'I can’t die, what would the dog do without me' The poignant words of author and broadcaster Jane Furnival months before she lost her battle with cancer
12:04 GMT, 31 May 2012
When Jane wrote in Femail about having terminal cancer, her determination to enjoy every last moment touched us all. Sadly, she’s now lost her fight – but with her courage and sparkling wit undimmed.
She had been planning her 55th birthday party for months, right down to the detail of what the harpsichordist would play, and exactly who would be invited to her rambling Surrey rectory to share in the celebrations.
Jane Furnival’s party, held on the first Sunday of this month, was everything the broadcaster, author and journalist could have hoped for. She wore a green bandana in her hair, mingled happily with guests despite being confined to a wheelchair, and relished watching a video of her eventful life compiled especially for the occasion by her eldest son.
Poignant: Jane, pictured at her Surrey home with her beloved dog Boo, died peacefully at home on May 14 after a long battle with cancer. In her last months, she dictated her autobiography, You Can't Die, What Would The Dog Do Without You
But there was a particular poignancy to the festivities that day, given that Jane was nearing the end of a long and spirited fight against terminal cancer.
As 100 friends and family gathered to celebrate her birthday — her chickens clucking contentedly on the lawn, her beloved dog Boo at her side — Jane had already outlived the doctors’ predictions of how long she would survive by several months.
Indeed, she was under no illusions that this might well be her final birthday — a fact which heightened emotions at the event.
Just eight days after that party, on May 14, Jane died peacefully at home surrounded by the family — her husband Andrew Tribble, 56, and her three sons, Will, 25, Charlie, 20, and Henry, 11 — who had defined her life.
There was nothing insipid or cowed in the way Jane had chosen to live her life. Even the terrible news that she was dying of cancer had been embraced with her customary fortitude and characteristic defiance.
As Jane prepared for her much-too-early death, she wrote a moving article for this newspaper, two months ago, under the headline: ‘I’m on borrowed time — but I’m loving every moment.’
In an honest and humorous account, Jane revealed how she had ditched selfish friends, bought gifts for her three sons’ future brides, and was planning a summer of parties.
The response to her heartfelt piece — which was, in fact, her last published article — was phenomenal, touching people around the world with her insights into how a pioneering journalist, inspirational woman, and loving wife and mother was coping with a debilitating illness and preparing for a premature death.
‘The strangest thing about dying is what it tells you about people,’ she said. ‘Put simply, they divide into those who are lovely — and the rest. Those who you thought were your friends desert you in your hour of need. Those who were mere acquaintances take your breath away with their kindness.’
Cherished memories: Jane in the early Nineties with her husband Andrew and son Will
Elsewhere in her piece, she wrote: ‘How does it feel to know you are dying I feel like a disembodied brain trailing a body I’m told is getting weaker. I spend a lot of time in bed, but I get up when I feel strong enough. I am trying to make the most of every minute left, spending my time and energy on those who have proved worthy.’
Jane was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer in 2008. A mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy followed, but the prognosis was bad: the cancer spread to her lymph nodes and, later, to her brain, pancreas, liver and spine.
The words “There’s nothing we can do about it” were like a red rag to a bull for Jane
Even when she was housebound and losing her sight, Jane dictated the end of three books to be published soon, including her autobiography, You Can’t Die, What Would The Dog Do Without You
Her widower, Andrew, explains: ‘The words, “There’s nothing we can do about it” were like a red rag to a bull for Jane. She was always like that — she got herself into Oxford University by studying on her own in her local library when her school told her not to bother.’
That can-do commitment and spirit of independence were among the hallmarks of a remarkable personality. It was perhaps entirely fitting that Jane should have left behind an early career as an advertising copywriter to become a journalist, championing the rights of consumers.
After all, she was never afraid of a fight — and loved to bring her formidable powers of persuasion to bear on behalf of other people.
She became best known for her work as the ‘Queen of Thrift’, writing consumer columns for national newspapers, reviewing products, and fronting her own primetime BBC1 show, Smart Spenders, in 2005.
Her eldest son, Will, who works as a film-maker, remembers his early life being shaped by his mother’s work. ‘Whether that was us boys eating chocolate-flavoured crisps for a feature, or Henry being moved between numerous prams as part of a consumer review,’ he recalls.
Charlie, a university student, adds: ‘She would write letters of complaint for people who didn’t know how to do it themselves. She even managed to get one man a new Jaguar car after his blew up. She was always trying to make things better.’
