A mother's empty nest has never been so bittersweet

A mother’s empty nest has never been so bittersweet: When an accident left her rugby star son tetraplegic at 17, Francesca gave him the strength to go on living – and write a best-selling memoir. Now, he’s moving out and her pride and fears are almost overwhelming

  • Francesca Fraser, 59, from Hertfordshire, is preparing for her son to leave home
  • Henry, 28, who is tetraplegic, has brought a house just six doors away 
  • He lost the ability to use his arms and legs after hitting his head on holiday
  • The accomplished artist explains how his accident gave him opportunities 

Francesca Fraser is preparing for her son to move out of the family home with all the conflicting emotions familiar to mums the world over when their last ‘baby’ leaves the nest.

She’s already steeled herself to losing three of her four boys. Now, at 28, it really is time for middle son Henry to follow them.

Of course, she’s proud and delighted. But — hard as she tries to hide it — she’s nervous about how they are both going to cope.

For this will be no ordinary goodbye, and Henry is no ordinary young man. It’s testament to Francesca’s love and Henry’s exceptional courage that he is here today, let alone contemplating moving out.

Francesca Fraser, 59, who lives in Chipperfield, Hertfordshire, revealed she’s preparing for her son Henry, 28, to leave home. Pictured: Will Fraser, Francesca and Henry 

Henry is tetraplegic, and is now known as an accomplished artist who paints using only his mouth. Francesca is the mother who, with the support of her husband, Andrew, managing director of a branding company, has put her life on hold for him.

‘As a parent you give your kids tools and then you have to leave them to get on with it,’ she says over a video call from her home in Chipperfield, Hertfordshire. ‘You can’t cling on, however much you may want to.

‘What guy of nearly 30 wants to still be at home with his mum and dad?’

The contrast with Henry’s three brothers, one of whom is former Saracens rugby star Will Fraser, must indeed have felt painful at times.

‘So Henry’s bought a house just six doors away,’ Francesca explains. ‘He is having it specially adapted — he needs room for carers and so on.

‘I love seeing his excitement — he’s meticulously planning every tiny detail. I’m nervous and I’m going to miss him like crazy, but there’s no way I’m going to let him know that.’

Henry teases that Francesca will be welcome in his new home — so long as she comes armed with one of her famous Sunday roasts.

‘I’ve even offered to buy Mum a scooter to make it easier for her to pop over,’ he joshes.

Their gentle banter is lovely to listen to. There’s barely a moment when one of them isn’t laughing. It’s proof that, as so many of us have been learning in recent weeks, our lives don’t have to be action-packed to be rewarding.

Henry who was focused on becoming a professional rugby player, lost the ability to move his arms and legs after an accident on holiday in 2009. Pictured: Henry playing rugby as a boy 

‘I learnt a long time ago that just sitting in the sun can be a joy,’ smiles Henry. ‘It’s great to see my mates treasuring little things these days. ’

And yet flick back 11 years and neither Henry nor Francesca could have imagined family life would be so different — and so rewarding.

Henry was 17 and focused on a bright future as a professional rugby player. Francesca was the frantically busy mum of four, her feet barely touching the ground.

‘I knew we were lucky to have a nice lifestyle, a lovely home and money to educate the boys privately,’ says Francesca, 59, who has never spoken publicly before about the events of that time. ‘But I had no idea just what an innocent bubble we were living in.’

Born two years after his older brothers Tom, 32, an advertising accounts director, and rugby player Will, 31, Henry was always the quiet one. Younger brother Dom, 25, who works in hospitality, is a whirlwind.

‘Henry was the easiest, most contented baby,’ smiles Francesca. ‘When we went shopping, his brothers would be racing up and down the aisles. Henry would toddle along beside me, happily holding my hand. His brothers teased him for being a “Mummy’s boy”.’

Francesca admits that she has felt guilt that she and Andrew drove Henry to Liverpool to get a new passport ahead of his holiday. Pictured: Henry painting a portrait with his mouth

Partly to save their sanity, Fran-cesca and Andrew, 59, a keen rugby supporter, encouraged their sons to burn off all that energy with sports. Like Will, Henry showed natural talent in rugby and cricket. Aged 16 he followed Will to Dulwich College in London, on a sports scholarship as a weekly boarder.

‘Henry really came into his own,’ Francesca recalls. ‘He shot up to 6ft and, thanks to all the exercise, had a fantastic physique. He really pushed himself. He’s never been a show off, but suddenly every photo of Henry was with his T-shirt off, displaying his torso. It was sweet.’

Henry had just sat his AS levels when a group of his new friends invited him to Portugal for a week to stay at a family villa.

‘It was his first trip abroad with mates,’ says Francesca. ‘We were delighted for him.’

They moved heaven and earth to ensure he went. It’s a decision they have questioned again and again.

‘When Henry got to the check-in desk at Heathrow, they realised his passport was out of date,’ Francesca explains. ‘I took it as an omen. He wasn’t meant to go.

‘But he was so disappointed that, when Andrew offered to drive him to Liverpool to get a new passport, I agreed. I put my unease to one side.

The surgeon insisted on taking Francesca and Andrew into a side room to explain that Henry (pictured) had severed his spinal cord

‘There will always be a tiny part of me that feels guilty about that. Andrew feels the same. But we can’t torture ourselves.

