Aen­gus Fan­ning’s Fi­nal Jour­ney

An ex­tract from Michael Mur­phy’s new book

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Life - - SHUTTERBUG -

On the third floor of the new St Vin­cent’s Pri­vate Hos­pi­tal, I walked up to the nurses’ sta­tion. “Is it al­right to visit Aen­gus?” A wide, cheru­bic smile. “Yes: he’s ex­pect­ing you, Michael . . .” and he glanced at his watch “. . . at three o’clock.” It showed seven min­utes to three on the clock high up on the wall be­hind the nurse, so I went back out into the foyer to wait by the lift.

What I knew was that Aen­gus was the ed­i­tor of the high­est-cir­cu­lat­ing Sun­day news­pa­per i n Ire­land, t he Sun­day In­de­pen­dent, and dead­lines ob­vi­ously had to be im­por tant to him. I took the op­por­tu­nity to bathe my hands in the dis­in­fec­tant gel which was avail­able at the dou­ble doors out­side the ward. He was suf­fer­ing from lung can­cer, and ac­cord­ing to his wife, Anne, a trau­matic in­ci­dent had thrown him into a sud­den and fe­ro­cious de­pres­sion, which had caused his morale to plum­met. Al­though Aen­gus hadn’t read my book, he would have been aware through the in­ter­views I gave on tele­vi­sion and ra­dio of my ex­pe­ri­ence in cop­ing with prostate can­cer, and the loss of my brother to can­cer. Those were the ob­vi­ous rea­sons I was called to visit him. Anne’s hope was that Aen­gus might open up to me, but I didn’t know what to ex­pect.

When I walked into the bleakly func­tional hos­pi­tal room on the dot of three o’clock, I met a tall, well-built man with shoul­der-length grey hair who was stand­ing by his bed in a dress­ing gown. The blinds were down, block­ing out the win­ter sun­light, but in the gloom I could see that Aen­gus was hand­some, not par­tic­u­larly fierce-look­ing for a suc­cess­ful chief ex­ec­u­tive, about my own age, and he in­vited me to pull up another chair. “How are you?” I asked.

“Ar­rah, just OK,” he said, weakly. “I’m a bit down to­day. And how are you?”

“When I was go­ing through the can­cer I was down as well. Are you tak­ing any­thing for it, Aen­gus?”

“Zispin, but it’s a very low dose.”

“You can take up to forty-five mil­ligrams, which is what I took, was glad to take. It’s like a bandage: it keeps the two sides of the wound to­gether while the heal­ing is go­ing on. So be sure that you take it, Aen­gus.”

Thus be­gan a se­ries of bi-weekly vis­its to a man that I came to ad­mire for the even-tem­pered na­ture of his en­durance, and the brav­ery with which I saw he un­der­went the vi­cis­si­tudes of his ill­ness. More than that, I found he had an emo­tion­ally in­tel­li­gent, sen­si­tive na­ture, which was beau­ti­ful to be­hold and very at­trac­tive to ex­pe­ri­ence. I was com­fort­able in his cour­te­ous pres­ence.

He pressed the bell, and when a nurse ap­peared, he sur­prised me by ask­ing, “Please, would you bring a cup of tea for my guest?”

Early on dur­ing our get­ting-to-know-you dis­cus­sion on that first day, Aen­gus laid down the ground-rules. “Peo­ple ask too many ques­tions,” he said, smil­ing at me, “don’t you find that?” The smile lit up his face, and ex­tended up into his eyes, which twin­kled with dev­il­ment. I came to love that smile, which was ready, de­spite his suf­fer­ing. He had a slight Kerry ac­cent, which showed it­self i n t he Gaelic un­der­pin­ning of the way that he spoke English: “Nach dtu­igeann tu e,” or per­haps in the na­tive Corca Dhuib­hne di­alect: “Cad dearfa? Don’t you find that?”

I was maybe too ea­ger, a rest­less in­tru­sion into the mea­sured pace of his re­cov­ery. I soon un­der­stood not to ask him any­thing about him­self un­less he vol­un­teered the in­for­ma­tion. I was also ret­i­cent about con­tribut­ing any­thing into the con­ver­sa­tion that would di­vert him in any way from what he wanted to say. I reined my­self in to ac­cept the in­evitable si­lences with­out show­ing any im­pa­tience or anxie ty, be­cause my psy­cho­an­a­lytic train­ing would have im­pelled me to in­ter­rupt the reverie of one of my clients, invit­ing them to clothe what was go­ing on for them in words.

