Friday 19 July 2019

Tricia's Heart of Gold

Triona McCarthy (left) and her little sister Tricia
Triona McCarthy (left) and her little sister Tricia

Triona McCarthy bares her soul on the shock and struggle of coming to terms with the loss of her precious younger sister Tricia, who needlessly died last year at just 30 years of age.

This is the hardest thing I have ever had to write. For the last eight years, I have happily and effortlessly written thousands of words on the very pages of this very magazine, singing the praises of a plethora of lotions and potions and extolling the virtues of various dream creams and costly cosmetics, but nothing I have ever written has ever really, reeeeeally mattered that much -- until now, that isMy sister is dead, my heart is broken.

Eight little words. Simple and succinct.

But no words are big enough to describe how I feel or, more importantly, the reason I feel this way. Right now, these words are all I have, and I use them to write about my best friend, my childhood shadow, my confidante, playmate, protegee and pal -- my baby sister Tricia whose life was so cruelly snatched away a little over a year ago by the monster that is cancer.

As difficult as it is for me to continue to write using these pitiful, inadequate words, I want her story to be told, her memory to remain, her light to shine and her beauty kept alive. I'm writing this in recognition of her amazing life as well as her devastating death, but it has not been easy. The overwhelming grief has knocked me down and out, forcing me to seek professional help, so that I continue to struggle to finish this article, months after asking LIFE to give me the platform to do so.

I thought it would be easy.

After all, how difficult could it possibly be to fill a couple of pages with amusing anecdotes and witty stories about my wonderful little sister? Me; funny, in-your-face, larger-than-life, Triona 'Party' McCarthy (or Betty the Performing Seal, as Tricia used to call me). Surely this sassy, brassy lassie could take a more light-hearted approach to grief that wouldn't upset you, dear reader, as you take a few minutes out of your Sunday to kindly read my words.

How many ways are there that I could describe her life, her love, her creativity and her art? A billion, surely! Yet, as I struggled to write, the words failed me and, as hours turned to days, days to weeks and weeks to months, I began to feel as if I was failing my sister all over again. I had lost my voice, both physically and metaphorically, and I became overwhelmed in a sea of pain.

A tsunami of grief.

I was drowning.

I needed help.

Badly.

Let me start by telling you about the young woman that I was so proud to call my sister for 30 years, nine months, three weeks and one day. She came into the world on April 17, 1979. Tinchy-tiny, with a mop of dark curly hair and my dad's piercing blue eyes. Tricia was my first baby sister, after two brothers. She became a real-life doll for the five-and-three-quarter-year-old little brat that I was, and I adored her from the moment we collected her and brought her home from the hospital. I sat in the back seat of the car next to her carrycot, looking at her like a smitten kitten. That evening, I helped Mum to give her a bath and carefully cuddled her. She had a place on my hip from day one and played a central role in my life, from her first day until her last. Even now, when I close my eyes and go back to those idyllic days of west Cork in the Eighties, in every single one of my childhood memories, she is there, right beside me.

A star in my life.

A constant in my past.

A void in my future.

I remember giving her her first makeover. We were making Mother's Day cards for Mum and I negligently allowed her to superglue her hair to the carpet. Tricia was artistic from an early age, and I was getting into the groove for my future career as well, I suppose, as I shaped her a wild, crazy, curly fringe from what was left of her hair. I told her to shush with her whingeing and that she looked "grand out" and, sure, who would be looking at her anyway? Lovely!

What an awful big sister I was!

I also remember pulling out her first tooth, when it was only a tad loose. The 50 pence the tooth fairy left, em, us, and the bag of sweets we bought from Auntie Jenny's sweet shop cancelled out the pain of me yanking it out of her head waaay before it was ready to come out.

