Saturday 22 October 2016

Irish mum Neala (32) on losing her husband to cancer while pregnant with their second child

When her husband was diagnosed with a fatal brain tumour just after the birth of their first child, Neala Clohessy turned to her mum Michelle for help.

Chrissie Russell

Published 20/10/2015 | 02:30

Neala Clohessy with her mum Michelle Dempsey and daughter Fia and son Rian. Photo: Brian Gavin
Neala Clohessy with her mum Michelle Dempsey and daughter Fia and son Rian. Photo: Brian Gavin

'You make your wedding vows and promise 'in sickness and in health' but you think sickness will be 30 years down the line after a lifetime of fun when you're both old," says Neala Clohessy (32) from Limerick. She and her husband Dermot were 'just a normal couple' whose plans were about where they would hike at the weekend or how large a family they hoped to have.

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Instead, Neala found herself caring for a 38-year-old Dermot after they were dealt the devastating news that he had an inoperable brain tumour. When their baby was just one-month-old, the new mum entered a frightening new world of cancer medication, treatment options and hospital visits, as well as an emotional rollercoaster where every bit of good news seemed to be followed by another setback.

Today she'll find out if she's the recipient of a Hidden Heroes Award, when the winners are announced at a glittering ceremony in Dublin's Burlington Hotel. Now in its fifth year, the event looks to recognise Ireland's unsung heroes who have been an inspiration in the home, workplace or local community. Neala's sister Ciara nominated her for a Triumph Over Adversity award but, in an interesting twist, there's a familiar face nominated in the same category: Neala's mum, Michelle Dempsey.

Throughout all the challenges, Neala says it's her mum that was the real hero. "She will never understand the depth of my gratitude," she explains. "She put us before herself at a stage of her life where she should have been enjoying herself and relaxing. Instead, she worked tirelessly for us, mothering our little man, being a friend to Dermot, keeping our home, keeping track of appointments, crying for me, and with me, and keeping me sane."

When Neala asked her sister Ciara to proofread her entry for their mum, little did she realise Ciara was also planning to nominate her. "I am not only proud, but privileged to call her my sister," she wrote in her nomination.

"Neala makes trivial issues look non-existent in how she has managed the cards she was dealt, hasn't been bitter and continues to be a tower of strength."

Dermot and Neala would have been celebrating 10 years together next month. When they met, she was attracted to his quick wit and zest for life. He was a man who loved doing things, he was kind, loving and full of energy.

In September 2012, they were thrilled to discover Neala was pregnant and baby Rian was born in May 2013. But behind the excitement of a new baby there were also some changes in Dermot that Neala found concerning.

Her husband, an engineer, was getting terrible headaches and starting to forget words. He still looked healthy, but they both knew something wasn't right.

In June 2013, a scan revealed a mass on Dermot's brain. It was a terminal brain tumour.

"We were told 'two years is what you'll get'," says Neala. "That was a massive shock. Dermot knew something was badly wrong but in his head he'd thought he'd have 10 years. He desperately wanted to be around to see Rian start school."

Life changed utterly. She was on maternity leave, but Neala decided to leave her job to care for Dermot. "Our world became very small," she says. "Dermot was my priority 24/7. The worse he got and the days when he was at his weakest, that was when I had to be strongest. But I never felt the burden of it. We never asked 'why us?'.

She adds: "But he was my priority. I couldn't be a wife and mother at the same time in the way I needed to be."

It was here that her mum stepped into the breach. Having recently retired as a lecturer, Michelle (58) had been envisaging a retirement full of long walks with her Siberian Husky and taking up photography.

Instead, she found herself a second mother to Rian, giving 3am feeds, drawing up rotas and helping with Dermot during the day.

"Any family would have done the same," she says. "And Dermot was such a fighter, I consider it a privilege that I was able to help. But I was able to go home at the end of the day, Neala never got to leave."

When Dermot was told he'd need chemotherapy, he was also told it would leave him infertile. Coming from a family of six and with Neala one of five sisters, the news was a further blow since the couple had always hoped to give Rian a little brother or sister.

They decided to avail of the free fertility treatment offered to cancer patients and embarked on a cycle of IUI (intrauterine insemination). Though part of them felt it was 'madness', both they and Michelle, who looked after Rian on their journeys up to Dublin, were delighted when the treatment worked. When there was so much in their lives that they were powerless to contest, this new life felt like taking a bit of control back, and baby Fia was born on July, 30. She is, Neala says, the spitting image of her daddy. Tragically, Dermot never got to meet her. "He decided against a sixth round of chemo," says Neala. "He said the medication was making him well enough to watch the clock on the wall but not enough to go outside and live life."

He got to feel his 17-week-old baby kick in his wife's tummy before he passed away in April, in his own bed, in the house he built, surrounded by friends and family.

Neala is determined to raise the children to know their daddy. Rian turned two in May.

"The house is full of pictures and every night, we tell daddy what we did today. Sometimes we go up to the grave and water the flowers on it. I'd love to believe he'll have memories of his dad, even though I know, because he's so young, he probably won't."

What will help is that, among the many things Michelle did to help, one of them was keeping a record book. She documented Dermot's journey, kept a record of all Rian's little milestones his mum was missing out on and took photos and videos for the children to look back on.

"A lot of them are muffled or obscured by coats because Dermot wasn't a big one for the camera and I had to take them on the sly," laughs Michelle. "But they're there, and when they're ready, they have it to look back on."

Both mum and daughter want the other one to win today, each believing the other deserves it more and brushing off the idea that their strength, selflessness and bravery is in anyway heroic. But if either of them does win, then they'd like to dedicate it to someone they feel is a true hero: Dermot.

In the months before his death the dad-of-two insisted on laying tarmac, painting the house, fixing gates and cutting timber - trying to leave things in order for his wife and children.

The family went on holidays, they had family dinners and celebrated everything - even Rian's first tooth.

"In the two years, we had more good days than bad," Neala says simply. "Dermot always said, 'We're here for a good time, not for a long time.'"

"Dermot is my hero," agrees Michelle. "He was dying and he still lived life to the full. If he could do that, then there's no reason for any of us to sit in the corner and cry. We should all live life like he did."

* The Hidden Heroes were established by Hidden Hearing to recognise the achievements of those who have made a significant contribution to Irish communities. The Heroes will be presented with their awards by Mary Kennedy at a ceremony in Dublin today

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