Monday 19 February 2018

Fiona Gratzer on losing her husband Uwe in a traffic accident: 'He walked out the door and didn't come home... the shock was profound'

They were one of Ireland's golden couples. In June, Uwe Gratzer was taken from his wife Fiona in a tragic road accident. She talks about how he died close to where were they married in Wicklow, how numbness has now been replaced by "cruel reality" and how Uwe taught her about the beauty of life

Devastated: Unislim boss Fiona Gratzer's world was shattered when three gardai came to her door to deliver the news that her husband Uwe had been fatally injured in a motorbike crash. Photo: David Conachy
Devastated: Unislim boss Fiona Gratzer's world was shattered when three gardai came to her door to deliver the news that her husband Uwe had been fatally injured in a motorbike crash. Photo: David Conachy
Uwe Gratzer
Fiona Gratzer.
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

It was their last goodbye. On the morning of June 14 this year, as Uwe was going out the back gate of their home in Drumcondra on his motorbike, Fiona knocked on the bedroom window. When he turned around and looked up, she shouted out to him - "Look what you're missing."

Wearing his favourite necklace and his motorbike gear, Uwe smiled and said: "I love you. See you later."

Those were the last words spoken between them.

It brings Fiona some small bit of comfort to believe that her husband would have felt her love - and would maybe have played back those words in his head in the milliseconds before his tragic collision in Coonmore, Valleymount, in West Wicklow later that day.

"I know he felt loved by me in that moment," Fiona says sitting in the house she shared with Uwe.

"He could have gone out that door and we could have left on a bad note. Just thinking about that has been a lesson in life for me: Don't waste those precious moments that you can create with your family and your friends. Don't get consumed with the mundane arguments," she says. "Especially at Christmas, when people can get can so caught up in squabbles.

"Extend the hand of friendship to people, because we don't know; we are not in control of our lives. I have learned that over the last six months since Uwe is dead.

"There are things that I can try to control but ultimately there is another plan there.

"I don't know what it is but something else can happen that can change your life in a heartbeat," says Fiona, "and when that does happen, and you realise what you've lost, it is important that you can look back and know that you did everything to make that a wonderful experience rather than looking back with regret."

Fiona has met people in the time since Uwe died who have told her their stories and spoken to her about their grief and loss.

"Some people do have regrets, especially when someone has died tragically and in sudden circumstances. People will always remember the last conversation they've had with somebody. They'll always remember the moment they last saw them because it is all amplified when you lose somebody so suddenly."

Fiona is happy that Uwe's last memory of her will be a loving one; as will Fiona's last memory of Uwe be a loving one. . .

They met 24 years ago in exotic Langkawi, an island off Malaysia. Fiona was travelling with a friend, Meike Bornhof. On the first day, they realised they were on an island with no alcohol, and electricity for only two hours a day. They played cards all day to break the boredom. "On the second day, Fiona remembers, "a taxi drove up. And a very tall, handsome man got out. Meike and I practically kicked the card table into the air. We couldn't believe our eyes. Then the second door open and a girl stepped out. All our dreams were dashed. We later discovered that Uwe had met a girl at the airport and they merely shared a cab." On the fifth day, on a boat trip, "myself and Uwe fell in love. It was an idyllic setting and a very romantic place to fall in love. The love boat!" The two voyagers on the love boat were married a year and a half later.

She will never forget the doorbell ringing at 1pm that cruel summer day over 20 years later. There were three members of An Garda Síochána at her door - to tell her that Uwe had been in an accident. Uwe was so accomplished a rider that it was the last thing she expected. When the guards asked her who she wanted to ring, she couldn't think of a name, such was her state of shock.

All she could think of was that her son Luca was in Spain with her mother Agnes; and her daughter Mila was on a sleepover with friends.

Her brother Ciaran was in Florida and her sister Emer was in London. They both were on planes to Dublin within hours - Emer slept beside Fiona that night. "I couldn't get into my side of the bed. I haven't actually. . ." she says breaking off. "I just sleep on Uwe's side now. I can't sleep on my side yet. She held me during the night and looked after me."

Ciaran arrived the next day from America. He held her hand throughout - "and continues to support me" - and took over, with Emer, all the arrangements.

Fiona eventually got hold of her mother - she had to get a steward at the golf course in Spain to go out to her - who told Luca. Fiona wanted someone to be able to put her arms around Luca straight after being told his dad was dead. Fiona also had to ring Uwe's daughter, Fiona's step-daughter Esther, who is 30, and to ring Uwe's sisters in Austria.

Fiona was, she says, brought mistakenly to Beaumont Hospital that day, "because they thought there was a head trauma, which there was, but unfortunately on the way to the hospital Uwe had a heart attack and they redirected him to Tallaght."

The guards, she recalls, drove like "the clappers" to Tallaght Hospital as time was more than precious for Fiona and Uwe. Tellingly, Fiona was met at the hospital by a chaplain. A doctor then asked Fiona did she want to go in. When she did, Fiona was in with Uwe for "maybe. . . five minutes" before he died.

I ask Fiona if she thinks Uwe held on for five minutes to be with her one last time.

She smiles with tears forming in her eyes. "It wasn't even five minutes. It was very quick." However brief, in those moments Fiona was able to tell him how much she loved him. "I hope he understood what I was saying. I held his hand. I wanted him to know that I loved him so much."

"I held his hand and tried to help him to die in peace and dignity," she continues. "It was all so fast. It was like being in a movie, actually. Hovering above it and thinking: 'This cannot be my life.' "

Fiona says she has been trying to find the meaning of the new reality facing herself and her children - Luca (17) and Mila (15) - "and how do we all move forward in a positive way."

And how does she?

"At the moment, I don't know. I'm only recently widowed. I don't even know what's ahead of me; what the years will bring. Nobody does. All I can say to rationalise it in a way is that it was Uwe's time to be here and it was time to go. I have to let go of that and understand that we are all here for a short time or a long time - or just for a time. What's important, in some small way, is the impact that we make on other people's lives."

The songs of Beck, Villagers and Radiohead are playing on the CD in the other room. Fiona says music was a massive part of Uwe's life. Uwe's imprint is in every room in the house, even in the most practical ways. She says the kitchen was designed around a 6ft 5in man. Now when she reaches up to get the coffee cups on the top shelf it's a veritable ballet to get some caffeine: Swan Lake in Drumcondra. "Uwe! I never thought I would be jumping up to get these coffee cups on my own," she says, pouring coffee.

It makes her laugh and smile and cry all at the same time because, she says, he was so passionate about life and living a really fulfilled life. "He is in the house. I feel him around. I talk to him constantly. In the bedroom, I haven't had the heart to touch his clothes yet."

Fiona has taken a conscious decision to be in the house and not go away for Christmas. "When I was young I lost my father," she says referring to her dad Brian. "My mother was a young widow. Not unlike me. Well - youngish!" she laughs through tears in her eyes.

"It's quite ironic that history is repeating itself: mother and daughter being widowed young. But when my father died, in September, my mother decided to go away for Christmas. That was perfect for us as a family at the time. But for me, what is perfect for me is that we regroup as a family and we celebrate his life in the house."

She and Uwe were always been big on ceremonies and occasions. "We would always celebrate Christmas royally in the house with family and friends over. Uwe would do the food. He would take over the entire kitchen with his mess. There was always a calamity. Last year he forgot to serve the stuffing. We were sitting down. My mother had gone and made the stuffing and have gone to great pomp and ceremony to create this stuffing for us.

"She gives it to Uwe," Fiona recalls. "And Uwe forgets. We had all eaten our lunch and mum goes, 'Uwe - where is the stuffing?' The stuffing was still in the bird! So there has always been a calamity. It has always been fun. This house was built to entertain and have people living in it and loving it and enjoying it. So my children are really keen that we spend Christmas at home."

Christmas at the House of Gratzer will be a busy one. On Christmas Day, she has 12 coming for lunch: her mother, her sister and her children, Joe Wall and Celine and their kids. (Musician Joe and his brother Steve Wall "created a beautiful musical send-off for Uwe at the funeral. I am so grateful to everyone," says Fiona, who is managing director of UNISLIM - the company Fiona's mother Agnes started in 1972 - adding that her work colleagues have "been unwavering in their support.") She says that she wants to make this a special Christmas for Luca and Mila.

