One moment Eletta Palmer was enjoying a family holiday, the next she was a mother of four aged just 22
The 22-year-old who suddenly became a mother of four.
Squishing the sand between my toes, I grinned. The air was heavy with the smell of the sea and fish and chips and I loved it. I was on holiday with my family – my mum, Joanne, three sisters, two brothers, two children and my cousin.
I listened to my sisters, Nilanthie, 18, Shaleen, 15, and Celeste, 13, shrieking in the sea, while Mum made sandcastles with my 18-monthold twin brothers Keiron and Kyle and my daughter, Aisha, three, and son Rahees, 13 months.
It was the last day of our trip to Blackpool, and we wanted to pack in as much as possible before going home to Bradford, 130km away.
As a single parent, Mum worked hard in a bakery to provide for us. She scrimped and saved all year to take us on holiday. We couldn’t afford to go abroad so we usually chose a seaside resort in England. But we always had a good time.
Watching Mum now, it was good to see her looking relaxed. She and I were close – she’d always been there for me. We were even pregnant at the same time – Mum with the twins and me with Rahees. It was scary having children so young on my own, but Mum had helped me through it.
“Did you have a good time, love?” Mum asked later as we took our bags to the cars. I gave her a kiss. “It was amazing,” I said.
Mum loaded her bags in the car with my brothers and sisters. I got into my cousin Jennifer Cargill’s car with Aisha and Rahees.
“See you at home,’’ Mum said as we waved her off. Watching her car disappear down the road, I was thinking about everything I had to do whenhen I got home.
“That’s the problem with holidays,” I thought. “There’s always so much unpacking and washing afterwards.”
We soon lost track of Mum’s car on the M6 motorway and her car wasn’t outside her house when we arrived home, just down the road. I wasn’t worried. “She must have been held up,’’ I thought.
But when hours passed and still Mum’s car didn’t appear, I began to panic. She was never late, and if there was a problem she would have called to let us know.
I kept calling her mobile, then when she didn’t answer, I rang my
sister Celeste’s phone. The phone just kept ringing and ringing.
I thought maybe their car had broken down, and kept checking out the window to see if they had arrived. “They’ll be here soon,” my cousin said as I put the kids to bed.
But when they hadn’t turned up by the time it got dark, I was frantic. “Something awful must have happened,” I said to my cousin.
Then finally at 8pm, a police car pulled up in front of our house. Fear pulsed through me – especially when I saw two officers walking up to my front door.
Everything slowed down as I went to answer – it was as if I was suddenly behind glass, not really there.
“I have some bad news,” a police officer said. “The car your mother was driving has been involved in a crash on the M6 motorway near Manchester.” Apparently she’d swerved to avoid another driver and lost control of her car, which flipped over twice.
“Two people have been killed including the driver,” he said. The words made me reel. Mum? Dead?
I began to shake. But my three sisters and two brothers had been in the car – so one of them had died too. I was crying, grief crashing over me.
The police asked me to go with them to Wigan hospital to identify the bodies. I trembled at the word. My cousin put her arm around me and organised for a neighbour to look after the kids.
I don’t remember how long it took to reach the hospital or even the people who were there. I just remember seeing Mum and my little sister Celeste, lying there, not moving. I couldn’t believe it was really them, and kept telling myself it was a nightmare from which I would soon wake up sweating.
“It can’t be them,” I kept saying. “It’s maybe somebody who looks like them,” I was incoherent, crying and talking nonsense. It was the shock, I suppose, and the grief. They had died at the scene of the crash.
“My other sisters and brothers?” I asked, remembering them.
“They are OK,” a police officer said. My sister Nilanthie had been taken to another hospital while Shaleen and the boys were being treated for minor injuries in Wigan.
Walking through the hospital, I forced myself to stop crying. I couldn’t let the little ones see me like this. So I washed my face in the bathroom, took a deep breath and walked into their ward.
Fortunately the boys had hardly any injuries. Kyle had a bump on his head while Keiron a scratch on his nose. Shaleen had a couple of broken teeth and a fractured rib.
Relieved, I rushed to Preston hospital, where Nilanthie had been put into an artificial coma while severe gouges to her left leg and arm healed. “She will be much better in a day or two,” the doctor there told me.
Realising I couldn’t do much there, I went back to be with the twins.
Seeing the boys, so small in the hospital beds, I knew instantly that I would look after them.
Their dad wasn’t on the scene, and I loved them too much to give them up to somebody else. I wanted
I remember seeing Mum and my sister lying there not moving. I couldn’t believe it was really them
to look after them, to keep them safe. It’s what Mum would have wanted. So even though I was only 22 and a single mum of two, I made a decision.
“They’re coming to live with me,’’ I told the nurses and police.
After spending three days in hospital, they, along with my sisters, were discharged.
I took them all to my house. I wanted them with me. I’d seen them every day since they’d been born. They belonged with me. They needed me, just like I needed them.
I’d already lost my mum and sister, and I was determined not to ever lose my little brothers.
My sisters were older, and my aunt wanted to look after them. It was a wrench for all of us, but I promised to visit, and reassured them we were still a family.
I wanted to keep us all together, but I didn’t have a job and knew they’d be better off with my aunt.