Th­ese vis­its with Aen­gus had a dif­fer­ent tenor: they were be­ing framed dif­fer­ently for a start. Aen­gus was to be my guide on a jour­ney whose desti­na­tion was with­held from me: the trav­el­ling was all. I was also en­ter­ing as a guest into his do­main, and ac­cept­ing the good man­ners of that des­ig­na­tion. Aen­gus gath­ered his re­sources be­fore re­leas­ing what he de­cided to say, which took ef­fort be­cause of the pres­sure on his breath­ing. He had the se­cu­rity of an oxy­gen mask at his nose. At times, I felt that he was teach­ing me. “What broad­caster do you most ad­mire?” he asked me once. “Gay Byrne,” I said. “I was watch­ing the Queen’s visit. Wasn’t it won­der­ful? At one stage in Dublin Cas­tle, Pres­i­dent Mar y McAleese be­comes overex­cited, and I saw Gay Byrne in­ter­vene and talk to the Queen, and deftly steer her around out of the way. It was ex­tra­or­di­nary to watch. He has that skill he used on air: it’s a sim­plic­ity which con­ceals art.” He looked across at me from the bed. “Peo­ple think any­one can read the news, and they can’t.”

“It re­quires grace un­der pres­sure, which is Hem­ing­way’s phrase,” I added.

He re­peated the phrase, “Grace un­der pres­sure: I like that,” he said, chuck­ling to him­self. At the time, I hadn’t re­alised the dev­as­tat­ing truth with which Aen­gus was grap­pling.

Of­ten­times we sat in si­lence, and he would close his eyes briefly, un­til he wanted to say some­thing again. Those si­lences were pow­er­ful. They had the ef­fect of block­ing out the hos­pi­tal bus­tle so that the two of us ex­isted in­side a com­pan­ion­able bub­ble, each of us con­cen­trated on the other so that the words when they ar­rived could splash over us and have their full, drench­ing im­port. I’d fo­cus on his mouth, and re­main still un­til he spoke, which he did with in­creas­ing fre­quency as he be­gan to trust me, and as I be­gan to trust my­self.

Those en­coun­ters were in­tense. The in­ti­mate set­ting of Aen­gus’s bed­room al­lowed for a di­vest­ing of the worldly masks in which we clothe our real selves. When he be­came ag­i­tated, and be­gan to ask where his sons had gone to, I knew that he was tir­ing, and that it was time to make a move to go.

“I could come back and visit on Thurs­day next if you’d like, Aen­gus?” “I would like that.” “I’ll see you on Thurs­day, so.” And I’d grasp his hand, swollen with drugs, out­stretched from above the bed­clothes, and walk gen­tly from the room.

He was keen to take ex­er­cise, to get air into his lungs: “Crown says it’s a good thing.” I guessed that this must be part of Pro­fes­sor John Crown’s nar­ra­tive of hope, al­low­ing Aen­gus to get through his days while keep­ing up his morale. So we’d walk slowly and with great ef­fort on his part from the hos­pi­tal room up to the fam­ily room, where he’d reach for a chair to sit down grate­fully, and hold out his shak­ing hands for a plas­tic beaker of wa­ter.

Of­ten there’d be visi­tors in­side, talk­ing or watch­ing tele­vi­sion. We’d sit there in that at­tuned si­lence we’d brought with us while he re­cov­ered his strength, and the rapid gulp­ing of his heavy breath­ing be­came qui­eter, and eased. When he sig­nalled he was ready, we’d walk back de­lib­er­ately, he lean­ing on the walk­ing aid, push­ing it ahead of him and try­ing to steer it im­pa­tiently around the nurse’s trol­leys in the cor­ri­dor. Those walks were con­ducted in semi-si­lence, be­cause Aen­gus didn’t have the breath to talk and to walk at the same time.

