Christine Anderson: ‘My Gerry left a huge legacy in the world... he had an amazing wit and was so kind, his death has left a void in my life that can never be filled’
Five years since the beloved BBC Radio Ulster presenter died, his widow tells Leona O'Neill about their first meeting, their happy marriage and the cruel illness that took his life at 69
Just next month it will be five years since Radio Ulster legend Gerry Anderson's wife heard his voice. Christine Anderson (70) can't bring herself to listen to his old podcasts and when her husband's voice comes on the radio she has to switch it off. It's just painful.
Londonderry-born Gerry passed away in 2014 after a brave and fierce battle with bowel cancer. He was only 69 years old. His illness took him from his wife Christine and their children David (43) and Kirsty (40).
His death was an enormous loss to Northern Ireland - for Gerry shone a very welcome light of wit during the darkest of our days - but for Christine and their children his loss was immense and immeasurable and, in many ways, shocking, as Gerry was so full of life and vitality.
"The year before Gerry got sick he did a leg of the New York marathon," says Christine, who still lives in the Culmore home they shared. "He had to get a fitness check with the doctor before he did it and he was told he had the body of a 35-year-old man. He was very, very fit. He had given up the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, he gave up the cigarettes and he was really looking after himself. He was on a high and then - bam - cancer struck and everything was turned upside down."
Christine and Gerry's love story is a true rock 'n' roll tale with a splash of fashion thrown in.
"I was around 17 years old when I met Gerry," she says. "There was a teenage dance held at the Embassy Ballroom in the (Derry) city centre on Wednesdays then. One night I was there with two friends. In those days the girls stood on one side of the dancefloor and the boys on the other side.
"And I saw this guy and thought 'he looks so cool'. In those days all the guys wore dark suits. And there he was in a cream one. His hair was long and he looked great. So I sauntered over past him and went back to my friends.
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"Then I saw him coming over and he took me out to dance. Then he walked me home, some four miles, and that was that.
"He was five years older than me. We got married in 1973 in Canada, where we were living, and we had our two children, David and Kirsty.
"I have led what I think is a very colourful and adventurous life. I lived in Dublin, London and Canada, and when I came back here we were married and our son was born and I looked around and thought, there is nothing going on here. I knew that I had to create something for myself.
"I have always, from childhood, wanted a shop. My sister and I had a great interest in fashion and dressing up. And when I came back I opened my shop, The Closet, against all advice.
"Gerry at that stage had gone back to become a mature student in Coleraine. And with a very small amount of money I opened the shop.
"Gerry was in a rock 'n' roll band and I had the shop, so I was wearing the clothes that were fashionable at the time. I have had great success, four shops and a fabulous life with Gerry."
Christine says that, five years after her husband's passing, she has decided to close an important chapter in her life and retire.
"My shop doesn't mean the same to me anymore," she reveals. "There are things which are more important. There is a big emptiness in my life, a void that can never be filled. I have turned the whole situation around. I have lived 10 lives in one lifetime.
"We had a great life together and I really appreciate that, I appreciate my two children and my two grandchildren.
"Our youngest grandchild Thomas was born a month before Gerry died so he never got to meet him. And Gerry would have absolutely loved him as he loves to knock the apples out of the cart and run riot through the place.
"He plays Gerry's guitar and he looks at the pictures in his study and my heart is broken. But you can't bring people back. You just have to enjoy the great memories. And that is something that takes time.
"The only way to get through it, I have found, is to cry when you want to cry. Gerry was just part of me and that part of me is gone. I feel like I have had a fantastic life with him, have a fantastic life to continue. I don't know what is around the corner. I feel that now is the time to say goodbye to my business."
Christine says that their lives were turned upside down in 2012 when Gerry got a shock diagnosis of bowel cancer. "I don't think Gerry was unique in this in that when something happens in their body they don't want to go to the doctor," she says.
"He had a change in the bowel. We came back from holiday and he picked up the post and went into the family room. He came out visibly upset and told me he had to go for a colonoscopy.
"I've had to have several of those myself and I told him it wasn't a big deal. I told him he was overreacting and it was nothing. Not for one minute did I think anything sinister was happening. But he must have had a thought in his head.
