When the doctor becomes the patient, and the loves that sees you through
The Heavens Are All Blue is part medical memoir part love story
The Heavens Are All Blue is part medical memoir part love story by Lennon and McGarry
“We are both accidental authors,” says Dr Finbar Lennon, from his home in Collon, Co Louth. He is talking about himself and his late wife, Dr Kate McGarry and the memoir they wrote together. It was Kate’s idea. When she was diagnosed with an advanced cancer of unknown origin she decided she’d write about it both as a woman coming to terms with such a devastating condition but also from the perspective of experiencing cancer as a doctor, who became a patient.
“After we went to the burial of a friend’s ashes in Connemara, she decided she wanted to write about it from the other side of the table,” Lennon says. When she died on January 5th, 2018, the book, such as it was then, comprised of Kate’s diary entries, the minutiae of hospital visits and medical setbacks, of milestones reached including meeting new grandchildren and attending her children’s wedding alongside the gradual acceptance of the fact that her life was to be cruelly cut short.
Knowing his wife was someone “who liked to finish what she started” he put aside the fact that he had no writing experience and wrote through the grief. The result, The Heavens Are All Blue, is part medical memoir, part love story. On the cover Deirdre Purcell calls it ‘a moving and loving story, cutting through to the reader’s heart with clear, accomplished prose.’
'Life and death go hand in hand and each life is forgotten over time … in this case the person in question was the love of my life'
It’s clear from her diary entries included in the book that apart from being a loving mother and wife, Kate had a pragmatic approach to life. “I have decided to write a book about my personal experience with cancer, as a doctor who becomes a patient,” she writes. “At the time of my diagnosis a physician friend of mine said I would find silver linings in this phase of my life. Perhaps if people survive cancer they can look back and develop new perspectives on their lives and see the experience as somewhat enriching. But what about me? I am not likely to get better, so what silver linings can I expect? Maybe when I finish this book I will have some new message that will help my fellow patients or maybe not.”
Before McGarry died Lennon promised he would write “the book” for her. “I was an important character in her story and she wanted me to contribute to it equally, to make it into a joint enterprise. And so it became our book.”
“Of course you know I won’t be a ghost writer,” he had said jokingly to her at one point. He says she was fine with that, telling him she would be happy “as long as you are writing for me and about us”.
“People die all the time and don’t receive any special mention,” he writes. “Life and death go hand in hand and each life is forgotten over time … in this case the person in question was the love of my life.”
Lennon spent six months poring over her diaries which spanned the 18 months of her illness, including medical history and the upheaval the illness wrought on their lives.
He googled memoir writing and decided to ignore the first bit of advice he read which was not to do it, because most memoirs are no good. He joined a writing course which he enjoyed because “normally in the company of doctors you have to pick your words carefully. There’s not much banter. Doctors are very serious and they know everything about medicine but very little about anything else”. He laughs, acknowledging “that’s a sweeping statement I shouldn’t really be making”.
He wanted to make the memoir different. “Part of that was to introduce my melancholic poetry and see how they sat beside the story,” he explains. The title of the book comes from one of his poems. “And the two of us writing a book, that was different, and also the medical angle. People would say to me ‘how come she had to wait so long for results?’ but of course when you become a patient you are no longer the doctor, that disappears”.
The early part of the book tells the endearing story of when Lennon first met McGarry in the bicycle shed of UCD in 1966 as teenagers of 18 and 17, a couple of that era’s ‘normal people’, two medical students falling in love and making their way through life. He describes himself as “reserved” and “very boring” but calls her “very clever, the belle of the ball”.
'It felt like she was beside me … now there is a void'
They were married for over 40 years, raising four children together, tending a rambling, beloved garden, enjoying busy, successful lives as doctors. Lennon was a consultant general surgeon at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda and since retiring has taught undergrad medical students in the Mater Hospital in Dublin. McGarry was consultant physician at Our Lady’s Hospital Navan and a fellow at the Royal College of Physicians. She was also president of the Irish Heart Foundation. In October 2018 the Royal College of Physicians honoured her with the Dr Kate McGarry prize which will be awarded annually to doctors in training.
Looking back on the writing process he says it was “a substitute for grieving, it helped me a lot. It felt like she was beside me … now there is a void.” He might try to fill the void by bringing out a book of his poetry next, instead of “just pining away”.
He says the book will be useful for anyone who has experienced chronic illness in their family but also to anyone in the health service. Is there anything in the book that will annoy his medical colleagues? “No,” he says. “There is mild criticism but it’s nuanced.”
More importantly he believes McGarry would be delighted with the result. “There is a lot of sadness but there is also a lot of joy. Neither of us would have wanted a doom and gloom book … I’m very happy with it and I know she would be very happy. So I think we’ve gotten it right together.”
The Heavens are all Blue by Dr Finbar Lennon and Dr Kate McGarry is published by Hodder & Stoughton