her goal and died peacefully on Christmas Day.
"It was incredibly sad, but in some ways, it was a very peaceful and beautiful end to her life as her struggle and pain was finally over.
"We were all devastated but we have been looking out for each other. We also have a large extended family who has helped us through it.
"I used to wonder at what age you would be considered old enough to cope with losing a parent and I have now realised that the answer is never - but I decided that I could either go under and exclude myself from the world or I could harness the huge well of emotion which I had inside and do something positive for mum and that is when I made the decision to do the skydive."
With a positive plan in place, Marcus decided he was going to conquer his fears and jump out of a plane, while raising funds for the ICS at the same time. And after an aborted start on June 27, he headed into the air on July 5 with the memory of his recently departed mother foremost in his mind as he psyched himself up for the biggest challenge of his life.
"Making the decision was not easy as the idea of falling into the sky at 10,000ft was terrifying but I knew it was nothing compared to the fear mum must have felt when she found out she was going to die, so in that regard, it seemed to be an appropriate way to mark her passing," he says.
"Once I had made the decision and roped in a few mates, the day seemed to come around very quickly. I had mentally prepared myself for the dive on June 27 and after driving down to the airfield in Kilkenny and waiting around for a couple of hours, the dive was cancelled due to the weather.
"We came back the following week on July 5 and in complete contrast, had no time to even think about it as we were told we needed to make the most of the weather and get up into the sky straightaway."
Once the plane took off, there was no turning back, but after a few last-minute jitters Marcus (who is studying social sciences at UCD) says the experience was one of the best he has ever had in his life.
"I had asked to be the first to jump out as I wanted to get it over and done with, but the way we were seated in the plane meant I was actually going to be last - so that was a bit nerve-wracking," he admits. "I forced myself to watch my friends jump out and then before I knew it, my time had come. I was doing it in tandem with a guy stuck to my back and had to sit at the door and tuck my legs under the plane. I didn't have time to think before he nudged me out and we were free-falling.
"It was a totally incredible and overwhelming experience which went on for about 25 seconds until he pulled the parachute and we glided down. The descent lasted for about seven minutes and all our spectators were there cheering us on. I couldn't believe I had actually done it and my initial reaction was total euphoria and a desire to go back up and do it again."
Marcus had initially set himself a target of raising €2,000 for the ICS but so far, he has amassed €8,500. The Dalton family has been devastated by Pamela's death but he says the Fearless challenge has helped him to realise how short life is and how important it is to go out and grab every opportunity with both hands.
"Cancer affects so many people every day in this country and around the world," he says. "I wanted to do something big to show how important my mum was and also to raise money to help other people with this awful disease. Cancer took my mother from me and from now on I am not letting it take anything else.
"Our whole family has a new perspective on how short life can be, so we are honouring my mum by not putting things on the long finger because like many of the plans she must have had. You just might not get to see them fulfilled otherwise."
* For information on Fearless, call 1850 60 60 60 or see fearlesschallenge.ie. To donate visit, justgiving.com/SkydiveForPamela/
Health & Living