'Losing Johnny and my fight with depression'
UTV reporter Letitia Gwynne (45) lost her husband of two years to cancer and has battled with bipolar disorder.
Published 23/10/2007 | 13:14
There is a warmth about Letitia Gwynne that is genuine, caring and compassionate.
When she speaks it is from the heart. Like any mother - she has a son, Felix (18), and daughter, Martha (17), from her first marriage - she worries for her children. Spending the past 25 years covering stories dealing with a rollercoaster of emotions has reinforced in her mind the sheer fragility of human life.
This was reaffirmed, too, earlier this year when her second husband, Johnny, died of cancer at just 58. They had been married for only two and a half years.
Although Letitia had resigned herself to being single for the rest of her life after her first marriage broke up, gradually she began to socialise again.
And it was during a night out in the summer of 2002, that she met John - and thought for the first time that she might marry again.
As she and a friend waited for a taxi home a limousine pulled up - and Johnny was inside.
He and a friend had been at a rugby match in Dublin and they were dropping off his sons, non-identical twins Paul and Jay, now 33, at a night club.
"We asked him for a lift home, which was a bit cheeky of us I suppose," she laughs, her eyes sparkling.
"He said 'certainly girls' like a true gentleman ... and he was."
Johnny, an amateur actor, invited Letitia to watch him perform in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
"It turned out that I wasn't able to make it but I met him for lunch instead," she recalls.
"He mentioned the word 'joy' in the conversation twice. I took it as a sign because my name, Letitia, means joy in Latin.
"He was 14 years older than me and I thought he was my perfect older man. We had so much in common and like me he was divorced with two children.
"We got on really well and he asked me out to dinner. It was lovely to have a companion to share my life with again. He was really romantic and always sent me flowers - white roses or carnations."
The following year, Johnny proposed.
"He took me to Tipperary, to a beautiful old country hotel, and we took a rowing boat out on a lake," she says.
"It was a lovely, clear day. He rowed to the middle of the lake and got down on his knees and said, 'We are in the middle of this lake, in the middle of Ireland and I am going down on both knees to ask you, Letitia Maria, to marry me'. I said yes and we were engaged."
Her engagement ring is in the shape of a Maltese cross with red garnets and bands. The cross is a symbol of her deep faith. One of eight children, Letitia was born into the devout Catholic Fitzpatrick family. Her parents, Maura and Vincent, took them to Mass "not once a week, but once a day" .
She is grateful for the faith her parents passed on to her and admits to " finding great consolation in prayer ... " but she acknowledges, "I'm a sinner like everyone else".
She continues: "Initially, Johnny came to Mass when we were going out together and after we got married we both went to his church, the Church of Ireland.
"I used to say 'thank you for coming to church with me' and he would reply 'thank you for asking me'."
Exactly one year after the couple were engaged, on July 31, 2004, they wed at Groomsport Parish Church. Letitia's son Felix gave her away and Martha was her bridesmaid. Johnny's sons were groomsmen.
"The first song at the reception was My Lovely Rose of Clare which we waltzed along to and it was just beautiful," she says, her voice choked with emotion.
The couple moved to Ballyholme in Bangor, where they spent their free time walking Johnny's Jack Russell dogs, reading poetry and acting.
They starred in a production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya in which their characters fell in love on-stage.
The happiness in Letitia's face fades as she recounts how, 16 months into their marriage, she suffered a breakdown.
"I couldn't sleep at night, my mind was racing. I spent a whole week in floods of tears and I didn't know why I was crying. Everything was getting on top of me. I was worried about the future, my family, everything and everyone," she explains.
Playing over and over in her mind was a "terrifying incident" which occurred while out reporting on a riot on Belfast's West Circular Road. "An Orangeman shouted at me, 'that's an unexploded blast bomb at your feet.' I looked down and I saw this thing at my feet. I said to the cameraman and sound man, 'let's get out of here'.
"As we were making our way out of the Highfield Estate a masked man ran past with petrol bombs. A woman shouted 'what's that camera doing here?', drawing attention to us. It was one of the most terrifying days of my life. Thankfully, we got out safely. But I never forgot that day."
As time went on, the impact of what could have happened began to dawn on her. "Sometimes it's really hard to keep your composure when you're interviewing people," she admits. "One that has always stayed with me is when I interviewed Maureen Kearney whose son, Andrew, was brutally murdered by a gang of IRA thugs in 1998."
