My daughter finished primary school last week, marking the end of one chapter in her life, and the beginning of another.
She is excited about going to “big school”, and terrified at the same time of leaving her friends, and going to a place where she will have to make new ones. We all know that discombobulation: feeling grown-up, but not quite ready to cast off the comfort of familiarity.
To ease the transition, and so the children leave with great memories, her school has had a series of events. On Tuesday it was a talent competition. There were hugs, and tears, and a lovely, natural process of closure for the children.
On the same day, across the city, another young child quietly left her seat on a front-row pew of the Good Shepherd Church in south Belfast and placed a simple, gorgeous bouquet of daisies, pink lilies and purple lavender on her 43-year-old mother’s wicker coffin.
Only five days earlier her mother, journalist Aideen Kennedy, had written on Twitter: “So life has not gone well and I am as sick as I was when I went in to hospital so essentially going home to die but getting palliative care. The kids know. If you ever come across them, will you [keep] an eye out for them, they are the kindest, sweetest most thoughtful kiddies.” Aideen died just a few hours later.
“The kids know.” Words no mother ever wants to have to think about, let alone write. Reading them was a gut punch. The post was accompanied by pictures of Aideen’s young son and daughter, Jacob and Eva.
Eva had drawn her mother a card, with rainbows and multicoloured hearts and clouds. Written above her picture were the words: “To Mummy, I hope you get well soon. I love you loads.”
The children will hopefully have lots of people keeping “an eye out for them” as they now navigate life without their mother. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
To most, Aideen was a well-known journalist. Years before, she attended St Dominic’s Grammar School, and was well-liked by all of her peers. As our old school hymn the Dominican Magnificat echoed around the church at her funeral, I reflected on fleeting memories, and on how at that stage few of us had any sense of mortality.
Aideen was two years above me, and brought the house down one year with her first-class performance as Nancy in Oliver!. She played hockey, and the violin, and to me seemed perfect. You couldn’t pass her without seeing her big smile, or smile yourself to see her in the study hall, her hair shaking out behind as she threw back her head and laughed at something she found amusing with a group of friends.
She was good-natured, good-looking and popular, and it is a measure of just how kind she was for one so young that lots of people remember her from those school years.
Her mother also taught there, a favourite with pupils, not just for helping them academically, but for making each of them believe they were capable of success. Important life lessons delivered with pragmatism, which cut through for young women attending the Falls Road school in the heart of west Belfast.
Life can be cruel, and the McGaughey family has suffered more than most. Aideen’s parents, Maura and Noel, have survived the deaths of all four of their children. Unspeakable tragedy, unfathomable grief.
Father Sean McCartney told the congregation last Tuesday how she “lit up every room”, and of a previous interview Aideen had given to The Belfast Telegraph, when she asked how she wanted to be remembered: “As someone who loved family and friends and cared about people around me, especially those who haven’t had life easy.”
She was gifted, both in her reportage, and in her empathy. Once, as her former colleague at UTV Paul Clark said last week, she covered a story on rescue cats: “And she fell in love with one of the cats and she brought it home… she really did embrace the story and felt for the people which she served.” Her social media was full of posts about Willow the cat, and she joked about trying to sneak it into her parents’ home without them knowing.
It’s hard to make sense of the whys and wherefores of life and death sometimes, more so when a young woman who had already endured unquantifiable trauma —the deaths of all of her siblings — has her life also ended far too soon. One tweet summed it up succinctly, quoting William Cullen Bryant: “And we wept that one so lovely should have a life so brief.”
It is doubtful Aideen knew the high level of esteem she was held in, either for her work, her acts of kindness, her sense of fun, or her honesty. Like everyone, she found life tough at times, and wasn’t afraid to wear her heart on her sleeve in lonelier moments, on social media. One can only hope her family takes some comfort from knowing that Aideen was loved, evident from the many, many messages of tribute.
Even when dying, when others might have been rightfully raging at the world, Aideen was expressing her appreciation for medical staff, and blood donors, tweeting: “God bless those people who give blood, I am on my 12th transfusion and I can’t believe someone would be so kind and selfless.”
Life is very fragile. If you’re fortunate enough to have your close relatives and friends around you, hold them a little bit tighter. None of us know when our time is up.
Magnificat anima tua dominum, Aideen. Rest easy.