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Dear Dad: We think about the things we would tell lost loved ones

Published 12/12/2015

Mixed emotions: Arlene Foster
Mixed emotions: Arlene Foster
Arlene Foster's late father John Kelly
Grateful to mother: Joe Cushnan
Young Joe

After Arlene Foster's poignant Facebook post about her much missed father, John, our two writers on the updates they'd love to give their late parents.

Shortly after the deadline for nominations for DUP party leader closed on Wednesday evening and it became apparent that Arlene Foster would be stepping into the role - and also that of First Minister - she shared a poignant post on Facebook, wondering what her late father would make of the elevation.

Alongside a picture of her dad, John Kelly, who was a full-time RUC officer and part-time farmer, she wrote: "This day four years ago I was in Heathrow when I got the news that my precious daddy had died. Today I was also in Heathrow, and as I thought about him, as I do everyday, I couldn't help but wonder what he would say to me about all the news....#missyou" The comments prompted a huge response from family and friends, which isn't really surprising as Mrs Foster had touched upon a sentiment that so many who have lost loved ones reflect upon?

It's often said that it would be great if the bereaved were able to - just occasionally - get five minutes to pass on details of family life, observations and just random thoughts to those they mourn.

Here, we ask two writers to reflect upon just what they might say if that opportunity were ever to arise.

‘There’s always that yearning to talk to them about life’s big milestones’: Lindy McDowell

What is so very touching about Arlene Foster's musing on what would her father have had to say about her political success is that it's something in us all, isn't it? No matter how old we get there's always that yearning to talk to our parents about those major achievements in life - those big milestones.

It's not about boasting or bragging. Most of us are what our parents made us, so it's more about sharing the moment, revelling in the joint glow of success attained.

And then listening as they tell you how they would take it from here if it was them ...

The poignant aspect of Arlene's Facebook posting is that her dad is sadly not around to share the moment. That's something many of us can relate to.

My parents are both dead quite a few years now. It's not the big things in life I miss being able to talk to them about. I couldn't begin to count how many times down the years since their deaths that I've been on the point of picking up the phone to my father or mother to tell them some tidbit of news - family or otherwise - that I know would tickle them. My mother loved good news. Stories about anyone - even people she didn't know - doing well in life.

Like so many highly intelligent working-class women of her generation, she had to leave school young. Which is probably why she was so fanatical about education. (I think Tony Blair got his old election slogan "education, education, education" directly from my ma). On the day a couple of years ago when my nephew Stephen went to do his interview at Oxford we shared a few misty-eyed moments in the family imagining how proud she'd have been at that. And how many of the neighbours she'd have told.

She was the one you'd have wanted to ring first with any news of a wee bit of success.

Any exam passed or slight job promotion or any tale of your own brilliance you felt the need to share with her was always warmly, generously applauded.

She was just as encouraging about defeat or failure.

"Och, sure it's not the end of the world." Which always helped even when I was pretty certain it was.

My da, it would be fair to say, pre-dated the era of parental gush, so he wouldn't have been a man for greeting every triumph no matter how trivial with the now compulsory: "I'm so proud of you."

He was neither gushy nor pushy - but you did know when you'd pleased or impressed him.

There'd be that wry wee smile on his lips and a few grudging, bantering words of acknowledgement.

Unlike my mother, he was not unduly concerned about educational success.

But he was a man of tremendous creativity and inventiveness. One of his favourite sayings (I think he remembered it from a school book) was: "The simplicity of the device belied the ingenuity of the creator".

This would have been trotted out to us when he was demonstrating some bizarre mechanical contraption he'd constructed.

The ingenuity of the creator being modestly saluted was, needless to say, his own. He would have been the first man you'd have wanted to let know about some example of your own practical expertise.

The day I fixed the washing machine all by myself I thought immediately of him and how he'd have been impressed with that one.

Not a week, not a day passes when they don't flit through my thoughts.

My mother and my father and what they'd have made of it all.

I know that I am so very, very lucky in that I had my parents for so long.

All those major milestones in family life, they were around for all that.

But like Arlene, like anyone who's lost their father or their mother, so often I long to pick up the phone for that chat with them again.

Not even to discuss the big news, the good news, the bad news or the headlines.

'I would want to find a way to restore all the wonderful things my mum did': Joe Cushnan

Both of my parents have passed away. My father died in 1982 at 57. He suffered a brain tumour. I didn't really know him and he certainly had no idea how I grew up. My mother died in 2011 at 86. She had dementia, but she was there every step of the way in the key moments of my life.

There are things I would like to say to both of them if I could get in touch with the other side. Most of what I would say to my father might be unpleasant, as he did a poor job as the head of the family, a man who abandoned us many years ago and who even denied that his Belfast family existed.

I would tell him about my wife and sons and all of their wonderful achievements. I would tell him about my school days, my after-school job delivering groceries, my love of westerns, my retail management career, the places where we lived, my Open University degree, the car I won in a competition, the holidays I have enjoyed, about my friends and all the things, both important and trivial, that he missed. I suspect I would try to goad him into regretting his decision to vanish from our lives, denying himself, amongst other things, the joys of grandchildren. I can only speculate how my life would have been different if my father had not left home, but he did and, happily, we got on very well without him around. When I see fathers congratulating and celebrating with their children, as I do with mine, I carry the occasional sad thought that he wasn't there to give me a pat on the back.

