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Saturday 24 August 2019

love, hope and grief

My cancer’s worse than yours

Vikki Orvice was a star: a pioneering woman reporter in the male world of tabloid sports journalism. Her death this year at the age of just 56 was a huge loss to her profession. And it plunged her husband, Ian Ridley, into a world of profound grief

This story appears in the new edition of Tortoise Quarterly. Depending on your membership, you’ll receive your copy in glorious, old-fashioned print or as an ebook in mid-August. To buy a copy of our short book of long reads, visit tortoisemedia.com/shop

Where do you start with love, with death, with grief? Those short words are stuffed with so much emotion. You hear about the five stages of grief, for example – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – but each of those headings has sub-headings that have sub-headings. Besides, you go in and out of each, all often in the same day, the same hour.

For me, the only way to make any sense of it all and bring order from the chaos of competing states of sentience is to begin at the end. My precious Vikki died at 5.02am on Wednesday, 6 February 2019, aged just 56. Actually, that was when she stopped breathing. Bibi, the Marie Curie nurse who had come to the house as relief so I could get some sleep after two nights without, said we had to wait another 10 minutes to be sure before the time of death could be recorded. So 5.12am officially it was.

After 12 years of enduring chronic cancer, and 12 months of acute decline, Vikki slipped away peacefully, even swiftly, in a bed in our living room, as she could no longer make it upstairs.

I had heard the phrase “a good death” and never believed it, particularly after seeing, or more accurately hearing, an uncle death-rattle for several hours towards his demise and my father fall, terrified, into a coma. But Vikki’s death was as gentle as it could be and I now understood that euphemism of people “passing away”.

She had wanted to be in her own home, and I had insisted on bringing her back from an A&E bay where her deteriorating condition had taken us and where a drug addict hallucinated in a bay alongside her. Now, she was among the “nice things” she talked of and craved. I lit candles and put on a CD of soothing Keith Jarrett jazz piano music.

As she went, I talked to her and I told her I loved her and that I would miss her. (I didn’t know how much at this point.) I kissed her forehead. She couldn’t reply, of course. I wondered what my last words to her had been when she was semi-conscious yesterday, and couldn’t remember. And so I hoped it was true that the dying can hear all you say.

Only when Bibi confirmed that she was indeed dead did I weep. There was no longer the panic of the previous November day when I saw her, eyes rolling, on the floor of the Clinical Assessment Unit at the Royal Marsden cancer hospital in London when she simply fainted, though I believed then that she was in the throes of death. This was simply a say-it-ain’t-so sadness. And I knew this day was coming. I just thought it a month or two off yet.

With the first shafts of light would come mourning. I lose track here slightly of who came to the house first; I think it was two nurses from the hospice organisation under whose auspices Vikki had come when the consultant at the Marsden that dank November afternoon had told us that they had run out of chemotherapy options now that the cancer was embedded in the liver, having begun its wicked life as secondary breast cancer those 12 years earlier.

Sympathetic and supportive, the two nurses busied themselves with tasks with which they were familiar even if I was not. While one attended to the paperwork that would tell of time and cause of death for Vikki’s GP later to issue more paperwork, the other tended to Vikki, making her look at peace.

“She’s smiling,” she said, and it was true that Vikki did have a look of serenity, acceptance perhaps, on her face. I’m not sure if it was said to me to comfort and console. It worked, though, and I was thankful. Then came a question for which I will be forever grateful; it gave me the most precious, intimate and tender moment of my life. “Would you like to brush her hair?” the nurse asked.

Her hair, such as it was after years of coatings by various chemos – loss and regrowth – was short and thick and grey, unlike the immaculately styled, sleek, raven-hued chevelure when I first met her. It really didn’t need much brushing. But I stroked and cajoled the soft bristles through it until I might have begun to look a little obsessive to the nurses.

By 7am they were finished. I think the local GP also came, to confirm V’s death. I know the village vicar came, because it was at my request. He performed prayers of commendation, asking that God accept her. In between, I had texted what little family she had – her stepchildren, cousins, mainly – to relay the bad news. Then close friends, particularly in the village.

When I was left on my own with her, I recalled that she had asked me to announce, very simply, her death on Facebook and Twitter. And so, at 9am, sitting in an armchair at her bedside, I did. It read:

“My beloved, bright, brilliant wife Vikki Orvice passed away at 5am, able to defy the cancer no longer. I am bereft, empty, but grateful for her life and her love. Those who feel the breath of sadness, sit down next to me.”

