Sunday, 19 February 2012

The Neil I Knew

Word came Thursday that Neil Hope, who played 'Wheels' on Degrassi, had died....five years ago.
I woke that day to eleven messages on my answering machine and dozens of messages on Facebook from media outlets across Ontario.
Why were they trying to contact me?
I am Neil's former fiancee, and this is our story.

Like almost all Canadian's who grew up in the 80's, I was a Degrassi fan. I remember watching it every week, right after Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
Heck, we even watched it in our grade 7 health class.
I have to confess...I was more of a Snake fan than a Wheels fan. Boy, would THAT change.

In 1998, I moved to Hamilton and started working at Money Mart. A few months later, a new guy was hired...a guy who looked awfully familiar.
On his first shift, I couldn't help but glance his way. Often.
Was he...? Wasn't he...?
I finally worked up the courage and said, "You know, you look so familiar..."
He replied quietly, "Well, I used to be on TV."
And, like a huge dork, I actually yelled, "DEGRASSI!"
He quickly grinned, shushed me, and nodded as he looked around to make sure no one else had heard me.
D'oh! What a horrible first impression, right?

We continued to work together, and I slowly got to know Neil. The real person, and not the character I grew up with.
A few weeks passed and we started to hang out outside of work. We'd go to a local restaurant, sit at the bar, have a few beers and watch the Leafs games.
We got to know the staff at the restaurant, and they eventually became good friends. We even attended the wedding of one of the managers a few years later!

I honestly don't know how the romance began...One day we were just friends, and the next we were a couple. It just happened....and how could it not?
Neil was sweet and smart, and so very funny. No one could make me laugh the way he could. With just a story, Neil could have the whole room doubled over with laughter, tears streaming down their faces gasping for breath.
That was Neil.

He moved in with me, and life was good. We were happy. And then a bomb went off in my world.
In May of 2000, my father died after a short illness. I thank God everyday that I arrived in time to say my final goodbye to him.
He lived 6 hours away, in Espanola, Ontario, and I was away from Neil for weeks while I helped my brother get my dad's affairs in order.
Life got tough for Neil and I...and he finally just dropped everything, got on a bus and rode the 6 hours to be with me.
And be there he was. He stood right by my side while I grieved for my dad. He was my strength.
You see, Neil had lost his dad, too. In the exact same way I'd lost mine...cirrhosis of the liver.
Neil knew exactly what I was feeling, exactly what I was going through. Neil was...amazing. I never could have gone through what I did without him.

While we were in Espanola, he met my children...and taught my son, who was 8 at the time, to throw a football.
Neil didn't want kids of his own, but he was great with mine. They adored him. (I had joint custody of my children.)

We stayed up north for a month or two, going between Espanola and Sudbury (I grew up in both towns and had family there).
Once, we were staying in a hotel in Sudbury and some old friends just happened to be staying at the same hotel.
Of course, they wanted to meet Neil and so they did...and that's how Bobby and Yas from Dead Celebrity Status ended up partying with 'Wheels'. ;)

One day, while Neil and I were in the mall, he said he had something to do and he'd meet me back at the hotel room later.
I found that odd, but what could I do? I went back to the hotel room to wait.

A few hours later, Neil showed up and made me go wait in the bathroom because he had a surprise for me.
So, there I stood, in the bathroom, wondering what the heck was going on!
He made me close my eyes and lead me out of the bathroom. I opened my eyes and there was a HUGE white teddy bear on the dresser.
"Aw", I thought. "Very sweet. But I had to hide in the bathroom for this?"
Suddenly, Neil went into his pocket and took out a small ring box...and my heart stopped.
He opened the box and there was the most beautiful ring I'd ever seen.
He looked into my eyes and--yes, I remember his exact words--said, "Christina, until I met you I never knew what real happiness was. I love you. Will you be my wife?"
And I BAWLED. I sobbed like a baby, but through my tears I somehow said yes.
After I'd calmed down, I teased him about not getting down on one knee.
He thought he HAD! He was SO nervous that he'd forgotten what he wanted to say and thought he'd stumbled the words out. I had to reassure him that it was perfect.
Can you imagine that? This man who'd spent his whole life in front of a TV camera was SO nervous about proposing to plain little me? That still makes me giggle.

Neil called his mother right away to tell her the news, and then I called mine. Our families were over the moon happy for us.
And so were we.

In July of 2000, just a couple of weeks after we'd gotten engaged, my mother got married in North Bay. (My parents had been divorced since I was a teen)
I was the Maid of Honour, and of course, Neil attended with me.
He spent that day with the 'boys' of my family. My brother, my uncle (who was very young--only 3 years older than Neil), my cousin and a close family friend.

