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Because I could not stop for death

Because I could not stop for death
Vicky’s favourite painting – Monet’s ‘Snow at Argenteuil’ (1874) and, (inset) Vicky with her daughter Rachel

Solicitor Vicky McCarthy Keane

Vicky McCarthy Keane was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in November 2017. She tells Mary Hallissey about how poetry has become her therapy and how her new book, Through My Eyes, is her legacy to her husband and children.

Solicitor Vicky McCarthy Keane is the second youngest of four children and grew up in Blackwater, a few miles outside Limerick city. Just five years ago, she received a life-changing diagnosis of motor neurone disease (MND).

Vicky has turned to poetry to help her deal with and express her feelings about the impact of the illness.

Because I could not stop for death
Vicky with her husband Michael

Because I could not stop for death

“Rightly or wrongly, I never attended therapy,” she says. “Writing poetry for me is a place where I channel my emotions so, for me, it is my therapy. It takes me one to two evenings to write each poem.”

As a child, Vicky enjoyed living in the countryside and relished the outdoor life. While her father is from a long line of entrepreneurs, her mother’s family were in the legal profession, mainly as solicitors, apart from one aunt who was a very successful and now-retired barrister.

“As the profession was in the family, it was always discussed among us from an early age,” she recalls. “In my final year at school, my art teacher tried to convince me to prepare an art portfolio. I never did.”

I dwell in Possibility

“I had decided that I would study law, and I went on to do a law and German degree at the University of Limerick, which included a six-month work placement in Germany and a second six-month placement in the legal profession,” she says.

Both proved to be eye-openers, in many ways: “I enjoyed the hustle and bustle of the courtroom, which was the shape of things to come,”
she says.

Vicky was apprenticed at David Brophy Solicitors in Limerick city, and was enrolled as a solicitor in Easter 1999.

“I was very proud to become a solicitor," she says.

“I worked in general practice for the next 15 years, three of which were in Dublin and 12 in Mullingar,” she says.

She also went on to study for an LLM at UCD, focusing on environmental law. At UCD, she also derived immense satisfaction from tutoring law undergraduates, part-time.

Reminiscing on her life as a solicitor, she says: “Working in general practice is a real challenge sometimes, but it can also be very satisfying. I worked mainly in litigation. No two cases are ever the same. I enjoyed attending court, where you really got to meet some great characters – and some very difficult ones too!”

My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun

“In November 2017, I was referred to St James’s hospital in Dublin by my neurologist. After several days of tests and scans, I was diagnosed with motor neurone disease,” she says.

It was arranged that Vicky would attend a specialist, Prof Orla Hardiman, who, after a full examination, diagnosed the most common form of the disease, ALS.

Vicky doesn’t carry the gene, and so her children are not at any higher risk of getting it, to her great relief. “Also, 70% of people have the quicker-progressing version of the disease, and I fell into the remaining 30%.”

Success is counted sweetest

Life for Vicky, her husband Michael, and their four children (Stephen, Lauren, Lucas and Rachel) would never be the same again.

“Even though plenty of people with MND do carry on working, I just wanted to be at home with my family,” Vicky says.

“Prof Hardiman also informed me that what I have is sporadic, and that approximately 400 people have the disease in Ireland at any given time.” The broadcaster Charlie Bird has recently been diagnosed with MND, after attending medics for persistent speech problems.

How has Vicky coped with the disease over the past five years?

“My husband Michael is a very strong person, mentally. He kept us all going at a time when we were just trying to get our heads around the shock of the diagnosis,” she says.

“I was always the one to plan ahead with everything, whereas he always lived from day to day. Frustrating as it was for me, I had to change the way I lived to just keep going.

“Physically, I told myself from the very beginning that I would just deal with each symptom as it arose, and that is what I continue to do.”

This is my letter to the World

How did writing poetry arise?

“As a child growing up, I loved art. I would spend hours sketching. I took art as an extra subject for the Junior Certificate and went on to study it for the Leaving Certificate, too.

“Apart from art, my other favourite subject was English. I particularly loved poetry, and it is only now, years later, that I am rediscovering its beauty and enjoyment.

“While watching a television programme in which Billy Keane was describing the recent discovery of a copybook of his late father, playwright John B Keane, I just thought to myself I might try writing one or two poems.

“So, that day, I just sat down and started typing my first poem. I then decided to send it to Billy and, as it turned out, he loved it. He rang Michael and he came to see us, and then featured us in the Irish Independent. This encouraged me to keep writing, which I now love.”

There’s a certain Slant of light

Why a book? “I decided to write a complete book of poetry, mainly because it was a way in which I could leave a tangible legacy for Michael and the children.

“The poems start off quite dark, but as the book advances, there is light, love and hope.

“So, the book is a journey, and a good deal of the inspiration for the poems comes from favourite places I have visited and people I have met.

“Several of the poems feature me being chased by an ethereal figure, which is, of course, death.”

Vicky describes the inspiration she gets from the unspoilt beauty of the West of Ireland and, in particular, the Burren. Watching a beautiful sunset over Fanore in Clare prompted a new poem the following morning:

As a gull fights against a gallant gale,
you chime the bells of hope from your tower of love.
Where the beacon of old once guided many a mast,
they now take their place as many did before them.

She writes using eye-gaze technology, and her work is edited by literary editor and agent Jeremy Murphy, of JM Agency.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant

What advice would she give to others faced with similar challenges?

“I suppose to search hard for something positive – no matter how small – and try and focus all your energy into developing it as a form of self-help or therapy,” she says.

“I am also a great believer in fate, and so, for whatever reason, I was meant to get the disease. Our youngest Rachel was only four years old when I was diagnosed. She is already very independent, which will benefit her as she gets older. But unfortunately, she will not remember me how I was, prior to my diagnosis.

“Routine is a great thing for kids, so having them back at school gets them back to normality and to their friends.

“I was always a very active person. I would walk four to five nights a week. The only other time I was hospitalised before was for a broken arm when I was ten years old.

“People always say how they think it will never happen to them, and how they never saw it coming. That is so true,” she reflects.

Vicky’s book, Through My Eyes, was published in November and is available from all major online retailers and from selected bookstores as a paperback or limited luxury edition from JM Agency. Visit vickymkeane.com for details. All proceeds will go to the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association (IMNDA).

Read and print a PDF of this article here.