Entertainment Books

Sunday 24 March 2019

'Her weapon against cancer was her humour'- Emma Hannigan's father reflects on her legacy one year after her death

Author and cancer campaigner Emma Hannigan died a year ago today. As her 13th novel is published, Emily Hourican talks to Emma's father, Philip, about her book and his 'mission'

The late Emma Hannigan
The late Emma Hannigan
Emma with her dad Philip

Emily Hourican

'I would walk naked over O'Connell Bridge if it was going to help Emma, if it was going to sell the book," says Philip Hannigan, adding: "Fortunately no one has asked me." Philip is a businessman; his company sells precision tools for metal cutting and grinding. He is also the father of Emma Hannigan, bestselling author of 13 novels who died a year ago today, after fighting cancer - fighting staunchly, publicly, and relentlessly, with words and humour and grit - over 11 years.

His words remind me of something Emma herself said to me, several times: "I would take my top off in the park if I thought it would help raise money and awareness." I tell Philip this, to which he responds promptly, "And I would have gone round with a box collecting for her, no problem!"

Clearly, there are strong similarities between father and daughter - "Emma didn't give a monkeys' about things like that," he says. "If anyone didn't like it, she would address them, but she would never hold back." Because of that, in honour of that, Philip is now forcing himself to overcome his obvious reluctance and speak publicly about Emma, her life, and his loss.

"The last thing I want to do is this," he says. "I'm here because I want to sell the last book, and to raise money for breast cancer. My target is to double what Emma raised. We have to aim high or you don't get there. After that, you will not see or hear from me again. The family keep away from all this usually but we owe her this, and that's what we're doing. The question is, what can we do to highlight Emma's book, and what can we do to raise money for breast cancer? That is the only reason. None of us want to do it but she'd kill us if we didn't."

Emma with her dad Philip
Emma with her dad Philip

Emma died a year ago, barely four weeks after posting a message on Facebook in which she wrote "the time that I knew was borrowed must be given back soon." She was wife to Cian, mother to Sasha and Kim, daughter of Philip and Denise, and a light in the lives of her many, many friends, readers and well-wishers. Her Facebook message was viewed and shared thousands of times. The snowball of donations that began immediately gathered pace, until the initial target that Emma had set was met and passed. At which point, being Emma, she raised it.

"When she started the fundraising, I was flabbergasted," Philip says. "The target was €50,000 and after a week Emma said 'feck that, we're going to have to up the target. Let's go for €100,000.' I think it ended up €130,000, and then more. That's the number I want to double. I'm going for €250,000. And to anyone who asks 'Do you not think this is a bit mercenary?', the answer is, I don't give a damn. I'm going to drive this as hard as I can.

"It is so difficult, but we're doing it. We made these plans with Emma. We talked about everything. She knew this book would come out, and that it was her swan song. She finished this last book a couple of weeks before she went into hospital for the last time, which was three-and-a-half weeks before she died. She was working against the odds to finish it."

The book is The Gift of Friends, Emma's 13th, and without Emma, part of the editing was done by Philip. "I had an instruction to make sure the publishers didn't edit out the Irish humour," he says. "Emma was insistent, you have to leave that in. That's the voice. So I did read it. And Denise read it, and it was difficult for us because we can see things in the books; we know where they came from."

The money Emma raised went to establishing a three-year research fellowship, awarded to Dr Damir Vareslija at the Royal College of Surgeons. Philip plans to keep that fellowship going into the future.

For him, this crusade is intensely personal, in many ways. "Emma had the BRCA1 gene. And the gene goes through the female line. My wife Denise has it, but she never developed cancer. Two of her sisters have died, two others had breast cancer and after the treatment, they survived. Of eight sisters, two died, two got cancer, others have the gene but it never manifested. It's going through the female line. We're mad to raise money for breast cancer because they are focussed on what Emma had. We thought once or twice that some of the new treatments were going to do it, but they didn't. She tried them all, but unfortunately, her time ran out before they found it. So we're pushing, big time, to raise money for that charity, to prevent other women getting what Emma got. To prevent other families suffering the way we do."

