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How Ellidy Pullin Found Life After The Loss Of Her Partner, Chumpy

Science and a series of small miracles provided a glimmer of hope for her future
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The tradition started in 2013. I’d met—and fallen in love with—Alex “Chumpy” Pullin a couple of months earlier at a friend’s birthday party, and we were spending our first New Year’s Day together as a couple. We trekked up to Barrenjoey Lighthouse, overlooking Palm Beach on Sydney’s northern beaches, with a bottle of champagne, snacks, a picnic blanket and Chumpy’s guitar.

We found a flat rock on the edge of the cliff with the most epic views of the coast, and it became “our rock”. I sat behind Chumpy and wrapped my legs around his waist, like a little koala cuddling a eucalyptus tree. Chumpy strummed his guitar and I looked out to the water with my head resting on his shoulder. In that moment, it felt like we were the only people in the world. And that’s exactly the way we liked it.

Ellidy and Chumpy Pullin
Ellidy and Alex ‘Chumpy’ Pullin

It became a ritual. Every New Year’s Day, we’d head to our rock and make our resolutions for the year ahead. Most years I’d resolve to drink less alcohol and eat less sugar—while sipping champagne and snacking on chocolate. Chumpy’s resolutions were always more poignant. “I don’t want to change a thing because this is too good. My resolution is for everything to stay exactly the same,” he said once.

Things had been perfect that first New Year’s Day. Chumpy was ending 2012 on a high after doing so well in the first stages of the FIS Snowboarding World Cup. When he got back from overseas, he spent Christmas with his family in Eden [south of Sydney] and his sister later told me he was giddy like a puppy to see me.

Chumpy came to stay for a week at Mum’s house in Narrabeen. Mum was looking forward to meeting the dream boy I’d been talking to nonstop. It wasn’t until Mum googled Chumpy that I started to realise he was somebody. I didn’t follow snow sports, so I had no idea he’d been to the Olympics and was a world champion. Mum watched videos of Chumpy competing and giving interviews and was impressed. Then he made us his family’s famous spaghetti bolognese for dinner and she was totally dazzled. So was I.

Ellidy Pullin
Ellidy, her mum and Minnie

We spent most of that week together at the beach, swimming in the surf, lazing on the sand, soaking up the sun and kissing each other’s salty lips. After a morning at the beach, I was in the shower with Chumpy when he first told me he loved me. It had been on the tip of both of our tongues, but he was the first one to say it out loud. I could tell he’d been bursting to, but was waiting for the right moment, which happened to be when we were rinsing the salt and sand off each other.

We were staring at each other and I knew we were thinking the same thing. I’d started falling in love with him two months before, and fell deeper with every message exchanged but spending those sticky summer days together pushed me over the edge entirely. Of course, I told him I loved him straight back.

I’d never been surer of anything in my life. We were solid. We didn’t have to have an explicit conversation about being official or becoming boyfriend/girlfriend. We didn’t need to. We just were. Unlike my previous relationships, I didn’t have to worry about Chumpy being faithful or trustworthy. He was so committed to me and our relationship. There was no bullshit, no empty promises and no wondering if the grass was greener on the other side of the fence. Our grass was as green as it could get.

Minnie Pullin
Baby Minnie at the beach

I wish his New Year’s resolution (that everything would stay exactly as it was) had come true. Instead, on July 8, 2020, everything changed. It would never be the same again. We had woken up to a perfect winter’s day on the Gold Coast, where we had lived for three years and where we were planning to raise a family together with our dog Rummi. Chumpy seized the day and went spearfishing at our local beach. He never came home.

Chumpy had experienced a shallow water blackout. A surfer noticed his body in the water and dragged him back to the beach. The local lifesavers and then the paramedics spent 45 minutes doing CPR on him, but it was no use. Chumpy was pronounced dead by the paramedics at 11.15am. His death certificate lists the cause of death as drowning. In the grief-stained hours that followed, a suggestion was made. When my brother, Dave, said the words “post-mortem sperm retrieval”, I knew it was something I wanted to do. And I knew Chumpy would have wanted it too. We’d been trying for a baby for eight months and had just bought a set of tiny white Bonds baby singlets in our excitement. “Yes,” I said to Dave without any hesitation. “Do it. That’s what I want. Can you make it happen? Please.”

