Sample Chapters: A Hand Stretched Across the Void

Share on

Foreword: 1982

I was crossing the line, drifting into a peaceful sleep, when I heard the phone ring. I looked at the clock on the bedside table. It was 12.30am. Who would be calling at this time of night? Irritated, I went downstairs and lifted the receiver, my sleepy ears still not prepared to hear the voice on the other end of the phone.

‘Hello, this is the transplant coordinator at Queen Elizabeth Hospital.’

My heart started beating rapidly and an unexplainable swell of heat hit all parts of my body. I listened to the voice calmly inform me they had a kidney that was a possible match for Tracey! The voice asked me a series of questions about Tracey’s health at that moment in time. The answers I gave ticked all the boxes and, after what seemed like a long silence, she advised me to bring Tracey to the transplant ward as soon as possible.

As I put the receiver down, my whole body was shaking. I felt intense excitement and overwhelming fear simultaneously about what this could mean for my critically ill sixteen-year-old daughter, who lay sleeping in her bed. I ran up the stairs two at a time to change out of my nightdress. My husband, Clive, was still in bed, anxiously waiting for me to say who was on the phone, but all I could do was simply shout, ‘Hospital, it’s a kidney, get dressed!’ I rushed into the girls’ bedrooms to wake them. In no time at all, we were in the car and on our way.

The corridors in the hospital were quiet, the lights were dimmed and all we could hear was the occasional sound of footsteps passing through the wards. A nurse greeted us after a while, with a kind, smiling face, and proceeded to guide us to a small waiting room.

After what seemed like hours of waiting, the nurse came bustling back, carrying a small tray of hypodermic needles, syringes and specimen bottles all to be filled with blood samples from Tracey, the small and frail teenager hoping for a second chance at life. We were then sent to the X-ray department to make sure that Tracey had no chest infection or fluid around her heart that could be problematic for surgery.

It was about this time that I remembered some concerns around Tracey’s most recent blood results showing a very high urea count,[1] which was a worry. It might be owing to her medication needing to be assessed and changed.

I panicked and felt my blood pressure rise, knowing this could prevent her having this precious kidney; the past years had been so hard with many disappointments for my daughter, so it didn’t feel right to say anything at that point. I decided it was best to wait to see what the surgeons found.

Prior to this, Tracey had been on haemodialysis for two years at home, which is a four-hour process (plus at least an hour to set up beforehand and to sterilise and put everything away afterwards) where a machine removes, cleans and returns the body’s blood; something her kidneys could not do. Her machine, when not in use, fitted neatly into a specially built wardrobe made by her uncle Jack, who was a carpenter. The wardrobe stretched from wall to wall across the room, taking up the largest portion of her bedroom. As well as her dialysis machine, it contained all the medical equipment that came with it, including hypodermic needles and sterile packs, bags of saline, haemodialysis blood flow lines, heparin bottles, line clamps, lignocaine[2] to stop pain and feeling around the area where Tracey put in her blood flow needles, surgical gloves and many more medical utensils. With all of this she was only left with a small space for clothing in the wardrobe. I can distinctly remember her bedroom always smelling of concentrate from the fluid that we had to mix with water and pour into the machine to start her treatment; the smell lingered on all her clothing, which was a constant reminder to us each day of her dialysis.

On dialysis days, the machine was pulled out of the wardrobe on its rollers and positioned at the side of her bed. She would have to inject herself with two needles to allow her blood to pass through the machine and back into her body; the whole process took five hours.

Tracey dialysed every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and attended a clinic at hospital once or twice a month; how different her life was from that of most teenage girls. The dialysis was keeping her alive but giving her no quality of life. She could not live a normal teenage life, not only because of the dialysis itself but also because of the damage it was causing to her body. Knowledge of her condition in those days led doctors to believe that without further advancement in the medical field she would not live much past her teenage years.

However, at the age of sixteen, all this pain and suffering could come to an end with this transplant, this potential new lease of life that I had been hoping and praying for!

