Stephen Teap a year on from wife's death: ‘It can’t end on a negative note’
‘Irene was heartbroken at being told she was going die, gutted Noah would never remember her face, her voice...’
Stephen Teap, whose wife Irene died from cervical cancer, with sons Noah and Oscar. Photograph: Michael MacSweeney/Provision
“Noah was born on that tile there in a home birth – it’s a lovely memory and I’ll tell him in time,” says Stephen Teap. “But it’s a house of mixed emotions because while he was born on that tile, in the room overhead Irene died two years later. So it’s a house that’s seen both ends of the life, the beginning and the end.”
Teap is sitting in the kitchen of his home in Carrigaline, Co Cork, ahead of the first anniversary of his wife Irene’s death on Thursday. She had cervical cancer, which was missed by two smear tests. Had the illness been detected, her life could have been saved.
The 36-year-old has been on quite a journey in recent years. He watched Irene go through her illness and then learned in recent months that she was one of the more than 200 women affected by the cervical smear scandal. Through all the tumult, Teap says his sons, Oscar and Noah, have kept him anchored.
He is open to chatting about happier times – such as how he and Irene met, like a couple from a Bruce Springsteen lyric, when he was 20 and she was 19.
Irene, who was not enjoying her computer science course in UCC, met Stephen, who was saving to go to Australia, when she took a job in Champion Sports in Cork, where he was working.
“We just clicked from the word ‘go’,” he recalls. “We started going out in April and fell madly in love and all of that and the next thing she was dropping out of college and coming with me to Australia.”
He laughs as he jokes about how thrilled Irene’s parents must have been when she dropped out of college to go to Australia with a man sporting highlighted bleached hair.
“You can imagine, I was her parents’ dream,” he laughs.
The couple spent seven months in Melbourne before returning to Ireland penniless. Stephen got a job with AIB and Irene got a job in the HSE and the pair bought their home in Carrigaline in 2005. Five years later they were engaged, they were married in 2011 and Oscar was born the following year.
When Noah came along in April 2015, Teap recalls making cups of tea for the midwives after Irene opted for a home birth.
In the background, changes were happening. Irene began bleeding after Noah’s birth and it continued persistently. Some 18 weeks after the delivery, in September 2015, doctors did tests which showed Irene had stage 2B cervical cancer. The couple were unaware that two smear tests in 2010 and 2013 returned false negatives, completely missing pre-cancerous cells and the early stages of the disease.
They had experienced adversity over the years, including two miscarriages, but the diagnosis brought them closer.
Irene, Stephen says, was a fighter, and insisted on sourcing breast milk from other women for Noah while going through radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
In February 2016, the first post-treatment scan was positive. Doctors could only see scar tissue and it appeared that Irene had beaten cancer. The family went to Portugal on holiday in April and all seemed well.
A month later, Irene began to complain of back pain which got progressively worse until tests in October showed she had secondary cancer in her liver and her lungs.
More treatment followed, during which time the family visited EuroDisney in May and Allihies in west Cork, where his wife had spent childhood holidays, the following month.
Then on July 14th of last year, doctors said there was nothing more they could do for Irene, and that she only had a few weeks to live. Less than a fortnight later, Irene died.
It’s like watching TV and somebody else’s story is unfolding before you
“We hoped to get to the end of the summer. Irene wanted to see Oscar start primary school at the end of August, that was her goal, that’s what she set herself,” he says.
“She obviously was heartbroken at being told she was going die, gutted Noah would never remember her face, her voice, and you can’t argue with it because it’s truth but it rips you to shreds — the two of us on the couch talking about how much we love each other and will miss each other.
“I’m 36, she’s 35, Oscar is four and Noah is two and you are having this conversation . . . it’s like watching TV and somebody else’s story is unfolding before you and you are thinking, ‘This should not be happening to us.’”
Teap says he was more heartbroken than angry about what was happening. He believes Irene felt sorry for him having to go through what was coming alone.
“She’s the one dying and yet she’s the one pitying me because I’m going to be alone,” he recalls.
