How Brian and Bap Kennedy find renewed sense of family through illness
The Kennedys both being diagnosed with cancer has brought about reconciliation, writes Gail Walker
Sometimes life brings harrowing blows. Belfast singer Brian Kennedy has just revealed that he is battling cancer - only days after his brother and fellow musician Bap Kennedy, locked in his own battle with pancreatic cancer, made public on his blog that he had been admitted to the Marie Curie Hospice for pain management after receiving the news that his condition was terminal.
The brothers' troubles will shock and sadden many, many people. And not just out of natural sympathy and empathy but because, in their differing ways, they are part of the very weft of Northern Ireland's public life.
Both are supremely talented musicians. Brian (49) has one of the great voices, with a string of successful albums and tours around the world. He has also been a great ambassador for this place - wherever exactly this place is, showing a tolerant flexibility.
A son of the Falls Road who talked about how as a teenager he'd sing along to the police sirens, he has also performed before the Queen at Stormont as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, and was Ireland's 2006 Eurovision Entry. These days he's probably most famous in the Republic as a judge on the Voice of Ireland talent show. But he's a man of our time - able to enjoy and recognise what's important to 'the other side' while losing nothing of himself.
And Bap is a singer-songwriter of genuine artistic heft, joining Brian in working with such luminaries as Sir Van Morrison as well as with Steve Earle, Shane McGowan and Mark Knopfler. Before his solo career Bap had been the lynchpin of R&B inspired rock band Energy Orchard, enjoying international success.
Whether on TV or radio or live gigs, both enjoyed huge support from the Belfast public and there are few of us indeed who have not heard of Brian and Bap Kennedy. Both have touched our lives in a myriad of different ways.
While I have never had the pleasure of meeting Bap, I have on a number of occasions interviewed Brian (below). Most of us were a little smitten with Brian back in the day so imagine my delight when about 20 minutes into our chat he began to stare at me, rapt, in a strange kind of fascination.
Imagine, too, my subsequent horror when he said: "Are you alright? You have a nosebleed." Typically, Brian was kindness itself, solicitous, not at all precious and concerned to put me at my ease despite my mortification. He's a good guy.
As clearly is Bap. One of the most touching aspects of his very candid and human blog about his health has been the manner in which he does not just focus upon the dreadful events that have engulfed him, but like all artists with a great gift for words looks outward and around him, observing the actions and emotions and responses of others.
Bap is ceaseless in his praise for the NHS, the staff of the Hospice, those other people undergoing treatment, the kindness of loved ones and friends who have come to visit. Early on, in a beautiful piece of writing, he described how early one morning he watched a nurse tend to a stricken elderly man with the utmost kindness - and in witnessing that act of kindness and decency he was able to summon up the necessary reserves to face his own day.
Most poignantly, he reveals the emotional comfort he is drawing from the wider music community who are listening to and sharing his music online, with messages about what the songs mean to them, allowing the 53-year-old the chance to lose himself even briefly in the warm embrace of good memories, good times. The arc of Bap's blog is always from the 'I' to the 'you'. That concern for others is a very rare trait indeed. Or as Bap memorably puts it, he wants to use what time he has "fix the things I can and put as much love as I can into the world before the boatman rows me across the big river".
My experience has been that many people pick up that type of sensitivity to, and consideration of, others, in the parental home - in Brian and Bap's particular cases, Post Office worker father Jim and mother Lily.
But families often go a bit awry. Breaking the news of his illness last week, Brian was honest about the distance that had developed between himself and Bap over the years. Many will have registered recognition, for very fortunate is the family that doesn't have these type of tensions within them.
Who knows the reasons? Probably the usual mix of differing temperaments, resentments, perceived slights and misunderstandings.
Of course, what can seem unbridgeable canyons in life take on a truer perspective when touched by the darkening shades of mortality.
Suddenly the past tends to fall away like debris to reveal only the permanent and profound - love, bloodlines and family.
According to Brian, the brothers met recently for the first time in many years. Perhaps as is the way on such occasions there were a few awkward moments amid the comfort of reunion, but that's not really the point. No, the point is just being there. The point is, as Bap points out, fixing things. There is no difficulty to fathom truth here. This isn't complex.
In consideration of the brothers and their illnesses it would only be trite to reach for easy consolations. But their experiences do give us much to ponder about our own lives.
And perhaps the most important thing is this: we create our own families - of friends, of colleagues, of sensibilities and cultural leanings - but for the vast majority of us, no matter what has taken place before, the one that endures, strains and all, is that of family.
Sometimes in the bustle of everyday life, relationships drift away, become antagonistic or just too much bother - not through any huge rift, not through any melodramatic single event. We fritter away our time on trivialities.
Maybe we should check in more frequently on our mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles. While we still have time.