Shortly after dawn in a quiet suburban estate in Ashford, Co Wicklow, Charlie Bird is woken by the whimpering of his dog, Tiger. The golden cockapoo used to sleep in a basket downstairs, but these days he settles down each night in the master bedroom.
“Some nights are worse than others and I need him,” Charlie says.
Seventy-two now, the retired RTÉ reporter looks fit, tanned, healthy. But he needs a lot of time to get his words out and sometimes it’s hard to understand what he’s trying to say.
“People see me and they think that I’m great. They don’t realise how much it affects me…” he trails off.
By ‘it’, he means motor neurone disease (MND). He was on Murrough Beach last year, accompanied by the ever-present Tiger, when he got the phonecall with the diagnosis. It’s only when he tries to speak that the ravages of his illness become clear.
Often, during our day together, he just can’t get the words out.
He has learned to appreciate “each moment as it comes”. Doctors have told him he may have two years left, but he believes he won’t be alive this time next year.
In the kitchen of their lovely home, where there’s an oil painting of Tiger hanging on the wall, he pours biscuits into the dog’s bowl and then makes his way back upstairs. He needs another couple of hours before he’s ready to face into another day.
He makes his way down the stairs, stepping past another portrait of Tiger. Outside the sun is shining and the pink Cressida roses are in bloom. The only sound comes from a trickle of water in a Buddha statue. His wife Claire pours the tea and he starts on a bowl of porridge, honey and cream.
He used enjoy a slice of brown bread but can no longer risk it: the previous day, a piece lodged in his throat, triggering his second choking incident in three weeks. His tongue has become so swollen that’s it’s getting harder to even swallow his own saliva.
“It’s called bulbar ALS,” he says.
Claire recalls the earlier incident, involving a small piece of pasta when they were holidaying in New York.
“He turned purple,” she says. “It was terrifying. We were screaming for water.”
He is no longer afraid of dying, but he wants to it to be pain-free. “My biggest fear is choking to death,” he says. He finds it hard to contemplate the horror of not being able to breathe, or panicking when fighting to stay alive. Even Tiger seems attuned to this fear — he freezes whenever Charlie coughs.
Mostly he prefers to communicate using a pen and paper. At first, when his speech began to go, he used technology that cloned his voice based on recordings in the RTÉ archive. But now he turns to it only occasionally. It lacks the immediacy of words quickly written on the note pads all around the house. Writing things down is better for his flow of thought, Claire says.
On this bright morning, he allows himself a few moments’ peace in the sunshine, listening to his wife’s laughter, caressing his dog’s ears while feeding him peanut butter.
Sometimes, when he thinks about what he’ll be losing, it all becomes too much. Within a few minutes he’s in tears, while listening to a song he often plays, Land of Hope and Dreams by Bruce Springsteen. “I want this at my funeral,” he tells me.
Grab your ticket and your suitcase
Thunder’s rolling down this track
Well you don’t know where you’re goin’ now
But you know you won’t be back...
This train carries saints and sinners
This train carries losers and winners
This train carries whores and gamblers
This train carries lost souls...
You don’t need no ticket
All you got do is just get on board
“The words are so important,” he writes.
“He wants them all with him on the train.”
The postman arrives with a huge package from New York. He cuts it open and unfurls a giant Irish flag, signed by local children with messages of support: “Stay strong”, “Keep on fighting”, “We are with you all the way”.
It’s seven weeks since his fundraising climb up Croagh Patrick, and the money is still pouring in — more than €3m now. The New York kids have completed their own Climb with Charlie. He’s elated, and there are more tears.
Thousands of letters and cards are stored in plastic boxes in his home. Children have sent him their pocket money. Religious medals and rosary beads have come from the elderly. With the money raised, he wants to build ‘The Bird House’ at Beaumont Hospital — to give patients with terminal illnesses a place of respite.
When I ask if he’s religious, he shakes his head. Then he picks up the voice app, thinks long and hard, and starts typing. After a while, the familiar voice says: “Something has changed in my life. Some spirit. I can’t describe what is happening.”
It frustrates him that he can no longer converse casually. He has always got on well with his neighbours, but keeps to himself now. It’s too hard, he says, since his voice deteriorated. Even when he’s meeting old friends, he can feel lonely at the table. Frustrated.