Tricia was 12 when I moved to Dublin to go to beauty college, and I missed her and all my family dreadfully, but I wanted the bright lights and the big city. However, I had Tricia come stay, along with Laura and Anna, my two other younger sisters, as often as Mum and Dad would allow them. God, I was far more grown-up then, and I loved our trips to the zoo, Eddie Rocket's and George's Street Arcade. It was only natural that Tricia would come to live with me and my boyfriend by the time she was old enough to go to art college. As different as we were, we hardly ever argued and, believe me, I gave her plenty of reason to do so. I loved having this beautiful, gentle, honest, cool gal in my life. Cultured, intelligent, talented, shy and unassuming, she was everything I wasn't. She was everything I wish I were. Unlike her big sister, Tricia was calm and stable, and often adopted the older-sister mantle, chastising me with no more than one of her knowing looks for spending all my money on a designer dress, staying out too late, drinking too much or being hung over while struggling to get my work in on time.

Yet, she loved me like nobody has ever loved me and I love that she would put a glass of water by my bedside, knowing full well I would arrive home after some event or other as drunk as a monkey. I love that she would put all my make-up and all my clothes -- which would normally be flung all over the place when getting ready to go out -- neatly in a pile and pull my bed sheets back, thinking I would stand a better chance of actually getting under the covers if I didn't have to negotiate the tricky feckers in my, em, tired and emotional state. She looked after me and I looked after her, that's just how it was. Always was.

I was so proud of her and the young lady she had become, and only wish I had told her so more. But how was I to know her time was so precious? After all, she was only in her 20s, in her prime, and with a lifetime ahead of her, a lifetime when she would fall in love, get married, bear children, nurture them and watch them grow and watch their lives unfold. She was a domestic goddess, I was a domestic godhelpus, we used to joke! I thought she would grow old -- happy and content to die peacefully in old age, surrounded by her children, who would have been so wanted and lucky to have her as their mother, and grandchildren -- her legacy that would live on and carry her through time.

That is what every woman wants.

That is what every woman expects.

And that is what every woman deserves.

But, it's not what Tricia got.

It was while we were living together in Dublin and lying on my bed, reading magazines one evening, that she felt a funny lump in her breast.

Tricia was 26 years old.

When it didn't go away, I made her go and see her college doctor in the National College of Art and Design in Dublin. The NCAD doctor was concerned enough by what she saw to refer her to a consultant -- where she was told that all was fine, that it was "nothing to worry about".

If only I had made her go for a second opinion.

I suppose, at the time, I felt that it is

ingrained in us to be deferential to doctors.

Who were we to argue with a high and mighty oncologist who was surely super intelligent and had years of specialist training?

If only I had been a better sister and made them listen . . .

Eight months passed, and we both thought all was well, but the lump was still there. Tricia knew something was seriously wrong when she noticed blood and discharge coming out of her left breast. At this point, she had moved to Galway to take up her job as an art teacher and had met the love of her life -- the singer/songwriter Vertigo Smyth, aka Tim. So she went to another doctor and was then referred to Galway University Hospital where she received the devastating news that she had cancer. I'll never forget the fear in her voice when she rang me to tell me.

If only I had made her go earlier.

She had a full mastectomy, breast reconstruction and then intensive chemotherapy, radiation therapy and node clearance, as the disease had spread to her lymph nodes. So, yeah, the consultant got it wrong and had misdiagnosed her.

If only I could turn back time.

The lump was cancerous -- an aggressive Grade III form of cancer that required immediate treatment. The first hospital to which she was referred should have carried out a biopsy, which experts believe would have picked up the disease. I don't think they took her case seriously because of her young age -- breast cancer is extremely rare in women in their 20s -- and she was not given the required standard of care. They made her feel as if she was wasting their time. She was not in a high-risk category and, so, she was forgotten about.

If only.

If only.

If only . . .

Tricia believed that it is important for people to know about her experiences, in the hope that it might ensure that it does not happen again. Tricia said that she "was not given the opportunity of breast cancer care best practice of Triple Assessment" which means those with suspicious lumps are checked in three ways. They are given a clinical examination, followed by a mammogram or an ultrasound, and then a core biopsy. On the basis of her ultrasound -- which showed up a lesion believed to be a benign tumour -- the hospital decided not to send Tricia for a biopsy, which is a detailed cell-analysis test. Almost 100 per cent of breast cancers are picked up when the patient is triply assessed, but Tricia was never given that chance.

She was never given the chance to survive.