That last sentence was a quotation from a song by James, a Manchester band of the 1990s we both loved and had seen in concert at the Royal Albert Hall together. It just came into my mind as I typed.

What happened next was astonishing.

Like me, Vikki was a sports journalist, she being on The Sun. She had been the first female football writer appointed to the staff of a tabloid newspaper, back in 1995, and had gone on to be the paper’s athletics correspondent, covering five Olympic Games, starting in Sydney in 2000. I knew she was respected and well liked but the reaction to the news of her death quickly became overwhelming.

Replies came flooding in from family and close friends, acquaintances and strangers, the famous and the unknown. The former footballers Tony Adams, a family friend, and Gary Neville, the Olympic champion Jessica Ennis-Hill, the former world marathon record-holder Paula Radcliffe, world champion relay sprinter Adam Gemili, offered sympathy, and Vikki their sadness. Sebastian Coe tweeted about his good friend and how much of an influence she had had in getting The Sun to back the London 2012 bid.

A woman in a man’s world: Vikki, 22, receives an award for her journalism while at her first job, on the Wakefield Express
Athletics became her main sport. She covered Mo Farah’s golden “double double” at the Rio Olympics in 2016
With Jess Ennis after her heroics at London 2012
Interviewing a young David Beckham back in 1998

I sat and watched them all come in, spellbound. There were text messages and phone calls too, but I could not bring myself to answer them. “Look at this, Vikki,” I said. “I wish you could see this.”

Some tweets I felt required reply, including the sympathy of Tim Booth, the singer of James, whose song I had quoted. And I wanted to thank the local hospice, the Royal Marsden Hospital and Bibi, for ensuring that I was awake, and present, senses heightened, when Vikki died. For now though, I could only mostly thank people generally.

At one point, Vikki was even trending on Twitter. She would have found it amusing. Actually, I think she would have loved it. I tweeted:

“The saddest bit today is wanting to show her, to say: ‘Look, Vikki. This is what you meant to everyone’ but she can’t see or hear. I think and hope she knew. From me for sure. Anyway, tell someone today what they mean to you while you can.”

I couldn’t bring myself to ring the undertakers. It would be something final, would mean that they would have to come and take the body away. I wanted just to sit here, in peace and solitude, and be with her for a while longer. Down the years, I had read of people who keep their dead partner’s body in the house for days and weeks. It always struck me as ghoulish, weird. This morning, I had a glimmer of understanding.

By early afternoon the time had come. By mid-afternoon the undertakers had arrived. A kindly middle-aged man, his deferential, respectful manner honed no doubt by years of comforting experience, suggested that it might be as well if I adjourned to another room while he and his colleague transferred the body from the bed to their vehicle. I hadn’t noticed what vehicle was outside the house – hearse? van? – but I did know what they meant. She was leaving in a bodybag.

Then she was gone.

And the house was empty.

Vikki had left instructions for her funeral. They included how to book the village hall and a gospel choir and whom among the ladies in the village to enlist to sort out the flowers, the sandwiches (to be bought at Marks & Spencer) and the wine (one glass per person, from Aldi). She was insistent that the service should be in our local church, St Leonard’s, in the Hertfordshire village where we were married, and that she be buried in the cemetery – God’s Acre – 100 yards away.

And so I made a to-do list before crying myself to sleep as ‘Sailing By’ gave way to the Shipping Forecast gave way to the World Service. Come 8.30am, as my ears pricked up after hours of fitful dozing, I began to realise my to-do list was going to need revision. We were going to need a bigger boat.

The sports bulletin of the Today programme was doing an appreciation through Anna Kessel, co-founder of an organisation Vikki had helped establish to combat sexism, Women in Football. I got up and, being an old-fashioned sort who prefers considered printed words to the immediacy of the internet, where it is hard to gauge significance amid the shouting, went to buy the newspapers.

There were four pages of obituary and tributes to her in The Sun. I had phoned the sports editor, Shaun Custis, a few days before to advise him of Vikki’s decline, and to ask that Steve Howard, now retired as chief sports writer but whom V respected greatly and who had been on overseas assignments with her, should write it. It was magnificent.

I got on with the chores of death’s aftermath. I had to strip the loaned hospital bed ready for the company to collect it. I removed the bedding and threw it away. Because bodies relax at their death, and functions go uncontrolled, the sheets were soiled. So, too, the plastic mattress. I wiped the urine and excrement from it. I was happy, even grateful, to do so. It was the last part of Vikki. I wanted to remain close to her and this was one way of doing it.

