Sam Stynes on death, grief and her new relationship
Elaine Byrne chats with Sam Stynes in Melbourne about life with and without her hero husband, and finding love again
Jim Stynes was a big man. At 6 foot 5 inches tall, the ferocious Ballyboden St Enda's midfielder answered an advertisement in a local newspaper placed by the Melbourne Football Club. The ambitious 18-year-old had just been part of the team that won the 1984 All-Ireland Minor Championship. The Australian AFL club was recruiting GAA players taller than 6 foot. With five inches to spare, he emigrated to Australia.
Everything about Jim was big. He was phenomenal on the AFL grounds, with a record-breaking 244 consecutive games between 1987 and 1998, playing through the pain of a compound rib fracture and a medial ligament tear. Only a broken hand stopped his uninterrupted stint in the red and black strip of the Melbourne Demons. His Brownlow Medal was the first and only time that a player born outside of Australia won the highest individual honour in AFL history.
In life, he was inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame and awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia. In death, he was given a state funeral, normally reserved for political leaders, and immortalised when a bridge over the Yarra River was named after him. A bronze statue will be unveiled next month in the "Avenue of Legends" outside the Australian version of Croke Park, the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
Even men of "superhuman courage," as Prime Minister Julia Gillard described him, are vulnerable to the frontiers of life. Jim died in 2012 from melanoma. He was 45. How did Jim cope with cancer? Did he deal with the prospect of death?
"The only reason Jim lived for that extra three years," his widow says, "was because of his hope and his commitment to not letting it beat him, his mental strength and his physical strength."
It took the best part of a year for Sam Stynes to agree to this interview. The 42-year-old took a "big step back into everyday life" after Jim's death to focus on their daughter Matisse (12) and son Tiernan (9). We are in her busy local coffee shop in Windsor, a southern suburb of Melbourne, on a wintry, bright morning to talk about the intimate. Death, grief and cancer. Jim's fight against acceptance. Sam's new relationship. The way the Irish do "things".
"The pain never goes away or the missing…" she says, straight away. "I learn to live with it. It's always there. It never goes away." In his very public battle with cancer, Jim defied the nine months he was given to live and survived for three years. Sam and Jim "were on two different plains" about the inevitable. "I sort of knew the whole time," she says, trailing off. Her father had died of prostate cancer shortly before her husband's diagnosis. "Jim never conceded that it would beat him. Even right before he died, he never, ever conceded that it would beat him."
Two weeks before his death, Sam had a conversation with the oncologist about feeling "dishonest" because no one had really communicated to him, "you are going to die." Around then, the fog from the brain tumours released Jim for a few minutes. Mimicking his Dublin accent, Sam recalls how Jim asked, "'What's going on? Am I going to fucken die?' I was like, 'Yes.'" Sam pauses. "That's probably the first time that he ever… then he just [said], 'I don't want to talk about that anymore. Let's not talk about it, I just want to keep trying to live.'"
Sam says he fought cancer the same way he lived life, telling his retirement audience: "Failure is never final. It's not what life does to you but what you do to life that counts." His impending death, she says, "just wasn't spoken about, because it wasn't going to happen because he didn't want to bring that on. I respected it but I didn't get it." Was he in denial? "No, I don't think it was denial, I think to fight against it, if he thought that way, it would bring it forth." His only specific wish was that he wanted his ashes spread over the Sally Gap, where he used to run when he visited home.
Sam asks if this is an Irish thing, the not talking about things. She tells me about an Irish movie that left her "very confused." In PS I Love You, Cecelia Ahern told the story of Gerry, who left a series of meaningful messages to his wife Holly after his death from a brain tumour. "Where are my things that are meant to come afterwards!" Sam smiles.
Gifts and letters have been left for Jim's two children, to be opened when they turn 18. He didn't do anything for her? "No! But that's OK. I made jokes that when I see him again, I'm going to take him to task." I suggest to Sam that if Jim admitted to her that life was failing him, he would be admitting it to himself.
I tell her about the old men who came into my parents' pub, always early on a weekday afternoon, and how they talked in euphemisms about the weather and their funeral arrangements. As undertakers, we were reared on people not talking about death but whispering about it in the abstract. It is an Irish thing.
She has since learnt that he told friends to "look after Sam when I've gone." This was Jim's version of PS I Love You, though Sam wonders aloud about what was a "big sort of esoteric ask of people, isn't it? What does that even mean? That's the way he did things."
Irish mothers have a way of doing things too. A "really poignant moment" for Sam was when Teresa, Jim's mother, folded her hands into her own with the words, "now don't you mind what people say or their judgements, you've done your part, this time is for you." Sam is leaning across the table with her hands outstretched, by way of explanation. "That's all she said but I understood exactly what it meant."
Sam didn't expect this. "My mum, I'd just expect that. I got such a shock, and also, it was her son, she lost her son and she's still saying that." It is an Irish thing.
Geoff Porz became a great friend in 2008 when he helped Jim, then president of the Melbourne Demons, which had a $5m debt, with a major sponsorship. And it is with Geoff that Sam has found love again.
"Out of respect for Jim, Geoff and I have made a conscious decision to keep a low profile. It's respect for Jim obviously and it's a complicated thing, serious second relationships in people's lives. It's a serious second relationship for Geoff too, he was married to someone for 20 years and had three beautiful kids.
"They are such complex issues and I just wanted to keep it quiet. There was no exposure to people's judgements and opinions, you know, 'oh it's too early', 'it's too late.'"
My Journey is the title of Jim Stynes best-selling memoir. A book he never finished, because Jim was not ready to die. He died believing in life.