'Our lives ended the day our son Sean was diagnosed with cancer' - RTE's Una O'Hagan and Colm Keane on their son's death
RTE newscaster Una O'Hagan and writer Colm Keane remain positive in the face of adversity and loss
'Sean was the apple of our eye, and I always thought there could never be anybody better than him," is how Colm Keane tenderly describes his beloved son who passed away in 2007. "He was a beautiful child, extremely affectionate and really nice, and I know everyone says that about their children but he truly was. He was extremely bright too and was always top of his year."
Sean Keane was born in November 1987 to his parents, RTÉ newcaster Una O'Hagan and writer Colm Keane. He left this world a mere 20 years and one month later, having being diagnosed with cancer just over two-and-a-half years earlier. Sean passed away on Christmas Day, which had always been a special day that the family loved spending together.
The day before, when they knew their son's death was imminent, Colm and Una had to go off to a little coffee shop nearby to discuss arrangements. It was a surreal situation because everyone around them was celebrating and clutching bags of Christmas presents and shopping, They sat there in agony with their hearts breaking in two, while trying to plan their only child's funeral.
Fast-forward to Christmas Eve two years later, and Colm and Una were waiting to get the DART to Bray at Pearse Street Station. The 'Santa Special' train pulled in, and the sight of the children on board wearing little red hats seared through their already devastated hearts. "I was gone, Una was gone and that was one of the worst moments of my life actually," says Colm. "We decided we were never going to get caught like that at Christmas again, so we have gone away a lot at that time since then."
Colm and Una are two warm and kind people who have been through every parent's worst nightmare. Gracious and compassionate, they have come through devastating things that would have floored most people. They first met in the autumn of 1986 in the RTE canteen when Colm, then 34, was filling in on Morning Ireland.
Una, then 23, thought he looked interesting, but they were with a gang of colleagues and didn't speak to one another. Colm was attracted to her, however, and when he next spotted her around Montrose, he asked her to go for a drink in Doheny and Nesbitt. "I thought Una was very good-looking and she had a very nice personality," he says. "I felt I could get on with her. When I arrived at the pub, she was sitting there reading a book."
Una was impressed by Colm because he was very good-looking, a great talker and had a wide range of interests. They went for a Chinese meal after that, and their fledgling relationship almost got derailed when Colm tasted a food dip, assured Una that it wasn't hot and encouraged her to sample it. "It blew my head off, and there were tears, coughing and everything," laughs Una. "He thought it was hilarious and I don't know how I forgave him!"
Una and Colm were an item from then on, but kept it quiet at work initially, which was probably wise. Sean was born a year after they got together in November 1987, and they were married five years later in Scotland. "Having a baby first wasn't the done thing at that time, but everyone was very good about it," recalls Una.
Colm and Una moved in together and became a tight-knit little family with their baby. "Sean became everything to us, and he was the love of our lives," says Colm. "We still worked away but all of our focus was on him. We became like the three musketeers or a terrible threesome."
The family settled in Bray, ending up in a beautiful house overlooking the seafront on the edge of Bray Head. While Colm and Una hadn't planned to have only one child, that was the way it happened. Sean was a real mixture of them both in personality. And while Una says that he had his dad's determination and focus, Colm feels that his son's drive was tempered by his mum's softness. He was happy going to matches and doing things with his dad, but when he was tired, he would curl up on the sofa leaning in to Una.
"He was an amazing kid," he says. "There was something special about him, and he was extraordinarily bright but extraordinarily humble about the brightness. I remember him telling us a story about another kid getting bullied, so he went over and tackled the bullies."
Sean was fit and healthy and excellent at sports, won gold medals for debating, and was very considerate and thoughtful around other people. He loved his time at Blackrock College, and it was expected that he would achieve an excellent Leaving Cert. Sadly, when he was in fifth year, his world, and that of his parents, came tumbling down.
Sean came home from school one day with a pain below his right knee, and as there was a bit of a cut there, it was initially put down to a football injury. When it persisted, Colm took him to the doctor and then for an x-ray at St. Vincent's hospital, where something odd was spotted. Sean was referred to an orthopaedic surgeon, who diagnosed a tumour. It was believed that it was a very localised cancer and could be taken out, and the news that it seemed to be manageable consoled his worried parents.
Days later, on Holy Thursday 2005, Sean went for a full body scan at the Mater, and when it was over the consultant called Colm and Una in. To their utter devastation, they were informed that Sean had an aggressive cancer called osteosarcoma of the bone, and it had spread to his lungs and he was going to die. "Our lives ended that day, because we have never been the same since that moment," says Colm. "Sean was called in and was effectively told the same thing. There were only two seats so I was leaning against the door for support, and I looked down at Sean, who was only 17 but an incredibly mature and sensible young man. He looked serene, but he was digging his nails into the palms of his hands under the table."
Colm recalls coming home that first dreadful evening, and sitting on the sofa in despair through the night, sleeping and waking and being hit with the news all over again each time he woke. The one thing he knew for certain was that the three of them were in it together, and would fight what was ahead together.
"It was dreadful, beyond comprehension, but the human brain is an amazing thing," says Una. "Even though we'd had the worst possible news, we wanted to ensure that Sean made it through what was to come. His friends were terrific, and they were really good to him so he was lucky. His school was great too, and they did everything they possibly could, and understood when he couldn't come in or when he got tired."
