Monday 19 November 2018

Finding hope in the darkest of days

At the age of 29, Emmet Cleary found himself widowed with a 4 year-old son to care for. He speaks about how the Hope Centre helped him.

The late Niamh Cleary
The late Niamh Cleary

One of the things that is quite striking about the Hope & Dream 10 is that everyone taking part has their own reason for doing it. Some people have lost loved ones. Some have survived their own brush with cancer. While we all know of the great work the Hope Centre does for people from all over the South East, we don't always get to hear the story of service users themselves.

One person who availed of the many services that the Hope Centre offer is Emmet Cleary from Ballymitty. At the age of just 29, 14 months after they were married, he lost his beloved wife Niamh to cancer and was left to raise their four year old son by himself.

Teenage sweethearts, Emmet and Niamh met in school before romance blossomed.

'We would've known each other from school,' Emmet recalled. 'Then I remember she rang me on my 18th birthday to wish me a happy birthday and that was it. We were together from then on.'

Full of life, Emmet and Niamh enjoyed some wonderful years together and were blessed with a son, Josh, in May of 2012. The pair were elated and were just settling into parenthood, when disaster struck. When Josh was just 14 months old, Niamh was diagnosed with breast cancer.

'She was very into childcare and looking after children,' Emmet said of his wife. 'But the fact that she had her own child now...she really took to it and everything was about being a mother. When the diagnosis came, it was at a stage in his life when he really needed his mammy. Well...he still needs his mammy now, but it was at a time when he was changing from being a baby into a toddler.'

At such a young age, the couple had a long and difficult road ahead of them. Niamh immediately required an operation and then would undergo extensive treatment for a year.

'Niamh took it all in her stride,' Emmet says proudly. 'She just took the attitude that she was doing this for her child and our family. It was something she accepted and she just said "let's do this". She would always say "I'm not the first and I won't be the last".'

After a long hard year, Niamh received the last of her treatment and for a time at least, some normality was restored.

'From the moment she finished her last treatment, her focus was on getting better,' said Emmet. 'She was focusing on building herself up and getting stronger and the important things like spending time with Josh. We were planning to go on holidays and getting back to living life. We saw it that the ordeal was over and that we had parked that part of our lives.'

It was around this time that Emmet popped the question, asking Niamh to marry him on Christmas day - the festive period being one of her favourite times of year. Thankfully, Niamh said yes and the couple busily set about planning a fairytale wedding, eventually tying the knot in May of the following year.

Six weeks before the wedding, Niamh went for a check up and was given the all clear.

'She went to see the oncologist and she was feeling good,' he said. 'She was out walking and exercising and we were really getting our life back on track. The oncologist said that they were happy with her progress and to go off and get married. She was even to send them on a picture of her in her dress. As far as we were concerned cancer was no longer part of our lives.'

Unfortunately, the newly-weds didn't have long to settle into married life before circumstances took another devastating turn.

'The morning after the wedding, Niamh woke up with an excruciating pain in her shoulder,' Emmet recalled. 'We put it down to holding up her wedding dress the day before and thought no more of it. We went down to Killarney for the weekend then, just the two of us, and for the whole time we were there Niamh was vomiting and was in agonising pain. We got back to Wexford and all she could do was go to bed. Two weeks later she was re-diagnosed and we were told the cancer was back.'

'As a husband, I was completely shocked. I thought this had all been dealt with. Then I thought with the advances in medicine and that kind of thing, that we could do it and she could beat it again. She told me that she didn't have the same strength and energy to do it all again and I just asked her to do it for Josh.'

While Niamh's initial treatment had been in Waterford, the scale of the cancer the second time around required her to attend St Vincent's Hospital in Dublin regularly for treatment.

'From mid August that year, she kept deteriorating,' said Emmet. 'It really took its toll on her. Christmas week we had to get a garda escort to St Vincent's because she had such bad pains in her head. I was travelling up and down and at the same time trying to sort out Christmas and Santa stuff for Josh at home. She really took bad that Christmas week and it turned out that the cancer had spread to her brain. She started radium treatment Christmas week.'

Despite fighting extremely hard to be home for Christmas that year, Niamh was forced back into hospital and it was the start of a tragic decline.

'I remember Christmas Day she woke up and felt a bit better,' he said. 'She gave Josh a big kiss and a hug and wished him a Happy Christmas, but after that she deteriorated rapidly and she passed away the following September.'

Through his beloved wife's final weeks, Emmet was by her side and had given up work to care for her completely.

'I was caring for her full time just up until she died,' he said. 'She lost her voice and everything, but I knew exactly what she wanted and when she wanted it. About a month before she passed away, Niamh started to have seizures at home and that's when I realised I could no longer care for her and I had to step back and allow the professionals to do their job. That was when I first contacted the Hope Centre and they were able to advise me what exactly I should be doing. I also wanted to know how best to protect Josh. They put me in contact with a counsellor, but he was only four and he didn't really understand what was going on. He had only really seen his mammy sick. He never really saw the bubbly, lovely person that I knew Niamh as.'

While most people associate the Hope Centre with helping people who are in the midst of battling cancer, as well as their families, Emmet says that, in actual fact, it was only really when Niamh passed away that he really used the centre.

'I remember after Niamh passed away, they invited me up to the centre for a cup of tea,' he recalled. 'That was a massive step for me. I had plenty of people around me who were doing all they could to help, but it was great just to have someone to listen who understood. The more I spoke of my journey, of our journey, the more I realised all that I did for her and I started to feel proud of myself.'

Having that outlet at such a difficult time was a massive benefit to Emmet and he would encourage anybody else who finds themselves in a similar situation to reach out to the Hope Centre and just see what they can do. Since Niamh's passing, Emmet has been a staunch supporter of the centre and has even undertaken fundraising himself to help out.

'I'm involved with Wexford Motor Club myself and last year we raised €1,900 with the Rally for Hope. Niamh was very interested in rallying too and she always wanted to do a rally with me driving and her navigating. I always promised her that when she got better, we'd do it. Two years ago, when she was in her hospital bed on the verge of closing her eyes, I went and did the rally for her. She made me promise to do it for her.'

In terms of the future, there's still a difficult road ahead for Emmet, as well as young Josh, but he says it's his son that really spurs him on.

'Josh is good at the moment, he's what keeps me going,' he said. 'It's so tough on your own. It's very hard to be a mammy and a daddy, but when the reward comes - that little hug when you're putting him to bed and he says "I love you" - that's what really keeps you going. I have great support from my family and friends, but at the end of the day, I'm the one who's getting him up in the morning and putting him to bed at night and who has to answer the difficult questions.'

A truly inspiring man, Emmet is hopeful of maybe one day becoming a counsellor himself and helping people who are going through similar ordeals to his own.

'Well, not a whole lot of people at 29 years of age are widowed after 14 months of marriage with a four year old child,' he says. 'But I'm probably not the first and I probably won't be the last. I'd just hope that maybe my story can inspire someone else. I'm proud of my story. I'm proud of my wife. I do like to talk about her every day and I talk to her every day.'Emmet recommends that anyone who is struggling to pick up the phone.'I suppose the main point I'd like to get across is that I didn't really use the Hope Centre at all until after Niamh passed away,' he said. 'It's not just for people who are going through cancer. After Niamh's passing I was still welcome. Having somebody to listen who understood was a great starting point.'

You can contact the Hope Cancer Support Centre on 053-9238555 or by dropping into the centre at 22 Upper Wafer Street.

Gorey Guardian