In an exclusive, wide-ranging interview, the former South African ambassador opens up to Liadan Hynes about her life since Gerry’s death and why she made a pilgrimage to Ireland to say a last goodbye to the man she still loves, 13 years after his death
Melanie Verwoerd was in hospital for a routine gynaecological check-up in the summer of 2021 when her doctor suddenly went silent. Looking intently at the ultrasound screen, her voice grew serious as she asked: “Oh, what do we have here?”
The doctor turned to Melanie and told her she’d need to go for a blood test immediately. What had started out as a routine medical appointment had suddenly taken a dark turn. The doctor had seen something on the ovarian ultrasound that warranted further investigation. Her fear, she told Melanie frankly, was that it was cancer.
“And then it felt like I was on this runaway train that just kept speeding up faster and faster from that moment, and I had no control over anything,” Melanie says now.
That runaway train would end up leading Melanie to a dark place: radical, life-changing surgery, and a post-operative period of profound reckoning.
Not just with the medical establishment, the patriarchy, and her own mortality, but with her past, and her lingering grief for the man she still describes as the love of her life, the broadcaster Gerry Ryan, who died of a heart attack 13 years ago this April.
We are speaking over Zoom ahead of the publication of her candid new memoir, wryly titled Never Waste a Good Hysterectomy. The 55-year-old political analyst and one-time politician is at her home in Cape Town in South Africa, where she has lived for the past decade.
She returned to her home country three years after Gerry died, after a 12-year spell in Ireland, first as South Africa’s ambassador, and subsequently as the head of Unicef Ireland.
The health scare that led to the hysterectomy took Melanie by surprise. She had always taken good care of herself, eating well and getting regular check-ups.
And she had not felt unwell, apart from a sensation of pressure on one side of her back which her doctors had put down to menopause.
“Everything gets put down to menopause,” she rolls her eyes.
Further tests after that first blood test confirmed there was indeed a growth on her ovary. Doctors warned her there was a 70pc likelihood it was cancerous, but Melanie was shocked to learn that removing her organs was the only way to know for sure.
Faced with little choice, she reluctantly agreed to the surgery. And so a radical hysterectomy – the removal of her cervix, ovaries and uterus – was scheduled for two weeks after that first doctor’s visit.
The tumour turned out to be benign. It was, Melanie says, a huge relief, but she was also left with many questions. Why was it that medical science hadn’t found a way to test for cancer without the need for such extensive surgery? Why was research into female cancers lagging behind?
“When I went and researched it I couldn’t understand, for example, how is it that we can do the most intricate brain surgery, but we have no way to figure out whether an ovarian tumour is cancerous, except by doing a hysterectomy. Prostate cancer, you can find it out via blood test.
“As I suspected, it had to do with the money allocated to the research, particularly of ovarian cancers. All the stuff that affects older women, the amount of money that goes into it is negligent. I just started feeling really angry about that.”
Even the pain relief offered in the wake of the operation felt insubstantial. One doctor joked she had been lucky to get a generous prescription for painkillers when Melanie felt she needed far more. It made her feel ashamed, she says.
“I think the operation gets minimised, this is a very big reason why I wrote the book,” Melanie explains. “Especially when you’ve gone through menopause.”
The attitude seemed to be that she didn’t need those organs any more. “You don’t need them, so what’s your problem?”
But the pain of the surgery, the long recovery time and the sense of loss she felt in its aftermath took a deep psychological toll, as it does for many women. She was hit by a wave of grief for what she felt was her lost femininity.
“What is it that makes us different from men, right? It is ultimately the effect that the uterus, the ovaries, have on us, our bodies,” she says.
The shock of the entire experience kicked off an emotional journey that would bring up past griefs. On a trip to the vet with her dog eight weeks after the operation, he asked her how she was coping.
“This man who does hysterectomies on cats and dogs every day of his life, turns to me and says, ‘After what you’ve gone through there must be enormous emotional trauma as well’. And just by validating that, the floodgates opened. I knew that night as I lay in bed, I’m deeply traumatised about everything that happened.”
It was the start of a personal journey of self-discovery, one where she had to reckon with every part of her past.
Melanie Fourie was born in 1967 and grew up in a white, middle-class family in the town of Stellenbosch. A self-confessed “good girl” who did well at school, she went on to university where she studied theology. There, at the age of 20, she met and married Wilhelm Verwoerd, the grandson of HF Verwoerd, the former prime minister of South Africa who is widely regarded as the architect of apartheid.
Following a stint studying in Europe, the young couple returned home to South Africa, and to the surprise of friends and family joined Nelson Mandela’s ANC political party. After the births of their son Wian and daughter Wilmé, Melanie entered politics and at the age of 27, became South Africa’s youngest female member of parliament.
