Memories of Mandy Flanagan’s late husband Paul fill the house they used to share.
Pictures of him as a floppy-haired schoolboy, a handsome teenage rugby star, a newlywed, and a devoted dad, adorn the walls and window ledges of their country cottage.
But Paul, a teacher, who died of cancer at the age of 45 in November 2009, passionately believed his children, Thomas and Lucy — just five and one-and-half years old at the time — should have more than fading photographs to remember him by.
Paul Flanagan with his children Thomas and Lucy. He died of cancer at the age of 45 in November 2009
‘There was nothing more important to Paul than being the best father he could be,’ says Mandy, 44.
‘When he knew he was dying, there was no time for self-pity. He became absolutely focused on doing whatever he could to continue being a good dad to them throughout the years, even though he wouldn’t be here in person.’
He wrote them letters, filmed DVD messages, bought future birthday presents, and even filled a large chest with his favourite books.
‘Each book is accompanied by a note to Thomas and Lucy explaining why Paul loved it, and how much he hopes they will too when they’re old enough to read it,’ explains Mandy.
But perhaps Paul’s greatest gift to his wife and children was a document titled ‘On finding fulfilment’, which Mandy discovered on his laptop, by chance last month.
‘I opened it and, with tears rolling down my cheeks, I discovered his bullet-pointed code to living a good and happy life,’ says Mandy.
‘The list of 28 instructions for living a good life contained no empty platitudes; each one completely reflects the way that Paul lived his own life.
‘He was wise and brave and decent to the core, but I could never have found the words to sum him up so perfectly as he has himself.
'I can’t tell you what a comfort it is to know that our children will grow up with a real understanding of what made Paul, Paul.’
Mandy Flanagan with husband Paul's document 'On finding fulfilment' which she found on his laptop by chance last month
She adds: ‘It would have been our tenth wedding anniversary this year, and while we didn’t have a perfect marriage — lots of love and laughs, but lots of arguments too — I realised when I read his words that, when it came to the stuff that really matters in life, we were absolutely united.’
Addressing his children, who were too young to comprehend the tragedy that was unfolding, Paul writes: ‘In these last few weeks, following my terminal diagnosis, I have searched my soul and heart to find ways in which I can reach out to you as you grow up.
‘I’ve been thinking about the matters in life that are important, and the values and aspirations that make people happy and successful. In my view, and you may well have your own ideas by now, the formula is pretty simple.
‘The three most important virtues are: Loyalty, integrity and moral courage. If you aspire, friends will respect you, employers will retain you, and your father will be immensely proud of you.
‘I am therefore giving you several pieces of advice. These are the principles on which I have tried to build my life and they are exactly those that I would have encouraged you to embrace, had I been able to.
‘I love you very much. Never forget that.’
What follows is an extraordinary list of rules, which could enable us all to live better lives. It encompasses everything from the importance of table manners to the perils of gossiping and everything in between.
‘And it’s just so Paul!’ laughs Mandy today.
‘It makes me cry but it really makes me smile too.
‘He was an old-fashioned school-master and utterly meticulous when it came to manners. I’m obsessive over the kids’ “pleases and thank yous” because I know that Paul never let them get away with it.’
Mandy reads aloud from the list: ‘Be punctual … Show moral courage … Never, ever let a friend down … Well, that was Paul. He was maddeningly early for everything. He spoke up for what he felt was right, no matter how unpopular it might have made him. And I have never met anyone so loyal to their friends.
‘He also wrote that they should never give up, and he certainly never did. He fought so bravely, so courageously, right to the end.’
Paul was first diagnosed with skin cancer in 2004. A birthmark on his chest had become malignant, and was swiftly removed in November that year, when their son Thomas was just a few months old.
In January 2008, after years of regular check-ups, he was given the all-clear, when Mandy was expecting Lucy.
‘He was such a positive person, but he never allowed himself to believe that the cancer had been dealt with,’ says Mandy.
'Paul was wise and brave and decent to the core, but I could never have found the words to sum him up so perfectly as he has himself,' said Mandy
That May, a swelling appeared under Paul’s arm and specialists quickly confirmed his worst fears. The cancer had spread to the lymph glands in his arms, and was detected in his neck soon after. Surgery and radiotherapy did little to halt its progress. And, in March 2009, scans showed that the cancer had spread to his brain and his condition was terminal.
‘He never pitied himself,’ says Mandy. ‘The diagnosis, and perhaps the drugs he was on, triggered a sort of mania. He suddenly had so much energy. While I lay awake upstairs worrying, Paul would work through the nights, determined to get his affairs in order.’
He meticulously organised the family finances, arranged his own funeral, and even bought his own memorial bench for the grounds of Reigate Grammar School, where he had taught economics since 2003. He also set up a cricket team for all of his friends, who now play annual memorial matches to raise money for the Melanoma Foundation.
