My Mother and Harry started seeing each other when they were teenagers in the 60s, but life intervened, as it tends to do, and they both married other people. My Mam met my Dad and stayed married for 32 years, raising 4 kids – I was likely a surprise (“the chemist wasn’t open that day” she’d joke), as my sister and brothers are 7, 9 and 10 years older than me. My parents split up when I was 20 and, in retrospect, it wasn’t a huge shock. All the kids had grown up and my Mam finally made a decision for herself, her happiness, and that decision was Harry. A few years later they got married and I had, to this day, the biggest honour of my life, I walked her down the aisle – then gave a nerve-ridden speech about how it was a surreal experience giving your Mother away. Harry absolutely adored her, I could see it every time he looked at her and that was good enough for me.
I distinctly remember the moment I found out Harry was sick. He was going in for a sinus issue, and I was working on a show in RTE at the time. Whenever I’d come off air, I’d give my Mam a call to see what she thought, she was always honest but encouraging. The voice I heard was distraught, “They found something, we need to see a specialist”. This was a routine check-up, so the shock was staggering. My Mother is incredibly practical, and while I’ve seen her upset over the years I’d never heard her like that before. I was training for an Ironman Triathlon at the time and had a swim planned for that evening and just remember absolutely smashing the water in anger. Using exercise as an outlet to deal with life-altering moments would become a habit over the years. I was so angry; Harry was the best thing to ever happen to her and I knew it, I knew how happy he made her, I knew the plans they had together.
The days passed with kind of a blur and when the scans were all done, they finally sat down with a specialist and it wasn’t good news. Harry pushed him for an answer and he was told: “maybe a year”. Typical of my Mother, she had prepared herself for the worst case scenario and instantly researched everything to do with this cancer; I remember her saying “Michael (she’s literally the only person to still use my full name) people can live 10 years with this kind of cancer if they respond to the treatment.
The biggest thing that blew me away about Harry was his work ethic. Through countless treatments he got up at 7am every morning and went to work in a museum – rain, hail, snow, it didn’t matter. Even taking on extra shifts so he and my Mam could go on the holidays they had planned since they started seeing each other again. He was in the army for over 3 decades and that discipline stood to him. I would hear him come in the door in the lashing rain, while in the middle of treatment that was visibly making him ill. My Mam would have his dinner ready, then they’d either watch the 9pm drama, or a series about buying a house abroad. I’ve literally seen every episode of Midsummer Murders at this stage (generally, it’s a jilted family member fyi).
Throughout all of this time the mainstay was my Mam. She’d spend hours upon hours with him in the hospital as he got treatment, seek out answers if they weren’t getting any and write everything down – medication, treatment plans – so she could research later for herself. It’s difficult to comprehend someone going through something like this on their own, but Harry wouldn’t have to, my Mam would be by his side every step of the way.
A few months back I was staying in their home as it’s close to where I train and i heard that panicked tone again for the first time in years come from downstairs “Michael, quick.” I ran down and Harry had clearly had a stroke. I had heard him stumbling around in the middle of the night to use the bathroom downstairs, then my Mam going down to clean up after him. This was normal, the treatment would affect him in different ways and she was always on hand to make sure everything was OK afterward – she didn’t want him waking up and feeling embarrassed.
The strength she showed during this time continually stunned me. She was strong for him because being somewhat oblivious to the severity of what was happening to his body was probably part of what was keeping him alive. In what was becoming typical of the tenacity of the man, he made an impressive recovery from the stroke. My Mam helping him when need be, but always pushing for him to help himself. She wanted him empowered and would always encourage him to learn to do things, but still be there regardless to clean up, or to just sit with him while he got his bloods done or had treatment. The sicker Harry became, the more admiration I had for her and them as a couple. They had been to hell and back, these childhood sweethearts who seemingly had a second chance at life, at love. My Mam would cook, clean, mind everyone and never think of herself. She wouldn’t plan holidays without him, she wouldn’t even be out of the house for extended periods of time without him.
That year to live turned into 7 and a half years. Harry passed away early on the 18th of November – my Mother’s 65th Birthday.
Despite seemingly always coming back against the odds, Harry just ran out of fight – he would ask her the date everytime she visited him in the hospital because he knew her birthday was coming up. He ended up buying her the dress she’d wear to his funeral. It would be the most incredible send-off I’ve ever seen; the army draped a tricolor over his coffin and acted as pallbearers, he would’ve really loved it.
Everyone’s grief is different and everyone deals with grief differently. It is unbelievably painful to watch someone you love be in so much pain. In the short time since Harry has passed the shock hasn’t worn off her face. Everyone in our family has rallied behind her because that’s what she’d do. She’d turn up, cook, somehow make people laugh…
Any goodness in me I owe to my Mother; the older I’m getting I see how like her I am. And whenever anyone says it to me I take it as a huge compliment. She is the funniest person I know, she has a resilence that is staggering only for its consistency. She is tough, she doesn’t take any shit and she is, above all else, kind. She spent all of the years while Harry was sick taking care of him and not herself because that was marriage was to her – in sickness and in health.
In a bid to distract her, momentarily at least, I keep asking her what she wants for her birthday. “Nothing, Michael” pausing “I really don’t feel like celebrating.”
She always tells me to write more. It’s why I set up this site with Adrian, but the day job just doesn’t allow it as much as I’d like. That’s going to change now because she has inspired me to write again. Her strength, compassion, and love… three things I’ve never seen in such abundance before in my life until I watched her with her husband.
I told her today I was going to write something. “About what?” she asked, “You,” i said.
Happy Birthday, Mam.