KERRY McGregor should be preparing to help open the Paralympics in a fortnight. Instead, following her death from bladder cancer, mum Margaret has been left to raise her grandson while dealing with the loss.
Smiling at her grandson, Joshua, as he jumps around her garden, the bright sunlight giving his red hair a golden glow, it’s impossible to tell that Margaret McGregor is living in grief.
She laughs as the seven-year-old gives a cheeky grin and changes his hairstyle again for the photograph, just to annoy her.
Scratch the surface, though, and the tears soon appear. But then it was only seven months ago that her only child, Kerry, the young disabled woman who shot to stardom on The X Factor in 2006 and who in two weeks should have been performing at the opening of the Paralympics, died from bladder cancer.
Kerry, with a beautiful voice and beautiful long, blonde hair, passed away just four days after seeing in the New Year, and just weeks after she refused to take too much pain medication in her desire to give her son a Christmas he would never forget.
“She wrapped each and every one of Joshua’s presents – I’ve never seen so many presents,” says Margaret, her voice catching in her throat. “She wouldn’t let anyone help. Of course she knew what was happening – we all did – but she wanted a lovely Christmas.
“It’s just unbelievable. I have bad days and good days, though the bad are more often. She was my life.”
In the cosy sitting room of her Pumpherston home – the West Lothian village where Kerry grew up and moved back to with her partner, Dean Robertson – and with photos of her daughter all around, Margaret’s tears begin to flow.
There are 34 years worth of tears bottled up inside her. When Kerry was just five, her dad, George, was killed by a drunk driver. Then when she was 13, the budding gymnast, cross country runner and dancer was paralysed after falling 20ft from a tree.
Either event would be enough to make a person crumble, but not Margaret. “I never said ‘why me?’, I thought that was just wasted energy,” she says. “Kerry probably would have been a dancer, she loved it so much, but when she had the accident I thought ‘right, let’s not dwell on what you can’t do but look at what you can’. So I got her piano lessons.
“Now I can’t tell you why I dealt with it like that, but she only had me so I had to stay positive. I had to make it seem like anything was still possible. I remember her asking me when she was in hospital if I had cried, and I told her no. If I had told her how I really felt I would have made her feel helpless.”
Instead, Margaret told Kerry she would have to love her calipers, that she would be going back to West Calder High and that she would have a life worth living.
“She was very determined to go back to school. The school wasn’t sure about taking her back, they asked me what would happen if there was a fire alarm and she was on the top floor. I just said I’m sure someone would drag her out by the hair. She’d already broken her back, it couldn’t happen again, so she had to learn how to climb the stairs with her crutches.”
Kerry’s determination was recognised and in 1989, when she was 16, she was honoured with a prestigious Children of Achievement award in London. These days her old school honours a pupil who has succeeded beyond measure every year with an award in her name.
Music was Kerry’s life. As a teen she organised her own band, even making their stage outfits. She went to Edinburgh’s Jewel and Esk Valley College to study music and even had some chart success with dance bands.
Then she took part in the Great British Song Contest in 1997, the UK selection for the song which will compete in Eurovision, and she came second. She also branched out into acting, getting a part in the offbeat comedy series The Book Group, written by Annie Griffen and working with Gerda Stevenson in A Bit of A Do.
“She had great spirit, but we were always a musical family, always singing, and so she loved it and started writing her own songs. She was always a performer,” says Margaret.
Joshua was born in 2005, but Kerry suffered from postnatal depression. Her saviour was Simon Cowell.
“The year before The X Factor she was depressed. I told her to enter,” says Margaret. “It was a gamble because if she’d been rejected it could have made her worse, but to my mind it got her singing again.”
Kerry performed brilliantly on the TV show with Sharon Osbourne as her mentor. However, she was part of a surprise double eviction and the series was eventually won by Leona Lewis. “To be honest it was probably for the best,” says Margaret. “She had to get home for Joshua, but it got her out of the rut.”
Kerry got involved with the BBC programme Beyond the Boundaries and she was constantly asked to speak at events about disability. “She loved that, to be able to show a positive side of being in a wheelchair,” says Margaret.
But by September 2010, what had appeared to be constant bouts of urine infections was finally diagnosed as bladder cancer. Margaret believes that her daughter’s GP should have been more aware of the possibilities that it was something more serious.
Kerry’s bladder was covered in aggressive small cell tumours. There was an operation followed by chemotherapy, but no-one could say for sure that the cancer was gone.
“She lost her hair,” says Margaret, a hairdresser. “I had been saying to her for years to cut it but she never would. With the chemotherapy she eventually told me to do it because it was sore, so I shaved it. But she didn’t complain, ever.”
As ever her condition gave Kerry new impetus. She became involved with the charity Action for Bladder Cancer, she got back in the studio, recording some of her 40 unpublished songs and laying down cover versions of her favourite songs from musicals.
There were plans for a duet with Susan Boyle and she was even asked to perform at the Paralympics. “They wrote to her and said they couldn’t think of anyone better to perform,” says Margaret. “She was so looking forward to it.”
By October last year, though, it was becoming obvious that Kerry was ill again. She had secondary cancer.
“She just got on with it as always,” says Margaret. “ I don’t think I saw her cry once. We were told she would have six months, but it was about four weeks. She put me in a strange position because I was the person who had the strength, who sorted everything, and now she was the one who was strong.
“When she was young and I saw her going down, I was like the wind and she was a feather. I always lifted her, but I was out of my depth.”
Kerry told her son that she was dying. “It must have been the hardest thing she’d ever done,” sobs Margaret. “She knew Joshua would be fine with Dean [his dad] and with me.
“He’s so young he doesn’t know how to deal with what’s happened. He goes to Richmond Hope on Tuesdays for counselling. I wanted him to do that as I never did it with Kerry or for myself when her father died.”
With her morphine being upped daily, Kerry passed away on January 4. “It was still a shock, I wasn’t ready. I thought there were still a few months left, but there weren’t,” says Margaret.
It’s not hard to see where Kerry’s determination came from. Now Margaret wants to set up a foundation in Kerry’s name which could help young people get into dance and music careers. She’s also determined to raise awareness of bladder cancer.
“For all her success, Kerry always wanted to give something back. She was never happier than asking about other people. I don’t want that spirit to be lost. I just hope that someone could help us out.”
• For information on bladder cancer visit actionbladdercancer.org