It is bad enough when cancer is misdiagnosed -- but the most important test was not even carried out on her. She wasn't even given the opportunity of a biopsy, and if she had been, she would have had an earlier diagnosis. Our system failed her and it raises questions about the level of cancer care in Ireland in general. There was no triple assessment and no follow-up.

If there had been, I believe my little sister would still be alive today.

A big sister, I think, has a very special role; to look after her little sister. It was my job to protect Tricia and keep her safe. I sometimes feel like I failed in my job. I actually felt for a long time like it was my fault and that I had let her down. When she was so ill that I just couldn't bear it anymore, I tried to make a pact with God. I was Miss Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll. She was the Green Goddess, or Tree Hugging Tricia as I called her, a vegetarian, always saving the planet. She didn't smoke, rarely drank and certainly never took anything stronger than a Lemsip. I pleaded:

Don't take her -- take me.

It should be me -- not her.

I am bad -- she is good.

I deserve it -- she doesn't.

Let her live -- let me die.

It must surely be less painful to die than watch somebody I love so much die, I thought. I had to look on as she suffered like nobody I had ever seen suffer before; not even our dad, Paddy, who had died from cancer years previously and whom we had nursed to the end at home. Tricia looked after Dad, then. She slept on the end of his bed for the four weeks we had with him after he was diagnosed, and before he died.

Do you know what I have realised through all of this? I may be someone who is obsessed by the exterior to the point where I have made a career out of it, but as my sister's beautiful hair fell out and as she basically became more and more like a little rag doll covered in needle marks and scars and as she wasted away to nothing, I realised how we look actually doesn't really matter a damn. Make-up, cosmetics, diets, beauty treatments -- what a load of bollox! Our bodies are only a vessel; it's the spirit that matters. And Tricia had the most beautiful spirit of all, right to the last moment.

Tricia was such a real trouper through her treatment. She lost her breast and hair and everything else with the kind of dignity that her disgusting illness did not merit. However, at the end of March 2009, we got the devastating news that the cancer had spread to her liver and abdomen. It was terminal. Breast cancer had sentenced a woman still in her 20s to death.

Tricia was in hospital for most of that year and it looked like she wouldn't make it, as she got pneumonia, septicemia, cellulitis, mucositis and a strain of MRSA. I have never seen anybody so sick and weak. How she came back from the brink so many times was unbelievable. But she was so young and had so much she wanted to do and she didn't want to die.

We really pulled together as a family. Mum moved lock, stock and barrel from her home in Schull in west Cork, to look after Tricia in Galway. My sister Laura was living and working in Melbourne, but she came home, with her boyfriend Coli, to be with Tricia . My brothers came from Dublin and west Cork, and I was in Galway nearly the whole time too. But even when the news was really bad and it looked as if there was no hope for Tricia, we never gave up and kept doing everything possible to keep the life in her. We took it in turns to stay with her 24 hours a day, fiddling with oxygen masks, taking her temperature, nursing our precious girl to death.

Between the illness and the chemo, Tricia's little body was ravaged. She was tiny and frail and even her fingernails and toenails fell off, but she never complained, even as I would carry her worn-out body into the bath in the hospital and wash her as she drifted in and out of consciousness. It reminded me of when she was a baby and totally dependent on me then. But that's what you do -- family is so important.

Having nearly died twice and having spent a month in bed, Tricia somehow found the strength again to relearn how to walk, against all the odds, and even managed to go on a short trip to Prague with Tim. They loved travelling and, right up to the end, she was talking about where she wanted to visit next. She was such an inspiration.

In December that year, Tricia even took part in an exhibition, contributing 10 pieces of work -- many made in her sick bed -- and raised nearly ¤1,000 for the Galway Hospice. I was so proud of her the night the exhibition opened. Sick as she was, there was no way she was missing it and, so, Mum brought her shopping for a new dress to fit her now teeny frame. Laura did her make-up, drawing in eyebrows, attaching eyelashes, painting on rosy cheeks and concealing the track marks on her arms and neck. I told her she looked "gawjus", just like I used to always tell her. I have that dress on a mannequin in my sitting room now, complete with bloodstains from that night. By that stage, her nose had stopped working, so blood would just pour out of it all the time. Can you imagine?

