Liz and Neil's story | The Hospice of St. Francis

Liz and Neil's story

"Finally, someone was listening to us with empathy and patience"

Our daughter Bethany used to follow her dad all around the house.  Neil couldn’t take a shower without her trying to follow. Bethany just wanted to be close to her dad – her favourite person. Whether Neil was reading Bethany a bedtime story or splashing with our two daughters in a pool, he was a loving, present father. As devoted to our girls as they were to him.

Neil and I had fallen in love at work, where we were both accountants. I loved his intelligence, sociability and natural kindness. We took our careers seriously, but we decided to work less when our daughters were born so we could spend as much time with them as possible.

Neil was always a hands-on dad, taking the girls to baby groups and making up silly songs. As they grew, he taught Lucy to kick a ball and Bethany to ride a bike. Every Saturday morning, Neil and the girls would bake desserts to tempt me when I came home from my run. Neil loved taking care of people, which meant feeding us well.

We were getting ready to celebrate Neil’s 40th birthday with a family holiday abroad, but he’d been feeling unwell for a few months. The GP assured us it wasn’t cancer. But we cancelled the trip because Neil needed a colonoscopy.  

On the day we finally met the surgeon, I’d convinced myself that it couldn’t be cancer. But in one short moment, our lives shifted. Neil had a stage four tumour. It was too big to operate on. This floored me. I started crying uncontrollably. I suddenly saw how this would go. How I was going to lose Neil and the girls would lose their father. It felt like something that happens to other people. Not us.

Neil was in shock. When we got home, he fell to the ground and sobbed. Lucy was eight years old. Bethany was six. When someone is given a diagnosis of stage 4 cancer, it puts everything into perspective. Being with loved ones is so important because you’ll never, ever get that time back again.

Neil couldn’t stand the thought of leaving his daughters without a father. He underwent relentless courses of chemotherapy and radiotherapy to try to prolong his life. He wanted to endure as much as he could, but besides the gruelling chemotherapy, he was also having to deal with infections, blood clots, rashes and painful swelling. He was so, so tired, but he continued working and taking care of the girls. Neil walked Bethany to school each morning. He was still trying to bake and cook with the girls. We cuddled each other and talked, holding hands in bed. The oncologist said Neil should never be in pain, but he was suffering overwhelming pain. We didn’t know where to turn and felt very alone.

One year and two months after Neil’s diagnosis, we arrived at The Hospice of St Francis. It felt like such a relief. Finally, someone was listening to us with empathy and patience. Neil felt so comfortable in the Hospice, and the staff came to feel like friends. Dr Katy added extra time to Neil’s life by spotting an infection and acting swiftly. Nurse Kate stayed late after her shifts to give Neil massages for his lymphedema. Neil’s biggest concern was that he didn’t want to leave the children, and he confided in Nurses Ellie and Barbara about how sad he was about this.

I had been living two lives, rushing around like a madwoman. When I got to the Hospice, it was like an oasis. I could have every dinner there with Neil, walk with him through the garden. We had time to have all the conversations we needed to have. Time to cry. Time to eat lots of puddings together. Time to just chill out in the Cuddle Bed together – to lay together, watching TV. The girls sometimes stayed overnight in the family room and we’d have a pizza night or play Nintendo. Lucy kept saying how lucky Daddy was to be in such a beautiful place.

Bethany loved exploring the gardens, and Neil would walk with her to the pond when he could. One time, he asked the nurses to help him so he could make little crispy cakes with the girls in his room. Those days and nights meant so much to us, spending quality time together without all the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

I thought it was right to tell the girls that Daddy wasn’t going to get better. It was a sunny day and we sat on the benches overlooking the fields. It just felt like the right time. The girls had a lot of questions. They were trying to come up with ways they could get the cancer out of Daddy.

I was full of devastation, the thought of the finality of it all. It’s true you don’t know how good you have it until something devastating happens.  I kept telling myself and Neil that I would try to be the best mum I could be for our children. Some of his last words to me were “I know you will” and “I love you.”

Neil died lying next to me, holding my hand. His breathing grew slower, he was peaceful, and I was talking to him the whole time. I was telling him how much he was loved, how proud we were of him. I repeated the children’s last words to him. Lucy had said, “You will always be in my heart.” Bethany had said, “Nibbles loves Dibbles” – their pet names for each other. I reminded Neil that the children would be his legacy, and I would look after them and be the best mum I could be. I kissed him. I said he would fly high in heaven, and we would meet him there eventually. 

The Hospice means so much to us – it touches so many people in the community. The girls recently held a cake sale to raise money, and I’m bringing friends and family together to fundraise, too. That extra time we spent with Neil was so incredibly precious. I want other families to be able to have that too.