Having served two terms in government, she asked Mandela if she could join the diplomatic corps, and she was posted with her family to Ireland in 2001, where she took up a role as ambassador.
It was here in Dublin that she met Gerry Ryan. Later on, following the break-up of Melanie’s marriage, and after Ryan had separated from his own wife Morah Ryan, the pair began a romantic relationship. It was a time of great happiness for Melanie.
A love affair blossomed between the pair, and two blissful years of romance followed, a period Melanie describes as being the happiest of her life. As she writes in her book: “For two glorious years, Gerry and I shared the most extraordinary love. He saw and loved me for who I was, and I felt the same about him. I relaxed physically and emotionally into the warm embrace of our love. Two nights before he died, I wrote in my diary: ‘I am so happy.’ Things are finally coming together in my life.”
Then, on Friday, April 30, 2010, Melanie found Gerry on the floor of his Leeson Street apartment. He had died a few hours earlier. The coroner’s court ruled he died as a result of heart failure likely triggered by cocaine use.
The fallout for Melanie was devastating. She was consumed by what she describes as “a hurricane of trauma and grief”.
In the book, she writes: “To me it was as clear as daylight that Gerry’s big energy couldn’t just have disappeared. How could he just be gone? Where is gone? Even quantum physics tells us that energy never disappears, it only changes form.”
In a bid to make sense of it all, she went, on the advice of a friend, to see the medium Paddy McMahon at his home on the outskirts of Dublin.
“Over the new few hours I had the most extraordinary experience of my life,” she writes. “Paddy channelled Gerry and relayed things that only Gerry and I knew. It blew my mind. When I left, I was exhausted, but felt strangely comforted.
“Over the years I have continued to feel Gerry’s, and my beloved maternal grandmother’s, presence. I don’t particularly care if it is real or imagined – all I know is that it helps me.”
Looking back at that time now, Melanie believes she was suffering from PTSD.
“Serious PTSD has physical symptoms. And I learnt over the years to recognise those. It took me a while after Gerry died to realise that I had PTSD from finding his body, from what happened afterwards, from losing him, the trauma that played out in basically two years.
“I went through a lot of therapy, and grief counselling at the time, because I knew I needed help. And because everything was playing itself off in the media as well, I needed some private, safe space where I could deal with it. I came to understand how physical the symptoms can be when you’ve had a big shock like that.
After her hysterectomy, over a decade later, the PTSD came back. In a moving passage in the book, she recounts how Gerry began to appear in her dreams, as he often did in the year after his death: “In the dream, I was somewhere in Ireland and suddenly saw him among a crowd of people. He spotted me and – as he had done in real life – gave me a beaming smile whilst opening his arms wide.
“Overjoyed, I ran to him and he folded me into his big black coat, the one we had bought in New York together.
“When I woke up from the dream I could smell his scent, feel the sensation of his coat against my face. My body ached for him. I needed him to help me through this – to make everything right again.”
With the return of the dreams came the return of the anxiety that first started after Gerry died. “I recognised that I was feeling the same way,” she tells me. “Anxiety was coming back, the difficulty with sleeping.
“Through the decade of mourning Gerry, I felt that I had built up some skills, and I knew there were only a few things you can really do in that state.
“One is recognising that you are going through it, secondly talking through it. Or in my case I write. I did that after Gerry’s death as well. It’s a form of therapy for me, and a way of trying to make sense of everything that happened.”
Five months on from her operation, Melanie hit a wall. Issues from her past began to resurface. And not just Gerry’s death, but her lingering pain over her relationship with her late father, Bennie, an alcoholic who was largely absent from her life. Her normal routine, and work as an analyst, didn’t feel right any more.
“I just felt different,” she says. “My clothes didn’t feel like me anymore, I wasn’t inspired by my environment anymore, I was bored with my work.
“It was as if there was something really big going on in me, and on the outside I was trying to pretend I was just back to where I was before. Minus the organs, but you know, I’m fine.”
A friend asked if she could do whatever she wanted, what would it be? Melanie knew the answer at once.
“I immediately knew I had to travel a little bit. I needed to just get out, time to think, to start addressing these issues which kept on plugging into my subconscious.
“It’s not that I hadn’t dealt with my dad’s death [in 1992]. I had put in work around Gerry’s death, I’m a very conscious sort of person. It was just that they kept coming back, and suddenly it was like, now is the time to confront it.
“A crisis forces you to stop. When you suddenly hit a wall, it’s as if in that moment of stopping, curtains lift again, you’re suddenly confronted with yourself, you have less emotional guards up. Your way of managing things suddenly doesn’t quite work as well, because you don’t have the emotional energy to deal with it.
“And now the things that are bugging you, they come back in your dreams with an urgency. I needed silence, I needed retreat.”
She decided to take two months off, even though the financial implications of stepping back from her work commitments as a political analyst was terrifying for her.