I took calls from family, mainly Vikki’s, and our closest friends. Otherwise I let my mobile ring and buzz with texts, watched my email inbox fill up. I checked Twitter and Facebook. It continued to be overwhelming. The numbers were clicking like a football turnstile. Eventually, there would be more than 1,500 replies, 756 retweets and 20,784 likes of my original tweet.

By now, I needed space and solitude. I went to sit in our local church for half an hour before going to see the vicar to discuss the funeral. Vikki and I had such history in the place. It was another way of reconnecting with her.

As the days wore on, and messages and media coverage piled up – including an obituary in The Times, for which they had contacted me asking for anecdotes, and the Telegraph, which would have amused her, given our politics – it was clear that getting sandwiches from M&S and wine from Aldi was not going to be enough. An email sending condolences from the Football Writers’ Association, of which Vikki was vice-chair and had hoped to become the first female chair, contained the warning that “a bloody big church” had better be available.

It wasn’t. It seated about 120, with room for roughly the same number standing. I soon began to fret about how to organise this. It didn’t help that I was walking around in a daze. I was only half-finishing tasks; leaving a bin bag on the doorstep rather than depositing it in a bin. I found myself in front of the bathroom mirror staring at my weeping face with a carton of milk in my hand.

By now, Vikki was a public figure. I’m not sure she had realised just how respected and liked she was in her profession and by footballers, athletes and sporting administrators. By nature, journalists are competitive. They are looking to scoop their rivals, even colleagues on their own papers, to show their boss they are alert and good at what they do. It can lead to wanting to do others down before they do you down.

And while competitors on other publications can become friends, from shared hardships and overseas trips, all are aware that the profession can be a battleground. It was especially acute for Vikki as a woman in what had for too long been a man’s world and she had to fight to get her stories printed and used properly.

It was that, I think, that would have surprised her most amid this outpouring of admiration, love and affection for her. The sheer welter of respect for her professionalism and talent.

I recalled the incidents and episodes she had endured that had made her defensive at times: of football managers who looked at her while making laddish, lewd remarks, trying to embarrass her, or the one who asked her out, seeking to use his position of power; of a colleague on her early days at The Sun who said to another that they “would have her out of here in tears in a week”.

(And while recalling the misogyny she faced, I find it ironic that a Sky Sports chat show for football writers the following Sunday would note her passing and pay tribute. This was a programme, usually featuring four blokes round the table, that had never once invited her to appear.)

Then there was the plain funny – the Press Room steward at a Premier League club who checked with her whether she thought they had made enough sandwiches for the reporters. And the head of the Cyprus FA who asked her, while she was covering an England Under-21 game there, why she was not at home, “making beautiful things”.

Now she was being routinely referred to as a trailblazer and a pioneer who had packed so much into her career. My Vikki. My privately vulnerable and self-doubting Vikki, always concerned that she might get the sack if she didn’t keep delivering, even with the cancer and the chemo and the side-effects.

I set to work on a funeral day to do her proud, frozen at first but surrounded by sympathy. Vikki’s friends in the village were especially remarkable and they would become my friends. One lovely lady knocked on the door with a dish of pasta and Bolognese. Another brought a lamb tagine for the freezer. Over the next few weeks, they would become my organising committee for an event that her boss at The Sun – the paper also helping with finance and organisational support – would describe as “like a state funeral”.

The gospel choir was the first booking. Then there was an overspill marquee, and a company to film and relay the service into the marquee. There were professional caterers, car park and seating plans to organise. Fortunately, much of it was taken out of my hands.

A week after her death, I visited the chapel of rest where her open coffin lay. She was in the beautiful red rose-patterned outfit she had worn when representing a breast cancer charity at a Buckingham Palace garden party on a magical May day last year. The room was icy but I sat with her for as long as I could, talking to her. I kissed her forehead. I couldn’t resist taking a last photo of her.

On the day before her burial, at my request, the undertakers brought her to the church at sunset and I sat with her closed casket on my own, as I did at dawn on the day itself. I knew I would have to share her with so many. I wanted to recall that she was my wife, a human being, not only a pioneering journalist, my love and, given our shared passions for sport, the arts and music, my soulmate.

The day itself proved to be the warmest February day for decades, people wearing light suits and dresses. I was desperate for her to have a memorable send-off – which was why I had taken care of myself by eating and sleeping properly in the days before so I would not get ill.

