Everyone experiences pain in some form during their lives, whether it be physical or emotional pain. Broken or bruised body parts can be very painful, and hopefully after some time you can see and feel some relief, although there may also be some scarring that may be hard to look at.
Pain of the mind is a strange thing; although no one can see it, you can really feel it at any time of the day or night. Triggers are all around you; whether it is a word, a song or a photo, these triggers can set your heart racing and put your mind into a state of confusion and sadness.
For the people who have lost a loved one I have the deepest respect, and for the people who have lost one of their children, as I have, I feel your pain.
Our daughter passed away in our arms at 2.19pm on September 19th, 2017, at the very young age of 43.
I hope to explain what she really meant to me, my wife, her brother and all the people she touched over her short but wonderful life.
From the moment she was born on July 5th, 1974, my wife and I knew our daughter was going to be called Heather Jane. The delivery nurse put her two cents in and said, “that’s a very big name for such a small baby”; and so her life began.
The family was overjoyed at the birth of our daughter, as we already had a wonderful son called Daniel, who was born on the 18th of July, 1971, 13 months after we were married. Everyone said that we now had a “Gentleman’s Family”, with a boy and a girl.
We never thought of it in that way; all we knew as a young married couple was that we were thankful for the two healthy children whom we loved and cherished.
God had been good to us and blessed us with a very happy family, for which we both were grateful. Over the next few years, we tried very hard to enrich our family by giving each of our children the same love as our parents gave us, and with two sets of wonderful grandparents it came naturally that we all chipped in and helped with the raising of Daniel & Heather Jane.
The first few years had their own set of issues: a new house, new job, and trying to maintain a steady income to support all of us, though our biggest issue was the country we lived in, so full of death and hatred on both sides of the community.
Northern Ireland was no place to bring up a family who wanted more out of life than bombings, shootings and murder.
I had been to Canada before with my Dad in May 1966 and visited many of our relatives, one of whom had a very large building company that serviced the Toronto area. He offered me a job, but I declined as I was just about to start my apprenticeship. Harland & Wolff Ltd, Belfast was the place for me, and besides, I was too close to my Mum to leave her.
I ventured back to Canada in July 1971 with my wife, Elizabeth, and our one-year old son, Daniel, so we could see what it was like to be in another country as a family.
My Mum always wanted me and my family to go after a better life, and Canada seemed the better option, as Australia was too far away.
We had a wonderful time in Canada, and as soon as we returned to Belfast, we started the process of immigration to Canada. After several months and many interviews we were accepted, but unfortunately, we had second thoughts and declined the immigration offer. We instead decided to try and have another baby.
Heather Jane was born on July 5th, 1974. We moved to a new house, but the Troubles just got worse, and it was getting harder to live safely.
It was extremely difficult to live in the midst of murders, bombings, sadness and the lack of respect for each other’s culture and beliefs.
As a family we decided to make a fresh start in a country that had the opportunity for good family growth, so we immigrated to Canada on 24th June 1976. I guess this was our first feeling of real heartfelt pain at leaving our parents, and we had no idea what was ahead of us over the next 16 years.
I thought that June 24th, 1976 was going to be a normal day, except for a 7-hour flight from Belfast International Airport to Toronto’s main airport. Well, it wasn’t long before the dream became a reality, and on arrival at Belfast airport we learned there were changes to the day ahead.
We were all informed that the Canadian air traffic controllers went on strike, and our flight had been cancelled until further notice. The disappointment must have showed on our faces as we stood in front of the check-in desk.
However, a senior check-in person approached us with a solution to our disappointment, which was that there was a flight leaving Belfast to Prestwick, Scotland.
We could get a connecting flight from Prestwick to Detroit, USA, and then a bus journey to Toronto airport.
We decided to accept the new travel arrangements. With the help of my Mum and Dad we made it in time to take our seats on the plane.
The last thing I remember was looking down the boarding steps on the runway, seeing my Mom and Dad waving goodbye (at that time, you could go to the steps of the plane to say goodbye).
Prestwick was just a short flight from Belfast.
We landed and approached the check-in desk for Detroit, accompanied by a very efficient baggage handler. The check-in person informed us we had only 15 minutes to get from that end of the Prestwick airport to the far end where our plane was situated; we all ran together and made it on time.
We were in the air on our way to a new life, and hopefully a safe and happy one, as we reached cruising level.
Heather, who was now just 23 months, became very sick and was throwing up all over herself. I suppose, looking back on it, the running through Prestwick airport didn’t help matters.
Elizabeth and I tried to clean Heather up as best we could with the help of one of the air stewardesses. Finally, we got Heathers vest, top and pants off her, but we didn’t have a spare set at hand. Then a real act of kindness happened: a lady sitting behind us with her husband and a young family like ours reached over to Elizabeth and handed her some clothes that belonged to her child for Heather.
It was such a great gesture from a stranger that we would never forget it. The family were Scottish and returning to Canada after a holiday with their family in Scotland. They turned out to be long term friends with us as our lives unfolded in Canada.
