I have never used my DaveMileyTennis Facebook page or any social media for any topics other than those that were work related. In fact, I have always been very careful to keep my personal and family life separate from my work over the past 25 years in international tennis. Today I am breaking that rule and am sharing something that is very personal. I hope readers will not think me self-indulgent in doing so.
Two weeks ago, I was getting on a flight to Italy and I read an article in the Sunday Times written by the highly regarded Irish sports columnist David Walsh about the well-known Sky presenter Simon Thomas, who sadly lost his wife Gemma recently.
Simon’s honest account in the interview brought me back to a similar tragedy in my life just over 17 years ago. I felt very emotional reading his account of the impact on him and his young son. I know only too well the terrible pain that he was going through and I suddenly had this overwhelming urge to react in some way. Once the plane was in the air, I started writing and I didn’t stop until we began our descent into Rome. The time passed quickly and at times I shed tears as I wrote about my personal experience with sudden death and the shock and aftermath of losing someone I loved dearly, my best friend and the mother of my three children.
I have written seven tennis books in my time working in international tennis, but I had never felt ready or able to write about this challenging period in my life. But the emotion of David’s account in the article seemed to spur me into an auto pilot reaction and what you will read below is the result. I shared what I wrote with David Walsh and had a very touching note back from him saying that he would pass what I wrote to Simon.
The past 17 years are a bit of a blur. My wife, Daisy, was a wonderful person and I feel privileged that she was in my life for 18 years. But suddenly she was gone from my life and I was thrown into a new life as a single parent bringing up three young children and juggling many things including nannies, the schooling for my kids and 130+ days of work travel. I learned a lot in this time about what is important and what is not. As the cliché goes, time does heal and although it never fully goes away, I guess I am proof of that. I hope that my account below, which felt somewhat therapeutic to write, may help Simon and others facing similar experiences.
“I was getting on a flight this morning and I read the article in the Sunday Times by sports columnist David Walsh about the well-known Sky presenter Simon Thomas, who sadly lost his wife Gemma recently. I read that the death affected Simon so profoundly that he had taken time out and resigned from his job with Sky. Simon’s honest account in the interview brought me back to a similar tragedy in my life just over 17 years ago. I could empathise when at one point in the interview he says: ‘I just thought if people ask me how I am, I am not going to say, Yeah I’m all right”
I know only too well the raw honesty this type of tragic loss creates. Back in 2000, I thought I had life sorted. I had it all. I was Director of Development for the International Tennis Federation, my dream job leading the biggest department of the organisation, had a beautiful wife, a nice house in Wimbledon and three great young kids aged 13, eight and six. Then in a moment my life literally exploded and nothing would ever be the same again.
It was mid-term in October and I had the day off, having just flown back from Malaysia, and was sitting having breakfast with my wife, while close my two youngest kids were watching TV. A very normal day. Without warning, my wife collapsed and despite my efforts to revive her she died in my arms at age 41. Viral myocarditis- a virus of the heart which gradually made her heart weaker before stopping. So random. No warning.
The days, weeks, months and years that followed are now like a blur. Kids, nannies and schools became a new world to me and this combined with 130+ days travel per year for my work created many challenges over the coming years. I never expected to have to face something like this and I quickly had to learn the art of juggling. Keeping all the balls in the air was not easy and they came crashing down from time to time, but somehow we survived these dark days and got to where we are today as a very close family.
My kids are now aged 31, 26 and 24 and I am so lucky to have them in my life. I think they helped me as much as I helped them to overcome this tragedy and I just wish their mother was here today to see what great people they have become. I am proud of them.
Of course, you do not get through this type of event without the support of good friends and family. One of my best friends was living in the USA at the time and when he heard the news of Daisy’s sudden death, he went straight to the airport and was in my kitchen the next morning consoling me. That’s friendship. I am forever grateful for the support of close friends and family throughout the past years.
When someone you love dies suddenly it’s as if someone had, without any warning, hit you as hard as they could in the stomach. I was down, I could not breathe, I could not think. I was in shock and could not comprehend how this could be happening to me. Daisy could not be gone from my life leaving so much unfinished business and words still to be said.
I remember bits about the funeral which took place one week after she died. So many mundane decisions to make leading up to it. The food, the drinks, the music, the readings, picking the grave. Then it was over and I felt so alone.
I wanted to give up on life. How could I go on without Daisy in my life? But I had no choice. I had three kids looking to me and I had to find the energy and the strength to fight. My sisters took it in turns to stay with me for those first weeks to support me and continued to be a support to me over the years ahead, as were Daisy’s family based in Dublin and her sister Anne in London.
I hired a nanny. I got my head around the things that needed to be organised. Then, after two weeks I went back to work. I wasn’t ready for work, but I could not stand to be in the house alone. For the first three months, I left work each day at 3pm so that I could pick my two youngest kids up from school.