As the illness took hold, Sean, previously a strong six-foot-one teenager, lost a huge amount of weight. In his final days, as he was entering into a coma, he asked for a pen and made a will. Sean had three bank accounts, and he donated the money in one to cancer research, the other to a young boy from a disadvantaged background that he mentored, and the third, which contained €35, was for his parents to buy a dog.
"He wanted us to get a dog as he knew we would be lonely," says Colm. "It was heartbreaking reading his note a few days later. He had written that he was going to a better place as he truly believed that. He thanked me for all the cowboys and Indians that I played with him as a child. We had 17 golden years before Sean became ill, and everyone knew that and would talk about it how close we were. He battled really hard, and was only concerned about us, and he was unbelievable right until the end. He was terribly worried about Una and would talk to me occasionally about how Mum was bearing up and things she might be worried about."
Colm says that Una was brilliant through that time, as he went to pieces and she was the strong one who slept on the floor beside Sean. The whole experience brought them closer, they say, because while it was the worst experience of their lives, it was also profoundly meaningful.
"I said it to Una the week after Sean died that we had been through something very special," says Colm. "Not in the sense of being brilliant or anything like that, but in terms of the emotions we felt and the depths to which we had gone. There aren't many people who would have either gone through something like that or come out the other end of it."
Colm and Una say that they got through the raw pain of losing their beloved boy one day at a time, although life will never be the same again. Una took two weeks off after Sean's funeral, and then went back to work, where all of her colleagues were kind and supportive.
Now 53, Una grew up in Glasnevin and was the youngest of Vincent and Mary O'Hagan's five children. She has been working in RTE for 34 years, beginning a year after she graduated from the journalism course in Rathmines. She began working in news at what is now 2fm, and became a newscaster 15 years ago.
Colm, now 64, is from Youghal in Cork, and he is also the youngest of five. His dad Edmond was an economics lecturer in UCC and he met his wife Maura when she was a student there. They eloped and Colm's mum left college, which caused some controversy. "It was a huge scandal that my mum was his student, and it really did follow my family," says Colm. "My dad died of a heart attack when I was 11 and he was 57, and my mum decided to go back to college in England. I went to boarding school in Dungarvan and would spend my holidays in England. My mum ended up teaching disadvantaged children and she loved it."
Colm went to Trinity College to study economics followed by a master's in economics, and then went to Georgetown University in Washington to do another master's. He wrote his first article about the US Congress for the Irish Times, and came home for a holiday while studying for his PhD in 1976. He met Dick Hill who was assistant controller at RTE at a party, and he offered him a job. Colm worked on crime programmes for a long time, presented Public Account with Pat Kenny and then moved to radio. He was delighted to leave economics and academia behind, because his interest lay with human interest stories. He also did about 150 music documentaries, and began writing books in 1990.
Colm decided to leave RTE in 2003 to focus on writing, and has written one book a year since then. He and Una have kept themselves busy with work since Sean passed away and they have also done a lot of travelling. They decided to leave their house in Bray two years ago and moved to Ring in Waterford. They chose Ring as Sean went to Irish college there and they had been talking about getting a holiday home in the area. Their son actually told them that he saw a great site while he was there, and that is where their house is now. They also have an apartment in Dublin for when they're there.
Two days after they moved to Ring, Colm and Una's neighbours' dog Frankie arrived at their gate. While their busy lives didn't allow for the dog Sean had wanted them to get, they were delighted to meet Frankie. His owners adored him but were getting a bit older and were unable to walk him, so he had become a little overweight. Frankie decided to bring Colm and Una out on walks to the shop, beach and other places, and they greatly enjoyed the little adventures. It inspired them to collaborate on a new book called Animal Crackers, which features funny stories about pets. It's a great read, funny, fascinating and even poignant in places, and animal-lovers everywhere will adore it.
In what seems to be a particularly cruel twist of fate, Colm was diagnosed with cancer of the throat three-and-a-half years ago. He first realised that something was wrong when he was being interviewed on radio and felt like he had a piece of food lodged at the back of his throat. The feeling didn't go away so he went to a consultant, who did a biopsy. Colm had stage four twin cell carcinoma, and was given a one in five or twenty per cent chance of surviving it. He has had chemotherapy, radiation and two surgeries on his neck, including the removal of part of his jaw and half of his epiglottis, which helps you to breathe and eat.
"It was very bad but so far so good, you can't keep a good thing down," he jokes. "I don't think about it, because after what Sean went through, it's small fry, and there is always the chance of being the one in five. If I I was being pushed over the edge of a cliff, nothing will be as bad as losing Sean, so I never think about my cancer. I get out of bed and get on with life, and I have to say that Una has been brilliant."
Colm and Una say that black humour helps them to get through things, although Una admits to wondering how lightning could strike twice? She says while they can never be happy again, they remain positive and open, because nobody knows what's around the corner so why anticipate the worst? "We have gone through disaster and know we can come out of the other side," she says. "We were blessed to have Sean, so we believe in celebrating that. We do what we want to do, especially since Colm was diagnosed."
While Colm and Una are trying to make the most out of life and are filling it with things they enjoy, they say that their gorgeous boy and his golden presence will always remain with them. He may no longer be with them but they think about him all of the time and relate everything to him, so he remains very much alive in their hearts and minds. "Sean is still our life and the pain is always there but you do get on with things," says Colm. "We have deliberately tried to do that, and we've succeeded, I think."
Animal Crackers: Irish Pet Stories by Colm Keane and Una O'Hagan is out now. (Capel Island Press, €14.99)
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