Left to right: Neil, my brother Sean, my cousin Paul, my uncle Chris, close friend Marc
and my son in the front

He spoke of that day with so much love for months afterward. How great it felt to be a part of our family. How accepted he felt. How loved.
It was a wonderful bonding experience for the boys as I stayed with my mother to get ready.

From the pews, Neil was the cameraman. He recorded the whole wedding and the important bits of the reception afterwards.
One particular highlight was the garter toss. All the guys were on the lawn and Neil wanted that garter.
He jumped, he pushed, he scrambled...but he just couldn't get to it before my brother snagged it out of the air.

Neil in the back, my brother reaching up.

Neil promptly chased my brother around the yard trying to grab it from him while the rest of us laughed and teased him.

Finally, we returned home to Hamilton...but the good times continued.
We took a trip to Niagara Falls and visited all the museums.

We took a day trip to Toronto where Neil played tour guide for me. He took me up the CN Tower (my first time, ever!), we went to the Hockey Hall of Fame where we met Lanny MacDonald, then we saw the Leafs play the Blackhawks...18 rows up from the ice, right behind Cujo in net!
...the Leafs lost 3-2.

We took another weekend trip to Toronto and went to the CNE and Ontario Place, then went to see Buddy Guy and BB King play at the Molson Amphitheater.
Neil LOVED the Blues and he adored BB King, so he was just awed the whole night. Watching him at that concert was like watching a little kid meeting Mickey Mouse. His eyes lit up and they shone with excitement. His face was flushed and he grinned the whole night.
And me? Well, I'm not a Blues fan...but to this day that was the best concert I've ever been to.

Neil also introduced me to his favourite movies. I grew up loving classics, but Neil opened that door even wider.
When he discovered I'd never seen Driving Miss Daisy, he went out and rented it that night...and then cried right along with me as we watched.
His favourite movie was Raging Bull and he made me watch that. He loved On The Waterfront, so he made me watch that. His favourite actor was Clint Eastwood, so he made me watch Unforgiven.
And I loved every single one of the movies he 'made' me watch.

Neil was also attentive and caring. One Christmas he bought me a ring....and this ring I still wear, on my right ring finger, to this day.
He was not the father of my children. He didn't live with my children...but he knew how much my children meant to me and how much I love them.
So he bought me a mother's ring. It's a plain gold band with three small stones. The middle stone is my birthstone, December. On either side of that are two more birthstones, one for each of my oldest children, both born in September.
I cried almost as hard when he gave me that as I did when he proposed.
He'd not only remembered my birthday, but he'd remembered my children's birthdays as well...and he'd been so selfless, so sweet, so connected to me, that he just KNEW what the perfect gift would be.

And then there was the surprise party he threw for my birthday. Well...TRIED to throw me.
He had it all planned out. He took me to dinner at a great restaurant, and we were to go see a show afterwards.
But, uhoh! Neil had forgotten the tickets, so we had to return home to get them.
Well, we walked in the door and, 'SURPRISE!" four or five people jumped out and yelled!
Apparently Neil had invited over a dozen...but only ONE friend (thank you, Jay!!), and some of my family had shown up. LOL!
But he'd TRIED and that was what was important. :)

Neil didn't flaunt who he was...he actually preferred that my friends and family NOT bring up who he'd been once...and they respected that.
But, of course, he did get recognized while we were out. Often.

I remember two of those times in particular. One was early in our relationship.
We were at 'our' hangout, the local restaurant I spoke of above. I went to use the restroom and I heard two girls enter after me.
They were literally GUSHING. "OMG, that's WHEELS! OMGOMG, should we SAY anything?" they went on and on and on.
I finally came out of the stall and told them that he was NEIL, my boyfriend, and that he was there to have a night out. He preferred to be left alone, and I hoped they would respect that.
Then I walked out.
Little did I know that one of the girls was the bartender's (who happened to be a good friend of ours!) girlfriend!
Well, didn't I feel the fool? Ha! (Sorry, Pete!)

The second time is even more amusing.
Neil and I were having a romantic dinner at The Keg. In the middle of our meal, the WHOLE staff of the restaurant came over to our table. There were at least 15 people crowded around him! The chef, the sous chef, the dishwashers, the wait was insane!
They all asked for his autograph, someone had a camera (this was before camera phones, remember!) so photos were taken...meanwhile, there I am, forgotten, eating my surf and turf, being pushed and cajoled as Neil smiled and laughed and made pleasant small talk with his fans. Finally after all the autographs had been signed and all the pictures taken and they STILL weren't leaving, Neil gently said, "Guys, I'm here with my fiancee. Thank you all for coming to say hi, but we'd like to get back to out dinner now."
Of course, they were slightly embarrassed. They left, Neil took my hand, apologized and we went back to out meal...and he didn't let go of my hand for the rest of the night.

You may ask yourself why I'm writing this. Why am I sharing these stories with you?

