ONE day in April, John Low-Beer dropped off his partner, the late author Nuala O'Faolain, with her old friend, the broadcaster Marian Finucane in Galway.
"You go off for an hour, get some lunch," Nuala told him.
Then she turned herself to the task of dropping the news of her impending death on an unsuspecting brunchtime audience that began with the simple words "now I am actually dying".
Thousands of listeners bustling about their weekend business were rivetted as she shared with shocking clarity how she had incurable cancer, that began in her lungs and spread to her brain and liver and now she had months to live.
Her world seemed bleak and desolate, she said, as she described turning down chemotherapy because she didn't want more time. "As soon as I knew I was going to die soon, the goodness went out of life."
None of this, of course, was news to John Low-Beer. As her partner for six-and-a-half years after Nuala's move to New York, the Brooklyn lawyer fell in love with the woman who, although she once said she didn't know how to love, gave it back to him in her own complicated way.
Now on the radio, she referred to him once by name as "my friend, John" who had provided her with health insurance. And later, how she had stopped pretending to be a family with "this man I liked" and his 14-year-old daughter, taking the pressure off their relationship.
As her lover and partner, he was a little piqued. "I was kind of hurt by the interview because, yes, she said she was happy in New York and so on but she only mentioned me in connection with the fact that I had provided her health insurance," he said last week.
"I said to her afterwards, how come the only mention of me was that? She said something along the lines of, 'I'm only just learning how kind you are to me and that I love you'."
He paused and laughed. "I mean I was kind of miffed about that only 'just learning' bit but I was certainly mollified by the expression of love."
Days afterwards, Nuala wrote an email to her sister, copying in John, with instructions regarding her affairs. In amongst the pragmatic stuff of bank accounts and finances, was an expression of love that brought tears to his eyes.
It said: "I'd like if he didn't mind to have written on the headstone, here lies NOF ... Beloved of John Low-Beer of Brooklyn."
"I was so touched and moved by that, I can't tell you. I wrote back to her and I said, you don't have to put my name in stone just because you didn't mention me in the interview. And she said: 'I would love this. For years and years people would wonder about the story behind your unusual name and Brooklyn. It has been a kind of amazement that we were together and though I won't know it, the words on the stone will go on saying that. So let me celebrate that you are loving enough to be with me at the end.'"
John Low-Beer told that story at a tribute to Nuala in New York Public Library last Tuesday week, in an evening of memories and anecdotes about the late journalist shared by writers like Paul Muldoon and Frank McCourt.
Most of all, John Low-Beer was keen to dispel the image of Nuala as a tragic figure. This was his reason for agreeing to talk about to her this weekend, on the phone from his office in New York, alternately laughing, grieving, regretful and grateful to have known the woman he said he fell in love with from the start.
"Far from being depressed, tragic, or whatever, I mean she was hilarious, you know? She enjoyed so many things and she was so interesting -- when she wanted to talk, which wasn't all the time. We'd sit at dinner and she'd want to read the paper, which I kept telling her was very rude. Never did manage to cure her of that habit," he said.
"I think she had a hard time believing that anyone could love her. And that was the source of her difficulty, I think. But it was really in her mind... That loneliness that she expresses in her work, of course it's genuine but she also was really very capable of intimacy, of love and she loved and was loved. And I think that's very important that people should know that."
They met through an internet dating agency six-and-a-half years ago. She had ended a relationship. He was recovering from a difficult separation. Initially, though, he was not interested.
"Basically I think (the ad) said something like plump Irish woman likes music, animals and wine. It doesn't sound like anything too promising." Nuala persisted, and after Googling her name, it turned out that John had actually heard of her.
She had chronicled a damaged childhood in Are You Somebody?, the memoir written when she was in a dark and lonely place but which heaped her with success and opened up her world. Novels and another memoir, charting the next phase of her middle-aged womanhood, followed.
What date wouldn't be intrigued? "We met in a restaurant and she came in and she gave me a big hug right away, which I thought was wonderful and, as I later figured out, was not very usual for her because she often didn't want to be touched by people. But anyway she seemed to be very warm, well, she was warm."
They talked until 4am. "I guess I pretty much fell in love with her straight away."
They were close, he said. They spoke several times, every day, even when apart. "Every night, I really had to send her an email before I went to bed, whether it was midnight or 1am or how tired I was, no matter, because she really missed that email if she didn't have it to wake up to in the morning."
The relationship, he was the first to admit, was not easy.
Nuala confessed in her follow up memoir, Almost There, that she had difficulties with his then eight-year-old daughter, Anna. "I'll never be Number One to him," she wrote with rare, toe-curling honesty.
"I tried to tell her 'you're a grown up and she's a child' but she said: 'No, no, no, I'm a child too'," he said.
"I think it was easier for her to be honest about the difficulties that she was experiencing, and her loneliness, which was real. But her connectedness was also real. She really did love Anna. She would never go on a trip without bringing back a very thoughtful present for Anna, something that Anna really wanted.
"I often did feel very torn about this. Anna felt that I often took Nuala's side and Nuala felt that I was too indulgent with Anna and always did what she wanted. I found that extremely difficult. But the thing was that Nuala was such a remarkable person to be with and also just could be very often very loving and very sweet so, you know, I didn't ever really think 'I can't do this any more'."
They did briefly part, however, in spring last year.
