Chris Pointon, here with his wife Kate. Kate died two years ago of a rare form of cancer
On the morning of his 41st birthday last week, Chris Pointon couldn’t wait to open the card from his wife of 11 years, Kate.
‘Special birthday wishes to you!’ it said on the front, multi-coloured letters on a sunshine yellow background. In neat, loopy handwriting, she had written: ‘To my dearest Humpty Dumpty. Into your 40s now, gorgeous. Has all the hair gone now? I love you and always will. So much. Kate xxxxxxx’
The nickname, Chris explains, is because he’s clumsy — and has, as Kate quite rightly predicted, lost nearly all his hair.
But she isn’t here to see his grin as he tells me this, or the tears that well in his eyes as he talks about his beautiful, big-hearted wife.
For Kate died nearly two years ago, in July 2016, after a five-year battle with a rare and aggressive form of cancer which she contracted when she was just 29.
Before her death, Kate, a consultant in medicine for the elderly, hid the card — along with letters and mementos for Chris and other family members — in a box under their bed. In a gesture reminiscent of P.S. I Love You, the 2007 film starring Hilary Swank and Gerard Butler, based on a bestselling novel, Kate had secretly written cards to Chris until the year 2042, the date of his 65th birthday.
Her poignant final act, the story of which has made headlines around the world, was to tell Chris the location of the box, and make him promise to open the envelopes on the dates written on the front.
‘She called it a memory box,’ explains Chris, 41, a supermarket manager from Mirfield, West Yorkshire. ‘She’d never seen the film or read the book — it was just something she wanted to do.
‘I knew about it a few years beforehand, but she never let me look inside. It’s about the size of a shoe box and it’s got butterflies, which Kate loved, all over it. I opened it for the first time on the day she died, July 23, 2016.
‘She had told me there was a letter for me, as well as a card to open a week after her death. That was an emotional day, but Kate knew what to say to make me laugh and stop me feeling sorry for myself.
Chris opened his first posthumous birthday card from Kate last April, when he turned 40
‘That’s when I found the stack of birthday cards — one a year until I turn 50, then one for my 60th birthday and another for my 65th. It stops then because that was when we planned to retire, move to the coast and open a B&B. She probably wants to make sure I’ve kept my promise.’
Chris opened his first posthumous birthday card from Kate last April, when he turned 40.
He was in the Shetland Isles, scattering some of her ashes — as per her wishes — on a windswept beach they had visited, but dutifully brought the card with him.
‘To my darling Christopher,’ it read. ’40 now! Over the hill almost … I hope you have a brilliant day and do lots of partying!
‘I love you so much and hope you haven’t forgotten about me. I’m always with you, gorgeous. Love you so much. K xxxx’
Reading Kate’s words from beyond the grave is, he says, not just a comfort, but a reminder of the warm, witty woman he planned to spend the rest of his life with.
‘Even seeing her handwriting cheers me up,’ he admits. ‘There are days when I feel really low and I miss her so much — the, everyday things we would do, the silly nicknames we had, her laugh.
‘Reading these cards reminds me how lucky I was to spend 15 years with such an amazing woman. Even when she was going through hell, she was thinking of me and how I would cope when she was gone.’
Planning ahead was something Kate did better than most.
Ever since the couple met, in a nightclub in Huddersfield on New Year’s Eve 2001, Chris had known her life plan: finish her medical degree at Edinburgh University, move to Yorkshire, get a job in medicine for the elderly — Kate’s passion since she was at school — and, eventually, settle down and have a family.
The couple met in a nightclub in Huddersfield on New Year’s Eve 2001. They got engaged a year after and were married in 2005
They got engaged a year after they met and were married in 2005, the year Kate graduated, on July 23.
‘I knew from the moment we met that I wanted to marry her,’ he explains. ‘It was one of those things — we fitted perfectly. We bought a flat in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, and settled into married life.’
Years passed in a happy blur until July 2011, when their world was torn in two.
The couple were on holiday in California when Kate started suffering crippling back pain.
Things got so bad that she couldn’t leave the hotel — and Chris insisted he take her to A&E. ‘Initially we thought it was kidney stones,’ he says. ‘But as soon as Kate saw the scans, she knew. It was cancer.’
At first doctors thought it was ovarian cancer. But, when they were eventually cleared to fly back to the UK, the prognosis got worse.
She finished her medical degree in 2005 and went on to become a consultant for the elderly
Kate’s cancer, she learned, had spread to her liver and bones. Tests found masses in her abdomen, pelvis and ureters, the tubes which connect the kidney and bladder.
She was diagnosed with desmoplastic small round cell tumour, an extremely rare condition which responds poorly to chemotherapy and is, in the vast majority of cases, fatal.
‘It was devastating,’ sighs Chris. ‘Kate was given six to 12 months to live. There is nothing that can prepare you for that news. But there was no point in me breaking down. I had to be strong for Kate.
‘Our mantra has always been that you have to play the cards you are dealt. Even before Kate’s illness that’s what we lived by.’
Kate spent four-and-a-half of the next six months in hospital, undergoing chemotherapy. She suffered such severe side-effects — nausea, dizziness, hair loss, fatigue — that, in December 2011, she and Chris decided to stop treatment and let nature decide what happened.
‘Kate had so much she wanted to do and the chemo was leaving her too drained,’ he explains. ‘Three weeks after she stopped, she was back at work. She loved her job more than anything. She was an incredible doctor.’
With so much time to think and plan from her hospital bed, Kate had also devised a ‘bucket list’ of 57 things to do before she died. The pair were determined not to waste a moment.