After landing in Detroit airport, we all finally got through the immigration process and got the necessary paperwork that was required to have immigration status in Canada.
Detroit airport was very busy, and we were quickly directed to the connecting bus area. It was about 85 degrees Fahrenheit, and the humidity was extremely high. After loading the bus to Toronto, an airport employee from the arrivals area brought on a box for each person. The box contained sandwiches, fruit, biscuits and a cold drink. This was to help on our journey ahead to Toronto.
We sat on the bus for about 15 minutes until all the passengers were on, and then the bus started the five to six hour journey to Toronto.
All four of us had finished our food box before we started the journey, so we had a laugh about that together.
We reached Toronto about 9pm and the heat was intense at the airport as we gathered our belongings, including my set of golf clubs. We waited patiently for my relatives to pick us up and take the 45-mile trip to their home, where we would stay for several weeks.
As I loaded our belongings into the back of Uncle Bob’s car, Elizabeth and Daniel were hugging him.
I was holding onto the sleeping Heather, and as we chatted on our way to Uncle Bob’s home, I realised that we had been travelling for about 22 hours since leaving Belfast. With the time difference, it felt like we had all been awake for 2 days.
I didn’t know Uncle Bob’s house had a very large swimming pool, and as the heat and humidity hadn’t subsided much, I just took off most of my clothes and jumped right into the middle of the pool – refreshing!
Aunt Jean, and cousins Dave & Claire, were there to greet us and show us where we would be sleeping.
It didn’t take long for all of us to head to bed as we were all very tired with such a very long and eventful journey behind us, Elizabeth and I had a short conversation with Uncle Bob and Aunt Jean about the family back home and thanked them both for their help in getting us settled for the foreseeable future.
I decided that Elizabeth and I would not look for jobs for the next two weeks, as I thought we all deserved a holiday together.
We planned a few trips into Toronto city centre and to some of the tourist attractions for all the family together. It was a beautiful city with wonderful shops, restaurants and so many tourist attractions, just too many for us to take in with the time we had left before looking for a permanent job and a new home for our family.
We sat down with Uncle Bob and discussed what salary I should aim for when applying for a job, as he had a great understanding of finance and we both had the same number of people in our family. We decided that a salary of no lower than $10,500 per year for me would be a good start.
Surprisingly, after just 10 days and several interviews with about 4 different companies, I was offered a job as an Industrial Engineer at a major sports manufacturing factory in the west end of Toronto; I was also extremely pleased with the annual salary of $12,500.
So, now came the task of finding a place to live that would suit our needs and be close to my place of work.
I did not relish the thought of travelling 45-50 miles each way daily to and from Uncle Bob’s house. Elizabeth and I thought that an apartment rental was the way to go as it would give us some flexibility with the lease on a monthly basis, so we started the search and it was only a few days before we found a place we both liked.
The apartment we got was brand spanking new and in the west end of Toronto, near my place of employment, and had many shops nearby.
There were many restaurants and parks in the area, and it also had a very large hospital close to the apartment, which we thought was a bonus.
The apartment was huge, approximately 1800 sq. ft, and we were situated on a high floor with great views over the west end of Toronto. My Dad came out to visit us a few weeks after we moved to the apartment, which was great for all of us, and the children were so excited to see him as they both were very close to him.
It was a great visit from Dad, and he could go back to Belfast and report to Mum that all was well with us in Toronto.
Heather’s first real experience of pain happened in November 1976, when she developed tonsillitis and had to go into hospital to remove her tonsils and adenoids. The doctors also informed us that she was going to have small tubes inserted into her ear canal; this would help her to heal faster after the operation. Elizabeth and I knew that Heather did not like her brief stay in hospital.
As she slowly began to heal the nurses would bring her ginger ale to soothe her throat pain, but the nurses didn’t know that that at every chance Heather got she poured the drink into a plant beside her bed.
On the day of Heather’s release. the doctor said that Heather would make a complete recovery, but may need to have her ears looked at by the family doctor on a regular basis to inspect the placement of the small tubes. The Doctor also suggested that for the next few days Heather should only have ice cream or jelly, so as to give her throat time to heal properly.
Heather had other ideas, and no way was she having ice cream or jelly – what she really wanted was Kentucky Fried Chicken and a large coke, which she got on the way home from the hospital and a couple of times later that week; her eyes just lit up when she saw the KFC.
Heather’s eyes were amazing; she had beautiful big blue eyes which I always felt were bigger than the normal.
One thing she had, more than anybody I knew, was the way she could express herself first with her eyes; whether it be happiness, sadness or displeasure, I, and anyone else, could slightly detect what Heather was about to say or do.
The next seven years were all about trying to fit into a lifestyle that was so completely different than what Elizabeth and I were used to.
Our children had to fit into a school system that was like home but with a few minor differences.
Of course, we all had our Northern Ireland accent, which some of the children’s friends used to make fun of, but that did not last long, as you know that children can adapt to most any situation.