All I can do is be honest....I miss him. I miss the Neil I knew and loved and I want the world to know THAT Neil. MY Neil.

The press is focusing on his death...He died alone...He died unknown. And that's devastating and heartbreaking and it makes me SO ANGRY.

But to heal and to remember him the way I MUST remember him, I needed to tell you...tell the world...his stories. Our stories.

Wherever you are Neil, I know you're always with me. You're always in my heart.

I know that I'm doing exactly what you would want me to do...and I know you're proud of me.
Just be my rock one last time so we can get through this...and then you can finally--FINALLY--rest peacefully.

That's our story. And THAT was my Neil.


  1. Absolutely beautiful! Love the stories :-)

  2. Thank you for sharing....I'm in tears and I never even met the guy. I'm so sorry for your loss Christina...may you find peace in remembering all the good times you two shared. Rest in peace Neil.

  3. breathtaking ... growing up I always watched Degrassi, actually I STILL watch the Degrassi series today. I had a huge crush on "Wheels" . I am happy that you shared your memories of Neil with us. I am curious as to what happened to the two of you? It is sad to know that you were so close yet so far to find out when Neil passed away ... too many questions :( May he rest in peace and continue to shine above all those who loved him... :)

  4. Merci beaucoup !

  5. Christina--Thanks so much for sharing---He was so lucky to have you in his life.Memories are treasures.

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  7. Thank you for sharing this, Christina. Neil seemed like an amazing person. I wish I had the chance to meet him. :(

  8. Thank you for sharing that side of Neil with us! I have been a constant fan of the original Degrassi since they started showing them in class for Family Studies. I loved all of them and it breaks my heart to find out that Neil was lost this way... RIP

  9. Wheels was always my favourite on Degrassi. Thank you for sharing about the Neil that none of us knew.

  10. I always wondered what he was like in real life. I think we "the general public" always wonder that about the famous. I am so glad you shared your intimate moments with us. It is very unselfish of you.
    I feel happy to know that he was able to lead a fairly normal life and experience the happiness and love that you both shared together.
    Thank you once again Christina.

  11. As soon as I heard about Neil's passing I knew I had to record this song. I hope you enjoy it and the accompanying video.

  12. So sorry to find out about this. :( I, too, am one who grew up watching Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High in the late 80s and early 90s. I am 38 and I still watch the old Degrassi series, too. I feel that the show was very well produced with some great actors and actresses and is just as relevant today as it was then. Thank you for sharing your fondest memories with us. I wish you solace and comfort at this time.

  13. I really don't understand what happened. How is it that no one in his family knew he was gone & now they miss him? It seems really sad.

    1. Have you read any of the hundreds of articles printed about Neil's passing?
      Pretty much all of them explain that his family had been looking for him. If Neil wanted to disappear, he could.
      The public didn't see him for years, remember.

    2. Cathy Sandberg. csandy2015@yahoo.ca20 June 2018 at 20:11

      Christina, thank you for sharing these wonderful stories. Makes me so happy that Neil enjoyed some good life. He is the reason that I started watching Degrassi. A real good actor and so good looking. Wish that I had met him.

  14. I hope things have quieted down for you a bit now, Christina. I cannot imagine how difficult this has been for you and Neil's family. Thank you so much for sharing your memories of him. It was a lovely gift to those of us who didn't know him personally.
    At first, I kept looking for new information on the web--all the questions **I** had, and **I** wanted answered. Why would he want to be so alone? What did the police and coroner's reports say? What did the owner/residents of the rooming house have to say? When was the last time he filled his insulin prescription? Was he using an alias? Where was he working? Was he laid to rest in an unmarked grave because no one claimed him? And on and on...
    Then I realized how selfish I was being. Neil had his reasons for being alone, so who was I to question his preference? If his friends and family chose to find answers to the endless list of questions, they wouldn't be my business...especially while they were grieving. They may not have wanted to know the circumstances, so I needed to respect that. But if asking such questions (and answering them for nosy people like me) would bring Neil back, I'm sure they would have in a heartbeat.
    So thank you again for giving us a glimpse of the Neil you knew. I hope you and his family find peace knowing that he will live on in the hearts of so many of us.

  15. Very kind of you to share your memories of Neil with the world--you're such a good writer!

    Neil was always my favorite Degrassi kid from the Jr High/High series, and I was always rooting for him, hoping that he'd be OK.

    This brings to mind the close of the film "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story." I can't recall the exact quote, but it was something like: "people are always asking questions about how Bruce died, but I prefer to remember how he lived." Thank you again for sharing who Neil was as a person and how he lived.