The church bells rang, the choir sang and almost 500 people turned up, half of them in that marquee to watch on a big screen. Her friends delivered the readings she requested and I relayed her final message, which had people laughing and crying by turn.

“I think Private Eye’s Street of Shame – a rite of passage in any journalist’s career – once described me as ‘feisty’ and ‘shirty’,” she had written. “Well – no excuses – but it was only because I cared. Thanks though to those who stuck with me along the way.

“I’ve had the most amazing life and being first diagnosed 12 years ago tends to focus your priorities so I was able to pack in trips to weird and wonderful places both through work and on holidays.”

Her beloved football team, Sheffield United – who were represented at the funeral by her favourite player, Tony Currie – were not going to go unmentioned.

“Sheffield United, though I fear are going to bottle it again,” she had written. “A whiff of automatic promotion and they crumble… (she would turn out to be wrong about that, for once).

“On that note we don’t want people to be sad today. What happens now is another adventure, another country to visit, a test of trust and hope. So please try and remember the good things. And good things in your life too.

“As for that offside rule… I’m still working on it!”

She had requested that I deliver a eulogy but how could I follow that with anything as remotely touching and witty? All I could try to do was do her justice, pausing midway through to ask the broadcaster and her colleague in Women in Football, Jacqui Oatley, to read a message from Lord Coe, her fellow Sheffielder.

“She came into our lives for just a short time but her impact was profound,” he had written. “She will be loved and remembered by so many, me amongst them, for a very long time.”

I told of her life so well lived, her career – the highlight being the London Olympics of 2012, and Super Saturday in particular, when Team GB won those six gold medals – all the committees and organisations she served, including six years as a patient governor for the Royal Marsden, of how at dinners she hated me introducing myself with “Hello, I’m Denis Thatcher”.

I even told my favourite story, of the time when we were sitting next to Sir Bobby Robson at a Football Writers’ Association dinner. “Vikki has cancer as well,” I said to Bobby. “What type?” he asked her. “Well, they think the primary was breast but it could have been ovarian,” she replied. “Them, pet,” Bob said, “are the only two I’ve not had.”

“The tensions of cancer take their toll,” my eulogy continued. “We had our ups and downs, as those who knew us well would testify. But they came too with love, passion, a shared sense of humour, and cultural interests. Anyway, ups and downs are the rhythm of life. Like the movements on a cardiograph, they show you’re alive. And how alive Vikki was.

“She was gregarious, tender, vulnerable, warm-hearted and funny, with a smile as wide as the M1 at Tinsley Viaduct. She was waspishly witty and I wasn’t spared. When I came home from the British Press Awards with the Sports Journalist of the Year trophy 12 years ago, she was in bed and looked up from her book: ‘I told you it was a Zara Phillips kind of year.’

“Yours was not a long life, but better one short and broad – of mind, achievement and adventure – rather than long and narrow. Goodnight my Saturday girl.”

Afterwards, I threw a white rose on her lowered coffin. And then I tried to smile amid a haze of tea, sandwiches and faces, some of them famous.

Then it was over.

Alex, my daughter, my rock through this, stayed a few days before having to get back to her job and fiancé in Singapore. And the house was empty. Actually, with Vikki now in the ground, my world was empty.

Ian and Vikki on holiday at the Dead Sea in Israel

Did I tell you that I also have cancer?

Mine was diagnosed two years after Vikki’s and was in my prostate. Despite radiotherapy, it reappeared in 2012 and spread into my pelvic lymph nodes. Vikki used to say that we should write a book together: My Cancer’s Worse Than Yours.

We were on the same drug at one point, one that suppressed the oestrogen in women and testosterone in men on which breast and prostate cancers can feed. It produced hot flushes in us both and we would urge them to coincide on cold winter nights in bed to warm us both.

Two months after Vikki’s death the blood test for my six-monthly check-up revealed that my cancer might well be on the move again. A scan – twice postponed, as if the tension needed increasing – revealed that more pelvic lymph nodes were now affected.

They would try me on another drug for a couple of months to see how I responded. There were plenty more options, they told me – tablets and/or chemotherapy. The thing was, I wasn’t sure if I wanted any of them. V was gone. What was left?

The second month after V died was worse. The focus provided by the funeral was no more. People are good and kind and well-intentioned and urge you to ring them at any time but really, you have to spend time alone to go through the process of grief rather than delay it.