‘Henry was an excited 17-year-old boy with a lovely group of friends. What could possibly go wrong?’

Tragically on July 18, 2009, three days after arriving in Luz, Henry dived into the sea and hit his head on a submerged sandbank. In danger of drowning, he moved his head to the side for air, and in that instant severely crushed his spinal cord.

His terrified friends dragged him from the sea and Henry was airlifted to hospital in Lisbon where doctors fought to save his life.

It’s impossible to overstate the shock for Francesca and Andrew when they took the phone call from a fellow parent. ‘We’d been on our way out to dinner — all the boys were away from home. It was our first night alone in over 20 years,’ says Francesca. ‘It seemed surreal.’

They took the first flight out the next morning. ‘All I wanted was to scoop Henry in my arms,’ says Francesca. ‘But the surgeon insisted on taking us into a side room first. He explained bluntly that Henry had severed his spinal cord. He was now tetraplegic and would never use his arms or legs again.

‘Andrew couldn’t speak. I screamed and screamed.’

Henry suffered constant panic attacks and had to have his neck realigned in the first horrific weeks. Pictured: Will and Henry with Francesca 

Then the surgeon said something which may have for ever changed both Henry’s and Francesca’s lives.

‘He told me: “Your son needs you more than ever,”’ Francesca recalls. ‘I needed to hear that. This wasn’t about me.

‘It was our responsibility to be there for Henry come what may. I’m a very positive person. But I vowed I was never going to let Henry see me down. I would carry him for as long and as far as he needed.’ And so Francesca and Andrew looked at Henry, his beautiful, broken body still covered in the sand from the beach, without flinching.

‘Henry just said: “I’m sorry, I’ve done the most stupid thing.” I hugged him and said: “My poor baby, of course you haven’t. It was just one of those things. We will get through as a family.”’

Those first weeks were truly horrific. Henry suffered constant panic attacks and had to have his neck realigned by screwing and wiring the damaged vertebrae back into place. Mercifully the operation succeeded.

Henry is adamant: ‘If it hadn’t been for my parents, I would have gone to sleep and gladly not woken up. They kept me going.’

Henry (pictured) recalls screaming at his mother when she kept repeating “There’s no such word as ‘can’t’”

Three weeks later, Henry was flown to Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire for seven months of intense therapy. The couple vowed they would only leave Henry’s bedside when he was asleep. ‘I was there seven days a week from 9am until 10pm for seven months,’ says Francesca. ‘Andrew and the boys would come and join me. We all took strength from each other.

‘Families can fall apart under the strain but we were lucky to be close. And we just got closer. The boys understood Henry needed us most. We pulled together. A great friend asked me: “How are you dong this?” I told her: “Because I have my son. I have a future with him. I saw him nearly die. Why wouldn’t I do this?”

‘Henry knew I would always be there for him and if it meant spending every waking moment at his bedside that was fine.’

Francesca’s determination that Henry would thrive wasn’t always easy for him to accept.

‘I remember one day Mum was repeating her favourite line: “There’s no such word as ‘can’t’” when I flipped,’ recalls Henry. ‘I screamed: “Yes, there is and I’ve just said it”.’

But three months after the accident came a turning point. Francesca was pushing Henry in his wheelchair when he caught sight of his reflection in a glass door.

He hadn’t seen himself since the accident and didn’t recognise the skeletal figure, a tube in his throat, an oxygen tank by his side, his legs wasted.

‘I was devastated,’ says Henry. ‘Until that moment I honestly believed I would walk again. Now I knew I would never even hug my mum. I was staring into the abyss. I cried and I couldn’t stop.’

Henry (pictured) has penned a second book, offering an insight into his life in a wheelchair, counts e J. K. Rowling and Jonny Wilkinson among admirers 

But as dawn broke the next day, a remarkable thing happened. ‘Something in my mind turned. I realised I had no one to blame for the accident but myself. I had to make the most of it,’ says Henry.

And that is exactly what he has been doing ever since. His second book, offering an insight into his life in a wheelchair, is published this week. His admirers include J. K. Rowling and England rugby hero Jonny Wilkinson.

He produces beautiful artworks using a paint brush or pencil attached to a mouth stick clenched between his lips, and does talks all over the country.

When I look back at the accident I don’t feel sad or emotional,’ he says. ‘I honestly believe it has given me incredible opportunities. I am massively different from the person I would have been. It may sound bizarre given I’m in a wheelchair, but I’m far more outgoing and confident.

‘I used to be petrified of failure. But everything changed in hospital. I knew unless I was prepared to fail I would never manage to do anything independently. It was painfully slow, but when I got a setback I told myself it was simply a step on my path to success.

Silly things like swallowing half a biscuit were massive victories.’ Francesca has taken huge joy out of watching Henry blossom —and has high hopes for his future.

‘It would be lovely to see him happily married,’ she smiles. ‘Any woman who gets Henry will be very lucky.’

Henry says he is too busy planning his new home to worry about that yet. But he does harbour one ambition.

He hopes when we emerge from the coronavirus lockdown, we all will have gained a deeper understanding of those of us for whom this has simply been business as usual.

‘Even close friends have messaged me to say they now have a deeper appreciation of my day-to-day life,’ he says. ‘Come the other side, I really hope people have more empathy towards people like me in wheelchairs, knowing that this is our normal.’

The Power in You by Henry Fraser (£12.99, Orion) is published today.

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