Oc­ca­sion­ally I’d en­cour­age him with a, “Well done, Aen­gus: you’re do­ing re­ally well,” be­cause the un­der­tak­ing he’d cho­sen was enor­mous, at the out­er­most limit of his re­serves. He quoted back to me San­ti­ago in Hem­ing­way’s The Old Man and the Sea: “I went out too far.” But he’d in­sist on com­plet­ing five rounds, 10 walks. “I’ll try again,” he’d say, count­ing off each of them un­til he’d achieved his tar­get. It was while we were rest­ing in the safety of his hos­pi­tal

room dur­ing the turn­around that Aen­gus would ven­ture some per­sonal com­ments, which were pithy, go­ing di­rectly to the heart of the mat­ter.

Of­ten­times he bounced his re­marks off my ex­pe­ri­ence of sur­viv­ing can­cer.

“I get very anx­ious: feel I can’t breathe,” he said, look­ing up at me search­ingly. “Like a panic at­tack,” I of­fered. “Yes, that’s it. I get into a panic. Do you have that?”

“I did, Aen­gus, when I was un­der­go­ing the ill­ness.”

“It ’s like drown­ing ,” he said. “I felt some­thing in my chest was bro­ken,” and his eyes were wild with the fright of re­mem­brance.

“It’s a ter­ri­ble feel­ing when it’s there, but it does pass, Aen­gus.”

And from his face I’d read whether I should con­tinue on and ven­ture a pos­si­ble so­lu­tion for deal­ing with his ter­ror, or whether val­i­dat­ing his ex­pe­ri­ence was enough, which made us brothers in arms, caught up in a gal­lant fight to the death against that unscrupulous foe, can­cer.

More of­ten, the ac­knowl­edge­ment that what he was feel­ing was ap­pro­pri­ate, seemed to be suf­fi­cient to help him cope with what was so alien to the pre­vi­ous life he’d led as a healthy man, up to just six months ago.

His ex­pe­ri­ence since then was so pro­foundly shock­ing, and driven on with such celer­ity, that he didn’t have time to catch up with the as­sault from the disease, nor have the per­sonal space to re­coil from the sav­age wilder­ness of the medics where im­me­di­ately it had taken him.

It was the Oc­to­ber Bank Hol­i­day Mon­day, and the ward was rel­a­tively quiet. Aen­gus had been ad­mit­ted for side ef­fects from the ‘won­der drug’ he was on. A scan had been done, of which he hadn’t yet had re­sults.

Oc­to­ber had been a happy month, the only re­ally happy month since Aen­gus was di­ag­nosed in April.

He’d man­aged to go to work, to have meals out, and to play his tin whis­tle. He told Anne, “I want to die at my post!”

Aen­gus and Anne were happy on that af­ter­noon sit­ting in the fam­ily room, wait­ing for a doc­tor to give some steer about the symp­toms he was suf­fer­ing.

An on­col­o­gist, not on Aen­gus’s im­me­di­ate team, ar­rived with the on­col­ogy nurse in charge that day. And with­out ado, pro­nounced, “I’ve seen your scans, and the disease is pro­gress­ing!” Their world fell apart as the doc­tor moved on, leav­ing be­hind that primed bomb.

From be­ing a free man, overnight Aen­gus was held cap­tive, with his life de­liv­ered into the hands of another, who treated him as the ob­ject of their spe­cial­ity, an ad­di­tional cru­elty of which he was made painfully aware.

The change was be­wil­der­ing. Can­cer had un­manned him. Aen­gus held him­self with

great dig­nity, but he was in deep shock. Anne re­sponded by ask­ing if she could stay the night with him, and the staff was won­der­ful about that. She slept be­side Aen­gus in the hos­pi­tal al­most ev­ery night from then on, un­til he came home for Christ­mas.

“It’s a catas­tro­phe!” As a jour­nal­ist at the top of his pro­fes­sion, Aen­gus chose his words ad­vis­edly. His short ut­ter­ance in my pres­ence was mak­ing known that the in­com­pre­hen­si­ble mis­for­tune of be­ing di­ag­nosed with lung can­cer, a disease which was pro­gress­ing, was a tragedy whose de­noue­ment ended in dis­as­ter.

