Norah Casey: How Richard’s passing was a good death
Norah Casey has “endured” some hard years since her husband Richard died.The star talks exclusively to Barry Egan about dealing with that grief, the new documentary she has made about death, and how with time she came to see Richard’s passing as a good death.
"Grief is in two parts," wrote author Anne Roiphe. “The first is loss. The second is the remaking of life.”
For nearly three years now, Norah Casey has been trying to remake her life since the death of her husband Richard Hannaford in October 2011 in Our Lady’s Hospice in Blackrock. Norah, who trained as a nurse at the Vale of Leven hospital in Loch Lomond in Scotland in the mid Eighties and did general nursing in Loch Lomond and then burns in Edinburgh, says that she never stresses in business because “when you face what nurses face on a daily basis, in a hospice or a ward for sick children, nothing is ever that important in the corporate world.” Last Monday, she took me for a walk around Dublin’s Phoenix Park. The TV star showed me the little oak tree that she planted in December 2011 for Richard. Here is also the same spot where Richard asked Norah to marry him in February, 1996.
“Richard loved trees,” Norah says, adding that his ashes were scattered around it and in the woods around here too. Norah continues that she and her 15-year-old son Dara sometimes come here to his tree for a word with Richard.
“Maybe that is peculiar for someone who claims to be as black and white as I am,” Norah laughs, “but we do have a chat with him.”
Later, walking through one of the giant flower gardens in the park, Norah says that it was only this year that she put flowers back into her own garden in Ranelagh. “I just didn’t want to have any flowers growing before that. Does that sound really stupid?” she asks. Not at all, I say. It was that you didn’t feel ready for it, Norah. “No. I put in lillies, lupins; loads of lobelia. It is a riot of colour. My garden is absolutely gorgeous now. And before it wasn’t.”
She talks about the nature of grief and the catharsis of writing — her autobiography, Spark, which she has just finished, is out in the autumn. I say that catharsis — the purification and purgation of often troubling emotions — is such an easy word when you are in the middle of such pain. “For the first year after Richard’s death I used to say I endured,” she says. “Endured’ is such a cold word but it is, actually, exactly how you feel. You just grit your teeth and get on with it. There is nothing life-giving about enduring. There is no other way that you can do it. You get up, you live through each day.”
Norah dreams about Richard regularly and she finds that, she says, “incredibly comforting” because for those moments, “he is still alive.”
In the summer of 2012, I used to bump into Norah and Dara in Enniskerry village from time to time. They were renting a place on the Ritz Carlton estate. Norah says she needed a bit of respite from it all. Her home in Ranelagh was not the kind of place that she felt comfortable at that time; nor was her place of work. Norah says she was tempted to sell her publishing company, Harmonia. “That first year,” she says meaning after Richard died, “I couldn’t understand what I was doing with it at all. I am the kind of person who is the centre of things and drives all the people,” she says, “and then, I didn’t want to be among anybody. I was with people who were as bereaved as I was. They loved Richard and I would be a constant reminder of him not being there. Nobody touched his office until two years after he died. I couldn’t do it. I found myself going in, and I’d sit at the computer and I didn’t want anyone to come near me,” the accomplished Newstalk and RTE broadcaster says of her company that is now run by her brother, Ciaran.
Norah says she isn’t tempted to sell the house she lived in with Richard for so many years and buy another home somewhere else. “No. I love the house now. I hated it the first year. It is meant to be a refuge.”
Yet, when Norah went home to Ranelagh, all she could remember were those terrible moments in her mind’s eye of Richard not being able to get up the stairs and him sitting in the garden after chemotherapy. All the previous happy memories of being in the house with friends and family over the years “were gone. They were replaced by these awful images. It took ages for that to go.”
For two years, when she walked up the stairs at home, she had the deeply affecting memories of helping Richard, who had spinal cancer, up those stairs — and how “we used to stop on every step but he was determined. I saw Richard everywhere in the house,” she adds.
“It was impossible to be in any part of the house and not feel that.”
