Belfast Telegraph

Royal wedding invite a light in the dark for popular principal still struggling to come to terms with loss of wife at just 48

Award-winning special school teacher Colin Millar on life without his soulmate, his miracle swine flu recovery, and next week's huge event

By Claire McNeilly

The loss of popular Co Down teacher Claire Millar to cancer devastated everyone who knew her.

It prompted an outpouring of grief because the 48-year-old's passing underlined how many lives she'd touched as friends, colleagues, pupils and their parents penned heartfelt tributes to the mother-of-two.

Most affected by the untimely loss, however, were her husband Colin and two sons Conor (23) and Ryan (20).

Mrs Millar, who taught at Abbey Primary School for 28 years, as well as being a hockey coach with Ards Ladies, had been given the all-clear in July 2017.

However, the disease made a rapid return.

It's six months since Claire passed away peacefully at her Newtownards home on October 28, during which time her 53-year-old widower has struggled to adjust to life without her.

In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph today, Colin speaks candidly about losing his best friend and soulmate, and reveals his own brush with death after contracting swine flu in 2014 - something that , prior to Claire's illness, he thought would be the worst thing that could have happened to him and his family.

The principal of Killard House School in Donaghadee also reflects on winning awards for his work in the special education sector, meeting the Queen at Hillsborough, and being among those local people invited to next week's wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

But it's his own relationship with Claire, his wife for nearly a quarter-of-a-century, that dominates his thoughts now - comforting memories of a life together that ended much too soon.

Colin is a man of great faith, although he doesn't "push it down other people's throats; it's personal to me".

"When Claire passed I had to accept that," he said.

"She accepted it and that's why I must accept it and not be angry or annoyed."

But he concedes: "It has been very tough.

"The boys and I are trying to move on with life as best we can in memory of Claire and also because that's what she would have wanted us to do."

Conor will graduate as a dentist next month and Ryan is in his first year of studying biological sciences.

"We've had to face our birthdays, Christmas, Mother's Day... and it would have been our silver wedding anniversary on April 3, which was a tough one," said Colin, wiping away tears that betray how raw the pain still is.

"I always gave her a bunch of six white roses on our anniversary and we went for a meal... but this year I visited her grave at Movilla Cemetery and then I did what we would have done - only this time I was on my own."

He added: "She loved her white roses and that's what we threw into the grave when we buried her. We threw three of them on top of the coffin - just one for each of us.

"I always got her six; she wouldn't let me buy 12 because it was too much money. She was a saver because she was going to retire at 55 and enjoy her retirement, but she never got it."

For Colin, who met his wife when they both taught at Abbey, life seems a little harder in the morning, as well as last thing at night. "The in-between times, I can deal with," he added.

He still calls out Claire's name when he arrives home and, last Christmas, he inadvertently bought a necklace for her while he was out shopping for other family members and friends. In weaker moments he contemplates his own miracle recovery after the H1N1 virus and pneumonia complications that almost killed him back in 2014.

"Sometimes, when I think about the swine flu, I wonder why I didn't go instead of Claire," he said.

"But she told me that she believed God brought me back because He knew her time was coming and the boys needed me. She had it all worked out. She was an amazing lady."

He was among a delegation of principals on a Department of Education trip to China when he contracted the illness during a visit to a special school in Shanghai.

"A 14-year-old girl with Down's syndrome sneezed on me," he recalled.

"It hit me in the face. I remember reaching into my pocket for a hankie and giving it to her. I never thought any more of it."

He started feeling unwell five hours into the flight home the following day, January 10, and things took a turn for the worst.

"I was quite shaky and achy, so I went down to the back of the plane to the air attendant and asked her for an extra blanket and then, apparently, I collapsed at her feet and that was me," he explained.

"That's all I remember of the flight."

His colleagues later told him about the "great commotion" he had caused.

"They saw a body being laid out on the back row of the seats. They were taking clothes off me and pouring ice over me and there was a call for any doctors to come forward," he said.

