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When daddy's the hero

When an adored wife dies just over a year after the birth of a baby daughter, and a young husband is left to soldier on with two young girls to rear, how is a mere mortal to cope?

"We focused on Miriam staying alive during her one-year illness and, in the odd moment I contemplated an alternative, I probably saw myself standing on the steps of St James's and screaming at the sky," says Willie Healy, a 44-year-old IT programme manager about losing his wife of more than 18 years, talented fashion designer Miriam Mone.

But instead Willie found himself walking in the garden of the hospital, going through the contacts in his mobile and making sure he had not forgotten to ring anyone with the terrible news. And it seems this pragmatism has proven to be his saving grace as a widower and dad of Katerina (6) and Alana (4).

As Willie points out, what's the point in panicking when a little girl needs to go to the Ladies Room and the toilet attendant won't let daddy go in with her. Instead it's a case of making a very quick detour to the handicapped toilet out of necessity.

"In a department store trying on a uniform for Katerina the woman on duty in the changing room told me to go away and get her mum. She didn't know what to do when I explained the situation and, in the end, we were shuffled into a dressing room a little away from the others and I was more or less told to keep my voice down," he recalls.

Willie's late-wife Miriam lost her battle with ovarian cancer in St James's Hospital on February 22, 2007. She was a former Late Late Show Designer of the Year, and well-known for having designed the elegant caramel-coloured coat that President Mary McAleese wore to her inauguration.



Hero

She was aged 41 when she was diagnosed with cancer, and had given birth to her second daughter, Alana, just six weeks earlier. Daughter Katerina was three when Miriam died, and Alana was just 13 months. Today they are two adorable dotes, and because of what fate had thrown at them, they are definitely daddy's little girls.

"There was a thing about heroes on The Simpsons the other night and I asked Katerina who her hero was and after a little think she said, 'you daddy.' And Alana jumped in, 'you can't say that, he's my hero.'

"They're both great little talkers and great company. Katerina is very patient and understanding and Alana is the one with the stubborn streak. They have their memory wall covered with photos of Miriam and, so far, from what I can tell, they have an understanding that Miriam is gone and won't be coming back.

"Katerina told a doctor this when she was asked if her mum was at home minding her little sister, and the doctor didn't know where to look," Willie says.

Willie's pragmatism hit in almost immediately after his wife's death, and within two weeks of her passing he was structuring a life for himself and his young daughters.

"We did not discuss practical things when Miriam was dying, neither of us were in that frame of mind. We never gave up hope. Afterwards I knew it was up to me to give the girls the life they deserved, and I organised an au pair within a couple of weeks so I could return to work," Willie says.

"I got Katerina into pre-school so that she would not be at home all day feeling Miriam's absence in the house. I went to the gym and punished the machines with the anger of my grief and now I don't feel angry; what is the point of anger?" he says.

Now, with the third anniversary of Miriam's death coming up later this month, how is Willie coping with life as a single man after more than 20 years spent with his late wife?

He met Miriam at the Garda Club in South Harrington Street in 1986 when they were both aged 21, and they married three years later. "Miriam was a livewire, always up for a party, and very easy to talk to, and we bonded from the first minute we spoke," Willie says.

"She was passionate about design and very driven, but she had a fine balance between being creative and commercial. She had the travel bug, and when we weren't travelling to Paris for her work, we travelled the world together.



Missed

"I miss her during the joyous times, like when the girls were in Christmas plays and I sat there thinking, 'she would have loved this and she is missing it.' I know how much fun she would be getting out of the girls, and I feel for her over that.

"I had two choices after she died, I could stay in alone and shed tears, of which I shed many, or I could get used to feeling like a gooseberry by hanging out with our married friends.

"I chose to get out and get on with it. I met up with our friends, and I made a point of meeting up with people in the same position as me because I thought there would be empathy in these friendships," Willie says.

Willie is a founding member of Widowed Young In Ireland (www.widowedyoung.ie), a group of men and women who have lost their spouses young, and who are often coping alone raising young children.

"The support I receive from Miriam's family and from my family is invaluable. The girls are really excited that Miriam's mum is coming to stay for a week. But the point of belonging to a group like Widowed Young is that these are other people who know exactly where I am coming from.

"It's a place to vent without feeling embarrassed if you have to. And you can always tap into other people's experiences too. You can say I'm feeling this, or I'm having a problem dealing with this, and other people who have been there before you will tell you how they coped with a similar problem.

"The point of Widowed Young is to see that other people have been there and come through the other side," he says.

"Plus we have regular social events and get-togethers for young widows and widowers with children. One young widower told me he was dreading coming along but felt the need to be with people who understood. And he was relieved to find a group of people who were having a good time and who were not sitting around gloomily."



Love

Willie does not see his future as one without love, and has stepped back out into the world of dating, a brave move for any man who was a husband for 20 years.

Yet inevitably his romantic needs are different now to when he was a 21-year-old out for a few pints with his friends and spotted Miriam across a crowded room.

He says: "I'm not looking to replace Miriam you can never replace one person with another. And to be honest, I'm not sure if I can see myself doing the whole coupled-up thing again. But I do know that you never know what life brings."

For now though, there's the question of what his girls Katerina and Alana will wear for their photo. Because being both mum and dad means Willie has the job of kitting them out in outfits which fashion designer mum Miriam would approve of.


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