Sallyanne Clarke: The agony of the Lady of L'Ecrivain
She is one of Ireland's top restaurateurs. Sallyanne Clarke tells Barry Egan about how not a day passes without agonising why her teenage son took his own life and how she believes they'll meet again
F Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Crack-Up: "In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o'clock in the morning, day after day. There is sort of blow that comes from within, that you don't feel until it's too late to do anything about it..."
Sallyanne Clarke's own crack-up happened on December 27, 2012, when she found her 16-year-old-son Andrew's body in the garage of the family home in Brittas. He was dead four days later, on New Year's Eve. Sallyanne says they will never recover from that dark night of the soul. "We will never get over it. But we never forget him. I think if you lose a child, whether the child is three days old or 16 years - obviously memories are different - but the effect is the same."
Sallyanne says she deals with the pain by "trying to keep busy." She keeps a picture of Andrew in a locket around her neck, along with a piece of Andrew's hair. "I never take off the locket," Sallyanne (who runs the world-famous L'Ecrivain restaurant on Dublin's Baggot Street with Michelin-starred chef husband Derry) says, "and I will never stop thinking of my baby."
I ask her what Andrew wanted to do with his life. "Andrew wanted to do mechanical engineering," she says, adding that he was planning to go to the Institute of Technology in Carlow. Sallyanne and Derry have a little house in Wexford, half an hour's drive from the IT in Carlow. "We had considered selling the house because we don't get a chance to use it, but we held on to it because we thought we wouldn't have to pay for accommodation when Andrew went there."
What makes Andrew's death all the more baffling perhaps (as if taking your own life can ever make sense) was that he made so many immediate plans. A young rally driver, he had made plans to go over to England the following week to collect an award he had won for driving. "Yeah," says Sallyanne, "he was going over to get a big trophy in England. It was a big achievement." Andrew had also made plans for the summer of 2013. "Yeah, everything was ahead of him," Sallyanne says. "Sure, we were to go down to Ashford Castle for New Year's Eve. He was doing his driving test the next day [it was due to happen the day after he took his own life]. So, again, nobody knows. If somebody does know, maybe they'll give me a phone call one day and tell me about it. Or whatever, but we don't know. I mean, from our point of view, it was a normal day. Normal, you know?" Sallyanne says stopping herself. "One minute he was spraying the rims on the wheels of his car and he had put them into the back of a pick-up truck to have them pumped up the next day after we went to the driving test centre in Naas and the next minute he is gone. So we don't know."
I say to Sallyanne that I'm sure she has searched her soul every day, every hour, since that day looking for an answer.
"Of course you do. You're a parent. You blame yourself, at the end of the day. Why didn't I see this? Why didn't I see that? But everything happens so quickly. Everything...[pause] we did our best at the scene. We're all ... because of the business we are in here ... we do the training every two years in basic first aid. But you never think you are going to have to - you know," she says stopping. "My father worked as an ambulance-driver for years in between doing other things. Again, we were all very well aware at home about basic first aid. It is very hard for all of us. We're devastated. You do get letters from people. But nobody knows what you are going through unless they have been through it themselves."
Sallyanne says she watched the documentary The Bridge - about the poor souls who attempt to kill themselves by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco - and was upset beyond words when she heard survivors recount how they had regretted jumping seconds after jumping off the ledge.
Asked what she is going through now, Sallyanne shakes her head and says: "I don't know."
Is there very little joy left in life as consequence?
"You know, you are kind of numb for the first year. For the second year the reality sort of dawns on you. We are in that now."
On top of the pain of having to deal with Andrew's death the family has also recently had to cope with the impact of the inquest into his death. Toxicology results mentioned traces of cocaine, benzodiazepines and painkiller medication found in Andrew's system.
The Coroner's Office, she told me in the immediate aftermath of the publicity surrounding the inquest, "couldn't have been nicer ... but it is the fact that it is a public inquest and everything was in every single newspaper the next day."
She told me at the time: "We don't know where he got it [cocaine]. We don't know where it came from. We are in the dark as far as that is concerned." The inquest, she said, "opened up old wounds."
To help her through this turbulent period, three weeks ago Sallyanne started working with Teenline - "the confidential, non-judgemental listening service for teenagers who feel alone or distressed" she explains - shadowing phonecalls. "I don't know if my son knew that Teenline existed," Sallyanne adds. "I don't know if that would have made a difference, but if it makes a difference for another child, that they know they can call somebody, maybe that would make a difference," she says.
Sallyanne says she thinks all the time what Andrew would have said to her had he spoken to her rather than what he did in the end. "There are always 'what ifs' and 'maybe I should have knowN this or seen that or have done whatever' but again," Sallyanne says, looking out the window of the restaurant, "Andrew was the last person in the world who you would have thought [would have died by suicide]. He was a very..." she stops herself.
"Andrew was very funny, very witty, very charming. He always had a glint in his eye. He always had a smile on his face. He was one of these kids with who there was never a silence. He always had something to say. He would tell you what was going on. He was my baby."
Sallyanne Clarke's baby was born in Mount Carmel hospital on March 23, 1996. He was born, says Sallyanne, not long after her father Des died of meningitis on February 6, 1996, aged 63. Sallyanne says she will always remember when she was expecting Andrew. At Christmas prior to the arrival of her little brother, Sarah May Clarke (who was born April 27, 1990) was doing the school Nativity play and was bombarding her mother with questions.
"She wanted to know how the Virgin Mary could be a virgin and still have a baby. I told her that baby Jesus was a gift from God and that he didn't come the normal route and that's how Mary was still a virgin."