"A medical consultant who was on board - and whom I never met - helped keep my temperature down until we got to London. It had spiked very highly and I was unconscious.

"They took me to Charing Cross Hospital immediately, but when I got there my lungs stopped functioning and they had to transfer me to the Royal Brompton Hospital, where I remained in a coma for four weeks."

At first Claire was informed by phone that her husband had a fever; at 4am the following day she was told he might not last the next 24 hours.

"She arrived a 1pm on Sunday and stayed by my bedside," he said.

"After 48 hours I was deteriorating very badly and the doctor told Claire to kiss me goodbye - but just as she was leaving the room the doctor called her back and asked her to talk to me, because he saw me fighting to stay alive.

"For the rest of that week I was up and down. The second week, I started to stabilise. Then, it was another two weeks before they brought me out of a coma."

It took "extensive physiotherapy" to get Colin up and about again because he "couldn't walk or grasp or hold a pen or shave because all my muscle memory had been wiped".

He had to attend speech therapy, too. He said: "I didn't know what to think when I came round. I knew I was in hospital. I remember being terrified when I tried to speak to Claire and couldn't. I thought I was paralysed."

He now suffers post-traumatic stress disorder because of the trauma and he's still on medication.

But he'll take that; during a patient follow-up conference at the hospital a year later he saw how the illness had affected three others - one in a wheelchair and two were using oxygen tanks.

He was also reminded of his good fortune at the same event by a nurse who'd cared for him during the worst of his illness. He recalled: "She hugged me and told me she was so happy to see me again because they'd a drawer in the morgue labelled with my name on it.

"I didn't realise how severe it could have been. That conference brought it home to me. I was the only former swine flu patient walking about as normal; meeting the others really brought it home to me."

One of the perks - if you could call it that - of having the illness was that Colin, who began his teaching career in 1988 in a mainstream school and has taught in a wide range of schools over the years, got to meet the Queen at Hillsborough Castle in 2014.

"I always told Claire it was just because I didn't die!" he joked.

"The Queen was very pleasant... she knew I had contracted it in China and she asked me how I was feeling now.

"Then she asked Claire how she was and said that, no doubt, it had been a thoroughly horrendous time for her, too. I thought that was lovely."

Prior to his personal audience with the monarch, he was invited to London during the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in June 2012.

That experience almost meant him missing out on Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's big day next Saturday.

"I got a letter saying I'd been nominated to attend the royal wedding on May 19 in recognition of my contribution to children with disability and special needs in both professional and voluntary life," explained Colin, who's the UK Boys' Brigade disability consultant and the special adviser for the Duke of Edinburgh Award in Northern Ireland.

"As BB leader, I was invited to line the mall at the Queen's Jubilee. It was lovely, but I didn't particularly want to go again and I just put the letter away.

"I only realised what the invite actually was the following week when I saw a TV report, so I quickly rang to accept! My sister-in-law June Millar is coming with me and we have to be at Windsor Castle for 9am."

He added: "June has been very good to us since Claire passed and I thought it would be a nice way of thanking her."

The pair, who are staying in Windsor the night before, have a pass that allows them access to the inner courtyard where they will watch the carriages arrive and see Harry and his bride entering the church.

They'll be at the back of the church and attend a picnic in the courtyard afterwards along with 1,000 people from across the UK.

The trip will be a bright light during a year that has already seen Colin and his school win two awards from Families First NI. Killard was awarded best school for supporting special needs, while he received a Special Recognition Award for services to children with special needs.

And, thanks to his donations, Abbey PS is currently building an outside learning classroom in Claire's memory, while Ards Ladies Hockey Club have named a plate in her memory.

"Lovely memorials to two of the things she loved - her school and her hockey," he added.

Meanwhile, he and his sons will be making priceless new memories on a dream trip to the US this summer.

"We're going to say thank you to Claire for giving us this chance in life and we will remember her," he said.

Belfast Telegraph

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