At first, I thought that no one would take me seriously and I wouldn’t be able to keep the boys, but thankfully the social workers agreed that the boys would be allowed to stay with me permanently in my three-bedroom apartment.
After Mum and Celeste’s funeral, which was terribly sad, I tried to move forward, to try and get a routine going for the boys’ and my two children’s sake.
Those first few weeks were very difficult because I couldn’t come to terms with the huge loss. But I decided I had to stay strong – if only for the sake of my twin brothers.
Cuddling them close, I told them I’d never leave them.
“Don’t worry, you’re mine,” I told them, wiping away my tears.
Becoming a mum of four was a shock. I didn’t work and relied solely on benefits to get through each week. I’d always dreamed of going to university one day, but with four young children in my care, I knew that it was unlikely.
But I didn’t mind. I loved my children – all four of them. It was a struggle, but playing with them, taking care of them, telling stories at night and ensuring they grow up with the right values made me realise money wasn’t everything.
The boys were too young to understand what had happened, but I tried to stay upbeat and provide them with a sense of routine – just like Mum would have done.
She’d given me a brilliant and well-balanced upbringing. Now I wanted to do the same for my
brothers. But it wasn’t easy. Sometimes when I was exhausted and the kids were playing up, I’d think, “I wish Mum was here and I wasn’t in this position.” But never did I doubt my decision to take care of the kids.
The trouble was, I was concentrating so much on taking care of the children that I never had time for myself or to grieve properly for Mum and Celeste.
During the day, when I was caring for the children, I shut out my grief and sadness. I didn’t have time to think, racing around after lively toddlers and cooking and cleaning.
But once the kids were all asleep in bed, the floodgates would open and I’d often end up crying myself to sleep. “I miss you, Mum,’’ I’d sob.
I wasn’t alone. My brothers and sisters too found it extremely difficult to cope with losing our mother and Celeste. Keiron used to struggle to sleep as he used to curl up in Mum’s bed with her. My sisters were suffering from the shock and trauma from the loss, and my aunt said they would cry often.
Mum’s death had been such a shock. I would’ve done anything for one last conversation, or one last
I just did what I had to do to keep our family together. Wouldn’t anyone do the same?
cuddle with her. I remembered that she was always smiling and singing songs. If we went to a party, she would be the first person to get up on the dance floor.
Seeing the boys growing up without her was heart-breaking. Every milestone was painful and I felt so angry that Mum was missing out on it all.
But I knew that I couldn’t give up. Listening to them string words together as sentences, seeing them having little fights with each other over toys, getting them enrolled in primary school... all the little milestones in their lives used to make me emotional.
“I wish Mum could have seen them do that, or heard them say this or take their first steps to school,” I’d tell myself as I tried hard not to break down in front of the kids. “I’m doing this for Mum,’’ I would say to myself, vowing to stay strong.
But over the years, bit by bit, it got easier and felt more natural.
Now the boys are 12. They don’t remember Mum because they were so young when she died, but I talk about her and Celeste all the time – I’m determined to keep both of their memories alive.
The boys call me Eletta, but on Mother’s Day, they send me cards and they also surprise me with letters saying, “Thanks for being our mum.”
Reading those words never fails to make me cry and I treasure every one of those notes.
“You don’t have to say thank you,” I tell them. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
I always refer to Kyle and Keiron as my sons and when we’re out together, strangers assume they’re mine. They’re so close in age to my son, Rahees, they look like triplets.
In the early years of looking after my brothers, I gave up my desire to study to focus on being a mum. But now that we’re more settled, it’s my time again. I recently won a place at the University of Birmingham to study criminology, and I’m really enjoying my studies. The children stay with me in Birmingham while I’m studying.
I’ve also had two more children, Shanaya, eight, and NeVaeah, three months. So now I’m a mum of six! I’m happy with my fiancé, Lee Thompson, 37. He’s a site manager who I met online two years ago. He was shocked when he found out I was looking after my brothers after Mum’s death and now is in awe of what I’ve done.
“I’ve such respect for you,” he once told me. We’re getting married in August. Keiron and Kyle will walk me down the aisle and give me away.
My sisters are both grown up and have lives of their own.
Lee is great with the kids and has spent time getting to know them all. He’s always telling me how well I’ve coped with the situation.
But I don’t think it was anything special at all. The way I see it, I just did what I had to do to keep our family together. Wouldn’t anyone do the same?
I miss Mum and Celeste every day and, of course, I wish they were still here with us.
But after years of sadness, I’ve finally found happiness again.
We’re one big family and I feel blessed. I never imagined I’d be a mum to my own brothers but I’ve raised them to be polite, happy, hard-working children – just as Mum would have done.
They often ask me about Mum and I tell them how special she was, how she was a larger-than-life character.
Every time I get a cuddle or a kiss from them, I know that it was all worth it. We’ve been on such an incredible journey together and I’d do anything for my family.
Sometimes, I think, “If Mum could see us now, would she be proud?”
At last, I think I finally know the answer to that question.
Rahees, Shanaya, Aisha and the twins Kyle and Keiron
My fiancé Lee is so proud of what I’ve done
NeVaeah, my youngest, is three months