Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Features

My most heartbreaking and uplifting moments: three writers reflect on a decade gone by


Cancer fight: Colin McAlpin and granddaughter Scarlett
Cancer fight: Colin McAlpin and granddaughter Scarlett
Heaven sent: Leona O’Neill and daughter Maoliosa
Shared DNA: Alex Kane and daughter Lilah
Football fans: Colin McAlpin with Heidi and Scarlett watching Crusaders
Huge loss: Leona O’Neill with her late dad William

From the loss of a beloved parent to the arrival of a precious son or daughter, three writers recall their most heartbreaking and uplifting moments from the past decade.

Heidi McAlpin: I will keep dad’s memory with me

Life is made up of clubs. Some you want to be in, others you don't. On Christmas Day 2009, I broke the exciting news to my family that I was pregnant with my second child. I was, quite literally, in the club, again.

The following June, just four days after my 39th birthday, my son Freddie arrived, kicking and screaming into this new world.

Fast-forward 10 years and another club was looming. The start of 2019 rattled along as usual. Local football matches were attended with my dad and daughter and internationals with my husband. A glorious week was spent in the Algarve, a holiday I'd won on ITV game show Tipping Point.

Work was going well, too, and, all in all, 2019 was turning out to be a pretty carefree year.

And it got even better in July when I went to Canada with my husband and kids for two fab weeks touring around its cities and sights. Back in Northern Ireland, my mum and dad were dog-sitting our dachshund, Minnie, celebrating her second birthday with a cupcake and two candles. I know this because they shared a pic on Facebook with the dog looking suitably nonplussed at all the attention.

We then arrived back home with what can only be described as a jolt. I rang my dad, Colin, to chat about our hols. He listened attentively, then said he had been having scans and blood tests, but didn't want to worry me. "I know I have cancer," he said, bluntly.

Sign In

There had been no diagnosis, but that was to change when, just six days later, I accompanied him to the City Hospital, where the doctor confirmed the worst; dad did, indeed, have cancer.

A week later, we went to watch his favourite football team, Crusaders, play Wolves at Seaview. Dad was already visibly weak, but nothing was going to stop him enjoying this big fixture.

More appointments and a futile dose of chemo followed and my dad was well and truly ensconced in the cancer system.

He was determined to stay out of hospital, but it wasn't to be. Friends came to visit and, all the while, dad remained upbeat.

He talked animatedly about completing work on the Crusaders Museum, a project close to his heart. He reminisced with old colleagues about the good old days and wrote two articles about his condition and the dedicated staff at the cancer centre for this very newspaper.

The feedback he received lifted his spirits and he always talked about getting home and everything returning to normal.

His final trip out of hospital was on a sunny day. I asked him where he wanted to go. The Rinkha in Islandmagee for an ice-cream? Perhaps a trip to Rowallane? "Take me home," he said. "I want to see if you have a Brian Morton sign in the front garden." Ever the joker.

I drove him to his house in Carryduff, a place he had lived in since his 1967 wedding to my mum, now his ex-wife and still good friend.

Dad looked around the living room and was pleased to see everything intact. Then he went to bed. And slept. And slept.

He was just happy to be surrounded with familiarity, normality and blissful silence. We arrived back at the City Hospital at 10pm, just as they were about to send out a search party.

Dad's next article was to be about his move to the Marie Curie Hospice. He wanted to reassure readers that it was nothing to be feared, even though I know he feared it immensely.

He was now a shadow of his former self, his voice low and his ability to move virtually non-existent. "I want to get my legs strong again," he told me. "Dad, do you want me to be honest with you?" I replied. "Okay," he nodded, knowing the truth more than he cared to admit.

"Your legs are not going to get stronger, but your mind is as strong as ever. Focus on what you can do, not what you can't." He nodded and smiled.

The next day, more friends came to say hello. "Please, no more visitors," he whispered to me.

But there was one more I knew he had to see. It was his childhood friend and fellow Crusaders supporter, the Rev Ken Newell.

Ken sat by his bedside, talking football and the good old days. Then he stood up and asked dad permission to say a prayer.