Nine years on, tears roll down Letitia's cheeks as she recalls that difficult interview. "Andrew was a father of four children, he was sitting in his flat with his two- week-old baby when a gang burst in and dragged him out. They shot him in the lift and left him to bleed to death, tampering with the lift so no one could save him. I was sitting opposite Maureen during the interview and could not stop crying. She was heartbroken. As a mother, I couldn't help but think of my own son.
"It's hard to watch your children grow up. Naturally, you want to protect them from any danger there is in the world but on the other hand, they have to find their own way.
"I covered the funeral for UTV and Mrs Kearney said to me, 'Letitia, I'll never forget your tears'."
The following summer, Maureen Kearney passed away. Aged 66, she died of a broken heart.
"It upsets me to this day," she says, wiping away her tears with a tissue. "The most upsetting thing was that her son's killers would never be brought to justice."
While Letitia doesn't want to single out specific stories, she says the memories of covering certain atrocities, like the Omagh and Shankill bombs, will never leave her.
"It's when you go home from work that it hits you," she says. " After Omagh, I went home and I cried and cried. I cried sore ... the deaths, the funerals, the sheer destruction. There were young girls killed ... to think I could have taken my daughter out for her to be blown to bits. I felt exactly the same about the Shankill bomb."
Having previously experienced a bout of deep depression in her twenties, she recognised the symptoms of her breakdown and sought professional help.
She spent two months in Windsor House at Belfast City Hospital during which time she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, or manic depression as it is also known.
"There is such a stigma attached to mental health problems here," she says. "It's never really talked about, yet one in four people will experience it at some point of their life.
"There's nothing to be ashamed of and it's important for people to know that ... and for the public to understand that it could happen to anyone.
"I would urge anyone who is worried about their health to go to a specialist and get medication which will prevent you from reaching an awful low where you feel that life isn't worth living."
The 45-year-old spent a further nine months recovering at home with the love and support of her friends and family.
"Johnny was so good to me; he used to bring me bowls of porridge in the morning," she recalls.
But just as she was putting her life back together there was bad news, the type she had spent her whole life worrying and praying would never happen. She was to lose a loved one - to cancer. Her beloved husband, Johnny.
What first began as stomach spasms was eventually diagnosed as pancreatic cancer, one of the hardest cancers to treat.
By the time it is diagnosed it's usually too late - for Johnny it was.
"He had a cancerous tumour in his pancreas," explains Letitia. " The doctors said that he had between two months and a year left. They tried to operate on him to remove the tumour.
"When they opened him up there was a tumour the size of a mandarin orange wrapped around a vital blood vessel so they had to close him up again. "
Johnny decided against chemotherapy saying that it would only prolong his life for a short while and make him very sick.
Eight months after his failed surgery, Johnny passed away with his close family by his bedside. The previous day he was admitted to hospital to receive a blood transfusion. His devoted wife stayed at his bedside until he fell asleep and then she returned home.
At 5am, she received a phone call from the hospital to say that Johnny had collapsed after losing a pint of blood. She rushed to his bedside while he waited for an ambulance to transfer him to the Ulster Hospital.
"He had an oxygen mask on but was still able to talk," she recalls, taking a deep breath.
"I was holding his hand waiting for the ambulance when he turned to me and said, 'you won't leave me will you?' and I said, 'no Johnny, I won't leave you, day or night'."
Letitia telephoned his family - brother Robin, sister Norma and son Jay. Paul was in Scotland and wasn't able to make it back in time. There was nothing more the doctors could do for her husband.
"He was taken into a side ward and we all gathered around. I asked Robin to say a prayer and while he was saying it Johnny slipped away.
"Robin was holding Johnny's hand on one side and my hand on his other arm. It was very peaceful. We all hugged him and said goodbye."
At his funeral service, held in the church where they married, hymns previously picked by Johnny were sung and a friend read the WB Yeats' poem He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven. He was cremated afterwards at Roselawn Cemetery in Belfast.
"His ashes were scattered by Paul and Jay at Strangford Lough on Father's Day," says Letitia.
"The place meant a lot to him as he grew up around the Ards peninsula."
Nine months on, Letitia is slowly but surely trying to rebuild her life by enjoying simple things such as going to the theatre or cinema with her daughter, and travelling. Son Felix is backpacking around the world on his gap year and she toured part of Italy with him last month.
She adds: "I find it difficult to be on my own for long periods. I received a text message from my old friend Ann Marie and it said, 'don't worry Letitia, there are lots of people here to catch you.'
"It gave me great comfort to know that because sometimes you feel like you're falling ..."