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 rock...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.
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
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 staff...it 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.