It was Friday 18th December 1992, our last day at school – Neil aged 17 and in Year 13; Alistair aged 15 and in Year 10; my husband Ian from Sheffield University; and myself, a teacher, but not at the same school as the boys. I’d been so proud that day as I’d taken in some professional photos of the four of us and some just of the two boys – the first ones I’d ever had taken – and showed them to friends and colleagues. It was taken by a professional photographer, the son of a friend and taken at her house. She brought a set round Thursday evening. Little did I know that I wouldn’t be able to look at those photos again for over 6 months.
Sunday 20th started as a normal day. We were baking for Christmas and the boys put up and decorated the Christmas tree. Neil was leader of the local venture scout unit, in fact he had set it up and got the group involved in conservation work in the Peak District, one of his passions. His applications to university to study Geography had all been sent. He was also involved in the local scout post; Alistair too, in his scout unit. Neil went off at about 7pm to the local scout hut for a meeting. “See you later, mum” he said. I wouldn’t see him alive again.
The lads phoned us at about 8 pm and said Neil had collapsed. This was in the days before mobile phones; there wasn’t even a phone in the building, the lads had run up to the nearest phone box. When we went down, there was an ambulance parked outside and seeing that was a shock, but there was a bigger shock waiting for us when we walked in. The youngsters were stunned. Neil was lying on the floor, lifeless, being attended to by paramedics. They worked on him for a while, called for back-up and then took him by ambulance to the local hospital.
Alistair didn’t want to come with us. We dropped him off at a friend’s and then drove to the hospital. “How is he?”, I asked. “You’d better come in, the doctor wants to talk to you”. “I’m sorry”, she said. I couldn’t take this in. We went in to see Neil. I felt my knees giving way. This couldn’t be happening. “We love you so much”, I said. Outside in the waiting area a policeman said to us “And what sort of a party has he been to then?”. It was only later that the callousness of this remark hit us.
We phoned family, picked up Alistair and drove home. Neil’s slippers were by the door, his toothbrush in the rack. “How am I ever going to deal with this?”, I thought. The three of us slept in the same bed that night. Friends came round the next day. They thought there had been a mistake – Neil (my 17-year-old son) and Ian (my 47-year-old husband) – it must be Ian, they thought. 17-year-olds don’t die. My dear friends abandoned their plans for Christmas, made endless cups of tea for visitors, fed us and supported us. Neil’s friends came round every day telling us about the pranks he had got up to. Leaving bits of cheese next to the mice they were going to dissect in their biology lessons. Making and selling sandwiches from my kitchen. Now I knew where all the food from the fridge had disappeared to. I watched for the post hoping a letter would come to tell me it had all been a big mistake. I truly believe your mind can’t accept the enormity of a situation like this in one go and it is only gradually accepted. The phrase “coming to terms with it” takes a long time.
The funeral was arranged by the Scout Organisation in Dronfield. I don’t remember much about the organisation but I do remember those scouts, including Alistair, in their well-pressed uniforms lining the route of the coffin from the lych gate to the church door; and I shall never, never forget the sight of that coffin next to the Christmas tree and crib scene at the base of the chancel steps. In fact, for a few following Christmases I couldn’t bear to look at the tree. We buried Neil’s ashes in the church’s memorial gardens on a freezing cold January day, just the three of us and our dear Rector, Derek Palmer. He advised us not to scatter them but to have them in a place where the many people who loved Neil could come. Since then, there is a living stone, a paving stone with Neil’s initials ‘NCW’ near the church door.
Neil’s university acceptances started coming in after Christmas before his name could be removed from the system; and then the post-mortem. They didn’t know what had caused his death, only that his heart had stopped. The verdict was an ‘Open verdict’, cause of death unascertained. Nothing could bring him back. This was just a piece of paper. “How can you live with this?”, people asked me. “I don’t have a choice”, I said. It was only later – and now almost 22 years later – that the significance of that verdict has hit home.
CRY didn’t exist in 1992. I didn’t even find out about it until 2012 when, after retiring and joining the Inner Wheel Club of Dronfield, the ladies asked me to be their President. I needed a charity. There was no doubt in my mind what I wanted to do. I googled ‘Sudden Adult Death’ and CRY came up. It was just what I wanted. It was for young people. I could do something local. How I wish I had known about it before. I’m sure they would have helped us through those bleak years when we struggled on without any professional help.
The three of us just distracted ourselves with work and studying. Alistair went on to study Natural Sciences at Cambridge University, did a Ph.D. in the USA and has been working on the 1000 Genome Project in Boston, Massachusetts and is just about to start work in Utah splitting his time between there and his home near Boston. He married last year aged 36 on June 8th 2013 on Cape Cod his lovely American wife, Kristie who had patiently waited for him to be able to make the decision to commit to loving someone again. Alistair’s going to be working at the Centre for Genetical Discovery in Salt Lake City. They’re developing big data management, disease discovery and genome interpretation tools for research and clinical applications.
I’m pleased I’m involved with CRY and trying to screen as many young people as possible is my aim. I know from Alistair how collecting data is so beneficial to research and if any young lives can be saved, CRY are there at the forefront.
We’ve just held our first screening in Neil’s memory and last night I had a phone call from the girl who had been seeing Neil aged 16, just before he died. She’s now an anaesthetist, married with a baby and living in Australia. I haven’t heard from her in years. It felt like the right time to write my story.
By Elaine Ward