So when Andrew arrived -"Andrew was a real smiler of a baby" - Sallyanne, Derry and Sarah May and new baby, and all the relations, went straight to the Hibernian Hotel, (now The Dylan) for a big celebratory lunch, not least because, says Sallyanne, "it was Mother's Day.
"I remember Sarah May disappeared. When I found her, Sarah May was with the poor receptionist of the hotel. She was telling her that herself and her brother were both gifts from God." Sallyanne is a practising Catholic who attends Mass most Sundays. It is implicit in her belief system that she will see Andrew again one day. "I've always believed there is an after-life. I've always believed in heaven. I've always believed that we don't just die. So that is my belief. I can't speak for Derry or Sarah May. So I believe we will all meet up again. I suppose that keeps you going too."
I ask her did Andrew's death shake her faith.
"A little bit. I think your faith kind of changes when you [go through something like that.] It does shake your faith. But it shakes your faith in everything really, I suppose," she says softly. "But I'll tell you what it has done: it has renewed my faith in human nature. Everybody has just been incredible. There are some people who you don't know terribly well and they just come up and give me a hug. That says it all. "
Sallyanne had one lady come into the restaurant recently and say to her: "I don't want to upset you but I lost my son."
When Sallyanne asked her when, the woman replied: "Fourteen years, seven months and three days."
"She lost him through an accident. Then another man told me his son was gone nearly two years. He said to me that he was in the same club as me. We're trying to move on. We are doing everything we can. I have a friend who lost a son when the child was three and they still have a Mass every year on the child's anniversary. So everybody is different. We have to think of our other child Sarah May." Sallyanne says that she and Derry have to be strong for her as well as each other.
You have to wonder where Sallyanne gets the inner strength to deal with all the pain at losing her son in such a way. Perhaps the woman who knows Sallyanne best, her mother Sadie, answers that by telling me, "believe me, we have all had that pain. We can imagine what she is going through when we are suffering so much at our level. It was dreadful, dreadful. But God makes the back for the burden. That's what they say, and I think it's true. You are strong enough to weather the storm and try and pick up the pieces and go on with life as best you can. My heart is broken for Sallyanne and Derry and Sarah May," continues Sadie. "It was dreadful. I was very close with him too. He was a wonderful child. He was very lovable . I had a great relationship with him. When I was driving him here, there and everywhere, I'd say to him: 'You owe me now! Once you get your driving licence, you have to start driving me places.' I give out about him now when I don't have him here to drive me around," Sadie says.
Sallyanne and Derry have lived in their house in Brittas for 16 years. "We moved up there a week before Andrew's second birthday," she says - nearly everything, it seems, Sallyanne says is referenced through Andrew. "We moved there when Andrew and Sarah May were still young enough that they weren't going to complain" - about living out in the sticks, presumably. Asked what were Andrew and Sarah May like as kids, Sallyanne smiles. "Great fun. A handful. They went to school in town," Sallyanne says referring to Hedley Park Montessori School.
"I would drive them in in the morning and they'd be in their car seats, eating their breakfast. Sometimes when I would have to leave very early, around Christmas time, when I was really busy with the restaurant, I would have sleeping bags in the back and two seats for them and Andrew would have his toast in an ice cream container and tea," she recalls wistfully. "I would pull up here to the restaurant, get them dressed for school and feed them."
Andrew was very funny, Sallyanne says of her late son. He was very quick with the comments. "He was always teasing me. He was the one who nicknamed me Denise because of my knee problems - as in The Knees - and then he and Sarah May would crack up laughing. They had their own little code."
Sallyanne remembers once using the odd obscenity within earshot of her kids; and the following morning reeling in horror when Andrew rolled down the window of the car on the morning run to school. "And he roared out the window at this lady in another car on the road - 'Asshole!' Because she cut me off on the road! Sarah May said to me: 'That's your fault, mum, He has been listening to you!'. He was probably about five. He was always up to something. And at the end of the day, no matter what he did, he would always say; 'You do love me mum, don't you?' That was always important. We will always miss him. Sarah May more than words... "
I Sallyanne ask how is Sarah May.
"She is doing fine. She is 24. She's working away. She got her degree in November 2012 in Marketing & Event Management. She has just finished working on the Taste Of Dublin and she is going to be working on the Taste Of Boston. She has been working in L'Ecrivain since she was 14. So she knows the restaurant business like the back of her hand. She is going to be a big star of the industry one day," her mummy says confidently.
There is no happy ending to this story. You would like to think that Andrew Clarke was somehow released from his torment in that millionth of a second when he took the tragic decision to take his own life. Some days, Sallyanne feels like it is a nightmare that she isn't going to wake up from. Other days, she just smiles through it all. She says her mother growing up in Crumlin "always told me to put my best foot forward."
"And I suppose," she says, " that's what I'm doing since Andrew died."
She says words can't describe what she and her family have gone through, and continue to go through. Somehow you don't get the sense Sallyanne is exaggerating when she says she thinks about Andrew every second of every day.
Whenever a teenage boy comes in with his parents into L'Ecrivain she immediately thinks of Andrew. It is hard not to. She is articulate about her despair, while not giving up on the hope of living a full, happy life without her little boy.
"We had a lot of deaths last year. We had a cousin in Chicago, Andrew Parker was his name. Then I had my Andrew," Sallyanne says, her voice choking a little when she says those words. "Then I had another cousin Joe Malone who died in Dublin. Then I had an uncle, my mum's brother, Mick Malone who died in May. Then I had another cousin Michael who died in London at the beginning of June. Then we had a good friend who died at the end of June. So within six months we had six significant deaths. It knocked us all for six. But you know, you deal with whatever life throws at you.
"You have to," Sallyanne Clarke says.
Teenline, phone 1800 833 634. www.teenline.ie
Sunday Indo Living