We all adapted in our own way; we moved to Whitby, Ontario, and I got a new job close to our new home, another apartment that we could afford. The apartment was very nice and had many extras: underground parking, a fitness suite, squash courts and a sauna/steam room, which we as a family used nearly every day.
The underground parking was a real bonus, as the Canadian winters can be very harsh and last from November to April or May. It is hard to drive in the snow, freezing rain and fog, but I suppose we got used to it, and not having to clear the snow of your car before going to work was great. Of course, bringing in the weekly shopping was a breeze; just unload the car in the underground parking area and head up to the apartment by the lift.
The apartment’s fitness suite had one major drawback, and that was the floor level jacuzzi, which was used by quite a few of the residents.
On one occasion, while Heather, Daniel and I were enjoying the jacuzzi, a resident came in with his eight-foot-long albino python. He assured us that it was harmless, but we all jumped out of the jacuzzi immediately and got dressed before heading to our apartment.
On another occasion at the fitness suite, I was helping Daniel to dry off and get dressed when I turned around and Heather was nowhere to be seen.
I rushed over to the jacuzzi and there was Heather underwater staring up at me with a look of fear in her big blue eyes.
I jumped into the jacuzzi and pulled her out, and to my great joy she was coughing and smiling – no more visits to the fitness suite for a while.
We joined a new church, which was helpful to all of us in settling in, as the church members were friendly and the Minister was from, of all places, Bangor, Northern Ireland! We really felt close to home in that church. By this time, we had gathered enough money in savings over the past couple of years to put a deposit on a home of our own.
Our new home was great, everything we wanted: plenty of room for all the family, and a great basement which had several rooms. We found the extra space in our new home very useful as both our families were planning visits to Canada to see us.
Over the next few years our families came to visit us, and we had a family member with us at least four times per year.
Of course, we had to take them to all the usual tourist attractions – the main attraction was Niagara Falls, and Wasaga Beach was another firm favourite.
Don’t get me wrong, we as a family loved these attractions too, but several times a year was a bit too much.
So, as things in general with us were good, we decided to install a swimming pool so the family could enjoy the good weather when they came, which was usually in the summer months.
It was a great idea and everyone who came to visit us loved the pool parties, which sometimes went on until the wee hours of the morning or until the drink ran out.
We had coloured lights installed all around the pool, which really made a difference to the late-night parties. Heather and Daniel got a lot out of having the pool.
Heather always had to wear a swimming cap because of the tubes in her ears, but overall, it was a great investment for our home.
We had settled well in Canada and with the family visits on a regular basis the homesick feelings we had soon took a back seat to getting on with work and boosting our savings.
Elizabeth and I knuckled down at our jobs and really worked hard to increase our salaries, and, more importantly, our ability to save some money for our future needs. As Daniel and Heather enjoyed their schools and after school activities, we decided to enrol Heather in a dance studio and Daniel in ice hockey with an additional speed skating course.
Daniel was a little behind some of the other boys on the ice hockey team; this was because he didn’t start skating until he was eight years old, and all his friends were skating from an average two years old.
We enrolled Daniel in a speed skating course, which really helped him to compete against the other teams.
Daniel turned out to be a great hockey player and scored many goals over the seasons he played, and I just loved watching him play hockey.
Heather was such a tiny little girl, and when she was picked by her dance class to be Thumbelina in the dance studio’s recital she was over the moon, as were we all. Both children were enjoying life in Canada, as were Elizabeth and me. We all as a family enjoyed many of the activities in all seasons, from tobogganing, cross country skiing, ice fishing and snowmobiling to barbecues and visiting Ontario Place.
Ontario Place was a massive theme park in downtown Toronto which had a Cinesphere that showed many wonderful films and documentaries for all the family.
We had a beautiful Golden Retriever called Candy. She was friendly and obedient, and kids just loved her, especially Heather and Daniel. All our family and friends just loved Candy and we enjoyed many years with her as our family pet.
Work was going well for both Elizabeth and I; and I had been given a few promotions which really gave me more confidence and, of course, a better salary.
As Heather enjoyed her dancing and Daniel was also very keen to play soccer, we both enrolled in a local soccer club that had several levels and ages of soccer teams that suited us.
I also became a soccer coach which I really enjoyed. The coaching and skill teaching were exactly what I needed. Daniel adopted extremely well to soccer, as he had a ball at his feet ever since he could walk, and at a very early age, he showed great skill.
The many tournaments held in Ontario were very well attended, but on this day, there were more than the usual crowds watching the knockout competition.
I was to find out why later that day. Daniel’s team progressed through the competition and reached the final; I was so proud of how he played, and as he was team captain, he showed great leadership.
After a very tough cup final match Daniel’s team were victorious and Daniel won man of the match, awarded by his teammates, which was such an honour for him.
Well what happened next just about floored me; Sir Stanley Matthews was in Canada and was there watching most of the games, and paid special interest to the final match.
Sir Stanley presented medals to all the winners and runners up, but Daniel was given a special medal for MVP, which I kept safe for many years; he has it today to show his sons. If there was a medal for the proudest father in the world that day, then I’m sure I would have got it. Daniel was and is a star.