"I drove him over to get it done. He didn't want me to go in with him, so I sat in the cafe and he rang me and said he had got the results. He said everything was fine. I said I would come and pick him up. Then I saw him coming out with a nurse with her arm around him. And I thought 'that's typical of Gerry in there chatting away to all the nurses'.
"He got into the car and he sat down and said, 'Chris, I have bowel cancer'.
"I was in total shock. I couldn't drive for about half and hour. We got home and we talked. He said it was very early stages and it was operable. And then everything went wrong."
Christine says that Gerry never talked about his illness in public, and that she wishes to respect that even after his death.
"Gerry was a very private person," she says. "Even when he left the BBC to go for 'a wee procedure' as he called it, the BBC press office put out a statement asking for people to respect his privacy. They were so good like that. And that is why people got such a shock when he passed away. Because no one even knew he was so ill.
"He never wanted people to know he was ill. I remember one time in the hospital someone left his room door open and a crowd of people walked past and they saw Gerry and they all landed into the room.
"I kept him positive. I would say to him that he had to get his head around this and fight it. He fought very hard and I fought with him. But it just wasn't to be.
"I remember the week of the Sons and Daughters event in the Derry City of Culture year. He was supposed to be the face of that event. And he was in Altnagelvin at that time. And he cried for a week because he couldn't do it. He was Derry's son.
"I think with an illness like that there is absolutely nothing you can do except go with it and fight as much as you can."
She says that the last two years of Gerry's life were very special to both of them.
"When Gerry was diagnosed, positivity was the only thing in my head," she says. "And I remained like that for two full years. There was never a negative thought. There were some very, very scary moments.
"He had a very bad two years. And sadly when it was over, it was like we had been inside a bubble of going to hospitals and appointments. My life just changed completely. It was like being hit by a roller coaster. We went from going on holidays, to showbiz events and on Gerry's programmes to hospital appointments.
"Our lives were very much intertwined, but yet we were very individual people. He did his own thing and I did mine. And I think that the two years we spent together when he was sick were very precious moments for us, where we had no one outside.
"It was just the two of us. And it was the most tranquil, frightening, horrific time. But there is something very peaceful about it now when I look back and see how together we were and how we talked about things.
"Sometimes in life you are very busy. People don't realise that anything could happen. So when Gerry got sick it was so frightening.
"Even a couple of days before he passed away, I thought 'this is not happening'. I just thought that I couldn't handle it.
"I was in the day room and Gerry was going through a third operation. My daughter was there with me and the place was packed. And I had a meltdown.
"I was saying to my daughter that I didn't realise that her daddy was 67 years old. I just had no concept of age. We never did. And I realised there that he could die. It just struck me right there and then."
Christine says the couple never spoke about the possibility of Gerry not making it.
"There was never a diagnosis of terminal cancer," she says.
"He had one operation after another and one thing after another over two years. It was so hard. But even two days before he passed away we were still asking what the next stage was.
"When they put the driver in for morphine, I didn't know what it was. The nurse was saying 'he's got a driver in now, he'll be okay'. I thought that it was a good thing. I knew nothing about medical stuff, but little did I know what that meant. It was the last stage.
"We never spoke about dying," she says. "I think he thought himself towards the end that he wasn't going to make it. We never spoke about the possibility of him not making it, right down to the fact that we never made a will or make any arrangements about money.
"The first time I had any inkling that Gerry might not pull through was when I was chatting to the doctor and I asked him what the next step was. At this stage Gerry was unconscious. He said to me 'I don't think you realise that Gerry is dying' and that was basically two days before he passed away. I sat there with him all day and all night for those last days, I didn't leave his side.
"The two of us were in a bubble of getting through a sickness. And when he passed away it was like that bubble burst and pieces of me were shattered everywhere.
"The night he died we were all there. Kirsty was sleeping and his brother and sister were sleeping and I was sitting there with him. I knew his breathing was becoming more and more shallow. I don't know how I knew it was coming near but I put my mouth over his and took his last breath in my mouth. I just felt like I died with him."
Christine says she found life very difficult without her husband.