I empathised when Simon said he could not sleep in the room where he and his wife had slept. I can relate to that. For the first two weeks, all three of my kids slept with me in the same room and for the next year my two youngest kids slept either side of me. I think it helped them to be with me but, to be honest, I could not have slept in my bedroom without them. I looked forward so much to the sleeping pill that I took at the end of the day for six months!
As I read the interview today, many things came back to me and I cried tears for Simon and his son thinking about how they must be feeling at this time. I could see people on the flight looking at me, but I didn’t care. I have cried so many tears over the past 17 years. I’m embarrassment proof.
It took me many attempts, over that first painful year, to finally have the strength to bring Daisy’s clothes to the nearby charity shop. It took me five years to be able to move house which those close to me know was a particularly challenging time. But gradually life returned to some form of normality and I felt stronger.
I guess what I want to get across to Simon and others facing this unfortunate situation is that it does get better. I used to get angry when people would look at me knowingly and say with a sigh – “time”. I feel a bit bad to say this, but I often felt like punching them. “Time heals” is such a cliché, but it’s true. You have to believe that there are good times ahead and to keep going. Get up and then put one foot in front of the other. What else was I going to do when my kids were looking to me and thinking I had the answers to our pain. They thought that I must know what to do in this situation but nothing prior in life prepared you to cope and I was making it up as I went along.
I know Daisy would have smiled as I began to realise just how much she had done on a daily basis to keep the family going. I had been “hotel man” for the previous 10 years. The guy travelling business class around the world with the big job thinking my life was hard!! At one stage Daisy joked that I was away so much that my two year old son Hugo thought my 10 year old son was his father!!! Yes, she did it all.
Now I was bathing the kids, overseeing homework, arranging sports, arranging the plans for the weekends. I finally realised that she had been the one working hard. Not me!
I cried every day for two years and many times in the most public of situations. Often alone at the end of the day, I took to drinking red wine at nights and trying to find some sense to what had happened, too often finishing the whole bottle. I saw trauma specialists who gave me advice and who tried to help me cope. I wanted them to give me answers. A checklist to recovery. Their advice helped but, of course, recovery from this type of loss is not so simple. It gets better but it never goes fully away. She was my best friend and partner for 18 years. You just cannot comprehend that she is not here anymore. Surreal!
You learn to accept and to remember all the good times. To value that you were with the person for 18 years rather than looking at the loss and the time you didn’t have together. And slowly but surely you learn to take pleasure in other things without guilt. It took me two years before I could even think of going on a date with another woman or of another woman ever being in my life again. The first date, set up by some friends, was one of the scariest things I ever had to do. My first date for over 20 years.
In my work I was used to taking decisions every day, often involving hundreds of thousands of dollars and difficult staffing decisions related to the department of 80+ people. But those work decisions were nothing compared to those concerning my own children. Decisions taken alone as the only parent made me feel naked and exposed on so many occasions. Deciding to send my daughter to boarding school in Ireland in 2005 was one of the most difficult decisions I ever took, and I thought I nearly had a nervous breakdown in the lead up to it. I cried in the carpark after leaving her off at the school in August that year but it turned out to be a good decision and I am forever grateful for the wonderful education and care that Wesley College gave to Hugo and Thirza.
Looking back, what happened in my life certainly changed me as a person and changed the way I looked at life. I think I saw better the things that were important in life. I learned that showing emotion is not a sign of weakness. At my first parent teacher meeting involving my oldest son, I suddenly felt an overwhelming feeling of loneliness and started crying in the form teacher’s office. I could not stop crying as it was just so sad to be there alone without Daisy. I felt for the poor teacher who of course struggled to know what to do. I can still see his face today. There were many situations like this over the past years.
I have learned not to put off saying important things to friends and family. I tell my kids often how much I love them and how proud I am of them. I don’t want any unfinished business if something happens. I know life can change so quickly.
I have also learned not to feel guilty about having fun, to try to use time well and to value the nice moments in life. Before my wife died, we were always saving for good times ahead that she ultimately never had. After what happened, I learned the real value of money and spent it whenever I could on my kids, my close family and friends and myself to do nice things and I continue to do so without any feeling guilty. Now is the moment.
I hope my comments above do not come across as self-indulgent. For some strange reason, it felt natural to express my feelings and to share my experience with Simon and others who might face the same type of situation.
As I said before, I’ve written seven tennis books in my time in international tennis and countless tennis articles that have been published in tennis and sports science journals worldwide. But this is the first time I have ever opened up in writing about my loss on that terrible October day in 2000. On that flight to Rome I felt compelled to write something and I guess I hope that my story will show those in this type of situation that things will get better and that there are better times ahead.
I am happy with my life today and I know Simon will be happy again and I wish him and his son the strength to face and get through this challenging period ahead.”