Norah still keeps lots of Richard’s clothes.It is not that she is holding onto them because she is clinging on, she tries to explain. When Richard died, Norah thought at first she would give the shirts to his friends. She then realised she couldn’t stand the fact that she would walk into a room and that one of his friends would be wearing one of Richards’ “slightly outrageous, flowery Paul Smith shirts.” Norah adds that she is having a patch-work quilt of Richard’s shirts made for Dara and his own children one day.
Until six months ago, Norah used to still charge Richard’s phone every night. “I don’t know why. In case, someone was trying to ring him. I don’t charge it any more,” she says, almost forlornly. Is that your way of accepting he is not there any more? “You just realise how stupid it is to be clinging on to material things because they are not that important.”
The reason Norah is here in the Phoenix Park talking about her husband’s death in such detail is that she is presenting a documentary on the subject of death for RTÉ One called Way To Go: Death And The Irish. Norah doesn’t believe Irish people talk about grief and bereavement “in the way that they should. It was a great privilege doing the documentary because I spoke to people who are coming towards the end of their lives. I think what was extraordinary talking to them was how little the funeral meant; when people are dying and facing death, they don’t think about the funeral at all. It is all about wanting to leave behind everything in the right order and saying the right things to everybody.
“When you are facing death,” she continues, “what is it that really matters to you? Gabriel Byrne in the programme made a joke about being younger and imagining you are going to go out in a blaze of glory and as you get older the realisation hits you of your own mortality. You start to sober up a little bit about what your ideals are about dying. We are happy enough to turn up in droves at other people’s funerals but we are not too sure about whether we are going to be in the coffin. Richard’s death brought my own mortality to the fore in a very big way.”
Norah is now in a nourishing new relationship with Peter. “It is lovely. It is doing really well, and we are both very happy” she says. “I can’t really say any more. He wants to protect his privacy,” Norah said of the Dublin fire-fighter who she met in the Shelbourne hotel on the second anniversary of Richard’s death last year.
Earlier when Norah picked me up at my house in Portobello in her car, we passed Locks Brasserie. She immediately recalled a lunch in that restaurant with Richard in August 2011. “The only time I ever saw Richard cry during his illness was when we were sitting in Locks with some good friends after a terrible, terrible bout of chemo,” she told me. “They started talking about his birthday and he burst into tears and we left. Because he realised that he wasn’t going to live for his birthday,” she says referring to May 17th.
Norah is crying as she remembers that lunch. Voltaire said that tears are the silent language of grief; Norah is well-versed in this language. She remembers coming back to the home in Ranelagh after Richard had died.“ Dara was asleep on the couch with my two sisters. He knew.” After she told him, Dara put this note on the fridge, which said in his childish handwriting: The best dad died at 1.20am on the 12th of October.’ And the note stayed on the fridge until eight months ago.“And as deaths go,” says Norah, “Richard’s was a good death.” Norah spends the next hour in various states of distress explaining how her husband had a good death. “I can’t describe how awful Richard’s illness was. We were over in James’ hospital for very long days - and every single time it came to a scan, he had more cancer,” Norah recalls. “Not once did we get a break.”
Every single time the oncologist would say “nine out of ten people don’t survive this kind of cancer”. Norah and Richard would constantly console themselves by saying, “we’ll be the one.” It was the worst experience ever, she says, because they had to talk to each other all day, every day, and not spend all day, every day saying; “You’re going to die.” But that is precisely what Norah was thinking in her head. “Of course,” she says.”Both of us were. We were coming home everyday and trying to find a way to live a life that wasn’t about the fact that he was dying. We would consciously not talk about the future or about the summer,” Norah says now with the summer sun catching the tears in her eyes.
Last Sunday, on Father’s Day, Norah didn’t think of her own father Harry who died on April 1st, 1999, but of Dara (who was born on December 17th, 1998) and that fact that he no longer has a father. “He is the most important focus in my life and I have to not smother him. He is always joking about, Pity the poor woman that I take home to you, mum,’ We have that conversation a lot!” she laughs.
Norah can remember the conversation she had with Richard the day he was leaving the house for Our Lady’s hospice in Blackrock: emotions were released because they both knew that he would never be back to the house. “We bawled crying. He kept getting worried and holding me and saying, I’m going to die. It’s tonight, isn’t it?’”
She told him: “You’re not. You’re not ready to die yet.”