  16. thank you for sharing who the real neil was... yes, he will always be known as wheels (the characters had a major influence on so many), but we also need to respect the privacy the actors request..

    may you remember the happy times!

    thanks again for sharing

  17. I love that you have posted this and have shared your own personal memories of Neil with us. Neil/Wheels was my fave character on Degrassi and like many others, it came to feel like we knew him, like he could have been one of the people at our school at the time, a friend. I guess maybe since I didn't have a lot of friends back then Neil and the other actors/actresses from the show became kind of real to me. I have continued to watch Degrassi in hopes someday that Neil would return...only to find out this horrible news that he has passed on, and that he was alone...and that no one knew until now. Christina I applaud you for trying to make the world see what a kind and gentle soul he was. I'm sorry you and his remaining family and his friends have had to go through this; I wish for you it hadn't gone down this way but sadly it did. God works in mysterious ways, and since Neil was such a private person perhaps in the long run this way was best. He is in my prayers...and he undoubtedly is missed by those longtime Degrassi die-hard fans such as I. Thanks for sharing your stories...they brought a tear to my eye. I wish I'd have had the chance to know him myself. God bless you both

  18. Well I will be sure to make a video out of my Degrassi Song (No Words) and it will be on my cd. He definitely didn't die unknown, and wherever he is now he is not alone, and it's a far better place then where we are. I know what I know my heart has told me since learning this way of his leaving the world. His humbleness will always be the thing most remembered about him. He lived his life the way he died, it was a good though albeit short one. And those re-runs will stand as a testament throughout time of who he was and what he was like on and off camera, because I am certain his sense of humour was the same in the both the guys he was! :-) I play the song every day and will continue to do so until I am sick of it.. Thanks for sharing part of your story with us, we really do appreciate it! Sincerely Superwoman! I am going to go to Hollywood and I promise to make a movie with Clint Eastwood for you Neil! You will always have a friend in me!

  19. Thank you for sharing this and these wonderful pictures.

  20. Thanks for sharing...

  21. Thanks for sharing this. It's so moving and emotionally. I used to crush on him since he came on the Degrassi series. I noticed who's the cute? I never stopped watch it till I grew up to married and got kids of my own. I often wonder what's happened to him... I was shocked to hear that he has passed away yeas ago! Sadly where I came from UK didn't tell us the news what's happened to him.. I know he is famous but I understand fully that he want to be quiet life than being celebrity.

  22. I can't believe I never heard anything about this on the news back then. Kind of a big deal. One thing that I don't understand is that if his landlord found him, how did the police/coroner not know who he was? Wouldn't his landlord know his name? Apparently there were 4 vials of insulin found with him that were filled in September, I think. Didn't they have a name of them? Lots of mystery around this story. So sad. Managed to find his grave today. Found it hard to leave.

    1. I think you're misunderstanding. The police, the landlord, and the coroner knew who Neil was. They had his ID, what little he did have.
      They didn't know he had a next of kin. They didn't know he had a family. They didn't know there were people who loved him, and who should have claimed his body after he was found.
      No mystery at all. Just a lot of miscommunication.

  23. When and why did you break up? It sound like you both were in love.

    1. With all due respect, that's none of your business. Sorry. :)

  24. Do you have any video clips of some of these happier times when you knew him? It would be cool to see that.

  25. Beautiful story I loved degrassi grew up watching them I just found out he died I'm shocked..... But I'm wondering as of everyone else you say he was your rock and you loved him and that he was a awesome man well y the hell did you guys brake up just wondering I would never let a guy go that was that good to me just saying

  26. Hi Christina. I met Neil many times when he worked at Money Mart.I recently visited Neil's grave with a friend a couple days after his death anniversary. To our surprise nobody had gone to see him. There were no flowers or nothing left. I talked to him for a few minutes and then left a bottle of beer for him. When I got back into my car I smelled a fragrance. Perfume. None of us wore any that day. Ok I thought nothing of it. When I got home I turned in the TV and on the TV guide there was the word "Wheels" ok so I'm like omg is he giving me signs. I have smelled this perfume multiple times out of nowhere. I actually broke down crying for him and I went into my room and was making my bed and I said "Neil, if you can hear this I really miss you and I'm so sorry that you're not here. Maybe you would still be here if we would of connected somehow. I could of helped you" while I was saying that the fragrant smell came again. I'm like ok I know now for sure he's listening to me. Me and Neil had very similar lifestyles, except I didn't drink, but everything else is true. I know his spirit is gonna help me with my acting and that he's around and giving me signs. It's so sad that he's gone. I let him know all the time that he has a special place in my hear.

    1. Nobody knows about me. I dated Neil from 2006 and briefly 2007. I was his on and off girlfriend. I did not know what happened to him because we lost touch when I moved away. I miss him

    2. :(
      Cheers to you

  27. Beautiful little sis and I still talk of him every few days...such a lovely soul...cheers from the birthplace of Canada..Prince Edward Island

  28. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.