Those last days we had with Tricia were some of the most precious of my life. Towards the end she was in so much pain, but I just could not allow myself to think of the inevitable even as we took her home from the public hospital ward where she had nothing but an old curtain to shield her last torturous moments from a group of sick strangers and their visitors.

At 6.40am on February 8, 2010, our baby sister took a weak, laboured breath as she lay wrapped up in our arms as we all huddled on her bed, cuddling her and sobbing our hearts out, telling her how much we loved her.

It was the last she would ever take.

She was 30 years old, wet with our tears and turning cold in our arms.

I lay with her in her bed on my own, just the two of us, till they came and took her to the morgue to be embalmed. I'll never forget how cold her body became, like she was frozen. And, in a way, I froze all my emotions, in an effort to get through.

Her struggle was over, her pain had ended, but mine was just beginning. How do you deal with the loss of someone so special? How can life go on? To be honest, for me at least, I didn't deal with the grief at all, initially. As I said, I just felt frozen. I just tried to get through every day at it came. "Time is a great healer." "She's in a better place now."

Blah, blah, blah.

Coping mechanisms. I had, of course, heard these pseudo-psychological terms being thrown around, but for me, being the big, brash beauty guru extraordinaire living in my own hot-pink beauty bubble, I never thought I would need anything other than the perfect mascara or reddest nail varnish to get me through the day. Well, I was wrong.

After Tricia's funeral, I threw myself into work, I got engaged to a man I had only just met. I did whatever I could to totally distract me from the enormity of losing my darling sister. I never gave myself any time off, or any time to stop and register what had actually happened. I focused on everything and anything that wasn't to do with Tricia leaving my life.

It was just too huge for me to cope with.

My life had changed forever.

But life has to go on.

Weeks turned to months, and before I knew it, it was her first anniversary and time to design her memorial card and dig out old photos and suddenly it all came crashing around me. I remembered an incident from our childhood -- something that only Tricia knew about -- and realised I'd never be able to talk to her about it again, and it really shook me. I badly wanted to do something in her memory. I looked into setting up a charity initiative and decided to write this article and while doing it, a few months ago,

I just fell apart.

Disintegrated at the seams.

Unfolded.

I came undone.

Crumpled.

Deflated.

Empty.

Tortured.

I'm lucky; by nature I'm generally a very happy, positive, optimistic person, but on Saturday morning, I started crying and just could not stop. I had been to a party the night before and just thought I was a bit hung over and that I would come round after a feed and a chat with friends. But, in fact, I felt worse and worse as the hours gave way to days. I was crippled by a huge, crushing pain in my chest and couldn't eat, sleep or even talk.

It was agony.

Everything seemed so black and the way I missed my sister felt like a physical pain.

I remember once saying to a friend that I had no idea what it was like to feel lonely because with sisters you can call them at any hour of the day or night and tell them anything and they'll love you.

The real you.

Just as you are.

Warts and all.

I suppose I was on my own for the first time in my life. My sister Laura had recently moved back to Melbourne and then Anna, my youngest sister, had also just left to go travelling for the year, so my support network had gone. My relationship with my fiance had also hit the wall, and I believed it was braver to back out then, before we made any irreversible commitment -- so I was suffering another loss. My mum had been staying with me a lot after Christmas -- in hindsight we were probably leaning on each other -- but she had gone back to Schull and I was alone for the first time in years.

Just me and my thoughts.

Facing a blank computer screen.

The worst place in the world.

I couldn't face it.

The tsunami had just hit Japan that week, and it was the case that I was forced to face my own tsunami. A huge wall of grief had hit me and was dragging me under. I was in danger of drowning and, thankfully, my friends kept me afloat. It's thanks to my friend, stylist Cathy O'Connor, that I got professional help. Family and friends are just so important. My friend Catriona Hanly drove me -- still crying -- a week later to see the therapist, who diagnosed me with embedded grief and delayed shock, which had physically manifested itself in the lump I felt I had in my throat and the peculiar low voice I was talking in. The pretence and strain of keeping up appearances by always saying that I was "absolutely fine altogether" whenever anybody asked, and maintaining my full-on Party McCarthy mode, had taken its toll. The therapist explained that I was like a flashing billboard, all lit up and trying to keep the show on the road and how it takes a lot of energy to keep that going and how the real Triona's battery had finally run flat. When Tricia died, I didn't want anyone else to feel bad and I never really cried much. I just comforted everyone around me and switched into big-sis mode and never let anyone -- even myself -- know how I was really feeling.