John Low-Beer didn't elaborate on the catalyst for the break-up but personalities, he suggested, had something to do with it. He described himself as "mild-mannered". Nuala, on the other hand, "lived more intensely in the moment. When she was angry, that was what she kind of felt or saw".
"Quite frequently she would say to me 'well, look, we don't have anything in common. I don't know what we're doing together. We should just call it quits'," he said. "I mean I guess I found that quite difficult and each time I would kind of believe her, although less and less so as time went on because I realised she didn't really mean it, it was how she felt at the moment. Also sometimes she got angry and she could say things that were very hurtful ... I wouldn't really even somehow be able to say it until the next day or something. I would say, 'oh what you said two days ago was very hurtful', and she would be scratching her head and saying 'what?' Anyway, she didn't quite appreciate maybe the extent to which some of the things she said or did were really corrosive," he said.
"I guess I'd built up some anger about this, and hurt. And I wasn't so sure if I wanted to continue the relationship."
They were back together within two weeks, however. "After this all happened, I guess it dawned on me that this woman really does love me and also she realised that she had to moderate her behaviour a little bit and actually, she really did that. She really changed in that regard," he said. "I mean, maybe she still thought, he's an idiot, or he's a bore, or whatever she might have thought," he said, laughing. "But at least she would have thought about it before saying it and whether she really wanted to say it or not, I don't know. But I do know there was a definite change."
They had lived together for a while, trying to be a family. But Nuala had her beloved apartment in Manhattan, where she started spending more time working. John stayed there when he didn't have Anna. They took holidays and trips alone and with Anna.
"Over all I'd say the tenor of her life in the past few years has been some ups and downs but particularly in the last 10 or 12 months before she died we had attained a kind of a stability and peace that was new and that was very wonderful, I think for both of us."
That was the place where Nuala was when she discovered she had cancer in February this year.
Her right side began to drag. John brought her to accident and emergency in a New York hospital. As Nuala later told Marian Finucane, the diagnosis was brutally blunt, delivered by a passing doctor who told her she had two brain tumours, as she sat alone on a chair, after 13 hours of tests.
She was admitted to hospital that night. John was allowed to stay with her. "They put a cot next to the bed which we never really used. We just both slept in the bed. Well, we didn't sleep very much. We cried and we talked through much of the night. We talked about getting married. But you know, it turned out to be quite complicated and also things went more quickly than we really expected."
"I thought there would be me and the world, but the world turned its back on me, the world said to me that's enough of you now and what's more we're not going to give you any little treats at the end," Nuala later told Marian.
After that interview, she retreated to deal with her illness in privacy and dignity. Just four weeks passed before she died, on Friday night, May 9. She had opened a new chapter on death, started the conversation, but how had it ended? Was she still so unbearably sad? Did she see beauty again? Did the good ever return to what was left of her life?
"It was obviously not easy but she did get pleasure from things all through that time," said John.
Nuala came home to her cottage in Clare, 10 days after her diagnosis, where she had radiation treatment in Galway. John joined her for a couple of weeks, planning to commute back and forth every fortnight for his job as lawyer in New York.
Nuala went to Paris to meet her publisher and, as she described to Marian, stayed in the best hotel and thought "I love this" as she drank milky coffee and ate a pastry. Hugo Hamilton, the author, wrote of their joyous trip to Berlin.
Her last adventure was a family holiday in Sicily with John, her family and all their spouses and partners, a tradition that began when Nuala was 60.
They returned to her cottage in Ringsend, Dublin on Sunday night, May 4, where death came more swiftly than her loved ones expected. She was tired, but glad to be home, said John. Her health was failing. Friends rallied, whether she wanted them or not -- her sisters, old friends like Brian Sheehan and friends from Clare, John and Helen Browne.
The day before she died, Nuala ate a winter vegetable soup for lunch, followed by a dessert. "She enjoyed them too," said John. That evening, Brian helped her reply to emails, many from total strangers that were still flooding in, as a result of her interview with Marian Finucane. They sat with her as she sorted through her affairs, not realising that it was to be for the last time.
"Those letters were very important to her. She got a great boost from all the people who cared about her. She knew so many people who rallied around and wrote to her in those last weeks. That was very comforting to her," said John.
She was not in great pain. At one point, when she did have a pain, a doctor administered a morphine injection. "There were moments when there was discomfort, and I felt bad about that. She never really was choking. She was coughing. She had a cold. She was given antibiotics," he said.
She passed a fitful night. A GP was called in the early hours and had to go away again for more morphine. "It became clear she needed a greater level of medication than could be administered on an ongoing basis at home," said John.
On Friday morning, arrangements were made to have her transferred to Blackrock Hospice. She was conscious and alert. Her friends called to her or telephoned before she left. "Goodbye, I'll miss you," she said to the writer, Tim Robinson, whom she didn't expect to see again.
John still couldn't quite grasp that Nuala was so close to death. They said no dramatic goodbyes, he just performed practical acts of kindness to try and make her more comfortable.
"Most of the time, it was just she wasn't comfortable. Could I move her this way or that way? Could I get her this or that? We didn't really talk about the meaning of life or love and death and whatever," he said.
He did ask her at some point if she was scared. "She said 'no'. She was more sorrowful. She was not terrified. She was just really sad to be leaving this world.
"I never really said goodbye because I just didn't realise she was so close to death. I wish we had said goodbye more. But it is a hard thing to say goodbye. You don't want to do it because you don't want to think it is the end."
Once at the hospice, Nuala slept. She died peacefully that night, shortly before midnight, surrounded by family and friends.