Les’s wife, Fiona, died of secondary breast cancer in 2019. He shares some powerful and moving thoughts about her passing, how he is celebrating her memory, and the incredible life they shared.
I asked Fiona to marry me after saving her life
Fiona and I met at Edinburgh University. I was in my third year, she was in her first. We were both involved in the Baptist Students' Association and went to regular ceilidhs, prayer meetings and other events.
At the end of that year, Fiona asked for volunteers to help at a church summer camp, so I went along. During the fortnight I was there, we had one free night, and Fiona wanted to spend it swimming in the sea – so we did.
However, she didn’t know how dangerous it was, and within what felt like seconds she’d been swept 100 yards out and was calling for help. I had been a competitive swimmer at school and had life-saving training, so I didn’t even think twice. I shot out and saved her. It was a tough experience for both of us, but it really brought us together.
Six days later, I asked her to marry me.
‘The swim drama’, as it came to be known, was not the only time I had to save Fiona’s life. She was diabetic and experienced hypoglycaemia, and there were times I had to call out the ambulance. Once I was told that, if we had waited 10 minutes longer, she wouldn’t have made it.
She also experienced a burst appendix and peritonitis – so we had a series of very significant health issues. Breast cancer was the final big thing.
Her final months were full of love and laughter
We were living in Spain when she found the lump in 2015. We decided to come back to Britain for treatment. She had a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. It was a rollercoaster ride of emotions for both of us – an enormously difficult thing to go through.
The treatments seemed to be successful, and we returned to Spain in February 2016 after Fiona was told she no longer had cancer. Though this was fantastically welcome news, I remember Fiona saying, ‘How can they know for certain?’
Her comment turned out to be sadly prescient as, in July 2018, we found out she had metastatic breast cancer. To avoid any confusion, the oncologist made it clear to us that there was no known cure for this diagnosis.
What followed was a surprisingly tranquil year back in our own home reconnecting with friends and family. Fiona was completely positive throughout. She never gave any indication of being angry, bitter, resentful or gloomy. She lived every day in the moment and loved and laughed as much as ever.
This couldn’t go on forever though. In December, the chemotherapy stopped working and she deteriorated rapidly. Fiona passed away on 13 January 2019 at the age of 58. We had been together for almost 40 years.
I wanted to share Fiona’s incredible work
After she died, I was going through family papers and came across some of Fiona’s writing. She was always a poet. She produced loads of stuff, usually for an occasion such as a birthday, retirement or wedding.
When I found all that work, I was struck by the sheer volume of it – and also how good it was.
My first thought was that I ought to put it online for people to enjoy, but that didn’t seem enough. So then I thought we could do a live event. Fiona was a tremendous party animal, so a celebration of some sort seemed fitting.
By the time I’d planned to do that, it just made sense to produce a book of her poems and stories, and to turn the event into a fundraiser. I called in the help of someone who knew Fiona very well, and who speaks the Orcadian language (a dialect used in Orkney, where Fiona was from). The poems were read by Orcadian speakers so that they could be enjoyed in their authentic voice.
Live events to launch and promote the book were organised both in Kirkwall, the Orkney capital, and also Westray, Fiona’s home island.
My three aims were to celebrate Fiona through her own words and thoughts, to raise cash to help prevent what happened to her happening to others and, finally, to have a party and laugh a lot - which Fiona would have particularly approved of! Only about 10 days after the initial launch, we exceeded the target of £2,500, which makes the whole thing very worthwhile.
I decided that the funds raised through the event should go to Breast Cancer Now, as I like their goal that, by 2050, nobody will die of breast cancer.
I don’t focus on what I lost, but what I gained
Describing Fiona is a near-impossible task. She was witty, generous, funny, determined, knowledgeable, creative, unpredictable, quirky, practical, spontaneous, and not terribly tidy. A therapist by profession, a committed believer by conviction, an influencer long before YouTube was invented, and a delight by personality. Her headstone says, ‘In memory of a remarkable woman’.
For anyone else who has lost a loved one to breast cancer, I will say that it is brutal. You can’t be positive all the time, and you have to just hang on when it gets difficult.
But, as a friend of mine said to me shortly after Fiona died, in order to have great loss, you must first have great gain. I think it’s fantastic to look at it that way. I focus on what I had, and I had what everybody wants.
I think that there are many ways that love can die, but bereavement is not necessarily one of them. I strongly believe that love can survive along with consciousness, personality, and the very essence of a person.
It’s unlucky that Fiona got cancer, and I hope one day that nobody gets it. But I am so lucky to have had so long with her, and that’s what I choose to think about.
If you have lost a loved one to breast cancer and would like to support Breast Cancer Now in their honour, you may want to set up a Fund in Memory. These special online pages provide a simple way to organise a funeral or memorial event collection online and will remain here for you to continue to visit as often or as little as you like.