Belfast Telegraph

Joanne prayed she’d make it to our daughter’s wedding... she was so beautiful that day, you’d never have believed she was ill

 

By Claire McNeilly

Well-known Northern Ireland businessman Ivan McCombe on how his courageous, terminally-ill wife achieved her dying wish, his profound loneliness after her passing... and how, at almost 60 years of age, he's finally learning how to cook and look after himself.

Nothing could erase the smile from Ivan McCombe's face on that memorable afternoon. Indeed, the McCombe family - Ivan, his wife Joanne and beaming bride Jade - simply radiated happiness.

The wedding day images, however, gloss over the distressing fact that only a few hours earlier a heartbroken husband and daughter were praying that Joanne - terminally-ill with cancer - would actually be there on the big day.

Those smiles captured by the photographer are genuine, though. Despite the pain, which made her all too aware of what lay ahead, the mother of the bride couldn't have been any happier.

"It was a miracle that Joanne not only made it, but looked as if there was nothing wrong with her," recalled 59-year-old Ivan.

"She looked wonderful and we all had a fantastic day."

Joanne McCombe lost her courageous two-and-a-half year battle with a cruel, merciless illness a few weeks ago. She was 56.

All too soon, family and friends were back at All Saints Church in Ballymena for a different ceremony.

And now businessman Ivan - perhaps best known for founding the successful Xtra-vision video empire in Northern Ireland - is attempting to cope with his loss by throwing himself into a myriad of personal and professional projects.

Having been overweight most of his life, the Londonderry native is now well on the way to losing five stone in order to fit into the Armani suit his late wife bought as a present and an incentive. At almost 60 years of age, he has finally learned to cook for himself, use a washing machine and perform other domestic chores.

A keen amateur cricketer, the former Muckamore First XI captain has again immersed himself in the game and, on July 24 - which would have been his 32nd wedding anniversary - he will announce a new business venture.

"I deliberately picked that date because I see it as a new beginning," said the entrepreneur who, at one time, was also Ireland's biggest player in the sunbed and tanning business.

"I'm focused on growing my current business (Yellowtom, the online platform that provides links to Google and other search engines, which he's relaunching as a telesales operation) and I've got to get back out there again.

"The biggest thing for me is the profound loneliness. Joanne didn't want me sitting in an armchair in an empty house every night.

"She always wanted me to lose weight. I've lost two stone since she passed away and I plan to shed another three.

"My main goal is to get into that suit. I've tried before, but I'll do it this time in her honour. It has a waist size 36. My goal is to be into it by Christmas."

He added: "My wife left me with great memories. We had a strong relationship through the good and bad times, including bankruptcy in the early 1990s. I was totally spoiled by her, but I've had to become domesticated very quickly."

A touching love story began when Ivan first spotted 16-year-old Joanne Scullion in the dole office in Ballymena, where they were both signing on. He was 18 at the time.

"She was in the queue in front of me," he said.

"I was instantly smitten, but by the time I got out of the queue she was away. Even though I drove round the town I couldn't find her, and from that day she was stuck in my head.

"Many years later this same girl - for me, the best looking girl in Ballymena - walked into my video shop. We eventually got chatting but I thought: 'She's out of my league'.

"Then, one night, I walked into a chip shop in the town and she was behind the counter; it was her father's business.

"I thought: 'I'll have to make a move here'. And so, two visits and two burgers later that same evening, I finally summoned the courage to ask her out. The following night - March 31, 1985 - was our first date together."

After a whirlwind four-month romance Ivan, a Protestant, and Joanne, a Catholic, got married in Cuningham Memorial Church, Cullybackey.

Daughter Jade came along in September 1989, just a couple of months after her dad had taken on the massive task of helping Xtra-vision - a Dublin-based business - get a foothold in Troubles-torn Northern Ireland.

Within 18 months the then 32-year-old managing director had opened 67 video hire stores and the business was turning over millions.

"I was working 20 hours a day. I had to have a driver so I could have a sleep in the car when possible," he said.

"Some weeks we were opening a shop a day. It was a manic time."

It was also a dangerous time. Two of the Belfast shops were bombed by loyalist terrorists and a third, in Portadown, had a bomb defused by Army experts.

Having established Xtra-vision as the market leader in Northern Ireland, Ivan left to set up his own rival chain, Video City.

He was also forging ahead in the home tanning market, delivering hundreds of rented sunbeds to people's homes every week.

"Life was good for us; so good that you maybe start taking things for granted," he said.