What followed was a scene so powerful, so unforgettable, that I believe it allowed my dad to let go.

Ken's soothing and heartfelt words were among the last dad was to hear. He passed away in the early hours of the following morning, on Friday, September 20.

It all happened so fast, from diagnosis to death, but he had seen everyone he wanted to see and he was now free from pain.

Three months on and I am now a member of a quite different club; people who have lost a parent. I know it will get easier as time goes on, but Christmas really does heighten emotions.

As I celebrate the season with my 10-year-old son, 13-year-old daughter and husband, I will keep dad's memory with me. We all will.

And that is what he would have wanted. Well, that and the Crusaders Museum.

Heidi McAlpin is managing editor of Belfast & N Ireland In Your Pocket

Alex Kane: I wasn’t ready for love to triumph

The decade began for me on October 9, 2009, with the birth of my daughter, Lilah-Liberty. I can still recall, in almost forensic detail, the exact moment she was placed in my hands and the heart-stopping, breathtaking waves of emotion and relief that swept through me (I remember thinking I was going to faint and crash to the floor with her).

Emotion, because, as an adoptee, it was the first contact I can remember with someone with the same DNA: that blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh moment that most parents take for granted.

And relief, because Kerri and I had endured the misery of four miscarriages over eight years and I wasn't prepared to truly believe that love and joint determination really would triumph over serial, brutal, soul-destroying experience until I felt her warm and wriggling body nestling in against me. I almost drowned her in tears when she curled her miniscule fingers around my thumb as I sang Bring Me Sunshine. I still sing it to her almost every time I go into her room to say goodnight.

Three months after she was born, I took the decision to work from home as a freelance writer. It was a huge risk, because it meant a whopping cut in income and the uncertainty which accompanies the lack of a guaranteed salary lodged in your account every month.

But I’ve never regretted the decision. As an older dad, I was always aware that I would have less time with my children than those who become parents in their twenties, so I wanted to make sure that I made the most of the available time.

One thing I learned from my time in an orphanage is that the most important things my adoptive parents gave me were unconditional love, security, confidence, certainty, a place that I knew was my home, constant encouragement and the sound of laughter.

If those things steered and shaped me, allowing me to rebuild my life and discover my own identity, I was pretty sure they would also be important for my own children (Indy joined us in 2017 and the wonderful Megan, Kerri’s daughter, has been with us for 20 years), too.

The other thing I did over the last decade was to explore my own past. It was a journey that began in the Belfast Telegraph, when I wrote a piece about my adoption in 1961 by Sam and Adelaide and how they took a mute, terrified, hide-in-the-corner six-year-old (whom they had been advised not to adopt) and gave him the life he now has.

What really surprised me was the response to the piece and the sheer number of people who talked to me in the weeks following publication; along with the numbers who contacted me through my Twitter account to share their own stories of adoption (some of which were heartbreaking).

I returned to the story a few more times for the paper and wrote about the absence of all memories of my life before the orphanage, along with the terrifying nightmares — trapped in darkness and screaming — I’ve had for almost 60 years and the Herculean efforts of Sam and Adelaide to help me cope with crippling shyness, dark, dark depression and a chronic fear of waking up and discovering myself back in the orphanage.

I still have problems with the shyness and the depression, but I have learned to keep them under control most of the time. But the fear of waking up and discovering that my present life and happiness has all been a dream, returns at regular, impossible-to-control intervals.

On October 13, a decade after Lilah’s birth, I fronted a documentary for Radio Ulster called Before I Was An Orphan (produced by the brilliant Conor McKay). I returned to the orphanage (no longer used as such); the school I attended while I was there (I have no memory of it); spoke to a teacher who was there at the time (although she had no memory of having taught me, but did remember children coming from the orphanage); and gained access in the Public Record Office to files relating to the orphanage.

It was the first part of a final journey, which I intend to complete. The two most important things I don’t know: who were my parents and how did I end up in an orphanage? And, of course, why am I still plagued by nightmares of a life I have no memory of between August 1955 and July 1961?

I’ll remember the decade as one of enormous happiness and personal fulfilment. A partner, children, life and career I never dared to hope I would have: and now the confidence to finally join the dots.

