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Monday, March 8, 2010

Daughter's tribute to dying mother is a YouTube sensation

A YouTube clip of 16-year-old Sarah Phillips' emotional tribute to her dying mother is set to become an internet sensation after getting thousands of hits online.

After saying an emotional farewell to her dying mother, Sarah Phillips, 16, decided to produce a personal tribute to Debbie Phillips's four-year battle against cancer.

Alone in her bedroom, Sarah read the words of the song "Autumn", by Scottish singer Paulo Nutini, from the internet.

Then, holding her mobile phone in her left hand and using it as a recording device, she sang the song pitch perfect without any music – and without a single mistake or hesitation.

Four and a half hours later, Sarah and the rest of her family were at Mrs Phillips' bedside in the family home when she took her final breath. She was 48.

Last week the version of the song that Sarah recorded was released on the YouTube website just days after Mrs Phillips's funeral, an event attended by more than 400 family and friends.

The song has been put to music and clips from family videos – taken during the last two decades of Mrs Phillips's life – have been turned into a short film.

In just five days, the YouTube clip has had thousands of "hits" and it is set to become a global internet sensation.

At her family's five-bedroom, semi-detached house in Chiswick, west London, Sarah spoke this weekend of her determination to record the tribute – which was first played at her mother's funeral – and to raise tens of thousands of pounds for cancer research, by establishing a fund in her memory.

Sarah, a pupil at St Paul's Girls' School, in London, said she had been taking singing lessons since she was 11.

"I had this song [Autumn] in mind as something that was really appropriate because there is this line that says: 'You still live on in my father's eyes.' Mummy also liked Paulo Nutini's music too.

"In the run-up to mummy's death, I thought it was absolutely perfect but it was unrealistic for me to be able to sing it live at her funeral [because she would be too upset]," said Sarah.

"So I recorded it on my mobile phone in my bedroom at about 10pm [on February 10]. I looked the lyrics up on my computer – it was the first time I had seen them.

"I had said my 'goodbye' to mummy the day before. It was exactly as you would expect. I said: 'I love you.' She just said she wanted me to be happy, but she could not speak very much because her breathing was laboured.

"She was upset by what she would miss – our [her three children's] weddings, having grandchildren. She would have been an amazing grandmother."

Sarah mentioned the recording to her father three days after her mother's death and a family friend, Charlie Mole, a professional score composer and songwriter, helped edit it and put it to music.

The video clips came from 70 hours of family recordings mainly recorded during family holidays abroad.

"I never appreciated how much mummy suffered because her priority was always to make sure we were not upset by her illness," Sarah said.

"She was incredibly selfless – everything she did was for other people. I was always very close to my mother and we have always been a close-knit family. I have wonderful memories of us all together."

Sarah's father, Mark Phillips, a QC, had met his wife – an only child who was born and brought up in Sheffield – at Bristol University in 1980.

The couple started going out when the-then Debbie Fisher was 19.

As a sixth former at Sheffield High School for Girls, she had been a gifted student and head girl.

She obtained a first-class honours degree in law at Bristol – and is reputed to have earned the best law degree ever given by the university. The couple married on Aug 11, 1984.

After she qualified as a solicitor and her husband qualified as a barrister, the couple moved to London where Mrs Phillips got a job with Freshfields, the leading solicitors.

After six successful years there, Mrs Phillips left when she was pregnant and she gave birth to her first child, Katy, on her 29th birthday.

She never returned to work, preferring to forsake her career to bring up her children. Katy, who is at Oxford University, is now 19 and her youngest child, Jack, who is at St Paul's Boys' School, is 13.

The family was comfortably off and enjoyed family holidays – sunshine and skiing – all over the world.

Things could not have been going better until, in the words of Mr Phillips, "the world changed" during a family visit to Nice in April 2006.

Mrs Phillips was telephoned by a consultant with the results of earlier medical tests which indicated a "serious problem".

The couple returned to Britain and Mrs Phillips underwent surgery for cervical cancer within days. The tumour was too large to remove and so instead she had her ovaries and lymph glands removed.

After what appeared to be successful chemotherapy and radiotherapy, an elated Mr Phillips sat at his computer screen on Nov 3, 2006, and wrote an email, with tears streaming down his face, saying his wife had been given the "all clear" by doctors and was on the road to a full recovery.

However, by March 2008, the cancer had returned and the consultant told the couple: "We are no longer talking about a cure."

From the moment she was ill, Mrs Phillips's concern was not her own survival, but how to keep the family running smoothly. Mr Phillips, with his wife's blessing, started giving family and friends regular email updates on her health.

In early April 2008, while Sarah was looking after her mother, Mrs Phillips suffered a brain haemorrhage and had to be rushed to hospital.

After his wife fell into a coma and was given twelve hours to live, Mr Phillips turned up in her hospital room and started to have a stress-induced heart attack leaving two medical "crash teams" fighting to save both their lives.

Yet both recovered enough to be allowed to go home days later where they had what the family jokingly call their "John and Yoko routine" as they recovered together in bed from their respective serious illnesses.

However, Mrs Phillips was now desperately ill with a brain tumour. Despite more radiotherapy and chemotherapy, which meant she lost her hair, her health continued to fail.

Mrs Phillips spent the last 14 months of her life unable to see because of the pressure the tumour put on her brain.

"She was often in real agony after November last year," said Mr Phillips. "They gave her radiotherapy in hospital, which aggravated the tumour, but they had to carry on with it or Debbie would have died."

Eventually, after reaching her 25th wedding anniversary last August and hearing Sarah sing in the school's Christmas concert, Mrs Phillips died at home in the early hours of Feb 11.

Within an hour, Mr Phillips had dutifully emailed family and friends: "At 2.35am Debbie slipped away very peacefully. I know that sounds like a cliché, but it is true.

"She had me and Jack on one side, Katy and Sarah on the other and her parents by her side as well. We were all able to tell her that we loved her ... I lost my best friend and the love of my life."

Mr Phillips said: "When I say that Debbie was universally loved, I am not overstating it. She was warm, kind and always laughing.

"She was quite brilliant. She was hugely popular and at least half a dozen people regarded Debbie as their best friend."

Mrs Phillips died two days before the 30th anniversary of the couple's meeting, when she came to the university for an interview and he was already a first-year law student.

Mr Phillips, 50, and his three children are determined that some good should come from the death of Mrs Phillips and they hope to raise a substantial amount for cervical cancer research, largely through Sarah's YouTube tribute.

"Cervical cancer is the poor relation to lots of other women's cancers," Mr Phillips said. "The song is wonderful and I'm very proud of the performance and Sarah's efforts to use it to raise money."

Mrs Phillips' combined funeral and thanksgiving service took place on February 25 at The Temple Church, central London, when Mr Phillips and Katy read tributes, Jack gave a reading and Sarah's recorded song was played.

In a seven-page address, Mr Phillips read messages dictated to family and friends by his wife shortly before she died.

He said: "Her message through me to Katy, Sarah and Jack is: that it was mummy's greatest pleasure to have seen how you have grown up, and all your achievements.

"It is her greatest regret that she is going to miss so much of what she knew would be three wonderful futures. She said: 'Keep doing what you are doing and you will be fine.'"

* The Debbie Phillips Cervical Cancer Research Fund will raise money for the UCL Cancer Institute Research Trust. The video can also be viewed on YouTube here.

For further information on the work of the UCL Cancer Institute, please go to