Karon Peters flips from the present tense into the past, and back again, then laughs about the tangle. ‘I got a bit muddled with the tenses there. One minute I was dead, then I came back to life,’ she says, and the friends who are watching her on a TV screen don’t know whether to laugh or cry. They end up doing both.
Karon was terminally ill when she sat down in front of a video camera to record this particular message, which she knew would be played to her loved ones after she had gone.
She made a series of video recordings, each one peppered with humour and insight, but each more gut-wrenching than the last. Her greatest sadness, says her husband Phil, was that she didn’t live long enough to get round to making perhaps the most important one of all — the one where she addressed him, her husband of almost 25 years and the father of her four beloved sons.
‘She just wasn’t well enough. She was slipping away,’ he says. ‘She said she was gutted that she just couldn’t do it, but I don’t care.
‘Of all the people she left messages for, I was the one who needed one least. I know what I meant to her. I knew how deep our love was. She didn’t need to say it.’
Karon was just 52 when she died in November 2015 after a long battle with breast cancer, was one of the extraordinarily brave people who agreed to take part in an unusual television project called My Wonderful Life.
The series involved following four people — all with terminal illnesses; all dead now — in the final months of their lives during 2015 and 2016. They were asked for their views on living and dying. They were asked to record messages for their loved-ones, to be played to them months after their death.
A series of surprises was also arranged for the bereaved — surprises often designed to make them roar with laughter, rather than weep. A date with some cowboys, anyone? A spot of skydiving? The chance to meet your favourite rock star, or your teen crush, or a holiday to a place that meant the world to both you and your friend?
With stunts like that, it’s understandable if some viewers might be left fearing that the programme trivialises the subject of death and the profound impact it has on those left behind. In reality, it’s the most astonishing set of obituaries, with those involved saying their last goodbyes in style.
It’s not remotely morbid, either. It’s one of the most uplifting things you could watch — a celebration of life, love and friendship — even if you have to do so with the Kleenex to hand.
Particularly well-pitched is the episode featuring Karon, a nurse who clearly wanted to die as she had lived — surrounded by friends and laughter. Unstintingly upbeat (‘I always say I’m a millionaire without any money,’ she beams, on camera), she explains that she is letting the cameras in because she wants to show other people death doesn’t have to be so miserable.
‘The subject of death needs to be less taboo,’ she says, pointing out that our lack of wanting to confront it starts in childhood. ‘We all do it, trying to protect our children. When a pet dies we go round seven different pet stores trying to find the hamster that looks the same.’
If a death can ever be joyous, then hers was. Karon planned her own funeral as part of this last goodbye, rejecting the idea of having a traditional funeral and opting for a ‘quiche and cake celebration instead’. The venue was a muddy field and guests were requested to wear whatever they wanted rather than black — she suggested pyjamas.
There are deeply moving moments in the programme, obviously. Karon has a rare emotional wobble when talking about the consultant breaking the terrible news that her cancer was advanced.
‘I said “throw everything at me. I will do anything for my boys.”’ But it wasn’t to be.
What courage it must have taken for her to spend her final months arranging the messages for her loved ones. Funny messages, too.
She tells her oldest friend Hannah, whom she met during their nurse training days, that she is ‘the best friend anyone would have’, but signs off with a warning: ‘Don’t forget to do my ironing for Phil. Although he can do it, he will put it off.’
Another friend, Sally Blake, 44, says: ‘That was Kaz all over. She never shied away from discussing her illness but it was always done with humour. I remember her talking about her funeral saying “You guys can wear your wellies”. And we did.’
A year after Karon died, Sally and two other friends sat down to watch their message from her, and ‘cried buckets’. ‘It was upsetting to see her because she was quite bloated at the end from all the medication, and I’d forgotten that. But her humour was exactly the same, and it was so lovely to just hear her chat again.’
Phil, 64, says although they absolutely are not the sort of family who would ever want to ‘be on the TV’, Karon took great pride in taking part. ‘She really did feel that we’ve got death all wrong,’ the retired psychiatric nurse explains.
‘A generation ago we would have the bodies of our loved ones at home, we would lay them out, wash them. Now, we’ve all become very removed from death. Karon wanted to challenge that.’ He admits he is still lost without his wife, the woman who chose his shirts and ‘held the whole family together’. ‘She was irreplaceable,’ he says. ‘And she was the bravest person I have ever met.
‘I think if we’d had to go through what we did without Karon’s attitude carrying us through, then it would have been unbearable.
‘Her only regret was that she didn’t see the filming through to the end, but I’m so glad she did it, and that we have those memories.’
