'Nothing is as bad as losing Sean, not even my cancer'
Writer Colm Keane and RTE newscaster Una O'Hagan tell Andrea Smith about the son they adored and how they have coped with his untimely death
Colm Keane tenderly describes his beloved son who passed away in 2007: "Sean was the apple of our eye, and I always thought there could never be anybody better than him. He was a beautiful child, extremely affectionate and really nice, and I know everyone says that about their children, but he truly was. He was extremely bright too and was always top of his year."
Sean Keane was born in November 1987 to his parents, RTE newcaster Una O'Hagan and writer Colm Keane. He left this world a mere 20 years and one month later, having being diagnosed with cancer just over two-and-a-half years earlier. Sean passed away on Christmas Day, always a day the family loved spending together.
The day before, when they knew their son's death was imminent, Colm and Una had to go off to a little coffee shop nearby to discuss arrangements. It was surreal, because everyone around them was clutching bags of Christmas presents. They sat there in agony, with their hearts breaking in two, while trying to plan their only child's funeral.
Colm and Una are two warm and kind people who have been through every parent's worst nightmare. Gracious and compassionate, they have come through devastating things that would have floored most people. They met in 1986 in the RTE canteen. Colm, then 34, was filling in on Morning Ireland and Una, then 23, thought he looked interesting, but they were with colleagues and didn't speak to one another. Later, Colm asked her to go for a drink. "I thought Una was very good-looking and she had a very nice personality," he says. "I felt I could get on with her. When I arrived at the pub, she was sitting there reading a book."
Una was impressed by Colm because he was very good-looking, a great talker and had a wide range of interests. They went for a Chinese meal after that, and were an item from then on. Sean was born a year after they got together in November 1987, and they were married five years later in Scotland. "Having a baby first wasn't the done thing at that time, but everyone was very good about it," recalls Una.
Colm and Una moved in together and became a tight-knit family. "Sean became everything to us, and he was the love of our lives," says Colm. "We became like the three musketeers, or a terrible threesome."
The family settled in Bray, ending up in a beautiful house overlooking the seafront on the edge of Bray Head. While Colm and Una hadn't planned only one child, that was the way it happened. While Una says Sean had his dad's determination and focus, Colm feels his son's drive was tempered by his mum's softness. "He was an amazing kid," he says. "There was something special about him, and he was extraordinarily bright but extraordinarily humble about the brightness. I remember him telling us a story about another kid getting bullied, so he went over and tackled the bullies."
Sean was fit and healthy and excellent at sports, won gold medals for debating, and was very considerate and thoughtful around other people.
He loved his time at Blackrock College, and it was expected that he would achieve an excellent Leaving Cert. Sadly, when he was in fifth year, his world, and that of his parents, came tumbling down.
Sean came home from school one day with a pain below his right knee, and it was initially put down to a football injury. When it persisted, Colm took him to the doctor and then for an x-ray when something odd was spotted. An orthopaedic surgeon diagnosed a tumour. It was believed that it was a very localised cancer and could be taken out.
Days later, on Holy Thursday 2005, Sean went for a full body scan. To their utter devastation, Colm and Una were informed that Sean had an aggressive cancer called osteosarcoma of the bone, and it had spread to his lungs and he was going to die. "Our lives ended that day, because we have never been the same since that moment," says Colm. "Sean was called in and was effectively told the same thing. There were only two seats so I was leaning against the door for support, and I looked down at Sean, who was only 17 but an incredibly mature and sensible young man. He looked serene, but he was digging his nails into the palms of his hands under the table."
Colm recalls coming home that first dreadful evening, and sitting on the sofa in despair through the night, sleeping and waking and being hit with the news all over again each time he woke. The one thing he knew for certain was that the three of them would fight what was ahead together.
"It was dreadful, beyond comprehension, but the human brain is an amazing thing," says Una. "Even though we'd had the worst possible news, we wanted to ensure that Sean made it through what was to come. His friends were terrific, and they were really good to him, so he was lucky. His school was great too, and they did everything they possibly could, and understood when he couldn't come in or when he got tired."
As the illness took hold, Sean, previously a strong, six-foot-one teenager, lost a huge amount of weight. In his final days, as he was entering into a coma, he asked for a pen and made a will. Sean had three bank accounts, and donated the money in one to cancer research, the other to a young boy from a disadvantaged background that he mentored, and the third, which contained €35, was for his parents to buy a dog.
"He wanted us to get a dog as he knew we would be lonely," says Colm. "It was heartbreaking, reading his note a few days later. He had written that he was going to a better place, as he truly believed that. He thanked me for all the cowboys and Indians that I played with him as a child. We had 17 golden years before Sean became ill, and everyone knew that and would talk about how close we were. He battled really hard, and was only concerned about us, and he was unbelievable right until the end. He was terribly worried about Una and would talk to m e occasionally about how mum was bearing up and things she might be worried about."
Colm says Una was brilliant through that time, as he went to pieces and she was the strong one who slept on the floor beside Sean. It brought them closer, they say, because while it was the worst experience of their lives, it was also profoundly meaningful.
"I said it to Una the week after Sean died that we had been through something very special," says Colm. "Not in the sense of being brilliant or anything like that, but in terms of the emotions we felt and the depths to which we had gone. There aren't many people who would have either gone through something like that or come out the other end of it."
Colm and Una say they got through the raw pain one day at a time, although life will never be the same. Una took two weeks off after Sean's funeral, and then went back to work, where colleagues were kind and supportive.
Now 53, Una has been working in RTE for 34 years. Colm, now 64, is from Cork. At RTE he worked on crime programmes for a long time, then moved to radio, where he did about 150 music documentaries, and began writing books in 1990.
Colm decided to leave RTE in 2003 to focus on writing, and has written one book a year since. He and Una have kept themselves busy with work since Sean passed away and have done a lot of travelling. They left their house in Bray two years ago and moved to Ring in Waterford, as Sean went to Irish college there and they had been talking about getting a holiday home in the area. Their son actually told them that he saw a great site while he was there, and that is where their house is now. They also have an apartment in Dublin.
Two days after moving to Ring, Colm and Una's neighbours' dog Frankie arrived at their gate. While their busy lives didn't allow for the dog Sean had wanted them to get, they were delighted to meet Frankie. His owners were getting older and unable to walk him, so he was a little overweight.
Frankie decided to bring Colm and Una out on walks to the shop, beach and other place. It inspired them to collaborate on a new book called Animal Crackers, which features funny stories about pets. It's fascinating and even poignant in places, and animal-lovers will adore it.
In what seems a particularly cruel twist of fate, Colm was diagnosed with cancer of the throat three-and-a-half years ago. He first realised something was wrong when he was being interviewed on radio and felt like he had a piece of food lodged at the back of his throat. He went to a consultant, who did a biopsy. Colm had stage four twin cell carcinoma, and was given a 20% chance of surviving it. He has had chemotherapy, radiation and two surgeries on his neck, including the removal of part of his jaw and half of his epiglottis, which helps you to breathe and eat.
"It was very bad but so far so good, you can't keep a good thing down," he jokes. "I don't think about it, because after what Sean went through, it's small fry, and there is always the chance of being the one in five.
"If I was being pushed over the edge of a cliff, nothing will be as bad as losing Sean, so I never think about my cancer. I get out of bed and get on with life, and I have to say that Una has been brilliant."
Animal Crackers: Irish Pet Stories by Colm Keane and Una O'Hagan, Capel Island Press, £12