Vikki was my second marriage: we had met later in life, both having histories. That could create tensions. It was probably best not to bring up past relationships. But there, in her filing cabinets full of photos and diaries, were hers that she had run out of time to clear out.

It was painful viewing and reading and led me on a quest to meet and talk to all her old friends, to fill in gaps. I didn’t want to know some details but that’s one thing that is rarely talked about with grief: a forensic, obsessional need – certainly on my part – to join the dots of time. Joan Didion knew it. In her book The Year of Magical Thinking she wrote of trying to find out exactly when and how her husband had died. The surviving can manifest insanity – a little-discussed element of grief – and need answers.

As plausible as I could be in public in daylight, the night would frequently bring wakeful panic attacks. A friend on Facebook sent me a line from CS Lewis that chimed: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” It was fear of what I might discover about her (I didn’t), fear of life without her. Fear of fear.

(Facebook and Twitter can be vicious places full of angry trolls, but I have to say they have helped me enormously. People can also be kind.)

If I did go away to stay with people, two nights was the most I could manage. I now had no commitments; I could go anywhere in the world, do anything I chose, but all I wanted was to be at home. To be where Vikki, her sensed presence, and her memories still resided.

I couldn’t bring myself to take over her clothes drawers. Typically, she had commandeered three of the four in the chest but I could throw nothing out. Four months on now, the last clothes she wore remain draped on her chair in the bedroom.

My head, as the football phrase has it, had gone. And it wasn’t just in the automatic-pilot buying of shopping for two, gauging a portion of peas for one person or finding my house keys in the fridge. People may tell you a lot of this is normal but nothing feels normal. I’ve lost my wife, for pity’s sake. How can that feel normal?

I got angry with myself for overfilling my tea cup or running out of dishwasher tablets and light bulbs. Really, I was angry with her for fucking leaving me alone, with just the prospect of enduring alone – unlike her, who had me – the decline that secondary cancer will inevitably bring me sooner or later.

It took a lot of intense therapy and sharing with friends, me feeling I was boring them, before I gradually became open to better memories beyond the vision of a cancer-ridden figure, to checking the anniversaries of things we were doing the previous year: walking amid bluebells, our eighth wedding anniversary lunch.

I got back into the routine of buying long-stemmed roses every Friday. Except that it was now four instead of two for the living room. The other two would go on the grave, to brighten the brutal mud that was still settling before it could be grassed and adorned with an appropriate headstone.

I found her last birthday and Christmas cards to me with their loving messages inside. And one she had given me the night before our wedding, discovered when I opened my overnight bag in the hotel where I was staying.

“I’m not perfect, but who are we kidding, neither are you,” it said on the front. A quote from a film, I think. On the back she had written: “But I suppose you’ll do!!! See you in church. V xxxx”

These are the shafts of light that punctuate the darkness, as if my life has become a journey around the Circle Line. My fears resurface regularly at dead of night – now I know why they call it that – as I feel my own life ebbing away. Sometimes I even want that.

The antidote by day can be the tranquillity of cricket, the county championship specifically as I take in days around the country at places that meant things to us – Hove, the Isle of Wight, Scarborough. That, too, is like the Circle Line – slow, nobody bothers you and you have time to reflect – but without the stress.

Above all, what I want is to start again. For us to meet anew, in our youth, cancer-free, to be happier this time, to avoid the arguments, to make the most of the time, knowing what we know now.

The pain, the reality of the human condition, is knowing that this is not how life works. I tried so hard in our relationship, and felt I did my best, but as someone who grieves, it still does not feel enough.

The comfort comes in knowing that she lived so passionately, that we were alive in sunshine and in shadow. I want my grief to be as our life together. I never want to not miss her, to not feel the same highs and lows.

Am I supposed to conclude with advice? Something meaningful to help others? I’m not sure I possess it. All I can hope is that my story helps.

On good days, I look back at Vikki’s death and feel a sense of privilege. She chose me as the one to stay with and share her life. Others saw the huge public smile her father was apparently constantly urging her to display. I was the one with her through the worst of her illness in private and at the end. I was the one who brushed her hair for the last time.

Ian Ridley has asked that his fee for this piece benefit the Royal Marsden Hospital. Tortoise is pleased to be taking a table at a gala memorial dinner in honour of Vikki Orvice at Lord’s cricket ground on Wednesday, 13 November 2019. Anyone interested in attending should contact Emma Payne: RMCC.events@rmh.nhs.uk