Looking for life’s “sunshine and rainbows” following the death of his wife at the age of 30 has been indescribably harrowing for Jamie Curtis-Barrett.
But Leanne’s brave battle against breast cancer, and her incredible approach to finding out that the disease had returned and was terminal, has given him the strength to cope.
It has defined his new life as a single parent to two young children and continues to provide the inspiration to chase his snooker dreams.
“She is what gets me through everything,” the 32-year-old told BBC Sport, prior to his debut appearance at this week’s UK Championship in York. “She was given the all-clear in 2014, but we found out the cancer had come back and was terminal on 31 December last year.
‘Don’t stop the party for me’
“We were due to go a New Year’s Eve party and she just said, ‘Don’t stop the party for me’. And that was how she was.
“She was an amazing woman. Her attitude was ‘I will beat it’. As long as she had that mentality, it made it a lot easier for me to be able to deal with it. She had that mentality throughout – until she couldn’t fight any longer. She was an inspiration to so many people.
“She fought the hardest thing in life and when I play snooker I feel no pressure because it really doesn’t matter; it’s a game of snooker.”
The couple, from Grimsby, thought they may have “a year or two” left after her terminal diagnosis together with their children, Georgia, six, and Freddie, three. They were intent on making the most of every precious moment they had as a family.
But with her immune system so weak, Leanne got pneumonia in February, meaning she could not have chemotherapy. That allowed the cancer to grow at an aggressive rate and she died on 15 March.
Curtis-Barrett said: “You think, ‘What have we done to deserve this?’ You take life for granted, but we thought we would be able to have time together after Leanne recovered from the cancer the first time.”
The initial diagnosis when she was just 27 was grade three invasive – “the worst it could be” – but they were told that a mastectomy could clear it up completely.
After the operation, Freddie then had to be delivered six weeks early and two weeks later Leanne started chemotherapy, followed by radiotherapy. She finished treatment in February 2014, and was soon given the all-clear.
Dealing with the devastation
Eighteen months later the nightmare news came. Following Leanne’s passing, one of the hardest parts was telling Georgia, who had not seen her mum for six weeks because she was in hospital in Hull.
Leanne was transferred back to Grimsby and Georgia was set to visit on the day her mum died.
“Georgia came running over to me after school saying ‘we are off to see my mummy’,” he explained. “That was tough. She really struggled immediately afterwards, but is now doing amazingly.”
A keen dancer, Georgia has even won a local award for her efforts in raising nearly £10,000 for the Pink Rose Suite – the Breast Care Unit based at Grimsby Hospital which looked after Leanne.
Freddie was too young to grasp what was happening at the time.
Curtis-Barrett added: “Georgia has had to have a psychiatrist and help from the Macmillan nurses, who have been fantastic.
‘My amazing mini-Leanne’
“But we got to June and she told me that she was off to dance for mummy. She had told her dance school teacher and she went out and danced in front of 1,000 people.
“Georgia is a mini-Leanne and like a mother hen. Freddie will speak about mummy but all he knew really was cuddles. He was only saying a couple of words. But he has started asking questions since he has gone to school, saying ‘where’s my mummy? Why doesn’t my mummy pick me up from school?'”
Curtis-Barrett has had counselling too, which has been a “part of the coping mechanism”. The support network provided by his family and friends – including Leanne’s sisters Bridget and Lisa – has been every bit as vital and enabled him to juggle his work in the police force and get his snooker career back on track.
But it was close friend and world number 87 Allan Taylor, who pushed him into getting back on the tour.
“Allan said I needed a hobby and if it wasn’t for him pushing me then I wouldn’t be playing again,” he explained.
Curtis-Barrett first started playing snooker at the age of three when his granddad bought him a table. He was making breaks of 60 plus by the age of 10 and was a promising player as a junior, rubbing shoulders with future world champions Mark Selby and Shaun Murphy.
“I lived with my Nana and Granddad when from the age of 15 when my parents split up,” he explained. “But I gave up snooker when I was about 19 for two years when my granddad died. My heart just wasn’t in it. I had such a close bond with him and it wasn’t the same.”
He did return to the sport after a two-year break and had a couple of brushes with the pro game, playing against some of the sport’s biggest names when snooker became a bit more accessible to amateur players under supremo Barry Hearn.
And there was always a nagging “what if?” feeling in the back of his mind.
“I knew I had the talent but I had that break and the players I used to compete against continued through the ranks,” he said. “That was one question I asked myself because I looked at what players like Mark Selby, Shaun Murphy and Judd Trump have achieved so wondered what can I achieve?”
Marriage, children, work and a lack of time prevented him from giving snooker his full focus but he carried on playing for fun – only starting to play more regularly when Leanne was first diagnosed with cancer in 2013.
Escaping and remembering
“She encouraged me to play and it was my escape a couple of times a week.” Now it is a huge part of his life, and even though giving up would make life a lot less manic, “that’s not going to happen – I love it,” he explained.
Curtis-Barrett earned a two-year tour card by qualifying through Q School in May and although he has made his children his priority, he intends to give snooker more of his time next season when Georgia and Freddie are more settled.
The experience of coming up against the legendary Jimmy White during a recent tournament in Germany – and his first-round win over Matthew Selt at the Home Nations event in Belfast – has made him even more determined to succeed.
He faces Joe Perry in the first round of the UK Championship on Thursday – and playing in York will have special significance.
“That was where Leanne and I got engaged,” he explained. “We were together for 15 years and she loved York. We always used to go there for her birthday.”
He will have plenty of support with friends from the Ray Edmonds Snooker Centre in Grimsby where he practises, and a bus load of supporters organised by his dad all making the trip.
And at least the financial cost of competing is not a major concern thanks to long-time friend Richard Gilliat, who owns Grimsby-based TR Carpets, and is sponsoring him.
The money side means very little. Snooker is a hobby, escapism, and a social event all in one.
It also brings provides a comforting reminder of Leanne.
“She was my focus and still is my focus,” he added. “She would have definitely wanted me to play. One thing I do use when I play snooker that she used to use – certainly when she was going through cancer – is a poem in one of the Rocky films called Sunshine and Rainbows.
“‘The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place… and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently, if you let it. You, me or nobody, is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit… It’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward…how much you can take, and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.’
“The words are fantastic. I read that to myself before I play and I just think of her. It’s tough but you have to get on with it, don’t you?”
Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/snooker/38004155