"In the mid-Noughties we were going on three foreign holidays a year. We had a great lifestyle.

"The video business eventually crashed because of online downloads and the rise of Sky, but I had other interests to pursue."

Ivan's hectic lifestyle eventually caught up with him in July 2005 when he had a heart attack while playing cricket.

"I didn't keel over or anything like that," he revealed.

"I wasn't feeling well, and whenever they did a blood test they discovered I actually had a heart attack. I had to have a stent fitted."

Conversely Joanne, a former Irish dancing champion, never got directly involved in Ivan's often-stressful business affairs and was, seemingly, in perfect health.

She was a selfless home-maker, always there for Jade who, like her parents, possesses a sharp mind and graduated from Manchester University with a first class honours degree in optometry.

The pair were very close - more like sisters, according to Ivan. Joanne, one of eight children born to Joe and Annie Scullion, was enjoying a wonderful life.

But that all changed on September 28, 2014.

"I came home from work and Joanne told me she'd made an appointment to see the doctor the following day," Ivan said.

"This was unusual because normally you'd have to force her to see a doctor. She told me she had a sore stomach but we didn't think much about it at the time."

Ultrasound and CT scans revealed that something was wrong and the couple were praying it was nothing more serious than a cyst. However, the diagnosis they had been dreading came in mid-October.

"The surgeon explained it was a rare form of cancer (peritoneal) affecting only one in a million people," said Ivan.

An operation to remove Joanne's bowel and ovaries was performed the following month, but the medical team admitted the long-term prognosis was not good.

For the next year-and-a-half Joanne's life was peppered with bouts of chemotherapy and scans.

By April of last year she was told the tumours had started to grow again

"Jade and her partner (Michael McCourt) had got engaged the previous February, with the wedding date set for New Year's Eve 2016.

"It gave Joanne some focus but her health started to deteriorate quite badly," Ivan said.

"She tried her best to go with Jade for wedding dress fittings but she was very down.

"Joanne got herself a beautiful dress for the wedding, but one night she was in tears and said she had a vision of herself wearing it in her coffin.

"She wasn't sure she was going to be there for Jade's big day."

He added: "The day before the wedding at All Saints, I had been at my good friend and former business partner Davy Smyth's funeral - in the same church.

"Davy (a former Irish League football star who succumbed to pancreatic cancer aged 53) was a hugely popular guy, a really good friend and we'd been through a lot together.

"His death certainly had an effect on Joanne. She saw Davy as being so brave and positive - and then, suddenly, he was gone.

"His death affected her more than I thought it would.

"The day Davy was buried - the day before the wedding - Jade was asking me if her mum would actually make it to the church. That's how bad things had become.

"The emotions at that time were horrendous because Joanne and Jade wanted everything to be perfect.

"They had planned things down to the most minute detail, but in the back of Jade's head, and mine, we thought: 'Will mum make it?'

"But she summoned up the strength from somewhere and she did make it. She looked so beautiful, you wouldn't have believed she was ill."

Perhaps buoyed by the positive emotion of the day, Joanne visibly perked up for a period of several weeks.

"We were out shopping on January 31. She was wearing jeans and a top, and I remember thinking that she looked better then than at any time in the last five or six years," Ivan said.

"I honestly thought we were turning a corner, yet the very next day she woke up feeling unwell. She never got better after that.

"The last three months were tough. She didn't want to go to hospital, but on April 14 she was told she had to. Before she left she called to say goodbye to a neighbour. She must have known then that she wasn't coming back.

"For the last eight days of her life she was in a private room. She passed away on May 2 at 6am, with me by her side. The last thing she said was that she loved me."

Ivan said his deeply religious wife never lost faith throughout her stoic battle - despite having already lost her mother and sister Shirley to cancer when they were also in their mid-50s.

Her father Joe, who had been living with the McCombes following his wife's death, dropped dead at 75 from a heart attack 11 years ago while on an errand for Joanne.

"My late wife's faith helped her through all those tragedies," Ivan said.

"She had no fear of death because of that faith. I'm confident she's in Heaven now, and that is a massive comfort for us."

Ivan recalls Joanne's funeral being an unusually upbeat occasion.

"I didn't wear a black tie and Jade wore a lovely mustard-coloured dress," he said.

"Joanne wouldn't have wanted a solemn affair. She was always upbeat in life, and if there's such a thing as a happy funeral, then we tried to make it that.

"In the last year of her life she accepted everything. She just prayed that she'd make it to the wedding.

"If Joanne had passed away the following day, she'd have died happy."

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