8 October 2021
When Robyn Millar’s former partner turned up on her doorstep asking for help, she took him in. Then Harbour Hospice discovered Peter* and began helping him too. Here, Robyn shares her story.
‘I once saw a card in a stationery shop that read, ‘If you can’t feed 100 people, then feed just one.’ It was a quote from Mother Teresa, and for some reason it always stuck with me.
When Peter turned up on my doorstep a few years ago and said he had nowhere to go I decided he would be my one. I was on my own and didn’t have children - he had always been a little boy lost, so I took him in.
Peter and I had once been a couple, but we’d parted ways after about a year. Our jobs had separated us, but I’d also had some misgivings about the amount he drank.
Peter was an alcoholic and he eventually developed cirrhosis of the liver as well as emphysema and anorexia. By the time he came to live with me his health was in decline.
To begin with we both continued working but as he became more ill he had to leave his job. Six years ago I left mine, too, because my 95-year-old mother had also moved in and I was looking after them both.
Harbour Hospice began supporting us in January after Mum had a fall and fractured her spine.
We hadn’t expected her to recover but she surprised us all and bounced back beautifully. In the meantime, the lovely folk at Hospice discovered Peter.
They could see that there was this malnourished man in the house who was not very well, who drank beer at 10 in the morning. There was never any judgement. They just called his GP, added him to their books and started coming to call.
The support we received from Hospice was amazing. Peter was treated with dignity and respect, and that’s all he wanted.
Under hospice care, Peter no longer had to travel to his doctor, who was 30km away, for prescriptions. The hospice doctors could write them and bring them to us. And after a while Peter was put on a syringe driver (portable pump that delivers pain medication intravenously), and from that day forward we all slept much better. Prior to that I’d had a list of well over 10 pills to give him every day plus morphine top-ups, and it was a lot to remember. Peter would wake at 2am and say, ‘I’m in pain’ and I’d have to think back to what he’d last had, and when.
To help Peter cope with the anxiety he felt around dying Hospice provided massage therapy, and Peter absolutely loved these visits. The massage really helped him relax and he’d feel good for 24 hours afterwards. He also liked talking to Hospice’s spiritual carer. Even though he wasn’t religious, those visits brought him comfort.
Someone would visit every day and I felt completely supported because I knew I only had to ask if I was worried about anything.
The morning Peter died I wasn’t with him. I think I missed him by half an hour because I went into his room at 12.15pm but the clock had stopped at 11.45am. I’ve felt so guilty about that because I’d only popped out with my sister for something to eat, but people have said ‘you were there for all the other moments’.
He died the day after my birthday, on 13 May, and I think he’d been waiting for me to open my present. He’d bought me a coffee maker and had been really excited because he reckoned it was the only proper gift he’d ever given me. When I opened it I told him I loved it and I said ‘you can go now, you can float away’.
He died the next day.
The house feels strange without him. It took me a while to stop circling with pen his favourite progammes in the Listener for him.
He used to like getting up early to watch the Breakfast show so he could be the first to tell me the news, and for a week after he died I got up early in his place.
Harbour Hospice still calls to see how I’m doing, and I’ve been offered counselling to support me through my grief. They gave me a book which says grief comes in waves, and that's exactly how I would describe it. You feel that you're okay and you go about your day, and then suddenly it washes over you.
Some people wonder why I took in my ex, but women do a lot for men, and he was a dear friend. You look at them and think, ‘Who's going to do it? Well, I could do it.’
If you can’t feed 100, then just feed one.
*name changed for privacy