Towards the end of Padraig’s illness, Antoinette vividly recalls a number of difficult moments when reality came crashing in. Moments when she had to face the harrowing truth that she was going to, very soon, lose the love of her life to cancer.
“I was looking out the window and I saw him across the street walking along. I saw him every day at home but that day I saw him in a different way. I was shocked. He was so weak. So sick.”
The memories and images are shared between smiles and tears – Padraig’s wicked sense of humour. The breathtaking support of family and friends. Padraig’s brother Joe whom he lost far too early. His great golf buddy ‘Badger’ – John McCarthy. Padraig the comedian. Padraig, the amazing uncle. Padraig, the lover – and teaser – of his dog Parkie and the donkeys, Cupid and Valentine (a February 14th gift from Antoinette).
Antoinette was 24 when they got together in the local nightclub and 27 when they married. Today Antoinette misses Padraig ‘as much now as the day he left’. She describes him with such love, humour and pride that you get the impression she is honouring him – not just through dearly-held memories – but also in how she now lives her life. She says ‘Padraig always lived in the moment’. Well, it seems Antoinette today is also living in the moment. Staying hopeful and positive.
Because of Padraig’s cancer diagnosis and treatment, together, they experienced so many parts of the Irish healthcare system. She has very considered opinions on how cancer patients are dealt with by the hospital system and the higher level doctors and consultants.
“The nurses and staff are great but some of the doctors and consultants need training in how to communicate properly with families and patients. Look, I know they’ve a tough job – often having to give bad news – but talking down to people or talking in metaphors doesn’t help at all. It’s like they expect you to be at your strongest when you’re actually at your weakest point.”
Antoinette has heart-felt praise for her local GPs, Dr. O’Flynn and Dr. O’Driscoll.
“They never stopped caring for Padraig and making sure I was OK too. They’d ring or call in most days. They were always clear and helpful in the information and advice they offered.”
Her GP was the first person to change Antoinette’s mind about palliative care. Up to this, she really didn’t want to know about it.
“I just dismissed it – I had a fixed – and wrong – view of what it was all about. I just thought they come in one door and the coffin goes out the other. It was all just negative.”
Dr. O Driscoll helped Antoinette see things differently.
“I was having a difficult time. Padraig wasn’t well at home and I was trying to do everything. She said to me: ‘You’re going to waste your valuable time trying to protect him. And he’ll be trying to protect you. And meanwhile you won’t be together’. I’ll never forget it. She was so right.”
On another occasion Antoinette was dressing Padraig’s feet because they had begun to swell and weep. Then the palliative care nurse said something Antoinette will never forget – something very simple. She said:
‘Here, I’ll do that. That’s my job. Why don’t you just sit up on the bed beside him, talk to him and be close to him?’.
For Antoinette it was a tender and powerful turning point. She immediately felt she was doing the most valuable thing she could do – for him. And for them as a couple.
“Up to that point I just wanted us to have this precious time alone together. I thought if anyone else came in, it would be like they’re invading our space. They’d be part of the cancer in a way. As if they would be taking a bit of him. This was our intimate world and they’d be taking that away from us.”
But Antoinette describes the experience of palliative care as being the opposite. In fact, without thinking about it, she provides a wonderful definition of palliative care:
“They made things easier. They allowed me to be me. And Padraig to be Padraig. They weren’t there to rush things on. They weren’t there to slow it down. They weren’t there to take over. They weren’t there to prepare you for death. They were just there to help us both live the time we had left to the fullest.”
There’s an understandable sadness in Antoinette – but regret doesn’t seem to have any place in her life.
“We had a ball together. We were never into material things – we had everything we needed. We had each other.”
Padraig, in Antoinette’s inimitable words, was certainly ‘larger than life’.
And judging by the way she so lovingly, positively and humourously remembers him – he’s larger than death too.