Meet the teenage girls who lost their mum to cancer - and are completing her bucket list without her
Published 14/04/2016 | 10:17
Just after Louise Coast-Smith turned 30, she was told she had a brain tumour that could soon claim her life. No doctor would predict how much time she might have left; all they could safely say was that many people with her diagnosis didn’t make it much past a few months.
So she could have been forgiven for shutting the world away and falling to pieces. But Louise wasn’t going to let her life-threatening cancer – an oligodendroglioma – stand in her way.
Weeks after the devastating diagnosis, she and her husband, Alistair, set off on a two-week holiday to Italy. Cancer be damned, the vital craniotomy she needed would just have to wait.
With that same boundless determination and positivity, Louise battled the disease for 16 years, refusing to let the time bomb initially the size of a satsuma in her brain stop her from starting a family and making their children’s lives as full and happy as possible.
Fitting, then, that when in 2014 she finally succumbed to the cancer, she left behind a list of adventures for Alistair, 47, and their two now-teenage daughters, Natasha and Rebecca, to embark on together. It has become the ultimate bucket list, influencing how Louise’s family now live their lives in her absence.
“It started as a list we were compiling of things she wanted to do with us when she got out of hospital,” says Natasha, a beautiful, thoughtful 15-year-old who lights up every time she talks about her mum.
“I remember us sitting on either side of her bed, she would call out ideas and we would write them down in this notebook. She was so determined to keep going, she never let it stop her doing anything, never let it hold her back.
“I’m so proud of her for that, and just try to be like her. She’d never let anything bring her down. If she was upset she’d talk to my dad, and she had her rant book which she’d write in if she needed to get something off her chest and then move on from it.”
What began as a way of keeping everyone’s spirits up has become Louise’s legacy to her family. Eighteen months on from her death, as they strive to come to terms with a life without her, Alistair, Natasha and Rebecca have been making their way through her list.
From a road trip around California to a simple but poignant visit to the Lowry gallery in Manchester – where Louise particularly wanted Rebecca, a keen artist, to feel inspired by artwork that was “as unique and wonderful as her own” – the list of 15 experiences has helped smooth the jagged edges of grief and allowed this family to gradually piece together a life which seemed not to make sense without Louise.
“The girls always knew growing up that their Mum had a brain tumour,” says Alistair, one daughter at his feet, the other perched on the arm of the sofa next to him.
“What they didn’t know were the statistics that went with that. We didn’t tell them that the brain tumour would ultimately get her, as we didn’t know – because no one did – whether that would be in six months, six years or 16 years.”
It was after a bad bout of pneumonia while on a family holiday in Suffolk two years ago that Alistair and Louise realised they were living on borrowed time.
“I was told to prepare the girls that she wouldn’t make it through the night, which is easily the worse thing I’ve ever had to do,” he says, his voice cracking. “But she made it through and we had another six months together before she succumbed.
“In that time, we carried on as normal and went on a family trip around the Mediterranean, with a stop off in Venice, which was one of her favourite places in the world. She was so ill that we nearly didn’t go, but looking back it was the best thing we ever did.”
“It’s my favourite place too, now,” says Natasha, “I have a photograph of her sitting on a bench in Venice and she looks so happy. I love it.”
“We always said it was a case of kicking the can down the road,” says Alistair, “even if we weren’t kicking it very far every time. But nothing prepares you for it when it happens, even if I had known this day would come for years.”
Louise died peacefully on November 2nd 2014 at the age of 47, the three most important people in her life at her bedside. “The day before she died, she said 'Goodnight, darling’ to Natasha, and said Rebecca’s name,” says Alistair.
“We stayed with her in the hospice overnight, and at 7.55 the next morning, she slipped away. We stayed with her for three or four hours, and even had some friends come and bring in our dog, Angus, too.”
Angus, who now sits quietly by Rebecca on the floor, was bought just a couple of years before Louise died – which, they now realise, to be another example of the subtle ways Louise prepared her children for the day she might leave them.
“The year before Mum died, Dad filmed us all preparing the Christmas turkey on the camcorder,” says 13-year-old Rebecca. “He didn’t know it would be the last Christmas, but I think he did it just in case so we would have that memory. I’ve watched it back and it’s lovely because we’re not putting on an act, we’re really unaware of him being there.”
Louise’s presence in this house is undeniable. The walls in the cosy living room of the 17th-century cottage they shared are filled with her paintings and family photographs.
This is the house she and Alistair, who works as head of flight operations support at Rolls-Royce’s Civil Aerospace Business division, moved to from Surrey as a young married couple – the house they decided to bring a family into. It is full of her – everything she was and everything she continues to be to the people she has left behind.
Natasha and Rebecca sit on the rug with Angus, looking through the memory boxes they made during the final days of Louise’s illness.
Among the keepsakes, each of the girls has one of Louise’s perfumes – a powerful reminder of the times she would ask their opinion on which one to wear before going out for dinner. “I’ve got her Chanel no.19 and Tasha has her Chanel Chance. They smell so much of her,” says Rebecca.
“When we’re doing things from the bucket list, we are always thinking about her and talking about how much she would have loved whatever it is we’re doing,” says Alistair, clearly missing his wife deeply. “More than anything, I miss the conversation and the sharing – we talked about everything. I was 18 when we met, and when you’ve known someone for as long as that, it’s a shock to lose that person.”
Louise lives on in the adventures her young family are tackling in her memory. They have completed two-thirds of the list, and next up is a hot air balloon ride (over the Serengeti, if the girls get their way) and a sponsored row to raise money for the Brain Tumour Charity for which Louise campaigned tirelessly throughout her life.
“She used to resent school for taking up too much of her time with us,” says Natasha, “she always wanted us to have longer holidays so we could do new things and go to new places. She taught us to never give up because we can do anything if we put our minds to it. So that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to keep going – for her.”