Aengus Fanning’s Final Journey
An extract from Michael Murphy’s new book
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