Thursday 21 September 2017

His wife, their kids, their life. These are his All Stars

Anto Finnegan is determined to turn a negative diagnosis into a positive force.

Anto Finnegan: ‘Every day that I get out of bed is another day that I'm still here, still fighting, still have my family, and that's really, really important to me.’
Anto Finnegan: ‘Every day that I get out of bed is another day that I'm still here, still fighting, still have my family, and that's really, really important to me.’
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less - Socrates

Anto Finnegan has never proclaimed to be Einstein but on that spring morning in Paris, as they drove east from the city towards the Val-de-Marne, he could identify with Socrates.

His wife.

Their kids.

This holiday.

That moment.

This was happiness.

His modest job.

Their modest home.

This modest car.

Their modest life.

This was enough.

Eight years had passed since the greatest day of his sporting career -- a three-point win against Down at Casement Park. Would anyone remember who had captained Antrim? No, probably not. Would anyone recall the game? No, probably not. Did that matter? No, not at all.

That day.

That place.

That team.

Those friends.

That moment.

That, too, was happiness.

That moment.

That game.

The win.

Their first for 18 years.

That, too, was enough.

And now it was Easter time and he was driving his family to Disneyland. Alison had found them a nice hotel on the outskirts of Paris. The kids were bubbling and chirping in the back. It was a beautiful spring day and they had almost reached Neverland when he noticed it for the first time . . . a soreness in his hands that he couldn't quite fathom.

It was obviously the strain of driving on the wrong side.

Eighteen months passed. The soreness returned from time to time but it was September 2010 before he took Alison's advice and finally had it checked. Joe Doogan, once his team doctor at Antrim, was now his GP. Finnegan held out his hands and described the black hue on his fingernails that often accompanied the stiffness: "Is it a blood-flow problem?" he inquired.

But Doogan was more interested in a twitching muscle on his right arm.

"How long has that been going on?" he asked.

"To be honest, I haven't really noticed it before," Finnegan replied.

"It's probably nothing but we'll get it checked out."

The neurology department at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast was a 15-minute drive from his home. He was tested for everything from Kennedy's disease to Parkinson's but given no cause for alarm. Two years passed: two years of family and friends and living a happy life until August 2012, when he began to worry for the first time.

It was the bank holiday weekend. They were camping in Drumshambo and had just started to pack when he noticed that his right arm was so weak he could barely lift it over his head. Four days later, he was tested again in Belfast and was summoned to a meeting with the consultant neurologist, Paul McMonagle.

Alison works at the Royal (she's a medical secretary) and wanted to come with him but he didn't see the point: "They'll tell me the same thing they've been telling me for two years now," he insisted.

"Are you sure?" she asked.

"I feel great," he replied. "I'll call you when I'm finished and we'll go for a cuppa."

The first indication his life was about to change was the look on McMonagle's face: "You've motor neurone disease," the consultant announced.

"Okay, what next?" he replied, instinctively.

But his mind was starting to scramble.

MND? Isn't that what Stephen Hawking has? How do you get that? What's the cure?

His confusion was obvious.

"Do you know what it is?" the consultant inquired.

"I've an idea," he replied.

"The average prognosis is two to five years but given that your first symptoms appeared in 2009, and we're now in 2012 with little or no deterioration, we would hope you would continue with that slow progression."

But Finnegan had stopped listening.

It's said that life begins at 40. He had just turned 39.

* * * * *

We meet at his home in the Belfast suburb of Dunmurry. Alison is at work; his son (14) and daughter (9) are at school. Seventeen months have passed since his diagnosis; his right arm is almost powerless and hangs limply by his side; his left arm is also under siege and can just about support the weight of a pot of tea.

We shoot the breeze for an hour about football and the geography of Antrim but it's time to get serious.

"What's the worst thing you've ever done?" I ask?

"I dunno," he replies. "I'd have to think about that."

"It must have been bad," I observe.

"Why?"

"They say bad things happen to bad people."

"My wife would argue that bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people -- that's just the way the world is."

"Yes it is," I concur.

He was born in 1973, the fourth of six children, and raised in Lenadoon avenue, in West Belfast. "We weren't a GAA family," he says. "My dad was a steel erector and played a small bit up to minor; my mother played a small bit of camogie in her younger days. One of our neighbours, Paddy Elliott, was a great handballer and I used to go with his son to Davitts, in the lower Falls, to watch him play and I got the bug from there."

Hurling was his first love. "I loved the hurling more than I loved Gaelic (football)," he says, "and I still do. I love the physical side of hurling and I love the skill -- the stick and the small ball. I played midfield my whole life and could probably have ended up with 12 Ulster hurling medals if I hadn't chosen football. But I don't regret it. I had some great times as a county footballer."

He was 21-years-old when he made his championship debut for Antrim -- a first round defeat against Cavan in 1994. They lost again in the opening round a year later. And again, a year after that. By the summer of 2000, 18 years had passed since Antrim had won a game in the Championship. He never dreamed of Sam or playing in Croke Park.

"I'm a realist," he says, "and when you're playing for a county that haven't won a championship game for 18 years, you just do the best you can. Bryan White took over as manager and asked me to captain the team that year. We had a decent run in the National League and played Down (in the Championship) in Casement Park.

"Bryan asked me to mark Mickey Linden. It was a crazy afternoon. We came out and the sun was shining, then there was hailstones and then it was scorching. It was a big thing to beat Down -- it wouldn't have mattered to other counties but from an Antrim perspective, just getting that monkey off our back after 18 years was huge."