“John Crown was still doing chemo on him [in St. Vincent’s Hospital],” explains Norah, adding that she and Richard would console themselves about going into the hospice by saying to themselves that Richard was only going into the hospice for a few days to get the pain medicines under control. Tragically, within a few days pneumonia took control of his body along with the cancer. Richard died a week later. Ironically, says Norah, when Richard went into the hospice it was “almost beautiful” because the gruelling routines in the oncology unit in the hospital were “twelve hours of sitting in hard chairs. Suddenly,” she smiles, “there was green grass and a fountain and the door of Richard’s room opened out onto the sunshine.”
“He went to the hospice in Blackrock for palliative care. He had bone cancer, which is very hard to control,” adds Norah. “And even though he was on all sorts of different types of morphine and medications, he was in terrible pain.”
Dr Paul Gregan, one of Ireland’s foremost palliative care specialists, reorganised Richard’s medication, says Norah, so that Richard would get some relief. The following day, Dr Gregan said to Norah that they should have a chat with Dara about what was happening to his dad. Initially, Norah didn’t want to bring Dara into the unit with her, as the young teenager was trying to come to terms with the fact that his father looked so different after all the treatments. Dara, however, decided that he wanted to meet the doctor.
Offered the choice, Richard said he didn’t want to sit in with Dara and Norah while Dr Gregan outlined what was happening inexorably to his body. They went into another room instead. Dr Gregan drew out all the places where Richard had cancer on his body. “Is there anything you want to ask me?” the doctor said turning to Dara.
“Is my dad going to die?” Dara asked.
“He is going to die in the next day or two,” came the answer.
“That’s how I found out,” says Norah now, crying. “And in fact, that’s how Richard found out, because afterwards Dara went in and talked to Richard about the conversation they had just had. Norah relates that Richard then asked the doctor what his son had asked him. Did he ask the hard question? The doctor told Richard that Dara had indeed asked him the hard question.
Shortly afterwards, Dara, Norah and Richard sat down in another room and had “a moment of absolute honesty” because they were able to say for the last time all the things they wanted to say to each other.
“Just the things you would expect him to say to his son,” says Norah. “I am always grateful for that moment, because it was honest. I suppose it was good for Dara to hear that. I know it’s painful but it would have been more painful if he had died and we hadn’t had that conversation.”
That night, the IV tube kept coming out of Richard’s arms because his veins were “very bad” and the nurse couldn’t get a vein. Dr Gregan said to Norah and Richard: Will we will move to oral antibiotics now?’ The significance of that was, Norah says, “it’s over. Richard knew that and I did too.” Norah asked Richard was he happy if they took the IV out. Knowing the consequences, Richard asked the doctor to take it out. Then Richard turned to Norah and said that when he got out of hospital that he was going to take her to the Danieli Palace in Venice and stay in the penthouse, and have ostrich steak and lobster for dinner with rare Midleton whiskey on the balcony overlooking the Grand Canal afterwards.
They were was the last words Richard ever said to Norah. Then Richard went to sleep.
The following day when Richard was unconscious Norah rang all Richard’s closest friends: Dylan Bradshaw, Barry McCall, Claire and Conor Ronan et al. They came in and had food together in the canteen. Then Norah sent them all home; Dara said goodbye to his dad. Norah’s sisters took him home while Norah stayed next to Richard in the room.
She was terrified that Richard would die when she went to the bathroom or when she closed her eyes for a quick sleep. She was trying to stay awake, holding his hand, when the nurse, Tracey, came in and sat on the other side of the bed and held Richard’s other hand, and started yakking to Norah about when she herself was a nurse in Scotland.
“She was making me laugh,” recalls Norah, “and in the middle of those laughs, Richard took his last breath. That was very beautiful. It was really peaceful. There was no drama. It was the nicest way to go, holding my hand.”
At the end of October, 2011, Norah took Dara to Venice. They stayed in the Danieli but not in the penthouse. “And they didn’t have ostrich!” Norah says half-laughing, half-crying. “We tried to re-create as much as we could, but it was too soon. We were both really upset when we were in Venice that time. We’ll go again when Dara is old enough to appreciate Midleton whiskey.”
Way To Go: Death And The Irish airs on RTÉ One on Tuesday 1 July at 9.35pm.