A widower in his 90s has helped raise millions for charity, reveals Sue Thomas
Bob Lowe is the perfect gent, there in good time to meet my train, and smartly turned out in grey trousers, a yellow sweater and cravat. On a small tour of his home town of New Milton, Hampshire, it’s clear he’s a good, confident driver, but he grimaces with irritation when someone holds him up.
‘I’m a bit impatient,’ he admits. ‘I get fed up with these old people…’ and here he gives me a look, as any 93-year-old might, after delivering such a line, before driving back to his bungalow, where sandwiches and cake are waiting.
Admittedly, Bob’s an unlikely chap to be in the public eye; but he’s been propelled there by love, grief, loneliness – and Esther Rantzen.
After he was widowed, Bob wrote a poem, Ode to Kath (see below) but had no plans to share it until 2011, when he read a newspaper article by Esther Rantzen, in which she movingly described widowhood.
Here was a woman with a busy life, family and friends, talking about cheese and biscuit suppers – ‘Who cooks for themselves, not me,’; the quietness of evenings and weekends; what it felt like to come home to an empty house.
Bob understood completely, and sent her a copy of his poem, via the newspaper. She replied, telling him how moved she’d been by his words and that, Bob thought, was that.
He didn’t know that Esther carried his letter with her, quoting from it regularly and using it as proof of the huge need to support older people who are lonely.
Two years went by, during which Esther developed the idea of The Silver Line. As she’d already proved, with the launch of ChildLine years earlier, she gets things done. But the first Bob knew of it was when his telephone rang one winter’s evening in 2013.
‘How are you? Look, it’s Esther. I’m in a bit of a rush but I want you to come up to the BT Tower in London. We’re having a bit of a celebration. We’ll send you the details – Bye…’
Which is how Bob ended up being at the launch of The Silver Line, becoming one of its Ambassadors and, along the way, sharing his life with millions.
His love for Kath. How they became a couple when she was 14 and he was 16 and they’d gone to the park with friends. In the time-honoured way, Kath dropped her handkerchief, Bob picked it up and from then on, neither had eyes for anyone else.
How he wrote to her from East Africa, where he was serving during WW2, asking her to be his wife.
They married in Barton-on-Sea, in Hampshire, in 1946; raised their children, Linda, Robert and Martine, went ballroom dancing….
Reminiscing, Bob can barely mention her name without crying. Photographs of Kath – as a beautiful young woman, a mother, in old age, looking up at Bob – fill the walls, the mantelpiece, the many albums.
More unusually, she has a physical presence there, too, her ashes contained in a rose-print fabric bag which rests on the arm chair next to Bob’s, and goes with him into the bedroom when he sleeps.
‘We think she had dementia for six years,’ he says. ‘It was small things at first. Once, watching the Proms on the TV, she was so entranced she asked me, ‘How are we going to get home?’ Some years later, she looked at me and asked, ‘Where’s Bob?’ Well, I’m Bob. And that’s when I knew I was losing her.
‘We were so close, joined at the hip,’ he says. ‘When we wrote our wills, I suggested we should be cremated and have our ashes scattered, but Kath said, ‘Let’s have our ashes mixed together.’
In 2014, on BBC’s fund raising extravaganza, Sport Relief, he was filmed reading his poem. Several million pounds poured in as a result – The Silver Line calls it, ‘The Power of Bob’. Later, on Goggle Box – the unlikely TV hit where viewers are filmed watching television, people broke down in tears listening to Bob.
‘Poor old sod,’ said one of them, which – and Bob does see the funny side of this – inspired one of his children to compile a scrap book detailing all the amazing things he’s done since becoming involved in The Silver Line. It’s called, what else, ‘A Year in the Life of a Poor Old Sod…’
More than 640,000 calls (they receive around 1200 a day) to The Silver Line have proved that it was much needed. On occasion, in the middle of the night, Bob has used it himself.
He’s in touch with Esther and others from the charity and actively spreads the word about it. He was invited to Esther’s 75th birthday party, and escorted her to the premiere of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
He knows he’s luckier than many. Busy, and healthy, he reads the talking newspaper for the blind, enjoys gardening, has good neighbours, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and Lisa, a nurse who helped look after Kath, to help him with the house. But he’s still hurting.
What would Kath have made of her husband turning up all over the media? ‘She’d have been surprised,’ he says, ‘and embarrassed. People say she’d be proud, but I don’t think so. She was even embarrassed that I was captain of the cricket team – if I had to say a few words, she’d go outside.’
Was he aware at the time how lucky he and Kath were to share such love?
‘No,’ he says. ‘Now I want to stand on a rooftop and tell everyone, ‘Hold hands, have a cuddle,’ because when they’ve gone, you think about all the things you didn’t do.’
For instance? He mentions how he used to give Kath flowers: ‘She loved them and I’d buy them for her on birthdays and anniversaries but why didn’t I get them more often?’ he asks. ‘I wish I had. I hope she knows.’
It’s been four years since Kath died, with Bob by her side. Hasn’t it got any easier? ‘No,’ he shakes his head. ‘I think about her all the time. I’ll be in the kitchen, holding a utensil, and thinking, “This was hers…” and then he’s gone again, the tears that are never far away, back again.
Ode to Kath by Bob Lowe
I am alone, now I know it’s true
There was a time when we were two
Those were the days when we would chat
Doing little jobs of this and that
We’d go to the shops and select our meals
But now I’m one I know how it feels
To try and cook or have meals on wheels
The rooms are empty there’s not a sound
Sometimes I’m lost and wander round
To look for jobs that I can do
To bring back the days when we were two
When darkness falls and curtains drawn
That’s when I feel most forlorn
But I must be honest and tell the truth
I’m not quite alone and here’s the proof
Because beside me in her chair
She quietly waits our time to share
Kath said to me some time ago
Darling when the time comes for us to go
Let’s mix our ashes and be together
So we can snuggle up for ever and ever.
*The Silver Line is a free, national, confidential helpline for older people, open 24 hours. Telephone 0800 4 70 80 90.