Three weeks later, they played Derry in the semi-final. The teams were level in the final minute, when Antrim were awarded a free 60 yards out. "Sheeny McQuillan hit the ball and it was sailing over the bar when (Anthony) Tohill reached up and stopped it going over," he says. "And then they beat us in the replay. I've always wondered what would have happened if we had beaten Derry that day and gotten to the Ulster final and rode that wave for as long as possible. But it's all 'ifs' and 'buts'."

Finnegan wasn't a man for ifs and buts and when he retired five years later, there were no regrets. Two championship wins in 10 years wasn't going to cut much ice in Kerry or make the hall of fame but he had never played for glory. He played for Antrim. He played for friends and happy memories and for what really mattered in life.

His wife.

Their kids.

Those rainy days in Drumshambo.

These were his All Stars.

His modest job.

Their modest home.

His modest car.

Their modest life.

This was his All-Ireland.

Until that morning in August 2012, when he was informed the game was up.

He remembers what happened next vividly. His dazed walk to the hospital canteen: "Two cups of tea to go please."

The tremble in his hands as he punched Alison's number:

"I'm done, meet me at the car."

Her beautiful face as he bounded across the car park:

"What did he say?"

Her tears and pain when he broke the news: "I have motor neurone disease."

"We were both very upset," he says. "We sat in the car and decided what we were going to do, who we were going to tell, and how we were going to tell them and made a conscious decision not to tell our kids. There was no reason to tell them at that time. There were no obvious signs. I took four months off work and spent a lot of time outdoors and going out on my bike."

Ten months later, in June 2013, they decided to tell the kids.

"Some of the physical signs were starting to manifest themselves," he says. "I needed help to do buttons up and pull jumpers over my head. I've always been very hands-on when it comes to doing things around the house. I hung all of the doors and painted it every year but it was coming to the point where I was no longer able to do those things. So we had a long, hard, think about telling them, and when to tell them.

"There was a two-week window before we went on holiday last June. We took them out for the day and told them on the way home. I explained it to them in very matter-of-fact terms. I didn't gloss over it but tried not to scare them. They were very upset and there were lots of questions but the holiday was good and allowed us some quiet reflection for ourselves."

They've done a lot of travelling since his diagnosis: San Francisco, Nice, Tuscany, Las Vegas and Seville. His love of life has never been keener: "It's funny," he says, "but in the early days you ask yourself 'Will I ever be happy again?' But you look around and your life is filled with happy people and happy memories and nobody can take them away from you, except you.

"Don't get me wrong, every time I go to do something I can't do, is a reminder that I've a terminal illness, but the important thing is knowing that if I can't do it, somebody is there to help me do it. I have that love and support in my life that's precious to me.

"I have always been a positive person, I don't focus on negatives, I don't surround myself with negative people, I've always surrounded myself with positive people, challenging people, and I've continued to do that. Because I've been diagnosed with something, doesn't mean that I have to become a different person from who I am.

"Every day that I get out of bed is another day that I'm still here, still fighting, still have my family, and that's really, really important to me."

It's a two-hour drive from Dublin to his home. I confess to him that I've spent most of it trying to put myself in his shoes. Okay, so there's a bullet out there for all of us but everything changes when it arrives in the post. 'What if it was me? How would I deal with it?' Because the truth is that I'm not sure that I could.

"I've been through all of the stages -- anger, fear, anxiety but haven't really labelled them in any sort of way. How have I dealt with it? I don't want to give you the old adage of 'one day at a time' because that's not really what we are doing. We plan things in advance and work towards them, so whether that's a holiday or a big event in the house, there is something to look forward to.

"But everybody deals with stuff in different ways, there's no right way or wrong way, there's just a way. And we are a family of very strong faith and that has been important to us. People might ask the question 'Okay, so you have faith but how could God do this to someone?' But if I didn't have my faith, I wouldn't have coped as well.

"I remember an early conversation with Alison and we were talking about what was to come. They tell you not to do that and to live in the moment and take each day as it comes but in times of quiet reflection you do the opposite because that's human nature. You think about what's to come; you think about your wife and your kids and how they are going to cope.

"I remember this conversation with Alison. She said 'How can this happen to you? You're only 40. You've two children.' I said: 'There are people born into this world and they are completely paralysed and they live their full life like that. I've had a very enjoyable 40 years of active living. I've been blessed and try to look at it from those terms. But I would have found it very difficult to cope if I didn't have Alison by my side. It doesn't bear thinking about."

The thing that has stuck most since his diagnosis is the ignorance surrounding MND. "You tell people what's happened and they say 'God, that's terrible, hope you get well soon.' They don't realise that it's a terminal thing. So we decided to set up a trust and raise some funds for the association. Because it's a rare disease (it afflicts two in 100,000 people) the big pharmaceutical companies aren't interested -- it's not where the money is made -- so we've established a trust with the name DeterMND. If we can make a small difference, at lease it's a difference.

"I remember reading some of the notes on the Colm Murray documentary on RTE and he had said something similar. And Paul McGee, Jimmy's son, was adamant about donating his brain to science -- that was his small way of trying to advance the fight. So we're trying to do something similar. It's the most negative thing to have entered our lives but we can't just roll over."

"That's not true," I counter. "You could roll over."

"Yeah, but that's not in my nature. And it's not in Alison's nature. We've got some very specific aims and are keen to make sure that it is very hands on. The aspiration is that as time goes on, our children will take it on and continue to do something positive on the back of this negative thing that has happened to us."

One of the many events planned by DeterMND this year is a bike ride from Casement Park to Croke Park on March 16. For more information on this and other events check the website determnd.com

Irish Independent

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