'When I walk through the gates I feel happy at St Columba's Hospice'
Cathleen Blacklaw had discovered happiness when she met her future husband Bill, but tragedy was to strike when he was diagnosed with a brain tumour which eventually claimed his life. As he spent his final days at St Columba's Hospice, Cathleen found care, warmth and friends during her time there, writes SUE GYFORD
WHEN Cathleen Blacklaw caught the eye of the coach driver, Bill, she saw a wee twinkle in his eye, and her spirits lifted.
She was on her way to Scarborough with her parents for a Hogmanay break and, single after a divorce, was not really in the mood for celebration.
So much so that, at the hotel's Hogmanay party, she decided to leave early. "I was finding it difficult coming up to the bells and I said 'I think I'll just disappear'," she says.
"As I walked out, Bill walked out as well. He had a lot of emotions going through him because he'd lost his wife two years before that. He said he was just going to have a walk and think about things. We looked at each other and he said 'Ach, we'll just go back in' and we danced the New Year in together - it was magical."
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She returned home to her flat in Pilrig, and Bill to his home in Rigside, near Lanark - and their love blossomed: "We just brought something into each others' lives that was so precious," she says. "He was great company, a lovely dancer, he was kind, he was just liked by everybody."
Cathleen, 65, worked in a bank in Edinburgh, but began to spend more time at Bill's house in Rigside. But as their happiness bloomed, they had no idea what was around the corner.
Bill often had headaches, and one day, not long after they met, Cathleen recalls: "He was cutting the grass and everything went quiet. I looked out of the window and there he was lying on the grass, the mower was upside down and he couldn't get up."
He went to the doctor, who sent him for tests at the hospital, where the consultant broke the devastating news that he had a brain tumour. "I couldn't believe that I'd found such happiness and then this happened," says Cathleen.
Bill was scheduled for surgery in August, and doctors warned Cathleen that he could lose his speech, his sight or his movement.
When he came round, Bill couldn't walk, and found it harder to talk. But his love for Cathleen was undimmed: "He could blether away but it was slow and it was laboured. But he said that when he was able to walk that we would get married.
"One day I went in to see Bill and he wasn't there, but the sister said to me 'Go and sit by the bed' and he just walked down the ward, and he said, 'you know what you've got to do - go to the registrars'. It was wonderful, it was like a wee miracle."
And so, when Bill came home that autumn, Cathleen moved to Rigside. The excitement of preparing for their wedding came hand-in-hand with the challenge of taking care of Bill as he grew more frail. "It was hard because Bill wasn't able to do things he had been able to do before. But it was all tender loving care and we spent every minute together," she says.
They were married at home on November 20, 1993, with close friends and family around them, holding the reception at the home of their neighbours, Bet and Jimmy.
"It was very low key, but it was beautiful," she says. "He walked in with Jimmy - they were in the kitchen and they walked in all jaunty and sat down."
But the newlyweds' joy was tempered with sadness. Soon afterwards they visited the consultant to be told that the operation had not got rid of the tumour, and Bill was scheduled for radiotherapy.
Bill went off for a cup of tea, and the doctor asked Cathleen to stay behind. "He said things were not good. He said 'it might be three months, he could go on for three years, but I think we're talking about the lesser time'. So I knew that - but Bill never knew. If he'd asked I would have told him but he didn't. He just went on."
Bill had always loved Christmas, and was delighted to finish radiotherapy on Christmas Eve. He came home from hospital and took the opportunity to catch up on one thing he'd missed out on before the wedding: "He'd ordered Betty to buy my engagement ring. We went and chose it and she took it off me right away. Then on Christmas Day, unknown to me, Bill had hidden the ring in a tiny wee tree we had at the window.
"We had dinner, went to see Bet and Jimmy. It was a truly wonderful day, very emotional. It was our first Christmas together," - she falters, takes a breath and continues - "and our last Christmas".
As the New Year came around again, Cathleen kept to herself the knowledge that their time together would be short: "I'm glad Bill never knew anything about it. It was easy to be there for him, easy to love him, easy to look after him," she says.
In March, just months after she had moved to be with him, Cathleen moved back home to Edinburgh, and Bill was taken to St Columba's Hospice.
"When I came in, there was Bill just sitting up in bed and everything was so beautiful, he looked so lovely in bed, he was comfortable. And from there on the staff just guided me. They were so wonderful."
One evening, three weeks after Bill was admitted, one of the nurses asked Cathleen if she'd like to spend the night at the hospice: "I said 'Are you trying to tell me something?' And she said 'no, but we just think it would be nice for you to be here.'"
They moved Bill into a single room, and set up a chair for Cathleen to sleep in. She says: "By this time Bill wasn't talking at all. I didn't sleep very well, but I can remember the time exactly - 20 past one in the morning. He opened his eyes and he looked at me and said 'I love you', shut his eyes, and that was the last thing he said, because he died the following morning."
The hospice staff cared for Cathleen as tenderly as they had cared for her husband, who was just 59 when he died. She felt so welcome there that, now, 16 years on, she is a volunteer for St Columba's, and despite the sad memories, is never happier than when she is there.
"I know so many of the nursing staff and they're all my friends. When I walk through the gates, I look around at the garden, and I think 'It's so nice to be here' - from the moment I'm here, I'm happy and safe."
Most of all, she is buoyed by the memory of the love she shared so briefly with Bill: "We just knew something wonderful and magical had happened. I'll never, ever forget my time with Bill, it was a blessing. It's just a shame it wasn't longer."
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