He’s grateful when people find a way to communicate in a way that doesn’t distress him. When he and Claire were in the US recently, Charlie found himself sitting across from Mick McCarthy, the former Ireland soccer manager, at a golf dinner raising funds for MND.
“Mick was texting Charlie back and forth during dinner,” Claire says. “He was delighted. They’re going to do a parachute jump together in July.”
Now, though, he seems restless. He grabs the pen and paper and writes so fast it’s hard to decipher, but eventually I make out the words: Can we go for a short walk? Will you come?
We drive to Murrough Beach and take a well-worn path, with a stunning view of the sea.
“As a TV reporter,” I say, “the big thing you had was your voice.” He spins around and gesticulates wildly, as if to say, ‘That’s it, exactly.’
He motions towards Claire and for a moment frustration gives way to a flash of anger.
“I can’t even talk to my wife,” he says.
I ask Claire if he’s romantic. She points to the gold locket around her neck, a gift from her husband. Inside it are the words “Time and tide wait for no man, Love Bird.” There is a picture in the locket — of Tiger.
“He did give me another locket, but I won’t wear that one,” she says. “He wants me to put his ashes in it.” She laughs wildly.
She has got them two tickets to see Bruce Springsteen in May 2023. Until then her goal is to keep Charlie in the day, every day. To keep his spirits up as much as she can.
But on the days when he is sad, he goes for a lie-down with Tiger.
Back at the house there is carrot soup on the table for his lunch, but he doesn’t touch it.
Not for the first time in the day, he paces around, as if frustrated that he’s not communicating all of what he wants to say. He keeps reaching for his pad and writing with increasing urgency.
Several times he writes “I am dying” and then underlines the words.
Does he worry about leaving Claire behind?
“Of course I do. And my grandkids,” he says.
“He asks if I’m going to meet someone else,” Claire says. “It really annoys me. I told him to stop saying it. It makes me angry. It’s not even on my radar.”
The inevitability of what awaits them is difficult to deal with, she says: “Knowing is harder. It’s the certainty of this.”
Charlie picks up the pad again, starts writing and holds it out.
“I have made my arrangements,” it says.
He has given a great deal of thought to his funeral. As well as the Springsteen song, he wants The Parting Glass played.
Among those he wants to carry his coffin are his former RTÉ colleagues Tommie Gorman and Sean O’Rourke.
“All my RTÉ friends have been unbelievable,” he says. He’d like Joe Duffy to speak at the funeral, along with Claire and his daughters Orla and Neasa.
Now that the focus of Climb with Charlie is over, he spends much of his days writing his memoirs — a second volume (This Is Charlie Bird was published in 2006).
Photographs taken during his working life adorn the wall of his office. Political books fill the shelves. Sitting by his desk is a black-and-white shot of him stopping to comfort an injured protester at a march.
When not working on the book, he spends his time replying to every well-wisher with a personalised card. He says he’s weeks behind, but will get to everyone in time.
He “can’t believe” what has happened in his life, the outpouring of public support, the millions raised by his endeavours. He begins writing again.
“People say I am an inspiration. I’m not. I am an accidental inspiration. I am only a feckin’ reporter.”
Dinner is tenderised stew. He no longer listens to the radio or reads the news. For the first months of his illness, he didn’t have the peace of mind to read books or watch television. Now, thanks to some gentle persuasion from Claire, he can sit down and relax for a while at night with a TV drama.
He insists on driving me back to Dublin in his Mercedes convertible. The motorway is congested and our progress is slow. We pass the scene of a crash, with debris on the road and gardaí in attendance, waving the traffic on.
He makes several attempts to get some words out, swallows hard and tries again. And again.
With his hands on the wheel, he can’t reach for a pen. I tell him there’s no hurry, if he wants to keep trying. He shakes his head and drives on.
He wants to be cremated. When I ask if he’d like his ashes scattered anywhere, he motions to ring Claire. Soon, her voice comes on the speaker.
“Inisheer Island,” she says. “Beside his best friend of 50 years. Charlie used to visit there when he was young.”
Is it because he enjoyed the walks, I ask? She laughs. “Not at all. It was where he was chasing women.” She ribs him about a former girlfriend who wore leopard-print pants.
For the first time all day he seems happy to stay quiet. He smiles as he keeps his eyes on the road.