The Una Crudden we loved: Family's tribute to a special woman
As a documentary on the lives of cancer patients airs next week, Una Brankin meets the family of 2014 Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year and tireless campaigner, the late Una Crudden
It’s Una Crudden’s 60th birthday party and, as she walks into the bowling club hosting the celebrations, her young grandchildren run to greet and hug her, while the rest of the guests break into applause.
She dances with her husband, Felix, twirling and singing along to the music in the sweet, clear voice that stood out in her parish choir and placed her in demand for feast days and funerals.
Later, she’s up on the podium with Felix and some of the family, standing behind him as he makes a short informal speech to wish her a happy birthday. His voice breaking, he says he hopes everyone will be back to celebrate her 65th.
Una reaches out and strokes the back of his neck in a comforting gesture that makes this footage, from an upcoming BBC One documentary, presented by Stephen Nolan, unbearably poignant.
The Truth About Cancer features patients including the late, great Una Crudden — the Belfast Telegraph’s Woman of the Year 2014 — following her from the beginning of her ovarian cancer awareness campaign to her final holiday, last autumn, by the sea in Waterfoot, Glenariff, “her spiritual home”, as her daughter Lisa McGarry describes the North Antrim beauty spot where the family has a caravan.
Informative and moving, the programme shows Stephen spending time with some remarkably brave individuals, and their loved ones, at different stages of illness and recovery, trying to understand the effect cancer is having upon their lives.
“I was a pure mess, but I loved it — it really captured mum,” says Lisa, angular and all in black.
“It was good the way they showed mum and Felix’s crazy banter and her saying she couldn’t go two steps without him looking for her.
“That was typical; she couldn’t sit still and she’d be down at Asda with bags of shopping and Felix would be ringing to see where she was and coming to pick her up.
“And it was lovely to see the footage of her 60th birthday party and the kids running up to her,” adds Lisa. “She was quite sick at the time, but that didn’t stop her gallivanting about. We’re very lucky to have that." Felix agrees: "It was very emotional watching it, but the producer and cameraman were very respectful at the time and they've done a very good job."
Una's feminine touches are all over the living room of her immaculate Poleglass home; from the angelic etching on the glass entrance, to the draped muslin curtains and the embellished soft furnishings in various shades of purple and teal, the colour of her awareness campaign.
Her faith is writ large, too; a crucifix has pride of place among her awards on her glamorous white stone fireplace and a painting of a youthful, good-looking Jesus hangs on the wall above the comfortable sofa.
There are figurines of angels in evidence, too, although Lisa is quick to point out that Una wasn't a devotee of the angel therapy lark.
"She wasn't into angel cards, or anything like that, but her faith was strong and never wavered," she says, in a soft and quickly spoken delivery, like her mother's. "There was far more of her paraphernalia here, but Felix has stripped it out."
"Too much clutter," Felix explains.
He's a fresh complexioned 58-year-old, well-groomed in a purple tie with a matching shirt and fine-knit sweater, and smart grey slacks. A former painter and decorator, he would make an eligible bachelor, but his love for his second wife, of 21 years, is all encompassing.
They met 24 years ago at the local Church of the Nativity, where Una's funeral was held last December 8. In the service booklet bearing her favourite photograph on the cover, she had written: "To Felix: You are and always will be the love of my life. Thank you for the happiness you gave me and the way you cared for me from day one. You are my destiny, you are my one and only. Remember, this still stands."
Their meeting was "absolutely" love at first sight for Felix, who would walk Una home from mass every Sunday morning during their courtship.
"We used to jokingly call him 'the stalker', but then he started to bring nice food and we thought he was okay then," Lisa smiles.
The couple married three years later. "Una had Meniere's disease, which causes tinnitus and put her off balance, so she'd get up from that sofa to go out the door and walk into that wall," explains Felix.
"She wanted me to be the kids' legal guardian if anything happened to her, so we got married in the registry office; then when I got my annulment, we got married in the chapel. She used to say, 'He loved me so much he married me twice'."
Una's first marriage was also annulled. In the aftermath, Lisa, her eldest of five, would sit up at night with her, and it was Lisa who the devastated Felix first turned to when Una got her terminal diagnosis five years ago to the day of her funeral.
From then on, she accompanied the couple to every consultation, absorbing the medical facts and accepting the inevitable when Una still held out hope.
Part of next week's documentary was filmed in the grounds of the NI Hospice in July after Una had been given two or three weeks to live. She had turned down an aggressive last round of chemotherapy on her consultant's recommendation, as it could have caused heart failure and extremely harsh side effects.
She had responded well to treatment in the past, but this one had only a 10-15% chance of working.
"When she was told she only had weeks, she said, 'No, you're wrong - I'm not ready to go yet', and she battled on," Lisa recalls. "The consultant gave her an anti-sickness driver at that stage, but she had no morphine until the end. Around October she just got very tired and wasn't eating very well, but then she was on steroids for a while and felt quite well. She was wrapping Christmas presents and making plans."
But like the actress and Loose Woman panellist Lynda Bellingham, who lost her battle with cancer last year, Una did not get her wish to see Christmas.
"Towards the end she just knew," says Felix quietly. "The disease took over and she was ready to go. She'd given up."
Lisa nods: "Up until then she had been hopeful she could fight it a bit longer. She tried everything - all this alternative stuff - then she just stopped hoping.
"On the Sunday she asked to go into the hospice; she said she'd feel safer and more secure with 24-hour care and she had been very comfortable there in the summer."
As her full-time carer, the hospice provided much-needed support for Felix: "We had to do everything for her in the end. I was up during the night bumping her driver up and it got to the stage that we were lifting her in and out of bed; she was skin and bone near the end and we were afraid of hurting her."