I ask Philip if he was surprised, in the weeks before and after Emma's death, at the extent of the outpouring of love for her. "I knew she had reached out to a lot of people, but I had no idea of the size or spread of it," he says. "The amount of people who write, who just put 'Emma Hannigan, Bray', and the postman brings it to us… I'm getting hugs from strange women. I can't walk up the town without people coming over and asking 'How are you?' The answer is 'How do you think I am…?' But this is a mission, and we're going to perform this mission."

Why does he think Emma made such an impression on so many of us; the people she knew, and so many people she never met? "The thing that Emma always said is, 'there is no hierarchy of pain'. She had cancer, but her thinking was 'there's a friend who can't pay the mortgage this month, they might lose the house. Another friend, their child is in hospital. Everybody has a particular thing, there is no way of comparing pain of suffering with anyone else. Everyone's affliction is equal.'"

This, in turn, was made possible by what Philip describes as Emma's philosophy of life, something he says is also his own: "Emma saw life as a loaf of bread, cut into slices. Each slice has a different part of your existence. Some are lovely, some are nasty, but it's all part of the loaf. But even the nasty stuff, that is not the loaf, it is a slice. You have to compartmentalise. You carry it, but don't let it contaminate the nice things. The positivity Emma had came from that."

He tells a story that perfectly illustrates both Emma's philosophy, and her astounding positivity: "Emma lived next door to us. We gave her a third-of-an acre, herself and Cian, and they built a house. When her kids, Sasha and Kim, were growing up, they'd run out the front door, through the garden, through an arch, into another garden and in the back door of our house. It was lovely.

"I knew when Emma was particularly bad - I'd speak to her two or three times a day; Denise spoke to her non-stop, on the phone and in person - I'd know things were not good and I'd go over. About two years ago, it had begun to get nasty. Her glands were affected badly and her right arm began to swell a lot. It wasn't going away. I went over, she had the right arm on a pillow, propped up, Herbie the dog beside her. She'd just had chemo and she looked terrible. She'd been awake all night, in a lot of pain. I said 'What's wrong? You look bloody terrible' - and she said 'Thank you, dad, for bringing that to my attention. I have a chest infection, but the antibiotics will click in, in a day or two. And apart from the infection, the chemo, the swelled arm, the awake-all-night and the pain, I'm absolutely perfect! I can't believe what a perfect specimen of humankind I am!'

"Her glass wasn't half-full - it was sometimes nine-tenths empty, but the one-tenth was the bit of her that went 'apart from that, I'm bloody perfect!'"

Humour, Philip says, "was Emma's weapon against cancer. She used to say 'I couldn't prevent getting cancer, because it got me. But I'm damned if it's going to ruin my life. I'm going to ruin it!'" He describes Emma ringing him one day, midway through her first bout of chemotherapy, and saying 'right, I've done a Sinead O'Connor. It suits me!' Later, she bought a selection of wigs, and Philip talks about calling over; "Sasha was trying to do flips on the trampoline without the wig falling off. He and Kim were chasing each other round the house with it. It became funny. That was Emma making fun of cancer in one way, and shouting at it too - 'Feck off! You don't get all of me!'"

During the times when Emma was feeling very bad, she might ring and say 'can you bring the kids to school?' I'd say 'Of course. So you're in your bed?' and she's say 'Yes. I'm feeling lazy today…' There's nobody stupid," he points out, "there's nobody not knowing what's going on. But her keeping that level of positive optimism going on, it helped everyone."

He is quick to emphasise that this extraordinary attitude - the ability to see life, even when drained of goodness, as one-tenth full - was no easier for Emma than it would have been for any of the rest of us. That it was, in fact, something created through practise and effort and determination.

