It’s Saturday December 1988. My rock and roll dance lessons partner and UCD class mate, Patricia McKenna has suggested meeting in the White Horse in Putney where she is hooking up with some friends. Another bunch of friends are meeting in Covent Garden. It’s a toss-up but the decision to go to Putney is to have life-long repercussions.
I spotted Barbara pretty quickly when I walked I walked into the pub. She was wearing a striking leather biker jacket and looked extremely cool and I was delighted to find she was one of Patricia’s friends. We got chatting. She was an SHO in the North Middlesex Hospital. She had been on call the previous night. It had been a rotten night. A very sick child had died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. Patricia (her flat mate) had to persuade her to go out. I was working in the pensions department of a big law firm-about 10 miles from Enfield but a million miles from the sort of world that Barbara was seeing daily. We talked or (unusually) I listened and she talked. She hasn’t got a word in since…. In no time, it was closing time and we adjourned to some club nearby. In the club we danced and then I lost my glasses. When Barbara found them, what could I do? I had to kiss her right? So we did. And we’ve been kissing ever since.
I was living in Loftus Road in Shepherds Bush and my staple diet was a Domino’s ordered on my way from the tube and a couple of beers from the nearby off-licence. Unbelievably I had never tried Indian food. Barbara was living in Ecclesbourne Road in cool Islington and in the course of short period introduced me to the local Indian, Chinese and most importantly Uppers Bistro. We were kicked out of Uppers on more occasions than I care to remember replete, in my case (I kid you not), with Chicken Kiev served on a bed of white rice but probably more memorably a bottle of white followed by far too many sambucas. By now I had informed my best friend Bernard that I was going to marry Barbara although I hadn’t been stupid enough to tell her as I think she might have run a mile. But sometimes you just know and I knew….
We quickly started to spend all our free time together. That was fine except that Barbara would often be on call on a Saturday night and for some reason after a skinful of Castlemaine XXXX (cans-you never drank the draft beer in the Prince of Teck in Earls Court) and buoyed by Dutch courage I had an annoying habit of calling her from the nearest phone box and shouting down the phone “I’m obsessed”. That might have brought a smile the first time but when I called mid-operation and she was scrubbed up and I had persuaded some nurse to get her and hold the phone to her ear, I think the joke lost some edge.
In 1989, we went to Turkey on holiday. In 1990 we went to Dublin to catch Italia 90 at home and in 1991, we went to Italy. We were in a restaurant overlooking in Amalfi overlooking the bay of Naples. With no ring and without getting down on one knee, I proposed and Barbara said yes.
We decided to get married in Galway May 1992 and we chose the Jesuit church for the ceremony and the Ardilaun for the reception. We were driving to Galway to make arrangements and Bernard Langer was missing that famous putt in Kaiwah Island to lose the Ryder Cup.
We were married on Thursday 7 May. The wedding was a blast. Barbara was about 30 mins late which meant that even my most irresponsible friends were in the church when she arrived, truly the most beautiful bride I have ever seen. An ivory silk dress that she had had made in London, and an amazing veil which I believe I had to lift from her face when her brother, Cormac, had escorted her up the aisle. My main memory of the reception is loads of unskilled practitioners following instructions from the band as we danced the Siege of Ennis and various other jigs reels and maybe even a hornpipe. We honeymooned in Ireland for a week and then Mauritius. We somehow managed to miss our planned flight to Mauritius so spent two days in a 5* hotel near Heathrow at a deeply discounted rate negotiated by a lovely Canadian airlines host responding to my new wife in floods of tears at missing the flight…….
Barbara and I planned to have lots of children. By 1996 many of our friends who married after us had had one or two children and we were trying to explain unexplained infertility. We were desperate to have kids. Barbara contacted a quack running a fertility assistance project called Foresight, we sent them hair samples and they sent us loads of supplements that we took religiously believing (as you always do) that this would work. Before I’d leave for work in the morning I would take about six or seven supplements (I seem to remember selenium being one of them). But there was a shadow over our marriage that we feared might never disappear. We inevitably had a dog and two cats but when friends called with their little Johnny or Mary, the pain was real. We tried IVF and it was a complete fail. My uncle Sexton and his wife Patricia happened to call the night we found this out and we listened to Leonard Cohen – counterintuitively tremendously consoling music. (“And though I wear a uniform, I was not born to fight” my favourite line from “Last Year’s Man”)).