Not bad for a  terrified boy, who couldn’t speak properly until he was almost eight, written off as “almost certainly educationally sub-normal” and still wetting the bed in his mid-teens.

Alex Kane is a writer and commentator. Before I Was An Orphan is available at BBC Radio Ulster Stories In Sound

Leona O'Neill: She was sent to mend our hearts

I remember being on the cusp of the new decade so vividly, because my father had just died. Four weeks before Christmas 2009, he lost his battle with cancer.

I remember not wanting to say goodbye to that year we were leaving him in and every year from that moment on would be darker without him.

I had given up journalism for a while to help my mum look after my dad. Full-time employment did not sit well with dashes to the hospital and ceaseless medical appointments and emergencies.

Around a month after my dad passed away, I found myself in my doctor's surgery. I was really unwell and just couldn't shake the crushing tiredness and nausea that had enveloped me for weeks. I thought it was grief. A positive pregnancy test said otherwise.

The news was a little chink of light in a very dark time and something positive we could all focus on. I had always longed for a daughter and, after three sons, I thought the chances were slim.

Holding my little girl, Maoliosa, in my arms early the next summer, I knew she was sent by my dad from heaven to help heal our broken hearts.

At the start of the new decade, still grieving for my dad, I found myself looking for journalism work again. There was none locally, so I created my own.

I launched what was to be Northern Ireland's first online-only hyper-local news website, dedicated to the North West.

I worked 24/7 to bring the news to the people of my city. It was relentless and thankless and the effort put in did not correlate with the revenue coming out, so I sold it when my daughter was a toddler and went back into the world of work.

I worked for a time in PR, which I absolutely hated. Then, I worked as a journalism teacher. But even in the classroom, the sound of a siren in the street outside always distracted me. The call of the newsroom and the desire to tell people's stories was just too strong.

I loved the job and my students, but more than half-way through the decade, I found myself frustrated at where I had ended up. I had gone off my trajectory completely and was just working for the money and not for the love of it.

Having worked in newspapers and having only journalism qualifications that meant little to those outside the industry, I decided I needed to go back to school and widen my horizons. I found myself - at 40 years old - back at university.

Once I had settled in, I started freelancing for newspapers and I was also asked to lecture in journalism at the Ulster University.

For two years, I found myself sitting in a lecture theatre being taught, heading to another lecture theatre to teach, going to the library to write essays while taking breaks to do interviews for the paper, while still chasing the news as well as working in a newsroom in Omagh on my "days off".

I graduated a few summers ago and threw myself full-time into the world of freelancing. I have been so lucky to have been given the opportunity to write for this newspaper, to tell people's stories of life and loss, joy and tragedy, to give people a voice, to be there when history unfolds and to make a change.

As the last years of the decade drew to a close, I found myself working as a news reporter on Q Radio and as a field producer with Al Jazeera - fantastic opportunities which have allowed me to grow and thrive as a reporter.

I have been so lucky to have spoken to people who have lived extraordinary lives, done unbelievable things and who have faced the most cruel adversity with the most remarkable and inspiring courage. I carry all those stories with me every day.

At the start of this year, someone shot up the street at us, the bullet hit someone standing near me, the journalist Lyra McKee.

I could very easily have been hit and it took months to get my head around the fact that my kids could have lost their mother that night and that some other poor family lost someone they loved desperately. It took months to get the horror and tragedy of what I saw that night out of my nightmares.

I tried to deal with this trauma while facing months of relentless social media trolling. I had people telling me they were going to kill me, calling me a liar, writing vicious and dangerous blogs, stalking me and threatening me - all for being present at a tragic and cruel murder I wish had never happened and that I had never witnessed. I knew that the whole experience was something that was either going to break me or make me stronger. I'm still here and I'm still fighting on.

As the dying embers of 2019 and, indeed, the last decade fade away, I'm hopeful for the future.

The past and our lived experiences are what shape us and I think I am made of titanium at this juncture, but I haven't let tough lessons harden my heart.

Leona O'Neill is a journalist and broadcaster

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph