'My husband died at just 34, and my three children are honouring him by helping others'
Joanne Fitzgerald tells Andrea Smith about losing her husband David five months ago.
When we say "I do," most of us imagine growing old with our partner, in the company of children and grandchildren.
The thought of losing them is unfathomable, but for Joanne Fitzgerald, 31, life changed instantly when her husband, David, 34, was killed in a car accident in March near their home in Ballyfin, Co Laois.
When Joanne met David at the Midland Regional Hospital in Portlaoise, she knew that he was the man for her. She was working as a healthcare assistant, and he was a paramedic with the Irish National Ambulance Service.
"We were working nights, and just started talking, and that was it," she recalls. "David had these big blue eyes, and I had seen him around the hospital and really fancied him. We started dating and I liked that he was really outgoing and straight. He was so kind and such a gentleman, and was fantastic at his job."
David proposed to Joanne at the top of Howth Head one Christmas Eve. They were married on September 1, 2006, so yesterday would have been their eighth wedding anniversary.
After they were married, they had three children - Emma, 6, Luke, 3 and baby Mia, seven months.
"David adapted to fatherhood so well," says Joanne. "If I got up to do a night feed, he would tell me to relax and he would do it - he was so caring in that way. He was always making pancakes with the kids in the morning - that was their thing."
Baby Mia was just seven weeks old when her dad was killed on March 13. Her heartbroken mum remembers how happy they both were the previous evening.
"We were laughing and joking because David wouldn't go to bed, and I knew he would wake me up snoring," she says. "He would sleep through a tornado. I went down to feed Mia during the night, and when I came back, David was fast asleep. His alarm went off at a quarter past five, and he got up and went to shower downstairs. I can still see him walking out of the room so clearly, and that was the last time I saw him alive."
While he was from Swords in Dublin, David had moved to Laois to take a permanent job in the field he loved. He worked with the Irish National Ambulance Service for 13 years, and having completed a master's degree at the Royal College of Surgeons, had become a paramedic supervisor in Portlaoise.
Although he wasn't due in to work until 7am, David left the house early because the fog the previous morning had been bad. It was even worse that morning and, tragically, David's jeep skidded on a patch of black ice less than a mile from home, and he died when he crashed into a cement pillar.
Back at home, Joanne had gone back to sleep and woke at 7am to feed the baby.
"Then the doorbell rang and I saw two gardai outside, and for that split second before I opened the door, I thought, 'Please tell me he's alive,'" she says.
"Then I saw David's colleague, Bernard Bracken, and when he looked at me, I just knew. I remember being on the floor, saying: 'He can't be dead, the baby is only seven weeks old' - as if that made any difference. I can't even tell you what the guards looked like, I was just focused on Bernard and am so grateful to him. It must have been so hard and he didn't have to do that - it's not part of his job. He and some of David's colleagues attended the scene of the accident, which must have been very traumatic for them."
Joanne then had to phone David's parents, Maureen and Des, to give them and his siblings, Alan, John, Claire and Mary, the devastating news. It was an unimaginable blow to them, and to Joanne's parents, Ann and Joe Lanham, from Mountrath, Co Laois, and her three siblings.
Telling their small children was also unimaginably hard.
"Emma, then five, stopped me on the stairs before I went to the hospital, and said, 'Mammy, what's wrong with Daddy?'" says Joanne.
She is so bright for her age, so I said to her that Daddy had an accident on the way to work and had gone to live with Holy God. I couldn't lie to her, because I would have had to go back and tell her the truth. I thought she understood, but that evening, she asked me if her daddy's leg was broken? We brought David home to the house that evening, and Luke, who was only two, kept begging me to 'get Daddy up'."
The next few days passed in a blur of organising the funeral and burial plot, and even the worry of having to pay for it all. After all, when you're only in your early thirties, who thinks of putting money aside for a funeral? David's colleagues, who were all devastated, have set up a fund-raising group to help, and they also provided a guard of honour at the ceremony.
Less than six months later, Joanne admits that life has been extremely hard. Occasions like Emma and Luke's birthdays, Father's Day, and their wedding anniversary have come and gone, and all have been sad and difficult.
For David's 35th birthday, they decided to mark the occasion by taking part in the Mary's Meals Backpack Project, so that poor children in Malawi would benefit in David's name (see link below).
"He would have loved it, as David was the most generous person you could ever meet," says Joanne. "David touched so many lives, and I found that out through all of the letters and cards I have been sent. He also built playhouses, and would drive all around the country with the kids delivering them. He was so kind-hearted, and if a parent couldn't afford to give their child one, he would give it away for nothing."
Prior to having Mia, Joanne had been out of work with back problems, and had surgery twice on her hip. As well as dealing with the grief, money is also a worry, she says.
David was always smiling and happy, and it saddens her that he has lost the opportunity to see his children grow up. And they, in turn, are confused without the father who adored them.
"He didn't deserve this," she says. "Your life can change in a flash so I always tell people to stop moaning over silly things. I feel guilty for David that his life is gone. He was so into his kids and money meant nothing to him. Everything he did was just for us. There are times when Luke sits in bed crying, begging me for David, and I keep telling him, 'If I could give him to you, I would.'
"Emma asks lots of questions, and I am so honest with her, because otherwise it will come back to me.
"He always called me 'babe' and I sometimes imagine him saying that, just to take away the pain for a few seconds," she says. "This is my life now, but it's not what we planned, and it wasn't supposed to be like this. I get up every day because I have to for the kids' sake, and as much as I would give anything to be with David, I have to be strong for them. Some mornings, I am physically dizzy with tiredness, but Ieast I have the children. I look at Mia and she has his blue eyes."
Joanne says that what gets her through the lonely days is the hope they will see David again some day, and that he is somehow with them now. She would give anything to be able to touch his face again, and fears she'll forget his voice. I find myself looking over at where he sat and I can't describe the emptiness that is there.
"He was my best friend and the person I told everything to, and we were inseparable. Even if we had a silly row, he could always make me laugh. There is almost a physical pain in my chest now, and I would give up anything to have him back."
David's colleagues have organised a fundraising night for the family with music from The Voice of Ireland winner Brendan McCahey, in the Heritage Hotel in Portlaoise on September 26. Tickets are €5. They have also set up a donation page which can be visited by clicking here.