The pain of my last goodbye
Fiona Gratzer, who is originally from Newry and is managing director of Unislim, lost her husband Uwe in a tragic road accident in June this year. She tells Barry Egan about how he died close to where were they married, how numbness has been replaced by "cruel reality" and how Uwe taught her about the beauty of life.
It was their last goodbye. On the morning of June 14 this year, as Uwe was going out the back gate of their home in Drumcondra on his motorbike, Fiona knocked on the bedroom window. When he turned around and looked up, she shouted out to him: "Look what you're missing."
Wearing his favourite necklace and his motorbike gear, Uwe smiled and said: "I love you. See you later."
Those were the last words spoken between them.
It brings Fiona some small bit of comfort to believe that her husband would have felt her love - and would maybe have played back those words in his head in the milliseconds before his tragic collision in Coonmore, Valleymount, in West Wicklow, later that day.
"I know he felt loved by me in that moment," Fiona says sitting in the house she shared with Uwe.
"He could have gone out that door and we could have left on a bad note. Just thinking about that has been a lesson: Don't waste those precious moments you can create with family and friends, don't get consumed with the mundane arguments," she says.
"Especially at Christmas, when people can get can so caught up in squabbles. Extend the hand of friendship to people, because we don't know; we are not in control of our lives. I have learned that over the last six months since Uwe is dead. There are things I can try to control, but ultimately there is another plan there.
"I don't know what it is, but something can happen that can change your life in a heartbeat and when you realise what you've lost, it is important to know you did everything to make that a wonderful experience rather than looking back with regret."
Fiona has met people in the time since Uwe died who have told her their stories and spoken to her about their grief and loss.
"Some people do have regrets, especially when someone has died in sudden circumstances. People will always remember the last conversation they've had with somebody."
Fiona and Uwe met 24 years ago in exotic Langkawi, an island off Malaysia. Fiona was travelling with a friend, Meike Bornhof. On the first day, they realised they were on an island with no alcohol, with electricity for only two hours a day. They played cards all day to break the boredom.
"On the second day a taxi drove up. And a very tall, handsome man got out. Meike and I practically kicked the card table into the air. We couldn't believe our eyes. Then the second door opened and a girl stepped out. All our dreams were dashed. We later discovered that Uwe had met a girl at the airport and they merely shared a cab.
"On the fifth day, on a boat trip, myself and Uwe fell in love. It was an idyllic setting and a very romantic place to fall in love. The love boat!"
The two voyagers on the love boat were married a year-and-a-half later.
She will never forget the doorbell ringing at 1pm that cruel summer day over 20 years later. There were three members of the police force at her door to tell her that Uwe had been in an accident. Uwe was so accomplished a rider that it was the last thing she expected. When the officers asked her who she wanted to ring, she couldn't think of a name, such was her state of shock. All she could think of was that her son Luca was in Spain with her mother Agnes and her daughter Mila was on a sleepover with friends.
Her brother Ciaran was in Florida and her sister Emer was in London. They were both were on planes to Dublin within hours - Emer slept beside Fiona that night.
"I couldn't get into my side of the bed. I haven't actually ..." she says breaking off.
"I just sleep on Uwe's side now. I can't sleep on my side yet. She held me during the night and looked after me."
Ciaran arrived the next day. He held her hand throughout - "and continues to support me" - and took over, with Emer, all the arrangements.
Fiona eventually got hold of her mother, who told Luca. Fiona wanted someone to be able to put her arms around Luca straight after being told his dad was dead. Fiona also had to ring Uwe's daughter, Fiona's step-daughter Esther, who is 30, and to ring Uwe's sisters in Austria.
Fiona was, she says, brought mistakenly to Beaumont Hospital that day "because they thought there was a head trauma, which there was, but unfortunately on the way to the hospital Uwe had a heart attack and they redirected him to Tallaght".
Tellingly, Fiona was met at the hospital by a chaplain. A doctor then asked Fiona did she want to go in. When she did, Fiona was in with Uwe for "maybe ... five minutes" before he died.
In those moments Fiona was able to tell him how much she loved him.
"I hope he understood what I was saying. I held his hand. I wanted him to know that I loved him so much. I held his hand and tried to help him to die in peace and dignity."
Fiona says she has been trying to find the meaning of the new reality facing herself and her children - Luca (17) and Mila (15) - "and how we all move forward in a positive way".
And how does she?
"At the moment, I don't know. I'm only recently widowed. I don't even know what's ahead of me, what the years will bring. Nobody does. All I can say to rationalise it in a way is that it was Uwe's time to be here and it was time to go. I have to let go of that and understand that we are all here for a short time or a long time. What's important, in some small way, is the impact that we make on other people's lives."