First on the list was renewing her vows, which she and Chris did on a spring day in 2012, in a pub garden, where they cried, laughed and danced with family and friends.
Her other goals ranged from the apparently mundane — fish and chips by the sea in Whitby; a walk on the moors above Huddersfield; riding a horse; singing karaoke; buying a Radley handbag — to the ambitious and spectacular.
From 2012 to 2015, Kate and Chris dined at Claridge’s Hotel, travelled on the Orient Express and rode in an Aston Martin. She learned to bake brioche with Michel Roux Jr, met Kylie Minogue backstage at a gig and jumped out of a plane.
When the couple were on holiday in California, their world was shattered in two when Kate experienced crippling back pain and couldn’t leave the hotel room
But the item on Kate’s list which was closest to her heart was raising money for cancer research, primarily for the Yorkshire Cancer Centre in Leeds where she was a patient.
Inspired by a stay in hospital in August 2013, in which she was struck by the lack of communication from staff, Kate launched the ‘Hello my name is . . .’ campaign to encourage doctors, nurses and other NHS practitioners to introduce themselves to patients.
‘She came home complaining, and I said, ‘Darling, you either need to stop whingeing or do something’.’ Chris explains. ‘The next day she tweeted about it — it snowballed.’
Kate’s message quickly went viral. Her brother helped set up a website, her Twitter following ballooned (two years after her death, it stands at 45,400), and the campaign was picked up by hospitals, GP surgeries and healthcare organisations.
Today, half a million NHS workers wear a ‘Hello my name is …’ badge — and, through fundraising talks and online donations, Kate reached her goal of £250,000. Two years on, with Chris continuing her work, that figure is now £360,000.
The campaign was a welcome distraction from the ‘cancer gremlin’ — Kate’s words — which plagued their lives. She travelled the country, spreading the word on her days off, while Chris slogged away getting support from celebrities and politicians.
Her tireless devotion was widely recognised: she became the youngest fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, was awarded an honorary doctorate, and got an MBE from Prince Charles in 2015. She even found time to write two books, The Other Side and The Bright Side, telling her life story.
‘There were amazing highs but there were truly awful lows,’ Chris says. ‘Sometimes we would sit in silence, holding hands. Sometimes we would cry. Other times we’d use dark humour to get us through. I remember one night after dinner, Kate said, ‘Would it be really fat of me to have another cake?’ And I said, ‘Well, it doesn’t really matter darling, because you’re dying anyway.’ We both rolled around laughing for the rest of the night.’ Kate liked to make light of her illness, pointing out her annual ‘cancer-versary’ to her many online followers.
Left: Kate was awarded an honorary doctorate, and got an MBE from Prince Charles in 2015. Chris said the couples mantra was you have to play the cards that you are dealt
She and Chris held a ‘Staying Alive’ party to mark a year since renewing their vows, and a ‘We’re Still Standing’ party for their tenth wedding anniversary in 2015. In fact, the only reason Chris knew about the memory box was because, for the two years before her death, Kate gave him two birthday cards — one from ‘Alive Kate’, and the second, which she’d hidden away, from ‘Dead Kate’.
But she was getting sicker by the day. She resumed chemotherapy but both she and Chris knew it was becoming less effective. Though neither wanted to admit it, the end was near. Kate planned her death down to the finest detail. She gave up work in April 2016 — ‘a horribly emotional day,’ Chris recalls — and started deciding what she wanted for her funeral and day of her death.
‘Originally, she wanted to be at her parents’ house, with her mum reading to her,’ Chris explains. ‘But we realised the best thing would be for her to be at St Gemma’s Hospice in Leeds. The staff knew her and the gardens are beautiful.’
And so it was there, surrounded by her closest family, sun streaming through the windows, with Angel by The Corrs, her favourite band, playing in the background, that Kate passed away. It was her 11th wedding anniversary.
‘That showed me she was in control right until the end,’ Chris says. ‘It was like she’d held on for that day. She died at 3.20pm — the same time we would have been saying our vows.
Chris found the cards in the box when he returned home after Kate died on their 11th wedding anniversary
‘It was incredibly sad. But it was also peaceful. Kate wanted to show people you don’t need to be afraid of death. Because of her, I’m not. We need to talk about it more.’
That evening, Chris returned home and, with shaking hands, opened the box under the bed. Inside, with the cards and letters, were her funeral plans on a sheet of A4.
‘She wanted everyone to wear colour, she wanted sunflowers and to be buried in a willow coffin,’ he says. ‘It was very Kate — designed to make you smile.’
Over the following months, Chris tried to live the life he thought Kate would have wanted for him.
He sold their flat to move closer to his parents and took a sabbatical to travel the world raising awareness of their campaign. Last year, he delivered 21 talks in 25 days in Australia and New Zealand — and this year he has travelled across Europe and America.
Wherever he goes, he brings Kate’s cards with him.
‘I know it’s not for everyone,’ he says. ‘Some people might think it’s morbid or that the cards will stop me from moving on. But before Kate died we talked about what I would do without her.
‘She wants me to find somebody else, to get married and have a family. Her words were: it would be a travesty if you didn’t, because you’ve got too much to give.
‘My history with Kate is part of me. If I don’t move on, I’m sure she’ll start telling me off in those cards and making fun of me for being sad and miserable.
‘They’re her way of keeping an eye on me — making sure I have fun and look after myself and don’t forget our plan to open that B&B. In 2042, when I’m a wrinkly old retiree, she will be by my side.’
To find out more about Kate and Chris’s campaign, visit hellomynameis.org.uk