“Crown is hop­ing to shrink the tu­mour with the chemo,” he ex­plained, but his tone sounded un­con­vinced. “I think I’d be bet­ter off out of it al­to­gether, if I don’t im­prove. This is no life. I sleep al­right with the drugs, but it’s not a rest­ful sleep. I can’t read any more. I just sit here, wait­ing.” He’d been star­ing straight ahead, his head on the pil­low. “It’s like an out-of-body ex­pe­ri­ence,” he said, in­cred­u­lously. “I’m look­ing on, and I don’t know what day is which. Did you find that?” “Yes, Aen­gus.” “Sure, what’s the point in that?” I was lis­ten­ing in­tently to what he had to say, and there was con­sent in my si­lence. On another oc­ca­sion, I named it emo­tion­ally for him: “You have great suf­fer­ing, Aen­gus,” which seemed to take him by sur­prise. He said noth­ing in re­sponse, per­haps un­will­ing as a man not to down­play it, but he pon­dered what I was say­ing. Some days later, I over­heard him ad­mit to Lucy, who was busy af­fix­ing tabs to his chest in or­der to take a car­dio­graph, “I’m very sick, you know.”

I ques­tioned whether I was one of the only peo­ple around Aen­gus who gave him the free­dom to think about giv­ing up the fight, since ev­ery­one’s ef­fort was aimed at get­ting him bet­ter. All the mem­bers of his team had man­aged, with­out ly­ing, to keep up his morale. I felt his sub­ver­sive thoughts to be more in tune with the re­bel­lious de­mands of his spirit, a truth he was silently con­ceal­ing out of re­spect for the res­o­lute ef­forts of the med­i­cal team, and of his loved ones.

I saw the ev­i­dent love and pro­tec­tion with which all three of his adult sons, Dion, Evan and Stephen, sur­rounded their fa­ther. At var­i­ous times, I wit­nessed each of them solidly by his side, pub­licly hold­ing his hand. How could their fa­ther will­ingly break those links, and aban­don them?

What I didn’t know at the time, what Aen­gus didn’t tell me im­me­di­ately, was that his joy in life had been robbed from him, and his hope, so im­por­tant for re­cov­ery from can­cer, had been stolen by that cal­lous, throw­away re­mark “. . . the disease is pro­gress­ing”, which hadn’t sought to match where the pa­tient was at. Aen­gus had never suf­fered from de­nial. As a news­pa­per­man, he could ac­cept the horror of re­al­ity, and at times he chose to es­cape from it as well. But now, there was to be no es­cape from so pro­found a loss of hope, which attacked at the roots his soar­ing, hu­man spirit.

“I’m try­ing to live with what I’ve got,” was what Aen­gus had said. I came to value his re­marks for their wis­dom, and his open ac­cep­tance of the hu­man na­ture which they dis­played. He quoted Kant: “The crooked tim­ber of hu­man­ity can never be made straight.”

“I think Marx and the church both got it wrong on the per­fectibil­ity of the hu­man be­ing: it can’t be done,” was another of his con­clu­sions. Aen­gus was pro­cess­ing a life­time of ex­pe­ri­ence, the good and the bad, which he em­braced even-hand­edly.

I re­alised that I was in a very priv­i­leged po­si­tion to have such ac­cess to him. The nar­ra­tive we con­structed over sev­eral vis­its had the feel of one long, ex­tended metaphor. Aen­gus de­scribed it to me as “a med­i­ta­tion”. Our con­ver­sa­tion was picked up where it had left off, coloured only by the mood of the par­tic­u­lar af­ter­noon. It was a type of poem, where the cho­sen words res­onated widely through many lay­ers of ex­pe­ri­ence, so that the truth in all of its full­ness was built up stroke by del­i­cate stroke, a por­trait pre­sented with warmth and great gen­tle­ness. Ver­i­tas stood framed in the win­dow, look­ing out shyly from be­hind a lace cur­tain of words, which she was in the process of pulling aside, and she was won­der­fully beau­ti­ful.