Uwe's imprint is in every room in the house, even in the most practical ways. She says the kitchen was designed around a 6ft 5in man. Now when she reaches up to get the coffee cups on the top shelf it's a veritable ballet to get some caffeine.
"Uwe! I never thought I would be jumping up to get these coffee cups on my own," she says, pouring coffee.
It makes her laugh and cry at the same time because, she says, he was so passionate about life and living a really fulfilled life.
"He is in the house. I feel him around. I talk to him constantly. In the bedroom, I haven't had the heart to touch his clothes yet."
Fiona took a conscious decision to be in the house and not go away for Christmas.
"When I was young I lost my father," she says referring to her dad Brian.
"My mother was a young widow. Not unlike me. Well - youngish!" she laughs through tears in her eyes.
Christmas at the House of Gratzer will be a busy one. On Christmas Day, she has 12 coming for lunch: her mother, her sister and her children, Joe Wall and Celine and their kids. Musician Joe and his brother Steve Wall "created a beautiful musical send-off for Uwe at the funeral," says Fiona, who is managing director of UNISLIM - the company Fiona's mother Agnes started in 1972. She says her work colleagues have "been unwavering in their support".
When Fiona, who's 48, looks at her own children now, does it put her back to when she lost her dad?
"It's extraordinary. I feel, though I know everybody grieves in a very different way, that I know how to let them have the space to breathe because it is very similar circumstances for me. There was a shock, and tragedy beyond belief that he walked out the door and didn't come home. The shock of that is profound. I feel that my children need to have a space to come to terms with it without me forcing anything."
She is also keen to talk about Uwe and the impact he had on all their lives, adding: "I'm letting them feel that they can share their grief with me and talk about Uwe. We talk about Uwe a lot. We talk about the good and the bad. There has to be a balanced approach to it. Every relationship, and every family relationship, has complexities.
"We are 24 years married. So, look back with the fondest memories, look at the great love that we had together, the energy, the friends we've created, the beautiful children that we have," she says.
Fiona says that the wake was cathartic for everybody.
"Some people weren't sure how they would react to seeing him laid out in the house. But Uwe's presence in our house gave everybody, including me, enormous strength. He looked at peace. We felt empowered by his presence.
"It was like he was home. It felt beautiful to have him around. I think a wake can be such a powerful thing to do for people. There were hundreds of people in the house."
Uwe was an optician in Austria who then turned to importing designer shades for a number of years in Ireland. When Uwe died, he worked in IBM.
What kind of man was he?
"He had a big smile. He was always joking around. He looked like a movie star. He was a handsome, gorgeous, 6ft 5in tall Austrian.
"Uwe had a super personality. He had a way of connecting with people that I've never seen before. He just managed to create friends of any background. I didn't know he had all of these friends," she says referring to the wake. "He was only in Ireland 25 years and he connected with hundreds of people."
The way Uwe from Graz connected with Fiona from Newry was they met in Langkawi in January 1991. Though when she left the Malaysian island she didn't think she would ever see the charismatic Austrian ever again. Destiny, however, had other ideas.
"I had told him that I was going to stay in my cousin's house in Sydney, Australia. His name was Paul Quinn. So I told him that and I went about my travels."
It was weeks later when Fiona was in her cousin's house in Sydney and the phone rang and she answered it. Fiona puts on an Austrian accent: "Hello, I'm looking for a girl called Fiona McCourt."
Breathless Irish accent: "Oh, this is Fiona!"
Uwe: "I've rung every bloody Quinn in Australia."
Uwe told her that he missed her so much that he wanted to come to see her in Australia. Two weeks later he arrived down under. They were, she recounts, so in love that they went to British Airways and begged the girl behind the desk to change his ticket to let him stay for one more week? "Because we are so in love!" The woman smiled and changed it.
Eventually, he went back to Austria and Fiona resumed her trip around the world. They kept in touch by making phone calls from phone boxes. They wrote letters. When Uwe passed away, Fiona opened his briefcase "for the first time in their 24-year marriage" and saw that Uwe, who was 51 when he died, had kept all their love letters.
"They were really quite sweet," she says of the man who proposed to her by a lake in Austria in October 1990; they were married in May, 1992, in Rathsallagh House in Wicklow.
Her father Brian died in 1985, aged 48, of cancer. Fiona was 18. Fiona's son Luca will be 18 in January.
"Luca and Uwe were so close. They were a little power house together," she says.
A week later, I speak to Fiona again. She talks about how numbness and shock has been replaced with "cruel reality". She talks about how they were married in Crosschapel church in Blessington.
"Ironically Uwe passed the church just minutes before the accident. As the stars aligned which brought us together in Langkawi, fate also played a role in that tragic day. He died close to where we were married.
"Uwe taught me a lot about the beauty around us. I will always focus on the good days and our children. I just wish he was here to relive it all."