Thursday 23 January 2020

Kathleen's letter about losing her kids touches nation's heart

The late Darragh, Fergal and Grainne Keyes
The late Darragh, Fergal and Grainne Keyes

Mary Fogarty

Kathleen Keyes of Corke Abbey has said that writing about the loss of her three children to cystic fibrosis was a cathartic experience.

Speaking from her native Roscommon, where Kathleen was spending a few days, she said that she did not expect the extent of the response there has been to a letter she wrote to a national newspaper.

She wrote the letter following the first anniversary of her son Fergal (31), who died on December 2, 2019. Gráinne died on January 3, 2002, at the age of 15, and Darragh died on April 10, 2012, aged 19.

All of the children went to Scoil Chualainn and Coláiste Ráithín.

'They lived a full and spirited life together, their illness did not define them,' wrote Kathleen in her letter to the Irish Times. They were witty, intelligent, and gifted with homegrown talents that filled this home with music and liveliness. They expressed their true selves to their world of friends, and gave of themselves freely and honestly.

'Losing a child is like having your heart torn out and your stomach emptied. Grief gets in the way of daylight, not to mention the nocturnal dark,' she wrote. 'After the death of my children, Christmas is a black surround, without tinsel, while the masses are plumping up the shopping streets.

With the passing of Christmas, and a plethora of messages and letters regarding her letter, Kathleen reflects on the joy her children gave her. Recalling hearing the young people and their friends laughing and playing music on the river Shannon, she said: 'All of those times were so happy. Nothing was wasted. Even though there was a lot to carry, with the burden of being sick, there was incredible wealth and fun and creativity and happiness'.

Darragh was a 'bright spark' who played music and made films, which his mother still has as his legacy. Gráinne was witty, loved drama, was studious and diligent, disappointed not to sit her Junior Cert as she was in hospital.

Fergal was 31 and grown into a man. He volunteered for Lakers, was in a band, and taught music and drama.

All three, said Kathleen, are lost to society as well as to their family and friends.

'Everyone has been asking me what prompted me to write the letter,' said Kathleen. 'It was something in myself. It was coming up to Christmas and everyone else was flying around. I didn't have to make a Christmas for the family. Something made me sit and pour out what was going on in my head, and what was different for me at Christmas.'

She sat with what she had written, looked over it, and was finished.

'I thought, there's something in here. I'd better put it somewhere - it needed a home. Sometimes when you're writing something you feel an excitement about it and you're almost frightened to hand it over.'

Her laptop was broken so Fergal's girlfriend Becky Long typed it up, Kathleen gave it another bit of editing, and she sent it off.

'It has definitely touched other families,' said Kathleen. 'People may feel alone even though they may have lots of friends and very good families.'

Kathleen's own family in her native Roscommon includes her three loving sisters.

The outpouring of correspondence since writing the letter has been very unexpected but very welcome for Kathleen, who has lived in Bray for the past 35 years.

'People are amazing. It lifts you somewhat, carries you a little. It doesn't give you your loss back but they are with you.'

In helping others, also, Kathleen feels that the giver receives help and comfort.

'It was very cathartic writing it,' said Kathleen, who writes a diary, poems, and letters to the children.

Her children fought hard to overcome cystic fibrosis, she said. But they had contracted a particularly resistant bacteria, which ultimately led to all three of them passing away.

'There are mini bacteria within CF. This is one of the most resistant, if you have it, it is a death sentence,' she said. 'It was a terrible tragedy and injustice that it went to the three of them, and it caused their deaths.'

For many years, their care was Kathleen's main priority.

'It was IV antibiotics all the way. They could be on an IV and in hospital for months on heavy, heavy antibiotics, which would make you exhausted,' she said. 'They would be doing physio and coughing stuff up to clear it but the body continues to produce it,' she said.

'The job of home management for someone with CF is just endless, day after day.'

She described a routine of physio, nebulisers, oral antibiotics and oral digestive enzymes.

'You are working all day,' she said, adding that the psychological effects of the regime and hospitalisation on the CF patient can be huge.

To mark Fergal's first anniversary, there was Mass in St Peter's Church, followed by a gathering of their friends in the house. The boys' friends played music, and Kathleen allowed her emotions to pour out along with the songs.

Fergal, Darragh and Gráinne were creative, intelligent and very much loved by all of those around them as well as their mother.

'Give your children space and time to be creative,' said Kathleen. 'That's what they need, don't be rushing them.'

Kathleen would love to work with young people and help others in some way in the future. 'To have my children with me is all I want, but if I can help someone else it will help me in my own grief and the heartbreak of losing them,' she said.

'I had that golden time with them. I'm so grateful to have been their mother, they taught me so much.'

Bray People