This was the start of the amazing story that was the life of Tracey June Greenaway, formally Tracey June Whitehouse, and her family. Please join me as I revisit the ups and downs of the woman who touched hundreds of lives, and how God has spoken to me as her mother and revealed Himself with miracles, healing and love along the way, extending His hand across the void for me to take hold of.



Early Years

My early years are the foundation and preparation for my journey, which started at the height of the Second World War.

I was born into an already overstretched family. I was the fifth child and certainly not planned! Like most families in those days, we had very little and lived each day making the most of what we did have.

Mum stayed at home to look after the family and Dad worked on heavy machinery, with long shifts in a local foundry; he was a hard man who always had to have the last word. Like many men in Dad’s circle of friends, he spent much of his earnings on alcohol and often came home drunk and abusive to Mum. Unfortunately this was not an uncommon way of life back then.

The story passed to me over the years was that Mum met Dad in her late teens. She was never a strong person and suffered ill health throughout her very unhappy childhood and adult life. One day, Mum realised that she was pregnant, so she and Dad decided to get married in what I’m sure would have been a simple wedding.

After a few months of marriage, my brother Joseph was born, and as the eldest he saw most of the heartache and pain that Mum went through. Two years later, David was born, followed by their first daughter, Primrose Betty. Life by this time was getting difficult for Mum, as Dad was drinking and money was scarce. Another child came along, a third boy, Tony Anthony (although we called him Alf). By this time there were so many children that unfortunately not much attention was given to him. Imagine the frustration and pain Mum must have felt when she discovered that there was yet another unplanned child on the way! This time it was me, another girl, born on the 28th June 1941. The years of childbirth and hard work had taken their toll on Mum, and her health had started to deteriorate. However, there was to be a sixth and final child, Jean, who was born just eighteen months after me. So this was our family. Six children: three girls and three boys!

From an early age, I used to tag along with my brothers and their friends. I remember one occasion, when I was about five years old and it was bonfire night. Some of the youths had fireworks, but not the type you would see today; in those days there were few varieties, and our friends, who had little money, would mainly have sparklers. One of the boys threw a firework we called a ‘Bengal match’ into the air – it was the same as household matches, only longer and chunkier, and as it burned, it threw off all different colours. The firework had been thrown towards the sky and as it came down, it landed on the left side of my neck, lodging between my clothing and burning deep into my skin.

I was rushed to hospital and spent weeks in isolation. Hospital visits were limited in those days but, because of the seriousness of my condition, I was allowed extra visits. I had double pneumonia, followed by scarlet fever, and underwent skin grafts for my burns. The doctors held little hope that I would pull through all these complications. However, against all the odds, I returned home.

There was always sickness in our house when we were children. I suppose it came with the times when there was so much poverty, and medicine was not so advanced. I often wonder how Mum coped with all the illness and stress.

One day, my brother fetched me from school, and I could sense something was wrong. I overheard people saying ‘TB’ but I was only five and didn’t know what that was. Initially, I didn’t realise it was my mum they were talking about.

Some months later, owing to Mum’s ill health, we moved from our small three-bedroomed home into a newly built four-bedroomed house in Oldbury, which is in the West Midlands. The house was huge, with a back garden that overlooked a farm, and for miles all you could see was fields. As children, walking to the bottom of the garden and climbing over the fence was the most wonderfully exciting experience on earth, with meadows and hills that stretched far into the horizon! During the day, cattle grazed at the bottom of the garden.

These were happy times. During the hot summer days, we would have great fun playing with our friends, building dens and getting into trouble with the farmer, who would often catch us scrumping his apples and chase after us with his stick. I loved to be outdoors playing with all my friends.

The area was lovely, with neighbours who used to sit on walls, chatting; they were good to us as they knew Mum was often ill in bed. They regularly rallied together to cook stews and puddings for us. However, one of the neighbours was not so sympathetic and she took a petition to all the houses in the road asking for signatures to get us evicted. She lived in one of the posh private houses and wanted us out because Mum had tuberculosis, and because we were scruffy kids playing in the street.

