Losing his wife to cancer was a devastating experience for sociology professor Tom Inglis. He tells Ciara Dwyer how he brought his experience of grief and his professional skills to bear in a new book about love and coping with his loss
'I WAS madly in love with Aileen. When she died in 2005, it was like going towards the end of a precipice. Suddenly she fell off the precipice and I was left behind. I think I was in deep shock for the first two years." As I listen to Tom Inglis utter these words, I am at a loss for a response. What do you say to a man who has lost his beloved wife? Or is it simply that all you can do is listen to his tale of grief?
Tom Inglis is a softly spoken man. Neatly dressed in a shirt and jumper, he cuts an unassuming figure when I meet him on a wet Friday afternoon in The Merrion Hotel in Dublin. The 61-year-old Dubliner is an associate Professor of Sociology at UCD.
Sociologists are accustomed to analysing the individual in society and coming up with answers but when Tom's wife, the artist Aileen MacKeogh, died of breast cancer he felt adrift. He needed some succour, and to try to make sense of it all, if that were possible.
"I began to read about death and grief and love, and not just in terms of romantic literature, but that didn't say anything to me about what I'd been going through. Then I started reading sociology and that was even worse. It was so dry and academic.
"When you lose somebody you love, the idea that you will never see or hear from them again is the really hard part. Aileen and I became so entwined. We were like ivy growing together and when she died, it was a slow unravelling and I was left with nothing to hold onto."
When they first met at a dance in Stella House, Mount Merrion in 1969, it was love at first sight.
He spotted her standing alone and wrongly assumed that this good-looking girl had a boyfriend who was either in the toilet or had left her. As he walked past her, they looked at each other. Eventually he summoned up the courage to approach her. They stared at each other and finally he said the only word which came to mind -- "woof", to which she responded "meow". From that spark passion flared.
"Stella House was the ballroom of romance of south Dublin, where young people were suddenly involved in a culture of pleasure and the excitement of erotic dreams but also really vibrant Sixties' music," Tom explains.
"Just being able to have a kiss would send you home delirious with excitement. It could have been a complete coincidence that at the end of the evening Aileen and I were in the same headspace but there were also a lot of similarities. We were from the same class, same age group, white, middle-class Catholic background."
One of three children, Tom grew up in Churchtown, the son of an architect. Aileen's father was an auctioneer.
When she invited Tom to her family home, she brought him up to her bedroom, which he remembers looked like Francis Bacon's chaotic art studio. There were bright coloured clothes and already, there were works of art, and projects of which she was proud. Aileen remained an artist until her dying days, when she was painting and creating and reacting to the world around her with her art. On the first day in her home, she brought him to a field beside their garden and kissed him there. Looking back, Tom smiles as he thinks of how she took total control of the situation and how he happily went along with it.
He had hailed from a more conservative background, where his mother was a daily communicant and his father was horrified by any hints of intimacy on their television screen.
"It was a very traditional middle-class Catholic background with loads of Catholic, Victorian baggage about sexuality, with awkwardness and embarrassment about it.
"Any time a couple would kiss on the television, and we're not talking French kissing, my father would say, 'There's no need for that kind of thing' and he'd turn it off.
"Sex wasn't mentioned. I had no emotional or erotic self-confidence, but Aileen had absolute self-confidence."
They married in 1973 and went on to have three children -- Arron, Olwen and Luke, who died tragically at nine months. But through it all their marriage was characterised by a deep bond of love, friendship, honesty and fun. This has made Aileen's absence all the harder to take.
Although raised as a Catholic, Tom is an agnostic. He admits that it would have been easier for him had he been a man of faith.
"The idea of God is a brilliant thing to hold onto," he says. "It's so successful because it provides an explanation for that which there is no explanation. That's why I was caught in this ambivalent space, screaming at a God that I didn't know existed, and whose existence I doubted, for having sent me this ordeal.
"Before Aileen died, I was pleading with God not to take her, and after she died, I was shouting at him for having taken her. When you grow up in a culture that is so embedded in God, and in your own self, you can't let go."
Two years after Aileen died, Tom started to write about their life together. He had already written books but they were sociological texts. This time he was writing a different kind of book, it was the sort of thing that he had been looking for but couldn't find.
"A rule in sociology is that you never write about yourself and it's not about capturing your emotional self. When I started to write I had to balance between detached and objective and capturing the emotional turmoil. I didn't want to make it some self-indulgent maudlin memorial to Aileen. It had to say something about love and grief.
"I don't want any self-pity or pity for Aileen. I want the book to be inspiring. It is confessing about my life but it is a sociological confession too. I was trying to put it in context."
Making Love is the title of Tom's magnificent memoir. It is a beautiful love letter to his wife, as he tells the world about how they lived and loved.