When my mother was in hospital in the last phase of her life, as dementia was taking control of her memory, I paid her a visit. When I walked into the room, she pointed at me and said: "I know your mother." It was a sobering moment. She is the most heroic person I have ever known, raising seven children single-handedly and never abdicating her responsibilities, even though there must have been times of worry and strain and certainly times when money was tight. If I could talk to her now, I would want to find a way to restore all the memories of the wonderful things she did in her life, raising and loving us, bolstered by her faith.

I would like to remind her of all of the things I would have said to my father, but with a different tone. She forgot a lot of the special moments in her life and just how important and influential she was. We are what we are because of her, not him.

I am reminded of things like school reports handed over nervously to my mother, but there was no need to fear anything because she would always assess the information before offering a word or two of praise.

I have my first primary school report from December 1960 and while I can't claim to remember her precise reaction to it, I think I am right in assuming that she would have been more than pleased that her wee Joseph was eighth out of a class of 45. She would not have been overly impressed that the class teacher's only remark was the single miserly word "pass". Eighth out of 45 was no mean feat and worth a sentence, surely.

One thing I learned from my father's story is that it is far too easy to walk away when the going gets tough.

There is much more I could say to him and about him. But it's my mother's commitment to her family that makes me both humble and proud. She's gone, but she's still here in so many ways.

It is an obvious fact of life that we all start with two parents. What happens from the moment we are born is a matter of decision and circumstance.

I know many people who have enjoyed seeing both parents live happily to old age. I know some who come from so-called broken homes and have found life to be more than tough.

I don't consider my life to be a sob story because my mother saw to it that we had a happy home, great birthdays and Christmases and all the hugs of encouragement and celebration. She gave all her children a solid foundation on which to build a life. In my case, as the old song goes, a mother's love's a blessing, no matter where you roam. Amen to that.

'Dad would have loved us going to watch NI in the Euros next year'

Pete Snodden (35) is a Cool FM DJ and lives in Bangor with his wife, Julia, and their daughters, Ivanna (3) and Elayna (1). He says:

Jackie, my dad, died from cancer in September 2014. We were very close - I'm an only child, so I was close to both my parents - so we were always playing golf or football together, or heading for a pint.

My dad was proud of me and he always told me so. He knew I was following a path that I really enjoyed.

He always told me to work hard at what I wanted to do and it would just get easier.

The one thing I know he would have loved is for him and me to go to watch Northern Ireland in the Euros next year.

He absolutely doted on my elder daughter Ivanna. Even when he was in hospital having treatment she would arrive with her nurse's kit to examine him and try to make him better.

When I think of that now, it brings a tear to my eye or makes me chuckle.

I know if dad was still here now, he would love to see how Elayna was growing up. He knew she was on her way, but he died in the September and she was born in the November.

I know he would have been exactly the same with her as he was with Ivanna.

He and my mum would never hesitate to take Ivanna for a day if we were busy and she always came home with a toy or a treat.

She's not walking yet, but she is standing and holding on to things.

He would have been delighted to see that."

‘I always think how proud mum would be if she could see what I do now’

Emma Heatherington (37) is a novelist and playwright and lives in Donaghmore with her three children, Jordyn (19), Jade (14) and Adam (13), her partner Jim and their son, Sonny Jim (1). She says:

My mum Geraldine passed away from a sudden heart attack when I was 15, so she wasn't around to see my first novel published.

Mind you, she did see the first seeds of creativity starting to emerge. She had to listen to the songs I wrote on my keyboard - not that I could actually play it.

I also remember her reading my very first attempt at a play when I was 13. She read it sitting beside the fire.

I know my mum would have been front and centre at every opening night and every book launch. She was very creative herself and was a member of the Bardic Theatre Company for years.

Even the week before she died, she got a letter to the editor published in Woman's Own magazine. It wasn't much, but it was something she celebrated - it was the first time she got published.

I think about what my mum would say all the time. I did when Sonny Jim was born and, indeed, through each of my pregnancies.

You would naturally turn to your mum at a time like that and I always think how proud of me she would have been if she could see what I do now."

‘Dad phoned to say he was proud of me ... it was a stunning moment’

Ivan Little (60s) is an award-winning actor, writer and broadcaster. He lives in Belfast with his wife Siofra. He says:

Both my parents, Billy and Iola, passed away within a year of each other when I was about 40. I was working for UTV at the time, but I had become a professional actor before they died, so they knew I had moved in that direction.

My mother was quite outgoing and would have talked to us regularly about our careers. But my dad was very quiet and wasn't a man who spoke about his feelings. I suspect he was a bit unsure of journalism, although I know he was peacock-proud of my brother, who became a chartered accountant.

Dad was a milkman, who bought a newsagents and I was still helping him deliver newspapers when I was at UTV.

He only told me a couple of times that he was proud of me - once was when I won a Best Actor award when I was in amateur theatre and the second time was when I directed a programme on the La Mon Hotel fire-bombing on its tenth anniversary.

He phoned me up to tell me he was proud of me.

That was a stunning moment and made the whole thing worthwhile.

I never entered anything else until I won the Features Journalist of the Year award at the CIPR Awards this year.

I think he would have been proud of that, but then I think he would have been proud of his children no matter what we did, as long as we were happy and able to look after ourselves."

Belfast Telegraph

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