A divorcee has told of her heartbreak at a funeral – where she saw the love of her life for the first and last time.
After a two-year online romance, American Jack Martin died of a heart attack a few weeks before he was due to fly to Britain to meet Helen Hunter.
Helen, of Sunderland, met former soldier Jack on image-collecting site Pinterest in May, 2015.
“We had a mutual love of horror films, tattoos and photography,” she said.
“Then we became Facebook friends and he plucked up courage to ask for my number. He said he never thought I’d reply to his first message, he thought I was out of his league.
“But within a couple of months we were chatting every morning and night on the phone.”
Helen worked front of house in the theatre for 22 years but quit to be full time carer for her mum Amber, who died of cancer in January aged 75.
She said Jack became her rock. “He’d had a difficult life,” she said, “including his father being murdered when he was 22.
“But everything he’d been through made him stronger. We had a lot in common. I have a son Karl, 21, and he’s divorced too with a daughter Nicole, 22.”
Jack became Helen’s “Magic Man” and she was “Jack’s Girl”.
“I had no doubts about it being a long distance relationship because I knew eventually we would be together,” she said.
“We were a couple, even though we weren’t together physically.”
Jack planned a three-week visit to Sunderland last month.
“I was going to go back with him to America, meet his family and then we would go travelling,” said Helen.
“I wanted to go to the Grand Canyon and Disneyland and he wanted to take me to Albuquerque in New Mexico, where he grew up.
“In the last chat we had, he said he was going to collect his last two pay cheques and then he was heading over in three weeks. He said he was sick of waiting.
“We were going to visit a solicitor once he arrived and work out if it was easier for him to live over here or for me to move to Arkansas.”
But on Sunday, May 7, Helen’s messages to Jack went unanswered.
“It was unheard of,” she said. “I knew something was wrong.
“A few hours later I got a message from Jack’s sister Vicky saying he had had a heart attack while watching baseball on TV.
“I was shopping with a friend in town, I screamed and she came running out of a changing room. She took me to another friend’s house and looked after me. The following day, I just cried all day.”
In a dream that night, Helen saw two airline boarding passes on a pillow.
She knew it as a sign that she had to travel to Jack’s funeral, so she set up an online fundraising page to try to pay for her £1,000 plane ticket.
“I have no idea if it would work but my friends were so generous,” she said. “They rallied round to sort out my flight, my accommodation, my visa.
“The journey was very emotional. Jack had sent me one of his t-shirts and I held on to it for comfort.”
Jack’s daughter Nicole met her at Arkansas airport.
“His family knew all about me,” she said.
“They could have been suspicious but they said they knew how much Jack and I loved each other.
“His friends and family said that he was always talking about me.”
Peanut factory worker Jack was buried with military honours at Fort Smith national cemetery in the colours of his beloved baseball team, the LA Dodgers.
The day before the service, Helen saw him for the first time. She placed a note and a toy in his coffin before kissing him hello – and goodbye.
Back in Sunderland, Helen treasures online video messages from Jack and a memory box filled with mementos.
Framed photos of him are in her lounge and she has a tattoo on her back bearing the words “Jack’s Girl”.
“I just wish I’d gone to see him after mum died in January,” she said.
“I miss his voice and when I get up in the morning I still look for a message from him.
“But Jack wouldn’t want me to be upset. I just hope he knew how much I loved him.”