Saturday 18 November 2017

A tale of two women, a friendship found by chance then snatched away by breast cancer

Mary Mitchell O'Connor wipes away the tears as she tells Barry Egan of coming to terms with her loss

A GAP THAT CAN'T BE FILLED: Fine Gael TD Mary Mitchell O'Connor
A GAP THAT CAN'T BE FILLED: Fine Gael TD Mary Mitchell O'Connor
Mary Mitchell O'Connor's friend Mary O'Connor who died from cancer

THE letter is open on the mantlepiece of Mary Mitchell O'Connor's home in Cabinteely, Dublin. Late every night when the Fine Gael TD gets home from work, she sees it there.

Its contents weigh on her mind. Mary dreads the appointment next Thursday in Vincent's hospital for a breast check. It is not so much the appointment as the anxious wait for the results.

She watched her best friend Mary O'Connor die of breast cancer earlier this year. It is not difficult to see why the subject would prey on her mind.

Yesterday morning, the blonde politician, whom some talk of as a future Taoiseach, was in floods of tears as she recounted the last conversation she had with her friend before she died.

"I met her in the hospital when she was very ill," Mary says – her eyes are red raw, her face wet with tears.

"She was very ill. . . I said goodbye to her."

There are long pauses between sentences punctuated by bouts of crying.

"I was there with her husband and kids. I told her she was a great friend. . . You know. . . I told her she was a great help to me in politics.

"Obviously, I told her that I would not look after . . . but look out for her kids."

She breaks down continually for the next hour and a half as she remembers her late friend, Mary O'Connor, from Cork, who died on March 11. She was only 50.

The friends met for the first time in late November 2007, when Mitchell O'Connor was principal in the Harold National school in Glasthule, Dublin, and also a councillor in Dun Laoghaire at the time.

She was standing at the bus stop outside Dail Eireann, waiting for the 145, when Mary O'Connor was passing in a car with her husband Dennis and teenage daughter Ellen (they also have a younger child, Catherine). She rolled down the window and said to Mitchell O'Connor that she recognised her as a councillor and offered her a lift home on that cold winter's night.

That was the beginning of a friendship that was to last for the remainder of Mary O'Connor's relatively short life. The memory of the friendship will remain with Mary Mitchell O'Connor for as long as she lives too.

"I piled into the back of the car that night and we became great friends forever more after that. We talked about politics, family, the usual," Mary recalls.

"She lived in Glenageary and she went out of their way to bring me home. We just connected. She was a Fine Gael supporter."

They exchanged phone numbers. Not along after, their friendship developed into a pattern: Wine 64 in Glasthule and different coffee shops in Monkstown.

"She had a great political sense and became very involved in my election campaign in 2011. She provided me with great advice and guidance and was even there to celebrate with me the night I was nominated," Mitchell O'Connor says of December 16, 2010, adding that her friend and her two children were also with her on the day – February 26, 2011 – when she was elected to the Dail.

"She was very proud of me. She felt that I was something that she had delivered. She was one woman I could ring and she would tell me exactly what she thought, straight," Mary remembers.

"Often I went down to their house at 10, 11 o'clock at night for advice. It was a very warm home and her kitchen table was the focus point. We would sit around the table, laugh and cry.

"She was great help. . . protective of me. Say, when things happened, like the plinth," Mary says – referring to the time in 2010 when she drove her campaign car across the pedestrian plinth in the Dail car park and down the steps by accident – "or some of the episodes that happened; I could ring her. Granted, we could have a laugh over it as well. I think she enjoyed me, because it was like, 'What next?!'" Mary smiles.

Mitchell O'Connor believes her late friend "was the unlucky one. She had had the breast check a year earlier than she should have. There was some mix-up with her date of birth.

"So she got in there a year earlier. It was just, whatever it was," Mary says about why her dear friend should have died of cancer at all.

"I don't know. Obviously, I was very upset – and so was she – when she became sick," Mitchell O'Connor says, adding that her friend told her after she had the breast check results in March 2012.

She rang Mitchell O'Connor to meet up for a coffee, as usual, in Wine 64 in Glasthule. At that coffee, however, she told Mitchell O'Connor that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

"I was upset for her. But at the same time, she had an extremely positive attitude. Again, many people survive cancer. Mary was the unlucky one. She was unlucky."

Also unlucky, if that be the word, was Mary Mitchell O'Connor's younger sister Pat, who died six years ago of colon cancer, aged 45.

"Every family gets their tragedy. We were going along great until six years ago," she says.

"Cancer touches so many families. I think research is so important. When cancer hits a family it changes the whole dynamic in a family," she says, before returning to her late friend.

"Mary embraced her illness with such positivity. She hardly mentioned it again. She was so positive when she was going through the treatment."

The inevitable consequence of the treatment for cancer meant that the two Marys didn't meet up for coffee as much as they once had.

"She wasn't feeling well. Mary only wanted to come out when she was in the best of humour and when she was optimistic. She wouldn't come out because she was obviously going through chemo and infection control and all that, but I used to ring her very regularly."

Something of a Wonderwoman of the dancefloor, Mary Mitchell O'Connor was dancing a tango with Brendan O'Connor live on RTE's Saturday Night Show last night.

It was to raise awareness of a dance for cancer that Mary is doing with Professor Arnie Hill, leading breast cancer surgeon at Beaumont Hospital: 'Strictly Against Breast Cancer' at the Convention Centre in Dublin on December 7.

"It's going to be an incredible night for a great cause," Mary says, adding that also dancing on the night will be many women who have suffered from or who are suffering from breast cancer, "like Catherine McCutcheon, Emma Hannigan and Anne Eble. They are the real heroes."

There will be close to 1,000 guests on the night – "there are still a few tables left" – all of whom will have paid €120 towards cancer research.

Mary says with a laugh that prior to dancing last night with Brendan a friend advised her, jokingly, not to dance like "you know who". "Who?" said Mary. "Miss Piggy!" the friend said, meaning the infamous incident when Mick Wallace referred to her, hurtfully, in the Dail in 2010 as the vibrant, voluptuous, peroxide star of The Muppet Show.

"The most important thing," Mitchell O'Connor adds, "is that although breast cancer affects one in 10 women in Ireland, the statistics show that our survival rates are increasing, through screening.

"There are 2,400 new cases each year, with approximately 650 deaths. That's a survival rate of approximately 75 per cent," she says, adding that breast cancer awareness is "all about saving lives. The earlier it is detected, the much more positive the treatment outcome."

"I'll tell you why I'm doing Strictly Against Breast Cancer," Mary says, getting up to leave, and wiping the tears from her eyes. "It is to celebrate her life. I think this is what she'd want.

"And I know if it was the other way round, this is what I'd want; to help others."

Sunday Independent

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