“It was super scary,” she says. “Maybe when I joined the ANC years back is the closest analogy. It was super scary to do at the time, because I knew there would be death threats and everything, but I also knew I had no choice. And I kind of knew this time again, I had no choice. I needed to just pull back.”
In March of last year, Melanie set off on a two-month journey. First she went to Kimberley, the city where her father had lived. And then she travelled to Ireland, visiting old friends and trying to confront the pain of her past. She sat on the bench she erected in Gerry’s memory in Herbert Park, a place they loved, sharing memories with a friend.
And she made a pilgrimage to Gerry’s grave, a place she had never felt much connection to previously (the inscription on the grave was from Gerry’s wife Morah; and the graveside brought back memories of his funeral, when she had stood back as Gerry’s family and friends said goodbye). But this time she was looking for a sense of release.
“I knew I had to say goodbye,” she writes in the book. “Not to him or our love, but to the pain I now wanted to be free from. I walked slowly to the familiar grave site right at the entrance of the cemetery and sat down on the side of Gerry’s gravestone.
“With my tears flowing freely, I told Gerry that I needed to be free, that I would forever love him and hope that we reconnect one day in another form.
“Still, for now I had to live in this world and couldn’t do that if I was still so sad about losing him. I asked to be released from all that was holding me back.”
Revisiting the past in such a visceral way required a lot of strength, she tells me now.
“It was scary,” she says. “It’s opening old wounds that I had buried very carefully. All the old wounds that we park somewhere in our psyche, we find a way of negotiating the world around them. I had to go back into it, open that door, look at it and go, ‘OK, jump out, let’s have the conversation now.’”
The pain is still evident, though. Melanie’s face freezes when she begins to talk about Gerry, “I might cry,” she warns. “Gerry will forever be the love of my life. And not a day goes past without me thinking about him, or wishing I could share something with him still.
“I feel incredibly privileged to have felt that level of love,” she says. “And happiness. I think a lot of people never get to experience that, so for as brief as it was, I’m very thankful for that.”
In the aftermath of Gerry’s death, she felt her pain, and her very existence, were denied. She was either the ‘other woman’, or simply not in the picture at all.
The wake took place at Gerry’s former family home in Clontarf, at the home of Morah and their five children, and Melanie felt sidelined in some of the important rituals of saying goodbye to him. But looking back on that time now, she says she can understand why that happened.
“That was the difficulty of the situation we were in at that time,” she says now. “One of the difficulties – and maybe things have changed or moved on a lot in Ireland – was the sort of difficulty that people still had with separations and divorces.
“And then of course it was just such a shock on so many levels. Such a big media drama. I know that, and that all played a role, and so I don’t hold it against anybody, but it was difficult. Because first of all rituals are important, and when there is difficulty in being included in the rituals, that’s very hard.
“And secondly, the world just stopped turning for me when I realised he was dead. Or it started spinning out of control, I never know which one was more apt.
“And then to suddenly have to deal with mourning in the public eye, but at the same time also being denied as the person who he shared his life with at that stage.
“I mean I never, obviously, can deny there was another family. And of course I was also divorced. It became difficult. The media attention, and then losing my job in Unicef, because of all the media attention around his death [she settled a claim for unfair dismissal with Unicef in 2013].
“All of that was really hard for me. At that stage I’d lived in Ireland longer as an adult than I had in South Africa as an adult. People knew me from politics way back, and that was a relief. But at the same time I had to totally reinvent myself. I had two children to take care of.
“Dealing with that shock still, and then on the other hand trying to reinvent myself in a career here. And of course being on my own. I’m still single. It was hard.”
She has not been in a serious relationship since Gerry.
For all the difficulties of the past few years, the picture that emerges in the book is of a woman embarking on a new chapter in her life. Her family are very important to her – Wian lives here in Ireland, and Wilmé lives near Melanie in Cape Town. She has become a grandmother for the first time. Life is changing and moving on again, and Melanie is ready for it.
“I think I needed to let go of the pain,” she says. “I was worried that if I let go of it too much, then I would be being disloyal to Gerry. That I would forget him. But I realise now I will never forget him. The pain can go, and I can hold on to the beauty of our relationship. And that’s OK.”
She realises now that the grief won’t go away, but it becomes easier. “If I recognise what is happening with me in that moment, then it becomes a bit easier.”
She began writing in her recovery bed, barely able to move or to come to terms with what happened to her, but also to push back at the silencing of older women.
“I struggle with that, that there’s less space for us in society. As women, as you become older, you become more invisible. I think that was a big part of that journey for me – saying my voice will still be heard, I will not be denied.”
‘Never Waste a Good Hysterectomy’ by Melanie Verwoerd, published by Dalzell Press, is out now priced at €13.50 paperback, €6.99 e-book.