Counsellors advised the couple on how to tell Oscar that his mother was dying. It turned out that keeping him informed at every stage, rather than trying to hide the truth, was the correct one.
“When Irene started chemo and we shaved off her hair, he was taking photos and videoing it on the phone, so he was on the journey with us.”
Neither parent was religious, so heaven and hell were not options for explaining death to Oscar. However, when Irene’s grandfather died, the boy said that when very old or very sick people died, they “grow into the ground”.
“We were driving past the graveyard in Douglas one day and Oscar says, ‘Dad, really old people die?’ and I say ‘Yeah’ and then he said, ‘And really sick people die too, don’t they?’ And I say ‘Yeah’, so I had the opportunity to take it to the next level then, so I said, ‘You know your mum is sick?’
“And he said, ‘Ah, yeah, but she’s not very, very sick,’ and that was my opportunity to tell him. But Irene wanted to tell him and we came back and I told her about the conversation and I said, ‘I think Oscar’s ready to have the conversation,’ and she said she would do it that weekend.
However, Irene died that night and Teap ended up having to break the news.
“She died in the middle of the night and the undertakers took her out before the boys woke up so I sat him down on my lap in the morning and told him. He literally just collapsed, he got it first time, no ‘I want her back’, just full-on emotion . . . It was the most difficult thing I have ever done and will ever have to do, I hope – it was the most disgusting, horrible thing.
“You have told him that he is going to be motherless for the rest of his life – it’s the worst blow you could ever deliver and even an hour later, we’re sitting here having breakfast and he looks at me, whimpering face – ‘I’ve no mummy’ – and he breaks down.”
In the time since Irene’s death, Teap says it is “structure” and help from his family that has enabled him to cope. But some days are much more difficult than others.
“When Oscar started school in August it was tough – it was all photographs. I took photos at home even though I felt like shit and then at the school, and it was a sad day for him because all the other kids had their mums and dads and he didn’t have his mum,” he says.
“And I felt sad for Irene because when she was told that she had only weeks to live, she just wanted to live long enough to see Oscar start school, and she missed out on that milestone that she really wanted to see. All that was passing through my head that morning at school.”
The loss of his mother began to catch up with Noah, too, in October. Teap recalls his youngest boy collapsing, and he having to try to provide comfort against a reality that doesn’t allow such things.
“For me, it’s the shared special moments – I have a photo here of Oscar after falling asleep in bed while reading. The amount of times I had to take a book from his mum’s hand after she fell asleep reading to him and I had to do exactly the same for him recently and I took a photo of him.
“I came down the stairs to show it to Irene and say, ‘Look at this – remind you of anyone?’ but she’s not here. They are the moments you miss the most, those cute, ridiculous moments that you want to share that no one else would understand, but I have no one to show that photo to now.”
Thursday will be a normal day for Teap. The family support structure he relies on will kick in as he travels to Dublin as part of his job with Volvo Car Ireland.
This weekend he, Oscar, Noah and his family will mark Irene’s anniversary by returning to Allihies, where they scattered her ashes on the beach a year ago.
Eventually it will come to a point when they are old enough to ask how this scandal happened
There are challenges to come.
Teap hasn’t yet planned how he will tell his sons that their mother died because the Irish State failed her, and how it had all been covered up until Vicky Phelan took her court case. He says he is certain he will tell his boys all about it when they are old enough to understand.
For his part, Teap has in recent months been raising the scandal that killed Irene in Leinster House, on the airwaves and on Wednesday at the MacGill Summer School. He hopes his advocacy can ensure that what happened to Irene never occurs again.
“Oscar is too young to even understand what cancer is, but the older they get, they will be asking questions and I will be drip-feeding them all the time. Eventually it will come to a point when they are old enough to ask how this scandal happened.
“And they will ask me, ‘What did you do when you got this information about the cervical smear tests? And for me, the answer I have to give them is that I fought to get accountability and fix the mistakes that were made so no one else ends up in the situation we did.
“And that has to be my answer because after all the pain and suffering that Irene had, and all the pain and suffering that we have had, it just can’t end on a negative note, and it’s the only way I can make it right in my head and the only way I can see it being made right for them as well.”