When doctors warned Jane earlier this year that she was living on borrowed time, she refused to ‘shuffle off’, as she put it.
Close family: Jane Furnival with sons William, 23, Charlie, 18, Henry, 9 and husband Andrew in 2010
Andrew elaborates: ‘Yes, we had a cry at every loss — when we discovered she couldn’t drive because she might have a seizure, when we learned she couldn’t travel again, when she couldn’t walk unaided,’ he says. ‘But she never accepted the doctors saying that nothing could be done.’
Of course, there were, inevitably, moments of sadness and frustration, but never of defeat despite the physical ravages of her illness and the emotional challenges of preparing for an early death.
Charlie says it was hard for his mother to go through losing a breast and then putting on weight because of the post-operative steroids she was taking. ‘She was a glamorous woman: she couldn’t help but be upset,’ he says.
But Jane’s most profound sadness was the thought of missing out on seeing her three sons grow up, particularly her youngest, Henry, who is still at school. Ever-resourceful, though, she found a way to have some input in his future, even though she knew she couldn’t be there in person.
Andrew explains: ‘She found a list of all the things a boy should do before he becomes a man, like learning to open a bottle of champagne, understanding architecture, skiing, learning archery. ‘Admittedly, she crossed out “gutting a rabbit”, but the rest are a to-do list for Henry. Just last night he was out sailing on the Thames.’
In preparation for her death, Jane gave away many of her treasured books and designer clothes from her days as a TV presenter, and planned a funeral at which everyone would wear bright colours and drink champagne.
She also spent time towards the end of her life writing future Christmas and birthday cards for her sons to open in the years to come. Her final weeks were spent largely in bed at home in Cheam, her room decorated with cards and presents from the people who loved her.
She was dictating books to Charlie’s girlfriend Sonia, who is still writing them up now. He says: ‘It has been very emotional for Sonia. Sometimes when she’s writing, she’ll just burst into tears, but other times she’ll be in fits of laughter.’ Andrew cooked wonderful, fortifying meals for Jane in those last few months of her life, and her dog, Boo, was usually curled up on the floor beside her bed.
Today, more than two weeks after Jane’s death, Boo is still sleeping beside her bed. Andrew says Jane’s 55th birthday bash was, in effect, also a goodbye party. ‘Jane would never, ever have admitted it though. We weren’t living in vain hope, but she never gave up talking about the future, making plans and staying busy,’ he says.
‘About three-quarters of the way through her birthday party, Jane was too tired to continue. She’d just had a stairlift installed that week to help her get around the house. ‘Our friends gathered at the bottom of the stairs while Jane pressed a button and slowly went upstairs to bed. That was the last time many of them saw her.’
'Our friends gathered at the bottom of
the stairs while Jane pressed a button and slowly went upstairs to bed.
That was the last time many of them saw her'
Andrew and the boys refuse to be paralysed by their grief. ‘She was the boss, and we have to relearn how to do things without asking Mum all the time,’ says Andrew. ‘But if I feel tempted to stop moving and sit in a darkened room, I just remember that was not what she wanted. She kept going, and so will we.’
An open-air theatre event in the garden which Jane had organised for the community this July — and of which she wrote proudly in her article for the Mail in March — will still go ahead, even though she won’t be there to see it.
Jane’s menagerie of animals was a source of huge comfort to her when her illness confined her to bed. She could look out of her bedroom window at her precious hens on the lawn, and she also kept doves. Will says: ‘She loved the chickens. One day the cockerel decided to walk across the back garden, out of the gate and down the road.
‘It was before Mum was ill. She spotted him through the window and chased after him. She caught up with him at the library down the road — he just walked in through the sliding doors!
‘She grabbed the cockerel, and started singing to him to calm him down. When the librarian looked up in horror, Mum walked out with the parting words: “It’s just me and my cockerel.”’
One of the books Jane was working on towards the end of her life was A Chatty Guide To Keeping Chickens, and she had also given talks to literary societies on caring for them. Charlie says: ‘On one of the last trips out with her, we went to The Conran Shop to get memory boxes for her to fill.
‘She saw a beautiful chicken coop, but she didn’t think it would give the chickens much space and light, so she gave the shop assistant a good telling off about it.’
The last words should go to Jane herself, who was never lost for them. Summing up the many joys in her life, she recently wrote: ‘I have been blessed with three gorgeous and individual sons with my husband Tribs, a wonderful magical dog as my faithful and darling companion, and some devoted cats, too. ‘I have the most brilliant and kind friends, and I have had a lot of experiences most people only dream of.’