Aen­gus ranged widely over the present and his past, shin­ing a beam with ex­quis­ite felicity on what he chose to show me. When he talked about his meet­ings with the Bri­tish ac­tor Oliver Reed, he de­scribed him as be­ing “an aris­to­crat, who con­structed his bad boy per­sona purely for the me­dia. He was a most sen­si­tive man.” On another oc­ca­sion, Aen­gus said: “I don’t be­lieve those var­i­ous ac­counts you hear in Dublin about drink­ing ses­sions in Paris with Sa­muel Beck­ett. He was ded­i­cated to his writ­ing. Beck­ett was an in­tensely pri­vate man, a recluse.”

Ten­derly, over time, Aen­gus was tak­ing me into his con­fi­dence, and telling me about him­self through the anec­dotes and the sto­ries that he told about other peo­ple. “What is your next book about, Michael?”

“I’ve writ­ten about those who ap­peared in my first book, and brought their sto­ries up to date.”

“I have many sto­ries, but they’re pe­riph­eral to the main events. I was never able to write a book my­self, al­though I tried.” He thought for a mo­ment, and then stated, “You can write about this, if you like,” and he smiled at me, af­fec­tion­ately.

At the time, I didn’t know what he was ask­ing me, and I didn’t want to probe. We’d been dis­cussing Joyce ear­lier, “A very self­ish, un­sym­pa­thetic man, al­though his short story, The Dead, is a master­piece”, and it crossed my mind that Aen­gus had in mind for me a sec­re­tar­ial role along the lines that Beck­ett had played for Joyce, and that he was giv­ing me per­mis­sion to write his bi­og­ra­phy.

It was a for­mu­la­tion of the truth, that our im­por­tant work was al­ways an­cil­lary to the res­o­lute, lov­ing en­durance with which Anne car­ried him ever y day. Hers was the con­ver­sa­tion which would con­tinue on. Aen­gus told me that his wife was, ex­cep­tion­ally, in Lon­don for the first overnight she’d spent away from his side. The visit was for a the­atre open­ing: her daugh­ter Nancy had a new play on in the Bush The­atre. “Do you know Anne?” he asked. “We’ve spo­ken on the phone,” I ad­mit­ted. “She’s a won­der­ful woman!” Aen­gus had met many well-known fig­ures in the course of his long, 28-year ca­reer at the helm. “Be­ing ed­i­tor must have been a very pres­suris­ing job?”

“It was at times, par­tic­u­larly in the early days, from gov­ern­ments, and from in­di­vid­u­als. Hec­tor Legge was ed­i­tor [of the Sun­day In­de­pen­dent] for 31 years. He sent me a note when I was ap­pointed that I wouldn’t beat his record.” Aen­gus be­came thought­ful for a mo­ment. He looked over at me from the bed and sought my eyes. “I’m go­ing to say some­thing now that I’ve never said be­fore, to any­one, least of all to my­self. I don’t think that I’ll ever be ed­i­tor again.”

I was seated in the arm­chair by his bed, with my two hands rest­ing down over the arm­rests. I didn’t move, fully con­cen­trated on be­ing calm in or­der to hear what he had to say. He con­tin­ued, “It’s very peace­ful, don’t you think?”

For a can­cer ward in a busy hos­pi­tal, sud­denly there was no noise at all. We savoured the peace, as the re­ver­ber­at­ing im­pact of the con­clu­sion Aen­gus had reached af­fected both of us pro­foundly, and changed the solemn at­mos­phere in the room so that it be­came no­tice­ably lighter. At that mo­ment, the evening sun came out from be­hind the bar­rier of the clouds and streamed into the room.

Aen­gus was let­ting go, and ac­cept­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of his re­tire­ment.

“D’you know Lon­don Snow by Robert Bridges? He also had lung disease.” And he be­gan to re­cite: “When men were all asleep the snow came fly­ing,

In large white flakes fall­ing on the city brown . . .

Dead­en­ing, muf­fling, sti­fling its mur­murs fail­ing;

Lazily and in­ces­santly float­ing down and down . . .”

He paused. “Isn’ t that a won­der ful ad­jec­tive ‘brown’ that Bridges em­ploys, not black or grey, but brown.”

He was silent again. “I think we un­der­stand each other, Michael.” And he smiled at me, crin­kling up his eyes, se­cure that, like the gal­lant knights of old, we’d forged a faith­ful­ness to the truth in the sa­cred still­ness of Aen­gus’s room, which would see us through to bet­ter days.