In the book, Inglis reflects on his life and he explains why Aileen was such a special individual. His eyes light up as he describes his late wife.
"She was a really beautiful woman. If I hadn't been married to Aileen, she would have driven me mad because she was so alluring. She was a voluptuous, gorgeous, engaging woman. She was so exuberant, so full of life and spirit. She had no fear of experimentation and she had absolute self-confidence.
"We met when we were very young and there was this willingness to explore love and life and sex and intimacy. Once we started coming together there was this willingness to leap into the cavern of love. It was sharing the intimacies, the conversations and the slow revelations of ourselves to the other."
When they announced that they were going to get married, friends laughed at them for capitulating to bourgeois marriage, because as he says, "it was like capitulating to the system" but their love was too strong to take any notice of these nay-sayers.
"By getting married, we were immediately shunned," he says. "It would have been easier if I said that I was going to be an altar boy. Friends were teasing us but the idea that it would have any effect on us and that we would succumb was ludicrous. We weren't revolutionaries but we tried to pretend to be because we read Marx. In 1973 if you wanted to make life easy you got married. We wanted good love more than free sex."
When they married Aileen wore a purple dress and Tom green velvet. Inspired by the Carnaby Street fashions, she had been making her own bright-coloured clothes for years. Red was her favourite colour.
This exotic creature was too dynamic to blend in with the dull colours and sensible clothes of the Seventies in Ireland.
"There was something very different about Aileen," he says. "She was strong-spirited and independent. We grew up in a very Catholic culture but there was none of this burden of Catholic history weighing down on her.
"This was the Seventies and this was a woman who was full of lust, desire and emotions. Aileen loved sex. I thought I was a lad but I didn't think that women were like that. I think the shocking thing is, if it is shocking, is that there were women around who were sexually vibrant but they were silenced. But when Aileen was with me it blossomed. I was quite willing to tango with her.
"I called the memoir Making Love because making love is damn hard work. One of my friends said to me, 'Who would be interested in reading a book about your wife? It'd be like showing someone your holiday snaps,' I said, 'that's what the challenge is'."
Although the book initially began as a way for Tom to cope with his grief, this is not a misery memoir. It is very refreshing in its courage and absolute honesty.
It is also about the social climate in Ireland of the time when they met and how it was gradually changing, as young people tried to shed their Catholic guilt about sex.
Inglis is brave in how he reveals his feelings. It is unusual to read of such emotional honesty from a man's perspective and it is a pleasure to read something which feels so uncensored.
He writes of how he struggles to carry on living without Aileen and he describes the cancer journey but he also drifts into their life together before the illness. They enjoyed a happy life but tragedy befell them when their son Luke died. As their babysitter carried him down the stairs, the baby boy jerked forward and fell to the ground. The injury eventually proved to be fatal. His death and the way they grieved brought Aileen and Tom closer together. Years later, it was the strength of their love which helped them face cancer. When Aileen had a mastectomy and lost her hair, she and Tom made love.
"I wrote about the difficulty I had after she had the mastectomy of making love to this beautiful woman who had lost her hair and her breast. People might say, 'Why did you have to go and do all that, Tom?' Well, because that's what love is. Love isn't something that happens to beautiful people. There's a bile and a visceral human body and there was something fundamentally human about it. It was like really raw, cathartic, emotional sexual love. It was a huge event in Aileen's life, whatever about my life. I'm not saying that it's not the downside -- it was -- but it is part of life and part of loving and that's what happens. What's the best way to handle it? With love.
"I think a lot of people might think that because I talk so honestly about Aileen that I am dishonouring her but I always think that Aileen would bless the book completely. I like to think that she'd smile and say well done.
"I am burying Aileen with this book. It's like I've had this extended period of grief for six years and now finally I've given her to the world. I'm letting her go. I don't have to hold on anymore. In psychoanalytical thought they say that good grieving is that you don't die with the other, that you're able to move on."
Tom admits that Aileen was the leader in their marriage and he was happy to follow and let life happen to him. Being alone is a strange state for him.
"When Aileen died part of me died. It's about becoming accustomed to the fact that you're talking to a cavern, to the echo of your voice. You lose a sense of yourself because you need to have a mirror. But I haven't lost the love of life. Aileen said to me before she died, 'I want you to be happy'. That was the greatest gift. If it had been a choice of her going or me going, I would have died for her, but having been left behind I'm not going to sit around and do nothing.
"Every time I see a spring morning, I smile. Aileen started to get ill around this time but the chestnuts are coming out and they're so full of life. I can't embrace that beauty if I died with her. It would be sinful not to appreciate it. There is an imperative to try to be happy. If you're lucky enough to be reasonably healthy and reasonably well off and you can't enjoy this life, you'd be feckin' mad."
'Making Love A Memoir' by Tom Inglis is published by New Island €12.99
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