Our garden was a wonderland for us as kids. We had two ducks called Donald and Gobbles that swam in an old crock sink embedded in the soil that made a great pond. Roger, the brindle Staffordshire Bull Terrier, wandered freely all day, as did Billy the cat.

I loved the new house but hated the winters as they were long, dark and bitterly cold. The wind blew across the fields, whistling as it pushed through the gaps of the wooden sash cord-type windows. We never had any heating in the bedrooms; all we had was a coal fire in the living room. Dad used to open the oven door in the kitchen and turn on all the hobs. The kitchen would get lovely and warm, and as we walked down the stairs we could feel the heat. This would warm us up in the mornings before going out to walk the long journey to school. I don’t remember ever seeing an electric fire. When we spoke, we could see the mist of our breath hitting the bitter air. Everything felt damp and smelled musty. There was as much frost on the inside of the windows as there was outside, and to see through, we had to scrape a little hole in the ice.

I shared a bedroom with my sisters Betty and Jean, which contained an old-fashioned dark wooden wardrobe that was so big we couldn’t move it, an old chest of drawers and a chair that sagged in the middle. We had a double bed with a sprung mattress that dipped in the centre from years of wear, and the floor covering was lino that had patches of brown showing through the worn parts. At the side of the bed was a small homemade podged rug that Mum had made from old coats cut into small strips that were poked through a square piece of sackcloth.

Sometimes, in the evening, Dad would put a house brick in the oven to get very hot, wrap it in a towel and then put it in our bed; it was as good as a hot-water bottle. The three of us girls had to share the double bed, so we would argue over who would sleep in the middle, as that was the warmest place. In the winter we slept in jumpers, socks and anything else that could keep us warm.

Dad was very strict; from an early age we were never allowed to come downstairs unless we were fully dressed and ready for school. Dad always cooked a hot breakfast of thick, stodgy porridge, but when money was short, we had a ‘noggin’ of bread dipped in bacon fat, which we used to call ‘licker’ or a ‘dip in the pon’.

When Dad was getting me ready for school in the winter months, he would put some of his old socks on my hands to use as gloves and pulled a double-sided scarf through its centre to serve as a hat.

One of the memories I still shudder at was never having good shoes; I always had second-hand shoes with holes in the bottom. I remember having to put pieces of cardboard or newspaper into the soles to try to keep my feet dry. I also remember putting two spare pieces in my pocket to replace the soggy ones when I got to school! The only time I ever remember having new shoes was for Sunday school anniversaries, when I had new, white sandals. Dad always sent us to Sunday school although he never went to church.

The night before a Sunday school anniversary, my aunty would put what we called ‘rags’ in my hair, and when she combed it the next morning it would fall into ringlets. These rags were long strips of material that she wrapped round sections of my long blonde hair, which stayed in overnight.

The church had a specially built platform that went up in rows so that every child could be seen. Jean and I were so proud, showing off our new white dresses. Some of the older children were given a poem to learn weeks before. The year it was my turn, I proudly stood up to say the poem I had learned. My dad was there, and seeing the proud look on his face as he clapped made it special.

After the anniversary service we would parade around the streets following the drumbeats and music from the Boys’ Brigade or The Salvation Army. The church leaders would go round with buckets, collecting donations from those who were watching. When the service was over, Dad went to the pub, and Betty stayed at home to prepare and cook the dinner.

I never enjoyed my schooldays because the other children made it a hurtful experience. One day, while sitting at my desk, writing in my school notebook, a little creepy thing dropped out of my hair onto the page. It was the first time I had ever seen a head louse, which we called nits. Dad looked through my hair that evening and it was infested with lice. He rubbed a lotion into my scalp before combing it through. It had to be left on for two days without washing. The smell was awful. All the kids in class moved away from me and called me bug-yed (local slang for bug head!). It took ages to get rid of the smell because my hair was so long.