“This lunchtime, I had a golden sleep,” he said, “it was re­cu­per­a­tive.”

The fol­low­ing morn­ing , at the psy­cho­an­a­lytic prac­tice dur­ing a break be­tween clients, Terry called me ur­gently, fling­ing open the door of his con­sult­ing room, and he ap­proached me hold­ing up his iPhone on loud­speaker mode. “Lis­ten!” he com­manded. It was Anne’s voice from Lon­don air­port. “Aen­gus died an hour ago. He had his shower early, and he was sit­ting out on his chair when he sud­denly leaned for­ward. They got him back on to the bed, and when Dr Crown asked him, ‘Are you al­right, Aen­gus?’ he said he was, and he just

died.” I wept, over­whelmed that Aen­gus was no longer alive, that he was now at one with the sud­den si­lence. He’d been so at peace yes­ter­day af­ter­noon that we’d talked for over an hour and 20 min­utes: it was com­pletely ab­sorb­ing. And I was to see him again on Thurs­day. I’d left the whole af­ter­noon free for him, I’d even put it into my di­ary. Now it was over. “I’m sorry, Michael,” said Terry. “I found it very dif­fi­cult,” I sobbed. “On the way into the hos­pi­tal, I’d play Bach in the car to calm my­self down, and put my mind in or­der. I’d sit lis­ten­ing to the mu­sic in the car in the un­der­ground car park un­til it was time to take the lift to the third floor, and the on­col­ogy ward. I never knew what to ex­pect when I’d knock on the door, how he’d be, who’d be there, whether he’d re­mem­bered. On one af­ter­noon re­cently, Aen­gus was asleep, and when he was wo­ken up by his youngest son, Stephen, to ‘Michael is here’, I over­heard him say from out­side the door, ‘I was ex­pect­ing him on Thurs­day?’ ‘But to­day is Thurs­day,’ was the re­ply. And I walked in, and he apol­o­gised to me se ve­ral times for sleep­ing . Dread­ful, dread­ful. I felt I was im­pos­ing. Did he feel he had to see me? The in­dig­nity of bloody can­cer!”

His son, Dion, said to me yes­ter­day in the cor­ri­dor that it’s so un­fair, and all I could do was re­peat what he said, “So un­fair. It was like vis­it­ing my brother Kie in hos­pi­tal, when he was dy­ing: it brought it all back. I found the emo­tional de­mands ver y trou­bling. What must it have been like for Aen­gus? He was such a courageous man, he never com­plained: he even died like a gen­tle­man . . . I said, ‘I’ll see you again on Thurs­day,’ and he said, ‘I don’t know whether I’ll be here, or at home.’ And I gave him my word, ‘Don’t you worry, I’ll find you Aen­gus, wher­ever you are.’ I am so, so sorry that he’s dead, re­ally sorry, about all of it. And Aen­gus said: ‘

For now the doors are open, and war is waged with snow;

And trains of som­bre men, past tale of num­ber,

Tread long brown paths, as to­ward their toil they go;

But even for them awhile no cares en­cum­ber

Their minds di­verted; the daily word is un­spo­ken,

The daily thoughts of labour and sor­row slum­ber

At the sight of beauty that greets them.’”

‘The smile lit up his face, and ex­tended up into his eyes, which

twin­kled with dev­il­ment.’ — Aen­gus Fan­ning emerges from the Ir­ish Sea at Sea­point in June 2004

‘I don’t think I’ll ever be ed­i­tor again’ — The ‘Sun­day In­de­pen­dent’ news­room with, from left, Ron­ald Quin­lan, Aen­gus Fan­ning, Anne Har­ris, Camp­bell Spray, Willy Bren­nan, Tony Wil­liams, Wil­lie Kealy, Jody Corcoran,

Jerome Reilly and Liam Collins

‘Do you know Anne? She’s a won­der­ful woman’ — Aen­gus and his wife, Anne Har­ris, with the poet An­thony Cronin in Black­rock, Co Dublin, for Blooms­day

‘I have many sto­ries, but they’re pe­riph­eral

to the main event’ — Aen­gus with, from left, his sons Dion, Stephen and Evan

in Barcelona in 2000

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