John returned home a widower, enduring the longest journey of his life on the longest day of his life
IT was the darkest evening of the "darkest of days" for the Harte and McAreavy families.
This was the weekend the newly-wed couple were due home, suntanned after a blissful honeymoon in paradise and brimming with joy to begin married life for real.
New duvets and sheets awaited them on their bed in their new home near Banbridge, Co Down. New plates, pots and pans were poised for use in their kitchen for cosy dinners together. There was a bundle of wedding cards from well-wishers still to open and a pile of gifts to admire.
Instead, it was a bottomless pit of crushing sadness as a shaken John returned home a widower, enduring the longest journey of his life on the longest day of his life as he accompanied the coffin that bore the remains of his beautiful young wife on the flight home from halfway around the world.
Meanwhile, Michaela's parents Mickey and Marion Harte could only sit and wait, enduring the unendurable with heartbreaking patience at their home on the Glencull Road in Ballygawley in Tyrone, yet to see and to hold their beloved daughter.
When Michaela took part in the Rose of Tralee festival, this devoted dad said that his daughter had supported him for so long, it was time for him to support her.
Now it was the turn of relatives and neighbours to try and support him and his family at their greatest time of need.
A white marquee tent stood in the landscaped garden of their home in the rolling hills of Ballygawley, another in a field across the way. In another life, it could have been the stage for a wedding.
A single car was parked outside their home but the place stood utterly silent, neighbours on standby from early morning, closing off the country road to allow the family some much-needed peace, and any car making the turn was carefully vetted. Arc lights and electricity generators were set up in advance of the arrival.
The flight from Mauritius touched down in London at around 6.30am and, after a delay, it was on to Belfast where it landed at the George Best Belfast City Airport at lunchtime.
Michaela's brothers, Michael and Matthew Harte, and family friends were amongst those waiting to comfort John and Michaela's brother Mark and brother-in-law Brian, who had accompanied him home from Mauritius.
A brief prayer service to receive the remains was held by Bishop John McAreavy and Canon Francis Browne.
The remains were transferred to a handsome oak coffin, which a hearse then took to a funeral home in Portadown.
A glimpse of John McAreavy in the back seat revealed him to be slumped, crushed and exhausted looking.
Back in Ballygawley, darkness had begun to fall and shortly after 5.15pm, neighbours and volunteers from the fiercely loyal Errigal GAA club congregated to block off the main road and a cortege of 13 cars, including a jeep containing Mickey and Marion Harte on their way to see Michaela. The long wait was almost over.
Meanwhile, the GAA club members, neighbours and friends gathered at Ballygawley roundabout -- poignantly the traditional gathering place for countless Tyrone forays to Croke Park where Michaela had been in her element.
A haloed half-moon appeared in the sky and pinpoints of stars emerged. It was a lovely night in the stillness of the Tyrone countryside, its silence broken only by the bark of a dog and the occasional rush of traffic.
Finally, it was shortly after 7pm that the cortege approached the Ballygawley roundabout and those waiting stood in a respectful guard of honour.
A few minutes later, a second guard of honour of about 30 friends and neighbours and more loyal GAA members blocked off the road to allow the hearse and the stream of cars to make the entrance to Glencull Road in a touching sign of respect.
The sight of the hearse brought a lump to the throat of those watching.
Home at last. Home with Michaela to shed tears of unbearable grief and sadness, home to say goodbye.