Strangely, I had also started obsessing over a previous relationship -- "the one before the one". I was obsessed with the idea that I should be with him, and the notion that he was the key to my revival and happiness. My therapist explained that it wasn't him I was pining for, but the time that we were together. Because the time that we were together was when Tricia was living with us, when she wasn't ill and everyone was happy and healthy.

Before seeing my therapist, I was a complete cynic, which I know many people are, but seeing and talking to someone who was removed from the situation helped me to start the process I had put off and hidden away from for so long. Therapy in Ireland is still such a taboo subject, but I think it should be applauded for how much it helps people. It certainly helped me.

I know that I have only scratched the surface and still have a long way to go, but at least I have started the process. Tricia lost her battle against cancer, but I know that my battle continues daily and I intend to face it with the same dignity that she had while fighting her fight. Pierre-Auguste Renoir wrote, "the pain passes, but the beauty remains". I don't truly know if the pain will ever pass but I will make sure that Tricia's beauty does indeed remain.

I feel her beauty sometimes. I know she probably had something to do with me meeting my beloved Will, who is helping to heal the heart-shaped hole in my chest. I'm finally thawing out, I think. Bizarrely, he felt a ghostly presence in the room the first time he was in my place -- can I just point out that, being an engineer, he's not given to hocus-pocus! I also know she came home for our first Christmas without her, too, it being her favourite day of the year. You see, before she died, when we used to have our chats, I made her make a ridiculous promise that should she ever leave me, then there'd be no point in her being dead unless she could have a bit of fun with it and came back as a cat or dog! I had totally forgotten, but it appears that Tricia hadn't. I had always wanted a pet, a dog or a cat of my own in Dublin. We grew up on a farm in Schull, so we always had pets at home, but Tricia thought I'd never be able for a pet in Dublin as I'm barely able to mind myself!

On Christmas Day, my brother Justin and his wife Sarah arrived in the door, followed by a lovely little kitten. I assumed they had brought it with them. They hadn't. To this day nobody knows where this tiny creature came from, but little Daphne Guinness McCarthy came to us for Christmas and has never left.

I know Tricia sent her.

Something good has to come from my sister's beautiful life and I am determined to do everything in my power to ensure no other family has to nurse their daughter and sister to death. As a teacher, Tricia believed in education and I believe education is key in the fight against breast cancer. Women need to know that yes, it can happen to you, whatever your age, but it can be treated if caught early enough.

As a 26-year-old, Tricia did not know where to go, who to talk to, what to do. I want Tricia's Heart of Gold to be a place where women of all ages can come to access information, advice and support for any breast-health concerns. Our mission is to raise enough cash to set up an interactive website where women can gain immediate access to breast specialists with any questions, concerns or queries. We will listen to everyone and will never make any woman feel like she is wasting our time.

I know that cash is tight for so many of us in these times, but where there is a will, there is a way. And, from my experience, there are two things every woman has regardless of the state of the economy: make-up and jewellery. While your old glosses and mascaras have no value, your bits and bobs of old jewellery certainly do. Our Tricia was a treasure with a heart of gold, and I ask anybody reading this who has any old bits of unwanted gold to go to their nearest Cash For Gold outlet and deposit their contribution into the drop boxes.

Cash For Gold Ireland is our partner in Tricia's Heart of Gold and they have agreed to turn any gold donations into cash to help us fund the service. Cash for Gold Ireland has nearly 30 outlets nationwide. Alternatively, call (01) 236-0200 to request an envelope to make a contribution. See www.heartofgold.ie for further information.

I miss you, Patsy.

You're still the best girl in the world and as good as gold.

Then.

Now.

Forever.

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