A family whose lives were shattered after their boy was swept to death in a river have spoke of their joy at the birth of a new baby.
Leanne and Darrel Fleck are preparing to mark the year since their son Kayden died at the age of five.
The ‘mischievous and fun-loving’ schoolboy was swept to his death on the Braid River in County Antrim, Northern Ireland.
His identical twin brother Jayden was the last person to see him alive after desperately trying to save him.
The youngster grabbed at his sibling’s fingertips as the freezing cold water carried him away.
As the family brace themselves for the heartbreaking milestone, an unexpected ray of light has given them the strength.
Baby Ellianna, Kayden’s little sister has brought joy to the family’s life during their dark time.
We didn’t know she was coming,” Leanne told Belfast Live.
“But about three weeks after we lost Kayden, through all the pain and darkness of that time, we discovered I was pregnant.
“It was a huge shock. And more than anything, it was just so bittersweet because we were going through all the emotions of losing Kayden and trying to figure out what way our family was going to go from there. Then suddenly, she came along.
“She shone a wee bit of light on our family. We had people telling us it was too soon for us to cope after losing Kayden – but then we had others offering us support as well, and they said she was our wee blessing. And I think she was.
“I’m never going to forget Kayden. I’m never going to forget that day. And when the anniversary comes around I don’t know how we’re going to be but at least now we have our baby to focus on.
“She’s healthy, she’s here, she’s our wee girl and we will love and care for her like we did Kayden, and our other children.”
The morning of that fateful Saturday in February last year started out full of hope and fun.
Leanne and Darrel, who had tied the knot just two weeks earlier with their handsome twins as ring bearers, had moved the family from the Ballykeel estate in Ballymena to a new home in Cullybackey with high hopes for the future.
That day, they returned to their old house to collect the last of their things.
“We got in the car, me and Darrel, the twins and our daughter Amelia, and headed back to Ballykeel,” said Leanne.
“Darrel had to clear out the shed, and I wanted to make sure everything was out and that the place was clean and tidy before we handed the keys in.”
And it is this detail, as well as every other twist and turn of that time which Leanne continues to pore over and use to torment herself.
“I just wonder if we hadn’t gone back to the house to clear up that day, or if we hadn’t decided to move to Cullybackey at all, would we have lost him?” said Leanne.
“Darrel was out sorting the shed and I was in the sitting room when one of the boys came in and said, ‘Can we go out the back?’ Even now I can’t say for sure which of them it was, because I was taking down these old blinds and I just said, ‘OK, but don’t be going away’.
“I didn’t even look round to see which one it was and I hate myself for that because I was too busy doing these bits and pieces to look around.
“You see they never went anywhere without us. They never went far, and that day I thought they’d be running in and out through the empty house into the back garden but when I went out to put the blinds in the bin, they weren’t there.”
When Darrel told Leanne the boys had been in the garden just seconds earlier, the pair headed straight to the boys’ usual stomping ground, a play-park just a stone’s throw from the house.
But the boys were not there.
“Kayden had found 20p in the car on the way so my next thought was, had they tried to walk to the shop up from the house,” said Leanne.
“So we split up to look for them. We didn’t even think to go to the river because they’d never been that direction without us in their lives.”
It was Darrel who first became aware just how grave the situation was.
He recalled: “I was looking for the boys and then I heard ‘Daddy help, Daddy help’, and there was Jayden coming running across the path.
“He was soaked from his neck to his feet. I asked him where Kayden was and he said, ‘He fell in the river Daddy, he fell in the river’.”
Young Jayden and his father rushed to the spot Kayden had fallen, at the edge of the Braid River near the Ecos Centre in Ballymena.
“I was running up and down the river looking for Kayden, searching for the bright orange jumper he was wearing that day,” said Darrel.
A man passing by heard the commotion, and called for help.
“They were quick,” said Darrel. “But by the time the police and search and rescue were there, Kayden was long gone.”
The schoolboy, a pupil at Harryville Primary School in Ballymena, was pulled from the river four miles away.
“Afterwards, Jayden told us he was wet because he’d got into the river to try and catch Kayden,” said Darrel.
He’d got the tip of his finger, but the current was too strong and he couldn’t hold onto him.”
Making sense of the tragedy has been excruciating for the family.
Why them and why that day? Why had one son managed to escape the river, while the other had not?
“It was awful, we couldn’t make sense of it,” said Leanne, who also has an older son, Daniel, 15. “But Jayden said he held onto the grass, he clung to it. Kayden couldn’t.”
While the boys were identical in almost every way, one huge difference marked the twins apart. From the moment he was born, Kayden was extremely ill.
Born with a congenital heart defect, hypoplastic right heart syndrome, he spent the first year of his life in hospital, travelling from Belfast to Birmingham, to Antrim and back undergoing surgery and intensive treatment for his condition.
The youngster didn’t step foot in his family home until two days before his first birthday.
“We had the biggest party for them, we hired a hall and got them a clown,” recalled Leanne, smiling at the memory.
“But that start in life meant Jayden was always that little bit stronger. Kayden had his first open heart surgery when he was 36 hours old, and the last one less than a year before he died. We’d hoped that one would see him through until he was 15.”
Kayden’s tough start in life only strengthened his bond with his brother, and little Jayden was his right-hand man through it all.
“Kayden was taken straight to Birmingham Children’s Hospital the day after he was born,” said Darrel. “Leanne wasn’t allowed to fly because she’d had a caesarean, but I went over with my mum.
“On the fourth day, I was able to come back and take Jayden over with me on the flight and when the boys were about a week old a nurse asked me if Jayden had been in beside his brother yet.
When I told her no, she took Jayden and set him into the cot beside his brother. Their two wee arms came together, and they held hands. That’s when Kayden started to turn a corner.”
After that, says Leanne, the boys were inseparable. And when their sister Amelia came along less than two years later, she got stuck straight in.
“She was joined at the hip with Kayden as well,” said Leanne. “Now she says a prayer to him every night when she goes to bed. Even though he was just a toddler when she was born, he loved babies. He’d have loved Ellianna.”
And the family are determined the baby, now seven weeks old, will grow up knowing all about her brother.
“I said from day one, from the minute we lost him that he’s always going to be part of our family,” said Leanne. “So we will make sure she knows him.”
Complications from Ellianna’s birth meant Leanne spent three days in hospital in the run-up to Christmas, only getting home to her family on Christmas morning.
“On the way home, Darrel and me took a drive over to the grave,” she said. “It was hard, knowing Kayden wasn’t there to share it all – the joy of the baby, the joy of Christmas with his family. That’s the hardest part.
“People have said to me they find it hard I’m still talking about him after nearly a year, but that’s my way of coping. I talk about him constantly, if I’m here by myself I’ll talk to his pictures. If he’s gone five years or 10, I’ll still talk about him and to him because to me he is still here.
“And even though we can’t see him and we can’t hear him he’s going to live on in us, and in the other wee ones. Ellianna will know him. He’s her big brother.”
Following the tragedy, the family have called for safety steps around the Braid River to be stepped up.
“I just want to make sure this doesn’t happen to any other family,” said Leanne.
A Mid and East Antrim Borough Council spokesperson said: “Council has erected new barriers and signage along sections of the River Braid.
A full water safety survey has also been conducted across Mid and East Antrim’s water sites. Staff regularly inspect paths along river banks to monitor flooding and slippage.
“We would urge anyone using paths near rivers to be aware of potential flooding, particularly during heavy rainfall. Council are also launching a water safety campaign later this year to help raise awareness of the dangers of water.”