Friday 21 July 2017

Review: Sent by an Angel by Kevin Skelton

He fell apart after losing his wife in the Omagh bomb, then an angel gave him a second chance at love. Books Editor John Spain reports

When Kevin Skelton lost his wife Mena in the Omagh bombing in August 1998, he sank into a deep despair that even his teenage children could not pull him from.

He had been just yards away when the bomb struck, and it was he who was first to his wife's shattered body. In an instant he had lost his wife of 20 years, the love of his life, on what had been a happy family shopping trip to buy back-to-school items. As well as losing Mena, one of his daughters, 13-year-old Shauna, had serious facial injuries.

In the weeks and months after the blast, lorry driver Kevin found it difficult to cope with his grief. At a time when his family needed him most, he turned to drink and self-loathing, often wishing he could have taken Mena's place that day. More than once, he put the legally held shotgun he kept in the house between his knees and pointed the loaded gun at his face -- but he could never pull the trigger.

He had sunk about as low as one can . . . and he needed a miracle to save him. The story of how that miracle happened, of how he found hope and love again and rebuilt his life, is told in his remarkable book Sent by an Angel, which will be published next week.

Kevin himself describes it as an intervention by an angel rather than a miracle. And the angel he is talking about was Mena, the beloved wife he had lost in the blast who he is convinced was looking out for him.

In fact, it was something Mena had got involved in the year before she died that was the start of Kevin's miracle.

Mena had become intensely interested in the plight of children living in appalling conditions in Romanian orphanages and had got involved in fundraising to bring a group of the children on holiday to Ireland. That culminated in her and Kevin taking a young Romanian girl, Andreea, for a two-week holiday to their home in the village of Drumquin, nine miles from Omagh.

The Skeltons were shocked by some of her behaviour in the beginning -- for instance, she used to hide food under her pillow, an indication of the conditions in the orphanage she had some from.

All she had with her were the clothes she was wearing and, as Kevin describes in the book, a little bag, with toothbrush, toothpaste, pyjamas and a toilet roll that was like woodchip paper and "would have taken the skin off a horse's arse". Another indication of the poverty she had come from.

She was a beautiful, smiley little girl and they were all charmed by her. And Andreea had returned the following year, just a couple of weeks before the bombing. When she went back to Romania a week before Omagh happened, Mena and Kevin, who were conscious of how downcast Andreea had become at the prospect of going back, had even discussed trying to adopt her.

But that vague plan was buried in the aftermath of that terrible day in Omagh, along with the 29 people who had died. Kevin had other things on his mind, like surviving from day to day. However, his four children, particularly his daughter Shauna who had been closest to Andreea, would not let him forget. So in Mena's memory, Kevin decided to keep up Andreea's visits and he gradually became more involved in organising fundraising events for her orphanage.

And it was on Kevin's first trip to Romania that the miracle happened. He had gone over with Shauna with the idea of starting the process to adopt Andreea. The orphanage was in Fagaras, a few hours by train from Bucharest, a place even poorer than the rest of the destitute country they saw. Arriving late and having spent the night in a filthy hotel near the orphanage, Kevin was shattered when he was woken up the next morning at 7am by a child knocking on his bedroom. The child insisted he go immediately to the orphanage where he discovered a woman at the gate who he was told had been waiting there for him all night in the freezing cold. Through an interpreter the woman said her name was Maria and she was Andreea's mother. She said she was there because she had heard that Kevin was coming to take away her daughter.

Utterly shocked by this, Kevin learned that both Andreea and her older sister Nicoletta lived in the orphanage during the week and went back to their mother's tiny flat every weekend.

They were there because Maria could not afford to feed them and send them to school. It was not an unusual situation, the interpreter explained.

Kevin was shocked. Maria had spent the night at the hut at the orphanage gate because she was so afraid her daughter was about to be taken away. He explained that he had not known that Andreea was not an orphan.

Over the next few days, he and Shauna visited Maria's flat, he and Maria learned more about each other and a level of trust grew to the point where Maria agreed that Andreea could go back to Ireland for a Christmas break.

But something else had happened during that first freezing morning outside the orphanage, when Kevin and Maria had met for the first time. It was an unexpected miracle and he describes it well in the book:

"I left her little flat on the last night of our visit and my stomach was sick, because I knew in my heart that something had happened to me that was totally out of my control and I was in an awful situation. I knew the minute I had set eyes on that dark-haired woman shivering in her tightly wrapped grey coat, that there was something about her that had flipped my heart, and that had never happened to me before.

"Never in my life, since I had met Mena, had I felt anything for another woman. But I knew that I had butterflies in my stomach from the day I first set eyes on her. I felt like a teenager falling in love all over again. Whether I liked it or not, I had fallen for a complete stranger in a strange country and there was nothing I could do about it."

What follows is a love story that gave Kevin a second chance. It's a remarkable story over a number of years, which ends in the happy pictures of Kevin and Maria, now married and with their own new arrival, Gabriella, living back near Omagh.

It's a story that begins in horror, with Kevin's powerful description in a long chapter that describes in detail what happened on that awful day in Omagh and the devastating effect it had on him and his family.

And it's a story that ends in love, in hope and in rebirth.

Along the way it's a story that encompasses cultural differences, family worries, language barriers, visa problems and much more. Kevin is an intelligent and courageous man who writes well and honestly, with a working man's directness and perceptiveness, an example being his comments on the way certain politicians turned up at his wife's funeral.

You are unlikely to read a better account of the Omagh tragedy . . . or a more uplifting love story.

He firmly believes in his miracle. In the last lines of the book he writes:

"Thank God my life has moved on. I am happier now than I have been in years. I know Mena is my angel and I truly believe that she sent Maria into my life to get me back on track. I now sleep peacefully each night knowing that I am safe, in the comfort of her wings."

SENT BY AN ANGEL by Kevin Skelton (with Yvonne Kinsella) is published on April 1 by Poolbeg at €10.99

Irish Independent

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