I am glad we took so many photographs of Laura, for the numerous memories and reminders they bring back of her personality. Fearless Laura, aged seven, standing with me viewing our house building work from the top scaffold; Laura with her loving pet rabbit, who allowed her to pick him up at any time, but growled menacingly at me; with best friend Hattie, age ten, on some school visit, with a large python draped around their necks. The one of her helping her brother Matthew, four years her junior, with his tie on his first day at secondary school, but telling him on no account must he sit near her on the bus; Laura who learned at playschool to use scissors, experimenting on her hair the day before the harvest festival.
She was witty and funny, with her own words too; “doody” for things that pleased her; “he-she” for the bearded man in a dress who visited her counter at her Saturday job. Laura, on stage holding a heavy turnip, which eventually fell with a thump, proceeding to roll down the front steps into the audience: she, motionless and expressionless, whilst they fell about laughing. Laura enjoyed acting and dressing up, and her imagination was legendary with family and friends.
She had many different types of close friendships, from primary and secondary school, her Saturday morning job, drama groups, and her younger cousin Martina. She loved talking, as numerous school reports testified. Her fiery temper was mostly confined to home with thankfully short outbursts, although there were enough cracks in various doorframes to remind us, along with the two crystal wine glasses she slammed onto the kitchen table causing the stems to break off.
Driving lessons were usually uneventful, except during her three test failures – usually the responsibility of stupid pedestrians, cyclists, or mothers with pushchairs on Zebra crossings – until she succeeded the fourth time. So, armed with her much-loved little blue Fiesta, her own small house near to the University College in Northampton where she was enrolled on the Early Childhood Studies degree course, and additional new college friends, she was emerging into adulthood and starting to bloom as a person. Her relationship with her boyfriend, Chris, also became more serious.
And then out of a clear blue summer sky…..
The time, day and date when Laura died, are indelibly burnt on to my memory: Friday 20th June 2003. Age 21. Working at my surgery, during her university summer break. The call to come quickly because Laura had collapsed was at 10.15am. I rushed upstairs, thinking she might have fainted. One look told me that she had suffered a cardiac arrest. It is a surreal experience resuscitating your daughter. I moved from disbelief and panic to cool professional and back again. I withdrew once the paramedics arrived, following them to A&E where she was pronounced dead at 12.15pm. As I stood next to her I had a compelling need to cut off several pieces of her hair to keep forever. I still carry some.
My wife Joan and son Matthew, then 17, returned home where a GP colleague waited to drive them to the hospital. Waiting for them, knowing Laura had died, was extremely stressful. I had been part of the effort to try and save her, with some time to prepare myself; but for them it would be an instant shock. Matthew had never seen a dead person before, but did not hesitate going to see Laura. Later, I had to formally state words of identification to the police officer, of the now deceased Laura Hillier: final and emotional.
In the hours following, I felt intense disbelief, immense sadness and grief. I rang Laura’s boyfriend saying she had died. He wanted to see her too. Then we were involved in telling our respective families and Laura’s friends. A harrowing experience, especially telling my devastated mother.
The following day I had an overwhelming need to go to her house and gather as much of her personal belongings as fitted into four suitcases and several boxes: a symbolic bringing her home. Laura the hoarder, with a vast collection of clothes, some from primary school, shoes, plastic bags, coat-hangers, soft toys, and CDs.
It was a relief of sorts when we received the diagnosis of Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Cardiomyopathy (ARVC) 5 days later. A private burial for family and close friends preceeded a Thanksgiving Service in the village church. Joan’s mother, often needing a wheelchair, determined to walk to her place in the reserved pew. The church was packed. “The Girl With the Flaxen Hair” played as the family arrived then “Push It,” one of Laura’s favourite songs by Salt N Pepper – courtesy of an enlightened vicar conducting the service! The CD we had made still comforts us.
The greatest of many difficult decisions for me was whether to bury or cremate Laura and worrying what her wishes would have been. Stacey, her close friend, told us they had discussed this and Laura wanted to be buried so that “the worms could have a good meal”. The magnitude of my grief following Laura’s death was greater than previous bereavements. As a GP involved in people’s everyday lives and deaths, their illnesses and problems, I found it emotionally impossible to return to work for 8 weeks. Overwhelming and profound inertia pervaded every aspect of life. I remember these feelings now when talking to patients who have experienced loss.
Laura was the first grandchild, first niece, eldest cousin and loved by everybody. That she could just collapse and die was beyond comprehension. Life would never be the same again and we all still feel a great void. Laura’s grandfathers pre-deceased her but her grandmothers never recovered. I likened our experience to an endurance of the harshest kind. This has subsided over time but there is an emotional load that I have had to learn to carry. Ten years later, life goes on but is different because Laura is not in it any more. Subtle and enduring losses: that I will never be the father of the bride, see her blossom as the gifted teacher she would have become, be a grandfather to her children.
Laura is always in my thoughts and reminders are everywhere; not least when “Push It” plays on the radio making me smile; or seeing the remains of the tricycle “Little Lamb” sitting on the garden wall which used to carry four children at high speed down the sloping drive, with two pairs of feet used as emergency braking; or the debris from the makeshift but strong tree-house I constructed in an old apple tree one day, when I should have been doing something else. Following her death we recognised there were no rules on how we should feel; supporting each other on the bad days – initially most of them. As for Matthew, he found life very difficult not having his bossy older sister around to advise, cajole and remind him of birthdays and anniversaries. Only now is life settling down for him. Although we have always been able to talk about her, we can now do it more happily without that constant tug of grief. Her memory is still alive and everywhere and always will be.
We visit her weekly in the churchyard unless thwarted by bad weather, placing bought flowers in pots. Most weeks we also leave a small posy of our garden flowers so that her headstone inscription “Thy eternal summer shall not fade” is fulfilled.