We only had a day to make it happen. Somehow my brother and friends managed to hire a fertility doctor from an IVF clinic to do the procedure and a lawyer to help with the legalities. It came down to the wire. We had 36 hours … and the procedure happened in the 37th hour. The doctor went to the morgue and performed the retrieval at 9pm. If he had been an hour later or left it until business hours in the morning, it would have been too late.

Somehow, against all odds, everything aligned that day for the sperm retrieval to happen. Had Chumpy died on a weekend, when courts and IVF clinics were closed, we wouldn’t have been able to do it. I like to think Chumpy was helping us. Once the sperm had been retrieved, it was taken back to the IVF clinic to be examined. Only 1 per cent of the sperm was showing some sign of life but that’s all we needed: all it takes is a single sperm.

The swimmers didn’t need to be star athletes or perfect specimens, they just had to be alive. The only thing that mattered was that the sperm was viable and there was some hope in the shitshow that had become my life. The sample was stored at the IVF clinic, and I put the thought of it on a shelf above my grief. It was always in the back of my head, but I didn’t have the space to really think about it in those early days. I was in survival mode, doing what needed to be done in the moment to just get
through the day.

Ellidy Pullin
Ellidy with her brother and mum during her pregnancy.

It was five months before I felt ready to think about the future. After much contemplation and with the support of my loved ones, I started the IVF process and booked in for an egg retrieval. We ended up with three viable embryos, and I had one inserted at the very end of 2020.

After the transfer, I steeled myself to start the new year without Chumpy. It was going to be my first New Year’s Day alone in eight years. I was dreading the thought of not following our tradition of perching on a rock overlooking the ocean with a bottle of champagne and Chumpy’s guitar. So I packed up Chumpy’s van—with Rummi beside me and the embryo in my tummy—and made my way to Hat Head in New South Wales to spend New Year’s Eve with my friends. We were getting ready to go next door for a party when I went to the bathroom and found I was bleeding. I knew what was happening: the embryo hadn’t implanted. I was losing this baby.

I didn’t want to ruin the mood for everyone else, so I didn’t say anything. At the party, I listened to the music and forced a smile. I held it together for the night but the next morning I was a fucking mess. Everyone was wishing each other a happy new year, but there was nothing happy about it.

I couldn’t understand how we were entering a new year without Chumpy. How could time still be ticking by? I didn’t want to leave him behind, I didn’t want to say, “Chumpy died last year.” I wanted to stay in 2020 because that was the last year he’d known. The more time passed, the further away Chumpy got.

Ellidy Pullin
Ellidy and Chumpy

I told my friends about the bleeding.

“I know it was the bub coming out,” I said, bawling my eyes out. I’d lost Chumpy and our baby. Losing the baby struck a fear inside me I’d never known. I knew that only 1 per cent of Chumpy’s sperm was viable, but I had been certain that this was going to be enough. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe we hadn’t retrieved the sperm in time, maybe my eggs weren’t any good, maybe the IVF wasn’t going to work at all.

I needed to know one way or another, so I wanted to insert the second embryo straight away. A month later, I was on the clinic table, with my mum holding my hand beside me and the doctor between my legs. It was there that I had a vision: it’s a girl. I knew I was pregnant. I knew it. This one was going to stick. My friends kept telling me to do a pregnancy test but I didn’t need to. I waited for two weeks to get a blood test from my doctor and they called me as soon as the results came in. “Congratulations, Ellidy, the test came back positive. You’re pregnant.”

It was six months after Chumpy died and I was pregnant. The first person I told, naturally, was Rummi: “You’re going to be a big sister.” Mum was at home with me, so she heard the good news too. When I video-called Chumpy’s parents, we all burst into tears. They were going to be grand­parents. I was going to be a mum. We were going to have Chumpy’s baby. Nine months later, Minnie Alex Pullin was born on Monday, October 25, 2021, at 2.50am. As she took her first mouthfuls of air, I held her to my chest next to the necklace I wear that’s imprinted with Chumpy’s fingerprint. My two loves, close to my heart. Chumpy had been gone for 15 months, but there I was holding our daughter. I looked into Minnie’s eyes and I saw her dad. I saw Chumpy.

Heart Strong

This is an edited extract from Heartstrong by Ellidy Pullin with Alley Pascoe (Hachette, $34.99), out now.

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