WHAT REALLY MATTERS

December 25, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Dinner is in the oven. The presents are opened. All I ever wanted for Christmas was turkey, cranberry sauce and brussels sprouts. I've learned that even those simple things don't matter. 2016 has been a bol..x of a year for my family. I have not written about it previously but writing is my craft and the temptation to commit thoughts to the written word compels me to say something.

Photographically speaking, as my Facebook friends know, 2016 has been a very successful year for me. I've won more awards than ever and enjoyed a level of success I only dreamed of, not least because winning IPF Photographer of the Year was a dream come true. I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t enjoy winning awards but it is not my raison d'être, it never has been. At the end of the day, medals are scrap metal. They have no value to anyone other than those who have had the enjoyment of winning them.

While medals kept coming my way, for the past ten months my family has been on a roller coaster. At times I have felt as though we were trapped in Armageddon or facing Golgotha. Behind a veneer of photographic successes were two entirely different stories for my mother and wife, each of whom was diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses. In March, my mother went through a twelve-hour-long operation to remove a malignant tumour. After much worry, she recovered remarkably well and is back to her old self. We are of course relieved, but just as things seemed to be going well, another saga was about to unfold.

On Monday 9th May my wife, Kathryn, was admitted to the Bon Secours Hospital in Cork. By the following night, I knew we were in a nightmare. Things that seemed to be important didn’t matter anymore. Our lives changed irrevocably. Our son summed it up best when he said in August that it was the worst summer of his life. He has been my rock this summer. He kept me going even though most of the time he didn’t know it. By early September, Kathryn had spent 86 out of 106 nights in hospital. She went through hell. She is feeling really well at the moment but the saga is not over. There is more to come and the war resumes in January. The first few months of 2017 will be very tough. She has a rare cell-type and in an effort to prevent the return of the disease, she will have to spend at least a month in Saint James’s Hospital in Dublin. That’s the reality of her life and ours.

Kathryn, Seán and I call ourselves ‘The Three Musketeers’ – all for one and one for all. We stick together no matter what. That is the kind of year 2016 has been for us. We endured, suffered, cried, endlessly worried, slept very little, cleaned out every cupboard in the house and tidied almost everything. We talked endlessly to each other and to others, and occasionally we laughed too. It is a year we would love to be able to forget but can’t. I am an optimist and a dreamer. I try to infuse that positivity into those I care about and love. That has helped keep us going but it was so tough at times. How often have I thought to myself, 'if you can keep your head about you while others are losing theirs, perhaps you've misunderstood the situation'. But I had to try to keep my head about me and I've had to remain positive. There is no alternative.

Faced with serious illness, we were at the mercy of doctors and nurses. No words of mine can truly express the gratefulness we feel for the skill and professionalism of Dr Brian Bird, Dr Gul Ahmed and their colleagues in Cork Bon Secours Hospital. Saint Bernadette’s Ward has incredibly professional caring staff (from nurses to caterers) and dear god am I thankful to them for what they have done for Kathryn and, by extension, for us. I have always admired nurses, but this summer I fell under their spell. They are awesome.

To everyone (many of whom we don't know) who said prayers, sent positive thoughts, wrote texts and sent get well cards, had masses said, gave an understanding look, showed us unimaginable decency, or just said a kind word at the right moment, THANK YOU. Those are two simple words but they are words that are not expressed often enough by most people. A friend whose wife has been through a similar experience said to me in May that in the months ahead we would find out who our friends are and who our relatives are 'but they are not the people you think they are now'. How prophetic those words have proven to be. If any of you read this, you know who you are. Thank you. It has been the worst summer of our lives but most of you have made it a little bit more bearable. And if it appears that I have become less tolerant of fools, then that's because I have. For a long time now, when I've observed idiotic behaviour I am inclined to mutter 'there's someone in need of a problem' - never have I said it more often than in 2016.

Every day I think of friends, new and old, who are going through their versions of hell this year and this Christmas. My heart goes out to you because now I understand in a way I couldn't have before. We are members of a club no sane person wants to be in. The ones who are not in that club have no idea how lucky they are. Cancer is another word for evil.

So what matters in Mulberry House this Christmas isn’t the dinner or all the “other stuff". What really matters is that the three of us are still here. We are the Three Musketeers, all for one and one for all.

Carpe diem, Sieze the day,

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,

Old Time it is still a-flying.

And this same flower that smiles today, 

Tomorrow will be dying. 


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