"I just didn't know what to do without Gerry," she says. "It was a very scary situation, that I know many people have been through. I don't think time takes away the person. Time lets you live a different life without the person you love.
"And with Gerry being in the public eye it made it all the more difficult. It was bittersweet. I couldn't come into my shop for a long time because people would be in talking to me about what Gerry did for them and how he helped them - for he had a huge heart. He did so many things for lots of people but never talked about it. Apart from his crazy sense of humour, he was just such a kind person.
"I don't put the radio on now in the shop, because I would be there and maybe Gerry's voice would come on and it would shock me. I still haven't been able to listen back to any of the tributes. It's too much, still."
Christine says she has walked and painted her way through the grief.
"Gerry is gone now five years on August 21," she says. "I have occupied myself over that time by walking, painting in the garden, painting in the house and the shop. But the shop has lost something for me, something very special and important. Part of me is gone and I don't want to do the same things I did before. I can't go on holiday to the same places I did before. And I have good days and bad days, but when something like that happens, it is surreal.
"My way of coping with things is to put on my boots and go for a walk or to start painting something. Or at a really bad moment I would get a piece of paper, a crumpled envelope - anything - and I write down the thoughts in my head. And I would put it away and never look at it again. And that was a way of releasing the grief. There has been an awful lot of tears, but I feel like I have finally come out the other end.
"And with the shop, I feel like it's time to spend more time with my mum, who is in her 90s, and have more time with my grandchildren and more time for me."
Christine says that although Gerry was renowned for his sharp wit and humour, he did not lend it to his illness.
"He brought us through very dark days here," she says. "He changed a lot of people's lives. He didn't lend his humour to his illness as much. He was very ill and didn't feel good. I remember one specific night we laughed. We were rock 'n' roll babes, always. It was about six months into his illness. We were lying in bed and he would always hold my hand. And I said to him, 'look at us, we've gone from two rock 'n' rollers to two old age pensioners and you're sick'. And we laughed.
"I know people wouldn't think it, but Gerry was a very quiet person," she says. "We would be at a party and I'd be jumping around the place and he'd be sitting in the corner, just observing. He was really quiet at home. He read a lot, he had a beautiful collection of books at home. He was quite studious, but not nerdy. His wit was amazing. It came from his mother.
"His sense of humour was remarkable. If I was giving off about something, he would come out with a remark and I would have had to laugh. We laughed all the time. He was very easy to live with and get on with. He was extremely kind."
Christine says it is very hard to listen to Gerry's podcasts or to see his face on the television. She says life without him has been hard and heartbreaking, but that she is incredibly proud of her husband's legacy.
"Life for me without Gerry has been completely different," she says. "I am a very strong, independent person and I can cope by myself. But at the same time when you lose someone like Gerry, who you loved so much and were so close to, it is horrendous. I am strong enough to have risen above all the negatives. If I start thinking about Gerry I go for a walk. I go for a walk every single day, sometimes twice a day for an hour at a time. I talk to him and I pray to him and I know that wherever he is, he has got to be happier. I think he has left a huge legacy in the world and I am so proud of him.
"My son picked a phrase for his headstone which he took out of his daddy's book," she says. "Gerry had actually written it in relation to the issue of the question of when men stop wearing jeans and Gerry said that he had still got bell-bottoms in his study. And Gerry had said in the book, about the bell-bottoms: 'I'm ready for the tide to turn, never ever give up'. And David picked that phrase for his headstone."
She says, as she closes another chapter in her life, that she can hear Gerry's voice telling her to take time out to spend with those she loves.
"I feel that Gerry is sitting on my shoulder telling me that I need to spend time with my mum and my grandchildren and with family," she says. "I feel he is telling me to enjoy life. You should live every day to the full with no negativity. I think you need to rise above things whatever way you can and try to make the most of your lives.
"Life goes on and can be very blessed. Mine is not over yet and I don't know what is around the next corner."
A Tribute to Gerry Anderson takes place on September 24 at the Grand Opera House, Belfast. Top entertainers, including Brian Kennedy, The Adventures, The Miami Showband, Bronagh Gallagher, Rose-Marie, Malachi Cush and more will perform and share their fond memories of Gerry. Find out more and buy tickets at www.goh.co.uk