"It's like anything," Philip says, "like riding a bike, it becomes a habit of mind. It's hard work, it takes a long time, and you have to acknowledge that. Her way of over-coming and handling things was worked at.

"She took nothing for granted. Emma wanted to make sure her affliction didn't contaminate everyone else. When you have cancer, it's you who has it, but it's a ripple, too. Everyone around you is suffering. They're worried about you. Emma wanted to keep that from the kids, from me, from her mother. Any time something really nasty happened, she'd make fun of it! The mental strength came from her trying to make sure that no one else got any more contaminated than they already were.

"I'd know she was bloody bluffing it, but the determination was the prevention of other people having to take on board any more pain than they've already got. Emma saw her aunt Helen die. She was young, but old enough to realise 'this is terrible'. Her memory of that never left her, she saw how that affected us all, so she was very, very careful and I think that's what was driving her a lot of time."

He describes times - many of them - when Emma would be feeling terrible, and yet insist on honouring one of her considerable commitments (she gave talks at schools and fundraising events, took part in charity shows, including dancing for Strictly Against Breast Cancer, and countless more dedications of her time and energy). "She'd been really, really low, feeling really crap, and yet had committed to do something. She'd say, 'OK, stop moaning, I have to do this. Chin up, on with the wig, lash as much stuff as you can on your face; off you go, get on with it!' She pulled herself up by the bootstraps."

Did he ever wish that she might do a little less? Mind herself a little more? "No," he says. "That was her. I would talk, advise, call it what you like, but I was very careful to watch too. I would not interfere with that."

In all the stories Philip tells, what is evident is a father's pride in his daughter, his certain knowledge that she was someone exceptional, balanced by the pain of missing her that almost chokes him at times. He describes Emma persuading him to let her hitch-hike with Rachel Allen from Bangkok to Bali after her Leaving Cert, and ringing twice, reverse charges, to say they'd been robbed; Emma starting her writing career - "before being forced to sit by cancer, Emma would never have been sitting for very long. Her illness brought the writing thing out of her. Writing is an art and I think Emma was getting better at it"; Emma ringing local bookshops around the country after her first novel was published and saying 'I'm going to be on the radio, can I come in and sign books afterwards?' then ringing the radio station and saying 'I'm going to be signing books, can I come in and talk to you on air?'; Emma baking brownies and bringing them to booksellers the length of the country. All these stories, all consistently showing the same person: someone resourceful, determined, funny, kind, magnificent.

When Emma's time ran out, as she described it, Philip and Denise were due to go on holiday. "It was February 8 last year. Denise and I were booked to go to the Caribbean. I got a text 'I've just seen David', [Emma's oncologist] 'the news is bad. I need you with me.' We knew," he says quietly. "So did she."

And yet even then, Emma used the time she had left at full-speed. "They gave her one-to-two weeks, which turned out to be nearly four weeks. In that time, she wrote the famous blog, she wrote her own eulogy, and she was bantering with Fr Gerry [chaplain at Blackrock clinic, who read Emma's eulogy at her funeral] right up to the day before she died." She also wrote notes to those closest to her. "She wrote I don't know how many notes," Philip says; "to me, to Denise, to Cian, to the kids, several each, all with a particular message. I haven't seen the kids or Cian's. These were personal, private messages to each of us, and to some of her closest friends. She was downloading from the mind. It was tough stuff."

Does Philip worry about what will happen, how he will feel, after this? After the book is published, once the 'mission' is completed? "No. I've done what I said I would do. I don't like the notoriety but I have to do this." It is, he says, "like going for chemo - you don't like it, but it has to be done." Another part of Emma's philosophy, Philip says, was "to look into the past and try to just remember the good things. If you remember the bad, you end up bitter and sad." It is, he says, something he too believes in. "I would like to look at the past and see the good."

'The Gift of Friends' by Emma Hannigan is on sale now, published by Hachette Ireland, £13.99

To make a €4.00 donation text CURE to 50300 or go to www.breastcancerireland.com

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