Brian, 73, first came into contact with The Hospice of St Francis when his wife, Linda, became an outpatient. Linda was barely 60 and just months into a long-awaited retirement in March 2010 when investigations following a persistent cough revealed an inoperable tumour of the lungs.
To the non-smoking professional singer and her soul-mate and husband of 13 years, it was a total shock. “We had so many plans,” recalls Brian, from Kings Langley. “But we had every hope that she’d overcome it – the doctors said she would die with it rather than of it.”
Throughout two courses of chemotherapy, a course of radiotherapy and, after a battle for funding, targeted drug treatment, The Hospice of supported Linda as an outpatient, helping to control her symptoms.
However, after a minor fall which resulted in an unstable spine, Linda’s condition deteriorated and finally, on 15th December 2012, she was transferred from Watford Hospital to the Hospice’s Inpatient Unit.
“Linda and I both knew that the Hospice was the best place for her to be,” recalls Brian. “The level of support she’d received for her symptom control had given her great confidence in the Hospice and the staff, and she felt safe and very relieved that it had lifted a great part of the burden of care from me.
“In one word, the care and support was inspiring,” says Brian, “the meticulous attention to detail, the reassurance, the encouragement, the comfort, the time. Nothing was too much trouble. On Christmas Day, they prepared a full Christmas dinner, with crackers and all the trimmings, for us and we ate it together. It’s a lovely positive memory.”
But for every improvement in Linda’s condition came at least as many setbacks, which were ultimately insurmountable. On 26th January 2013 the couple were told that nothing more could be done.
Brian remembers the moment vividly. “Linda’s first question was ‘But who’s going to look after Brian?’ and the medical director told her: ‘We will.’”
Linda died peacefully the following day with Brian and his daughter Susan at her side but as Brian faced what he calls “the grey bubble” of life without her, the Hospice has been as good as its word, supporting him through weekly bereavement counselling as well as its six-week Cooking with Chris course.
“The bereavement team has been brilliant,” Brian says. “They’ve helped and continue to help me deal with a situation I can’t avoid and have no choice but to endure. Painful though it is, the more times you can revisit a problem, the less difficult it becomes to approach it.”
In October 2013, Brian took part in our Cooking with Chris Course. Every Wednesday evening for six weeks, he joined seven fellow cooks to build on his kitchen skills, learn new recipes and perhaps most importantly for Brian, spend time in the company of kindred spirits – all recently bereaved themselves.
Brian says, “You find when you lose someone that your friends and acquaintances don’t know what to say. They’re doing things and they’re busy and you’re not part of that scenario any more. You can become very isolated and cut off from the world.
“But thanks to Cooking with Chris, here I was, back socialising with people and sitting around a table with people who wouldn’t ask questions about my problems and knew what I was going through. It was just what I needed.”
The course is named after the Hospice’s Catering Manager Chris Took, who along with senior cook Gill Sears and volunteers, guide the group as they take it in turns to prepare starters, main courses, puddings and something to take home.
Participants of all different competencies learn practical cooking skills and pick up tips on buying and preparing fresh ingredients, timing, batch cooking, using left-overs, freezing and cooking for one.
Says Brian, “For me, it wasn’t a case of learning to cook from scratch because I enjoyed it before. Linda and I used to cook when we felt like it and if we didn’t, it was beans on toast. It was never a chore. What I was keen to do though was learn some new recipes, which I’ve done.
“I now do a mean leek, mushroom and brie pasty, a tasty apricot and almond tart and a fantastic fisherman’s pie. The other thing that the course has given me is the confidence to improvise and not stick so rigidly to my recipe books.”
Food always has been and always will be important to Brian - just as it was to Linda. “She always had a great love of Italian food after working as an au pair in Italy,” he remembers. As she underwent aggressive chemotherapy, however, her sensitivity to smells grew and because of her lung condition, she found it difficult to breathe, meaning going out for meals was no longer an option.
So Brian created a restaurant in their living room and called it Restaurant 84 – 84 being the number of their house. He explains, “Rather than just serve up a meal, I’d lay the table, put on a decent pair of slacks, a white shirt and bow tie and with a cloth over my hand, I’d serve dinner with a glass of wine. Linda would know the service and the food very well.
“It seems like only yesterday that she’d be asking me to cook if we had friends coming round for dinner. I happily used to do it – but thanks to the Hospice and Cooking with Chris, the choice today is a bit more varied and of that, I know Linda would have been proud.”
Brian now volunteers in our IT department but he would never consider his faithful work as helping the Hospice, but another way we continue to support him.
“I so wished to give something in return – so I volunteered,” he explains. “I was happy to work anywhere but the garden and I’ve found myself in IT - an oval peg in an oval hole. Every week I look forward to the time I’ve committed to spend here and feel extremely useful doing whatever I’m tasked with.
“I was and still am overwhelmed by the way the Hospice’s care surrounded, enfolded and supported my Linda, myself and my family both during her illness and afterwards. There were not enough words at the time. There are still not enough…”