I have no real recollection of Mum being out of bed and cooking tea or making meals. Some days I came home from school and she was missing, and Dad would tell me that she was in hospital.

During her time of pain and suffering, and knowing that she was dying, her heart must have been breaking, knowing that she was leaving her children in the hands of Dad, who was so unequipped to look after six children. She must have spent hours imprisoned in loneliness and fear in her bedroom, agonising each day and night, wondering how we would all cope and what would happen to us.

I remember Dad holding Jean’s and my hands when we visited Mum’s grave. There was a gravestone with these words:

Farewell dear husband, my life is passed.
My love was true whilst life did last.
But now for me no sorrow make
but love my children for my sake.

These words must have encouraged Dad to press on.

The saying in those days was that children should be seen but not heard, and that was the case when it came to Dad. It may have been that he was so upset and could not cope with Mum’s passing, but he made decisions that were not good for us children. I remember feeling afraid as I lay in bed at night, and many times I cried because I missed Mum so much. I still suffer at times with uncontrollable fear that makes my whole body ache and often turns into a full-blown panic attack. Dad was not understanding as he was struggling himself with the loss of Mum, and my brothers and sisters didn’t seem to understand how it had affected me.

I often wonder how different my nature may have been if I’d had Mum’s listening ear, her cuddles of love and her guidance as I grew up. I remember walking through the fields one day shouting, ‘Mummy, Mummy, Mummy,’ just to know what it felt like to say the word I could never say in my childhood.

Betty didn’t have it easy with our brothers. As the oldest girl, she often came home from work and had to do the washing, which with our washing machine was no easy feat! The washer was manual, with a handle on the lid that we had to turn that allowed the paddles to beat the washing. We used carbolic soap to remove stains and our arms ached after only a few minutes of turning the handle. The wet clothes were then pushed through the rollers of a solid iron mangle that stood in the yard. It was about six feet high and, by turning a huge wheel on the side, the rollers turned and squeezed out excess water from the clothes, leaving them ready to put on the line. It amazes me that none of us ever had our fingers caught in that old mangle, as we were only children. It’s surprising how quickly you learn when you have no choice.

The highlight of our childhood years was our annual two-week camping trip to Porthcawl in Wales. Dad would pack as much food and clothing as possible into a huge, battered old tin trunk that took two people to carry by holding a handle on each side. It also served as a seat when the train was full. We never had much money to spend on our holidays, but once we were there, we had the sea and the sand dunes, and we easily made friends to play with, so we still had a good time.

One day, we were playing in the sea when a huge wave pushed me off my feet and I started to drown. It was all very quick, and the next thing I knew, a big hand was pulling me to the surface. Dad always said it was my long hair that saved me. All my family and friends were searching for me in the dark, murky water when Dad felt something wrap around his ankle. He bent down to see what it was, and to his amazement it was my long blonde hair. Although close to death, I survived; that was the second – after the Bengal match incident – of many miracles!

So that was my early years. A mixture of pain, loss and deprivation, but all mingled with happy memories. Despite the problems, my family loved each other and there are fond memories that we can look back on. If only Mum had been with us to experience them too. These early years helped shape my character, which continued to be moulded throughout my teenage years.

[1] Meaning the kidneys weren’t working very well.

[2] A local anaesthetic.


  • June Whitehouse

    June lives in the West Midlands and has been married to Clive for some sixty years! They had two daughters and faced many traumatic times with Tracey’s life-threatening illness. Stretched far beyond her limits, she leaned into God, and her faith and love for the Lord became a pivotal part of her life. June was a committed fund raiser and ambassador for...

  • A Hand Stretched Across the Void

    June Whitehouse

    Tracey dialysed every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and regularly attended hospital clinics; how different her life was to most teenage girls – but if the right kidney came, everything could change!
    This is the heartfelt story of...