Over the weeks, piles of shoeboxes full of paperwork, hand-written letters and DVD messages for his family and friends took over the dining room.
And as his health deteriorated, Paul insisted that he and Mandy went shopping for Thomas and Lucy’s 18th and 21st birthday presents.
‘I wonder how we got through those days, but there’s a strange kind of adrenaline that just keeps you going,’ says Mandy.
‘You just want to do whatever feels right. We went to a jewellers in Spitalfields market in London to buy Lucy an eternity ring for her 21st.
‘When the woman at the counter asked: “Is it the right size?”, Paul and I just looked blankly at each other. “We don’t know,” I said.
‘She looked at Paul and saw how desperately ill he was. Then all three of us looked at Lucy sitting in her pushchair, completely oblivious to it all.’
Lucy was christened last summer. As a result, she has one godmother and nine godfathers — each a close friend of her father’s.
‘He wanted his friends to have a permanent tie to his family, I think,’ says Mandy. ‘And if Lucy couldn’t have her father, a fantastic team of godfathers was the very least she deserved.’
By the time Paul died — at home, eight months after his terminal diagnosis — Mandy felt certain that he would rest peacefully in the knowledge that he had left the best legacy that any father could.
‘When some people are told they have just a few months to live, they decide their life won’t be complete until they’ve bungee-jumped off Sydney Harbour Bridge or seen the Grand Canyon. But that wasn’t Paul. All that was important to him was right here.
‘He lived and died by his own rules, and I know he had found his own fulfilment.’
For information on melanoma visit melanoma.sgul.ac.uk
A FATHER'S RULES FOR FINDING FULFILMENT
l Be courteous, be punctual, always say please and thank you, and be sure to hold your knife and fork properly. Others take their cue on how to treat you from your manners.
l Be kind, considerate and compassionate when others are in trouble, even if you have problems of your own. Others will admire your selflessness and will help you in due course.
l Show moral courage. Do what is right, even if that makes you unpopular. I always thought it important to be able to look at myself in the shaving mirror every morning and not feel guilt or remorse. I depart this world with a pretty clear conscience.
l Show humility. Stand your ground but pause to reflect on what the other side are saying, and back off when you know you are wrong. Never worry about losing face. That only happens when you are pig-headed.
l Learn from your mistakes. You will make plenty so use them as a learning tool. If you keep making the same mistake or run into a problem, you’re doing something wrong.
l Avoid disparaging someone to a third party; it is only you who will look bad. If you have a problem with someone, tell them face to face.
l Hold fire! If someone crosses you, don’t react immediately. Once you say something it can never be taken back, and most people deserve a second chance.
l Have fun. If this involves taking risks, so be it. If you get caught, hold your hands up.
l Give to charity and help those who are less fortunate than yourselves: it’s easy and so rewarding.
l Always look on the upside! The glass is half full, never half empty. Every adversity has a silver lining if you seek it out.
l Make it your instinct always to say ‘yes’. Look for reasons to do something, not reasons to say no. Your friends will cherish you for that.
l Be canny: you will get more of what you want if you can give someone more of what they desire. Compromise can be king.
l Always accept a party invitation. You may not want to go, but they want you there. Show them courtesy and respect.
l Never ever let a friend down. I would bury bodies for my friends, if they asked me to . . . Which is why I have chosen them carefully.
l Always tip for good service. It shows respect. But never reward poor service. Poor service is insulting.
l Always treat those you meet as your social equal, whether they are above or below your station in life. For those above you, show due deference, but don’t be a sycophant.
l Always respect age, as age equals wisdom.
l Be prepared to put the interests of your sibling first.
l Be proud of who you are and where you come from, but open your mind to other cultures and languages. When you begin to travel (as I hope you will), you’ll learn that your place in the world is both vital and insignificant. Don’t get too big for your breeches.
l Be ambitious, but not nakedly so. Be prepared to back your assertions with craftsmanship and hard work.
l Live every day to its full: do something that makes you smile or laugh, and avoid procrastination.
l Give of your best at school. Some teachers forget that pupils need incentives. So if your teacher doesn’t give you one, devise your own.
l Always pay the most you can afford. Never skimp on hotels, clothing, shoes, make-up or jewellery. But always look for a deal. You get what you pay for.
l Never give up! My two little soldiers have no dad, but you are brave, big-hearted, fit and strong. You are also loved by an immensely kind and supportive team of family and friends. You make your own good fortune, my children, so battle on.
l Never feel sorry for yourself, or at least don’t do it for long. Crying doesn’t make things better.
l Look after your body and it will look after you.
l Learn a language, or at least try. Never engage a person abroad in conversation without first greeting them in their own language; by all means ask if they speak English!
l And finally, cherish your mother, and take very good care of her.