Una described the hospice as "a little place of heaven on earth for the terminally ill". She died two days after her final admittance, on December 4, 2014.
Says Lisa: "She wasn't fearful. She became a little detached in the end and didn't want lots of visitors but when a priest from Longford, a friend of hers, arrived on the Sunday night, she had a good long talk with him.
"After he left she said to me, 'He has scrubbed me clean and saved me - I'm ready to meet Him now'. She wouldn't say anything bad about anyone after that; she said she didn't want to dirty her soul."
Felix smiles at the memory. "The hospice was just like home for her and at the end it was like being at a five-star hotel," he says. "The district nurses had done all they could with her pain medication, but once she was admitted into the hospice, they had her pain and sickness completely under control.
"The staff and volunteers were constantly feeding us and bringing us blankets - you couldn't have got better in private healthcare."
Una's (non-identical) twin Ethna was at Una's bedside with the family when she died. The doctors had given her a couple of hours admittance. Typically of Una, she lasted two days.
"When she heard that my sister had arrived from London, she said 'Good' - that was the last lucid thing she said. She went into a deep sleep but she was still aware of us. She just drifted away. It was a lovely, very peaceful death."
Although Felix's faith seems strong, surely Una's suffering tested it? "You ask questions; they pass through your mind, like, why did such a good person have such a horrible last couple of days," he admits. "But if you are a spiritual person, you believe in eternal life. That's it."
The four-day wake was attended by members of all the political parties, including Edwin Poots and Jim Wells, who appeared fond of Una. She had left "memory bags" for all the family, and keepsakes for all her friends and nieces and nephews.
She organised her funeral to the last detail, including the coffin-bearers. There was to be no big black bow on the front door - "too morbid" - and the candlesticks she'd bought in a charity shop were to be used; and only the cheapest coffin was to be bought to put her in.
She had booked the four priests for the service and the crematorium, chosen the hymns, organised her memory cards and the burial of her ashes, and written poems for her "wee late one", Nathan (19), and older son, Philip (30).
"She had presents for everyone's birthdays - she said she'd stop at my 40th or she'd be going on forever - and she made this book, and had it bound, of inspirational quotes from people like the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King - and herself!" Lisa laughs.
"She even had hundreds of cancer awareness leaflets made for the funeral - she said it was too good an opportunity to miss with the crowd that was bound to turn up.
"The funeral was very 'her'. She had chosen everything so you could feel her in it. She wanted her coffin to be carried by her five kids and Felix because, as she said, 'You carried me through'. We had to take out some of the songs she wanted for the crematorium, as we were told, 'You have half an hour, not all day!"
It has been just over six weeks since Una's death and while Felix still feels her presence to a certain extent, Lisa cannot. They have been offered bereavement counselling and help with sleeping but they are dealing with their grief in their own ways.
Says Felix: "I keep busy - I go out for walks and go shopping. I've visited friends in Longford and Una's youngest daughter has bought me a ticket to visit her in London.
"And my mother's 89 and she's ringing and telling me to come round for something to eat all the time; and all these ones are always asking me round for dinner and so on, but sometimes you just need to be on your own. You have to get used to making breakfast for one and you put off going to bed; I get flashbacks at night."
Lisa was surprised by her own initial reaction to her loss.
"It's weird; I'd thought I'd have to take to my bed with grief after mum died but I didn't, and I thought I was doing quite well. Then I was in Starbucks two weeks after mum went into the hospice and I looked down at my phone and suddenly realised 'It's two weeks since I spoke to mum'. I would never have gone two days before. I thought I was doing well but I just went to pieces there and then in front of everyone. It's the wee things like that that get to you."
Una's ashes are buried in Hannahstown cemetery, apart from enough to fill a tiny urn each for the family, and an extra one to be buried under a rose plant at Waterfoot and scattered in the sea.
"One day about four years ago she said we have to go shopping," Felix recalls. "I said, 'No, we don't, we don't need anything. She said 'I need a grave'."
But Una's award-winning ovarian cancer campaign will not be buried with her. Felix and Lisa are planning to link up with Tracey, a breast cancer survivor from the documentary, to campaign for cancer drugs - currently limited to Great Britain - to be made available here.
"Una had all the facts and figures ready to hit the Assembly with if she'd lived," says Felix, tears threatening. "Like the name of her CD, she truly was an angel of hope."
The Truth About Cancer is on BBC One next Wednesday, February 4, at 10.35pm
With one in three people in Northern Ireland developing cancer at some point in their lifetime, The Truth About Cancer seeks to reveal the emotional, physical and psychological impact that the illness has upon its sufferers and their families.
Throughout the film, presenter Stephen Nolan spends time with individuals and their loved ones at different stages of their illness and recovery, and seeks to understand the effect that cancer is having upon their lives.
Among the other people that Stephen meets are Sarah from Belfast, who was first diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma when she was 18 and has already gone through one course of stem cell treatment. He also meets five-year-old Ellie Louise and her family from just outside Dungannon, who was diagnosed with leukaemia at the age of three and has been undergoing treatment ever since, as well as Andy, a cancer survivor of 15 years, from Bangor.
Stephen also meets with mother of two, Tracy, who was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago. In the film she and her children speak about how they came to terms with her diagnosis.
Tracy’s 78-year-old father, Brian, who has been living with multiple myeloma, an incurable cancer of the bone marrow, for the last eight years also features in the film. Brian passed away towards the end of filming.
The programme looks too into the advances in modern science which are giving cancer patients a higher rate of survival, with Stephen discovering that Northern Ireland is leading the way in the development of new treatments and drugs.
“This was a very inspiring journey for me,” says Stephen.
“It has been an experience that has truly moved me and will stay with me.”