I quit my job to do an MBA and realised quickly that I preferred business to law and that I should move in-house. At the end of the MBA year, I got a job in Belfast with Bombardier Aerospace. I loved it and, in my spare time, I contacted some adoption agencies. We applied to be approved to adopt. We had to submit answers to questions that explored (quite rightly) the strength of our marriage and lots of very intimate information about our relationship. We prepared our answers separately but there was remarkable alignment in our stories with infertility by some way being the most difficult thing either of us had had to endure (even though Barbara’s dad had died when she was 12).
In early 1999, we met our allocated social worker, Barbara Williams, one of the many people I have met in public service jobs who should be recognised in the Queen’s honours list and who do more good in a week that Fred Goodwin did in all his time in RBS. But that’s not how the world works. In any case, Barbara Williams interviewed us several times. We had said that we would consider any feasible options – a single child up to age 5 I think, a sibling group, a disabled child. Six months later, Barbara Williams called to our house to check some part of Barbara’s medical history which apparently was causing an issue with our approval (Barbara had gone through several surgeries on cysts and so on and by now also had an ovary removed). In any case, that was all sorted and literally the following week, Barbara was back with a huge smile to say she had some news. We had been matched with a little girl, age 6 months and we were going to see her the following Wednesday.
I could write pages about our reaction but I will simply say that, in that meeting and before we ever set eyes on our to-be daughter, all the sadness disappeared. And even now, 18 years later, we never tire of reminding Katie that she put our smile back. Much re-arranging of diaries etc, and we were scheduled to go to meet Katie and her foster mum, the truly remarkable Elizabeth Nelis (see the heroes listed on my twitter profile). Another blog in her own right…
On that amazing night, I know Barbara changed her outfit several times, as she wanted to look just right. We went to Elizabeth’s house on the Cregagh Road in Belfast (there are tears running down my cheek as I write this) and Elizabeth showed us to her front room and two minutes later came back with Katie. Barbara tells me that my eyes melted. I can’t remember much other than that Katie surveyed us up and down, that she looked well fed (!) and that she was carrying a yellow star. We made several more visits to that most welcoming house over the weekend of the 12th July and Katie moved in on 15 July.
This is my favourite love story because the period after Katie moved in was the first time since we married that we experienced unqualified happiness. Katie was amazing, adapted quickly, figured out what she liked and we had to buy a 6ft bed because she didn’t like the cot. She didn’t move out of our bed until she was 11. And it’s my favourite love story because my Barbara was meant to be a mother and she has been the best mother (and wife) that any child (or husband) could ask for. She has never put herself first. She gave up several steady jobs to follow me around the world as I joined the rat race and sought the next promotion. She is a better doctor than I will ever be a lawyer (and very irritatingly, she has a better vocabulary than me!). And this is not biased. You should see the cards and letters that she has received on each occasion when she has moved on from her different GP jobs. Of course not every patient needs a Barbara but it seems to me that the people who really need time and who need to be listened to seek her out and this is reflected in the fact that her surgery invariably runs late.
Life in recent years has not been easy for her. Barbara has had to keep the family together when things have been very tough. We had the great fortune to adopt Luke in 2006 (also a separate blog) but our lives were turned upside down when he was just about to celebrate his 5th birthday and I was diagnosed with cancer.
I’ve written five blogs before this (only one about cancer) and Barbara doesn’t get much of a mention. But she deserves one. Since 2010, I have been on and off chemo and well and not so well. Through all of this Barbara has been my greatest support (but not only to me, to my parents, to my sisters and brother and of course to our children). It’s not without challenges being a cancer patient but I think being married to a cancer patient is tougher as people tend to ask about your spouse and forget to ask about you. We celebrated our 25th anniversary last month and I can assure you that there have been many occasions over the last few years when getting to that milestone looked like a stretch. Through all of those times, Barbara has constantly driven me to believe that I can survive and has persuaded me to do all sorts of things that I believe have really helped me, both physically (green juice, no sugar, healthy eating generally) and mentally (gently urging me not to let it get to me when I really didn’t want to get up in the morning). So this blog is dedicated to the woman I love, a rock on which my marriage stands strong and without whom, believe me, I wouldn’t be here today……….
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove.
Oh no! It is an ever fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not within his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.