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Coronavirus: Just last month Mrs Mathers told me to stay safe... now my inspiring and kind former teacher is gone

A former pupil of Enniskillen woman Yvonne Mathers talks with her children about the mum they lost to coronavirus

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Yvonne with her children, Michael and Joanne

Yvonne with her children, Michael and Joanne

Yvonne with her children, Michael and Joanne

To teach is to touch a life forever and Yvonne Mathers from Enniskillen certainly did that for a generation of children. I should know, I was one of them.

When I last spoke to my former P7 teacher on March 16, having bumped into her on East Bridge Street in Enniskillen, she was still as thoughtful as she was when she was teaching me at Jones Memorial Primary School between 1997 and 1998.

She wanted to know how I was, asked about my work, and told me to 'keep going' just as she did when encouraging the 10-year-old me to read and write. I discovered my love for creativity and expression in her classroom, which has shaped my life.

During our brief conversation, she told me she had been to see her grandchildren a few days before and spoke of her fears over the coronavirus.

"Stay safe you" were the last words she said to me as we walked away. That was Mrs Mathers in a nutshell; always looking out for others, always caring.

But four weeks later, she would be dead, cruelly taken by Covid-19, leaving her family, friends and former pupils mourning the death of a remarkable woman.

It is strange to feel sad at the death of someone you only really knew for a year of your life, but Mrs Mathers was an exceptional person and good teachers leave a mark on you. When they die, it almost feels like a tiny part of your childhood goes, too.

This week, I found out more about the woman who inspired me and the moments leading up to her death when I spoke to her children, Michael Mathers and Joanne Kirwin, who were still reeling from her passing last Thursday.

Her daughter, Joanne, had a choice to make last week as her 70-year-old mother lay in South West Acute Hospital with Covid-19: hear her distinctive voice on the telephone, possibly for the last time, or let her go on a mechanical ventilator without saying a word in the hope that each breathe she took would help rid her of the coronavirus.

She chose the latter, dreaming that her "formidable mother" would overcome the cruel disease, so she could get back to doing what she loved most; spending time with her family.

Joanne's brother, Michael, faced similar agony from his home in Glasgow as he liaised with hospital staff and relayed updates back to his sister in Manchester. Both have lived away from Fermanagh for years and last week, neither of them had ever felt as far away from home nor as helpless as the invisible killer prevented them from being by their mother's bedside.

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Yvonne Mathers with grandchildren Matilda, Ella and six-month-old Ottilie

Yvonne Mathers with grandchildren Matilda, Ella and six-month-old Ottilie

Yvonne Mathers with grandchildren Matilda, Ella and six-month-old Ottilie

Yvonne, a healthy mother, grandmother, sister, friend and a much-loved former teacher who inspired a generation of children, passed away while a member of the hospital's medical team wearing a mask and a gown gently held her hand in the absence of her family. "The word we keep using is shock. It's very surreal for many reasons because in part we are in lockdown and so it doesn't feel like it's really happened. We've not gone through those rituals of mourning and that order of how you do things has not happened," Joanne told The Impartial Reporter.

I thought I probably shouldn't call her if she was going on the ventilator Joanne

"We knew the coronavirus was coming; we all heard about it, but without sounding arrogant about it, a lot of us thought it wouldn't happen to us. It hasn't really hit us yet, it feels like something you see on TV," she said.

Joanne recalled the moment her mother was advised to go on a ventilator, explaining how she toyed with the idea of phoning her, having spent time exchanging text messages.

"I thought I probably shouldn't call her if she was going on the ventilator. She was probably going to be quite breathless and I didn't want to take that breath from her.

"Part of me thinks should I have, then the selfish part of me wants to remember her voice and when I last saw her and how happy and healthy she was," she said.

Joanne smiles as she recalls her mother's love for her children; Matilda, five, and six-month-old Ottilie and their love for her.

"She always encouraged us, she always wanted the best for us. She always wanted me and Michael to be happy and be settled and not have to worry about us," she said.

Yvonne had worked for the Western Education and Library Board Advisory Service and previously taught at Jones Memorial Primary School.

"She did take the teacher in her home," laughed Joanne.

"Michael and I had to remind her that 'we are home now and are not your pupils'! She could be in teacher mode as most teachers tend to be, so there were overlaps with school and home life," she said.

While Yvonne adored teaching, she told Joanne that her "biggest joy" was having grandchildren, joking that she "liked being able to hand them back".

"She loved having grandchildren apart from the fact she said it made her feel old. She used to come over to Manchester, but it wasn't to see me, the only reason was to see the girls! They brought her real joy," she said.

With her mother now gone so too is a part of her, admits Joanne.

"I am 40 now, but I always had somewhere to go. She used to say no matter what age her children were, she was always our mum. But no matter what age you are, you've lost your mum, that place to go, that sense of safety that you don't think you need when you're 40.

"But when it's gone, you've lost that, there is a hole, that driving force is no more. I will never forget the love and happiness she got from the girls and how happy she made them, as well as how happy they made her," she said.

Mum was taking all the precautions Michael

Scattered around Yvonne's now-empty home at Ashbourne Manor - where last week, neighbours took to the street to hold a poignant vigil for her - are bottles of hand sanitiser, an indication of how seriously she was taking the pandemic. When her son, Michael, arrived at the weekend, having travelled back for her burial outside Portadown, where she was originally from, he found evidence of how worried his mother, who was prone to chest infections, was.

"Mum was taking all the precautions," he said, describing his shock.

"Even when she got the positive case, we thought, 'Sure you're strong enough to work through it', and then when we got the call on Thursday of last week at 4.30pm, the nurses were saying she seemed quite stable, then by half five, we got a call that she was not going to make it and by seven o'clock, she had passed away. That's a microcosm of how I am feeling; it is so up and down," he said.

After feeling ill for more than a week, Yvonne had a choice of going into hospital and took it, believing that she was "in the right place".

"Even in this period, she was still making smart decisions. She was very self-aware, she took it in her stride. She said, 'That's what I have got', and spoke very positively of the nurses.

"The last I spoke to her on the Sunday night, she was getting tired; she was advised to go on the ventilator and thought it was the right thing to do.

"She recognised what she needed to do, so all of her choices were the right ones at the right time," said Michael.

His mother was "hugely supportive", he says, particularly during difficult periods of his life.

"She told me, 'You are always going to be my son'. She was very encouraging, but she was very direct when she needed to be, very black and white, no real nonsense.

"If she needed to tell you to pull your socks up, that's what she did in a loving and caring way. She kept us all together and I couldn't have asked for more throughout my life."

Among the children she has inspired is Michael's daughter, Ella, who is now eight-and-a-half.

"The biggest regret is that she is not here to see Ella, Matilda or Ottilie grow up and become women themselves. That's the biggest challenge in the future, encountering birthdays and looking around the room and realising that she's not there.

"She wasn't just a mother, or a grandmother, or a friend. She was an important role model in many people's lives," he said.

This was true.

I once got 10 out of 10 in my spellings and she asked me what I had for breakfast.

"Coco Pops," I replied. She laughed and told the rest of my class to eat Coco Pops.

"I remember telling mum we had to buy some," texted my old classmate, Roisin Francis, this week.

It takes a big heart to shape little minds.

Mrs Mathers had a huge heart and didn't just teach, she touched all our lives. Forever.

Belfast Telegraph