When Fiona, who's 48, looks at her own children now does it put her back to when she lost her dad?

"I do. I do. It's extraordinary. I feel - though I know everybody grieves in a very different way - that I know how to let them have the space to breathe because it is very similar circumstances for me. Though there was a shock, and tragedy beyond belief that he was here one second, had his breakfast and walked out the door and didn't come home. The shock of that is profound. I feel that my children need to have a space to come to terms with it without me forcing anything.

"I'm letting them feel that they can share their grief with me and talk about Uwe. We talk about Uwe a lot. We talk about the good and the bad. There has to be a balanced approach to it. So it is not looking back with rose-tinted glasses. Every relationship, and every family relationship has complexities.

"We are 24 years married. So: look back with the fondest memories, look at the great love that we had together, the energy, the friends we've created, the beautiful children that we have," she says.

Fiona says that the wake was cathartic for everybody. "Some people weren't sure how they would react to seeing him laid out in the house. But Uwe's presence in our house gave everybody - including me - enormous strength," she says, adding that it felt that Uwe was giving them all hope; "just the right ingredients to see us through the days and the months ahead. He looked at peace. We felt empowered by his presence. I was so different with him in the house.

"It was like he was home. It felt beautiful to have him around. I think a wake can be such a powerful thing to do for people. There were hundreds of people in the house that day," she continues. "I was so tired. But I really wanted to live every moment of those days. We had fun as well. We laughed about occasions. We celebrated his life as well." Uwe was an optician in Austria who then turned to importing designer shades for a number of years in Ireland. When Uwe died, he worked in IBM. He was "leaving IBM for a month's holiday the day he was buried", says Fiona.

What kind of man was he?

"He had a big smile. He was always joking around. He looked like a movie star. He was such a handsome, gorgeous 6 foot 5 Austrian.

"Uwe had a super personality. He had a way of connecting with people that I've never seen before. He just managed to create friends of any background. I didn't know he had all of these friends," she says referring to the wake. "He was only in Ireland 25 years and he connected with hundreds of people."

The way Uwe from Graz connected with Fiona from Newry was they met in Langkawi in January 1991. Though when she left the Malaysian island she didn't think she would ever see the charismatic Austrian ever again. Destiny, however, had other ideas. "I had told him that I was going to stay in my cousin's house in Sydney, Australia. His name was Paul Quinn. So I told him that and I went about my travels." It was weeks later when Fiona was in her cousin's house in Sydney and the phone rang and she answered it. Fiona puts on an Austrian accent - 'Hello, I'm looking for a girl called Fiona McCourt.'

Breathless Irish accent: 'Oh, this is Fiona!'

Uwe: 'I've rung every bloody Quinn in Australia.' Uwe told her that he missed her so much that he wanted to come to see her in Australia. Two weeks later he arrived Down Under. They were, she recounts, so in love that they went to British Airways and begged the girl behind the desk to change his ticket to let him stay for one more week? 'Because we are so in love!' The woman smiled and changed it.

Eventually, he went back to Austria and Fiona resumed her trip around the world. They kept in touch by making phone calls from phone boxes. They wrote letters. When Uwe passed away, Fiona opened his briefcase "for the first time in their 24 year marriage" and saw that Uwe, who was 51 when he died, had kept all their love letters.

"They were really quite sweet," she says of the man who proposed to her by a lake in Austria in October 1990; they were married in May, 1992 in Rathsallagh House in Wicklow.

She says by her nature she is a positive person - and "usually I deal quite well with the hand of Fate."

Because of her father's passing when she was in her teens? "I think so. Losing your father is terrible." Her father Brian died in 1985, aged 48, of cancer. Fiona was 18. Fiona's son Luca will be 18 in January. "Luca and Uwe were so close. They were a little power house together," she says.

A week later, I speak to Fiona again, with her first Christmas without Uwe upon us.

She talks about how numbness and shock has been replaced with "cruel reality".

She talks about how they were married in Crosschapel Blessington and how "ironically Uwe passed the church just minutes before the accident. As the stars aligned which brought us together in Langkawi, fate also played a role in that tragic day. He died close to where we were married."

She takes a pause. "Uwe taught me a lot about the beauty around us. I will always focus on the good days and our children. I just wish he was here to relive it all."

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