He adds: ‘She was insistent she was Karon, who had cancer, and not a cancer victim. Her attitude was that it wasn’t going to get her down or stop her living her life. She continued to drive through, every day.
‘Last year I had a cancer scare myself. Though it turned out to be nothing, during that time I fluctuated between optimistic and plainly terrified. That gave me a better insight into what she’d been living with for up to five years.’
For all four families, the nature of the death meant these goodbyes were possible, something they now see as a positive. ‘If she’d walked under a bus, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity,’ says Phil. ‘She was very aware that there was time to do this. Just not enough time.’
Some of those involved found the presence of the cameras in those last vital months tricky, but all say that the project provided a focus.
‘Obviously, you don’t want to lose them. You are in bits,’ says Heather Hall, whose husband Lee, a retired serviceman, is the subject of episode four.
‘I don’t think I realised how much I would value getting his message. It’s not the sort of thing people do when they are dying, not usually.’
Lee, 45, a straight-talking Geordie, tells his wife: ‘I love how much you loved us, but you need to go forward with your life.’
Heather found her husband’s last messages almost unbearable to watch. ‘When I watched I nearly fell to my knees. I felt myself buckling a bit. He told me he loved me, that I was his best friend, his soulmate. Obviously, I knew that, but hearing it like that was special.’
Lee lost his battle with skin cancer in October 2016, and while Heather was at first apprehensive about him spending his last precious month’s filming, she recognised it was something he felt he had to do. ‘He wanted to get across to other people that if they have a mole they are suspicious of, please get it checked out.’
Meanwhile, Tom Clossick, 32, and his siblings sat down to watch the final messages from their mum Linda Banks who had thrown herself into the whole filming process with gusto, offering some unique observations on the way.
Her episode is hilarious in parts, upsetting in others. Does she have deathbed regrets? Hell yes. She looked back at all pictures of herself looking thin and snorts: ‘I regret all that lettuce.’
What of her biggest success in life? Her three children, she says, without hesitation. ‘I know every mum says they are the proudest, but I am.’
Linda can’t say she is enjoying the process of dying. ‘If you are dying, you should have a ticket with a date on it so you can work towards it. “Flipping ‘eck, it’s a Wednesday,” ’ she quips.
In the absence of that, she just wants to be remembered as being funny. ‘If people said “Oh she were funny”, I’d love that. No one likes a miserable b****.’ She consulted her family before she agreed to invite the cameras in. ‘She talked to us before she got involved,’ Tom confirms.
‘She didn’t present it as “I’m doing this”. I wasn’t sure why she’d want to but she said she wanted to leave a legacy, something for the grandchildren. It was hard to watch, though. I had to leave the room.’
She used her ‘last goodbye’ film to tell her three children to look after one another, and express her pride in them. While there were laughs on the way — ‘You were only 6lb 7oz when you were born, but within three or four months you were a massive little thing with no neck,’ she told Tom — it was difficult to get through, in terms of watching as well as recording.
‘It was so hard to see her there, talking to us. It was like she was there, but not there. I found it really emotional.
‘But I’m glad we did it. We have those recordings now, and the grandkids will be able to watch them when they want to. You don’t get that with photos or little videos on the phone. It was…proper.’
Linda also left messages and set up surprises for many of her friends. Her old mates from the days when she used to go clubbing were taken back to an old haunt, at her request, and were amazed to come face to face with a bona fide teen crush.
Her best — and ‘poshest’ — friend was treated to a day out that involved a tiara.
One of the most moving recordings was played to three of Linda’s old pupils from her teaching days. ‘Teaching wasn’t a job really,’ she told them, describing how seeing them blossom had made her proud. ‘As a teacher, it makes you think you’ve done OK,’ she says. She leaves them with some life advice. ‘Grab all the opportunities you can. Be kind. Be nice.’
Some of the gestures in this series are on an epic scale. There are aeroplanes and fireworks, and massed choirs and flash mobs. Some surprises are small and deeply personal — a chocolate orange gifted from beyond the grave because there is a story attached.
Ian Edmunds, who was 56 when he died, went above and beyond to give his wife Christine a Wizard of Oz-themed surprise to remember him by. ‘We never got to the end of our yellow brick road,’ she says, as she arrives at the venue he has chosen for her to watch his last message to her — the place where he proposed on ‘the happiest day of my life’.
But Ian has the final word — one that pretty much sums up the ethos of the whole programme. ‘Now it is time for you to live your wonderful life,’ he tells her, in the very final goodbye.
It’s a fitting rule for the rest of us to live by, too.