Anna’s story for our Radio 4 Appeal week draws to a close today as Bob recounts the legacy that was created in his daughter’s memory.
During the last week in November 1998, Anna found herself back in the Brompton as the tumour in her trachea made its presence felt once more. She began, for perhaps the only time during her five-year battle, to open up the barriers that she had kept shut for so long, and admit that she had really had enough. As the signs and symptoms looked bleak, Megs and Anna cried together.
Anna was sent home, and on the last day of November Megs and Anna had a lovely time as Anna chose Christmas presents for everyone on her list.
The next day she was exhausted and very unwell. Megs and I got a call from Anna telling us her breathing was changing and that we might need to get to the hospital. She knew just how serious the situation was.
At the Lister Hospital, nothing could prevent the moment we had feared and dreaded for such a long time. I pray she knew very little of what was occurring. The memory will haunt me forever. Mitchell stood holding her left hand, I stroked her forehead and hair, Megs continued to pass on instructions from the Brompton phone line. A high-pitched tone replaced the sound of her pulse from the monitor. It was sensitively switched off and silenced.
We had travelled such a long road since she entered the Lister hospital as a trainee nurse, full of enthusiasm for her chosen career. This was also where she had first encountered the face of her foe and where that evil enemy finally seized her life.
For an hour we stood in a side room and looked down on her beauty. In six days’ time she would have celebrated her thirty-second birthday, but in the last five years she had been able to tell us all how to get the best out of life.
Anna had planned her funeral in minute detail. ‘No flowers. Donations? Cancer I guess.’ Her mischief lived on.
To all in attendance she had asked that the message be read out, ‘PLEASE BE HAPPY’.
In the weeks and months that followed, it was difficult to fill the void that had opened up in our lives. We missed her, and still do.
Throughout this time, in coming to terms with the loss of one of our children and two other close friends, both women taken in the prime of their life, Megs kept remembering Anna’s words about not giving up on life. ‘Don’t let this thing destroy you. If anything, go out and make use of what you’ve learned.’
Terry Mitchinson, the editor of the local newspaper, the Welwyn and Hatfield Times, had been very moved by Anna’s story and got in touch. He wondered if we had thought of doing something in her memory. We too had toyed with the idea but it was only six months after Anna’s death and we were still struggling to cope with everyday life. Megs felt that any memorial should be something that was needed and worthwhile, but that was not readily available, so suggested a meeting with the chief executive of the local hospitals and hospices.
She asked them if there was anything valuable that the NHS could not provide and yet would be invaluable. The reply came back that hospitals could provide diagnosis and treatment but could not give quality of life. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a service that could send a seriously ill patient out for a massage, a hair-do, a meal with friends, to the theatre, or for a day out at a sporting occasion?
The idea began to excite us as it reflected Anna’s own philosophy of having quality time with those closest to her. It had been proved time and again that when Anna had a special day, either at a concert, a football match, or even at her dad’s special tribute programme, an adrenaline rush of excitement would give her the means to cope with all that an evening or day out entailed. If Anna smiled, all those around her smiled. If she was enjoying herself, it would reflect on everyone else and make life that much more bearable. Megs suggested that if it worked for Anna, why shouldn’t it work for others.
So we decided to set up a charity that would fund and provide special days for seriously ill people between the ages of sixteen and forty. It was also important to us that serious illness did not just mean cancer, but all life-threatening conditions. The charity needed a name and for that we turned to Mitchell who suggested we called it ‘Willow Foundation’. He was in the habit of calling Anna ‘Wills’ and ‘Willow’ as a reflection of her maiden name, but was unaware that it was also my nickname as a player at Arsenal.
Terry Mitchinson had promised his paper’s full support and persuaded by Megs, once the charity had been launched, to print a new story about it every week for the first year. We in turn promised to go to every fundraising event put on by the people in the area, no matter how big or how small. We decided the charity should start its life in the North and East of Hertfordshire, the area in which Anna lived and practiced her community nursing.
On 25 August 1999, the Willow Foundation was launched at Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire . It was an emotional moment as we saw the birth of an idea created in Anna’s memory and conceived out of her needs during illness.
It was heartwarming to receive such overwhelming support for the idea of Willow and, although my having a recognizable face helped the charity’s growth, it was other people’s compassion and understanding that allowed it to expand so rapidly.
After only four months of fundraising, we were able to give our first special day. It was a young lady whose one wish was to go to the theatre with her husband. They were so delighted with their evening out, and the fact that everything had been organised for them, that they sent the charity £30 as their donation to our work. Two months later, the young lady died, but her husband was left with a very special memory.
The letters we receive from those who have benefitted from a Special Day tell us how much their special day meant to them and their families at a time when quality time was not easily available. The Willow Foundation reflects all that Megs and I learned during the five years we were privileged to witness our daughter’s strength of character during her illness. I feel strongly that the experience, however sad, has helped enrich our lives and, in my case particularly, made me appreciate what is of importance in life and what isn’t.
A Special Day during treatment makes such a difference to those experiencing serious illness. This year we have already received a record number of applications. We need your support to help make more Special Days a reality. Please donate. Thank you.
Read the earlier two parts of Anna's story here.
Anna's Journey: Diagnosis
Anna's Journey: Cancer Returns
Anna's Journey: This is your life