Kathryn Johnston: A great epitaph to my husband, Liam Clarke
Three weeks ago, Liam Clarke, former Political Editor of this newspaper, (and my partner and husband of over 40 years and father of our three children) died.
Just before Christmas two years ago, Liam had been diagnosed with pseudomyxoma peritonei, a rare form of abdominal cancer which originates in the appendix and progresses slowly, but inexorably.
Some people are detected early enough for radical surgery, the Mother of All Surgeries (MOAS), which can extend their lives by a number of years. Liam was not. Chemotherapy had only a 15% chance of curing his cancer, and only a 25% chance of halting its progress. Chemo would have carried with it a host of side effects, among them peripheral neuropathy - tingling, pain, numbness, or weakness in the feet and hands. The risk of neuropathy was greater since he also had Type II diabetes.
Over the last six months, Liam’s condition had been deteriorating. He knew that he would soon have to make the decision to undergo chemo or palliative surgery, or both. That would have forced his hand into giving up work. For Liam, it was a no-brainer.
He wanted to continue to work as long as possible. When the time came, he often said, he wanted what he called ‘a good death’ – the right to die with dignity, on his own terms.
As he wrote in the Belfast Telegraph on 11 June 2014 ‘The fear of a slow, lingering death blights life now.’ And Liam was a man who wasn’t afraid of living. Or of telling people how he felt.
He had a wonderful Christmas Day. In the afternoon he couldn’t wait to try on Adam’s Star Wars slanket, a joke gift from Dan, Alice and Peter. Wielding a selfie stick as a light sabre, he posed for Peter to take a photograph, which he immediately insisted was posted on Facebook.
After I had gone to bed, Liam told Adam, Daniel and Alice individually how much he loved them, and how proud he was of us all. He welcomed Peter officially to the family, and spoke of his admiration and respect for my aunts Betty and Jean, and his aunt Martha and his 91-year-old father.
He was absorbed in his work. Mike Gilson, former editor of the Belfast Telegraph who had recruited Liam as Political Editor, told me at his leaving do this time last year, ‘Liam was my Messi’. He laughed when I told him Liam didn’t have a clue who the brilliant Barcelona forward was.
The day Liam died, Ken Reid, Political Editor of UTV and an old friend and colleague, told a similar story. Last year during what became known as the Shared Future talks, Ken tweeted ‘It is all going terribly well......NOT’. Two minutes later, his mobile rang. It was Liam. ‘I saw your tweet. Are the talks breaking down Ken?’ ‘I had to tell him’, Ken explained, ‘I was tweeting about the rugby.’
We would like to thank all who came to the house, his former colleagues in the Sunday News, The Sunday Times in both Dublin and London, and his colleagues in the Belfast Telegraph. While he loved his time with The Sunday Times reporting on the big security and political stories, I think he felt uniquely at home during his time with the Belfast Telegraph. He had a deep respect for Gilson’s replacement as editor, Gail Walker - though I am sure he debated news values with her as passionately as he did with Mike. He deeply valued the advice and support of his colleagues, Johnny McCambridge, Debs McAleese, Martin Hill, Noel McAdam and everyone else in Independent Newspapers.
As an Irish citizen, born in Our Lady of Lourdes, Drogheda, he would have been deeply touched that President Michael D Higgins asked his aide-de-camp to extend his condolences to us in a private meeting. The Taoiseach, Enda Kenny and the Tanaiste, Joan Burton, were also represented at the service by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs.
After leaving the Workers Party in the early eighties, Liam maintained the compassion and sense of justice which had characterised his beliefs. While he became more cynical about organised politics, he was often moved to tears by what he described as the ‘essential goodwill’ of individuals from all political parties in Northern Ireland. He loved to tease me about my membership of the Irish Labour Party and the Labour Party of Northern Ireland. But he would have appreciated the presence of Shadow Secretary of State NI, Vernon Coaker at the service, whose insight and analysis he admired greatly.
On the morning of the service, a very good friend introduced me to The Physicist’s Eulogy by Aaron Freeman ‘You want a physicist to speak at your funeral’. I have read it again and again since that day.
Liam, an atheist, would have found Freeman’s words comforting:
‘And you'll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they'll be comforted to know your energy's still around.
According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you're just less orderly.’
He might not have had a physicist at his funeral, but we did have Earl Storey, a great friend and former colleague, who paid tribute to him at Roselawn and who had us crying with laughter when he recalled how Liam loved a bargain. Yet at the same time he was the most generous man I have ever met.
There are so many to thank. Ingen Breen, our Zen priest and teacher, who broke off from a retreat in San Francisco to officiate at the service at Roselawn, and the Zen service at our house.
Aaron Black, who is making a film about Liam’s attitude to life and death, and who very kindly brought us a bottle of Liam’s favourite Irish whiskey so that we could drink to his life before he left the house for the last time on the day of the funeral.
All our friends and neighbours. All his colleagues and former colleagues. The moving tributes written by Hugh Jordan, John Burns, Peter Millar and Henry McDonald. The words of Garret O’Fachtna of Belfast Zen at Roselawn.
Politicians, members of all political parties in Northern Ireland – there were too many there to mention by name.
Thank you all.
In his Belfast Telegraph piece of 11 June 2014, Liam wrote:
‘The beauty of life in the face of death is a very Zen concept. Every moment should be lived as if it was our last – as it could be. It isn't a delay to be endured while waiting for something better, it is complete in itself.’
A few weeks before he died, I read Liam an extract from an interview with the Spanish poet and opponent of Franco in the Spanish Civil War, Federico Garcia Lorca, two months before he was shot dead by the fascists near Granada.
‘As I have not worried to be born’ Lorca told the Sol journalist, ‘I do not worry to die.’
‘That’, said Liam, ‘would make a great epitaph’.
Liam, we will miss you.