Monday, July 07, 2008

A Final Posting

It falls to me to write this final posting. I’m John, Brenda’s husband. Brenda died at home, in peace and surrounded by her family at 11.30am on Friday 20 June. After four plus years of fighting cancer she finally succumbed.

But I can’t leave it there. There was much that was special about Brenda. She touched so many lives and I had the pleasure of being married to her for over 30 years. I have a great sense of duty to share some of her life with you. I also want to celebrate her life – we rarely read about the beauty of ordinary lives; of countless acts of charity and compassion that mark ‘ordinary’ people out from the crowd. And I want to try and capture the essence of Brenda for our children, Dan and Becky, our grandchild Eva and other grandchildren if and when they come along.

With this said I feel able to write freely and liberally about Brenda’s qualities.

Brenda was borne in 1947 in South Leeds to Cliff and Mary. In her childhood she wanted to be a nurse and, with a somewhat bigger ambitions, a nun. I didn’t know of this until quite recently but they do not surprise me. It is clear her purpose in life was already taking shape – the essence of Brenda was a life of practical and spiritual support for people.

Fast forward to four days after Brenda’s death, and a letter I received from an elderly lady who Brenda had befriended in Whitley Bay. In the letter she wrote, “I shall always remember her for her unfailing kindness. One always felt better for being in her company, and was never left in any doubt that she would always be ready with a helping hand, and a fund of practical advice, especially in a crisis. She was indeed a truly remarkable lady.”

As a teenager, Brenda had a very close relationship with her grandmother, Emily. Mary (her mother) tells of the time Emily suffered from Bells Palsy – a disfiguring condition of the face. Brenda spent hours massaging her face back to life and teaching her to whistle again. Brenda’s first act after our marriage was to place her wedding bouquet on her grandmother’s grave. I already knew that there was nothing superficial or transitory about Brenda’s relationships with people, but this unobserved event was further demonstration. Another example is given in the next paragraph.

Fast forward again, but this time to 2004. I received a telephone call from a softly spoken lady with an Irish accent. She introduced herself as Sister Fidelis – Brenda’s teacher in primary school in 1952-57. She had heard of Brenda’s first operation and wanted to know how we all were. She had found out about her illness from another pupil at the School – Judith who lived in Liverpool. Brenda and Judith had remained friends for 50 years; they didn’t speak to each other that often but the contact and friendship had never been broken.

Still in Leeds and a single woman in the early 1970s, Brenda decided on a South African adventure with a friend Kate. They stayed for a year in Tamboerskloof, a neighbourhood of Cape Town. Whilst there she sought out a convent of nuns and service followed as a babysitter for a family of four children. This was no ordinary assignment. This was for a black family who lived in a shack in a black township and she had to be taken in and removed by car. There was much opposition from the people she worked with; she was told it was too dangerous but she persisted.

Some 20 years later we returned to Cape Town and sought out the nun who Brenda knew, and heard that the family had prospered. One of the children had become an airline pilot; another a civil engineer. “Not bad”, I remember Brenda saying, “from a black township to airline pilot in one generation”.

By the time I met Brenda in 1974 (on reflection the most fortunate day of my life) she had befriended Mrs Duxbury, a lady who lived alone, nearby in Churwell, Leeds. Mrs Duxbury was remarkable, to me at least, because when standing her upper body from the waist up was bent horizontal. This had been caused by years of lifting her infirm husband in and out of bed. Brenda became her shopper, carer and friend.

And then a family and a new home in Whitley Bay.

We moved to Whitley Bay in 1977 with our son Daniel. She wasn’t happy to move and cried for most of the journey from Leeds. Within hours of arriving we received a phone call from a lady called Doreen, who inquired as to whether Brenda had the babysitting book and could she provide the name of a baby sitter. Brenda didn’t know what she was talking about but that didn’t deter the caller from inviting her to a coffee morning; she was picked up by another lady (Carol) on the agreed date.

Thirty years later, and during the first three years of her illness, Brenda was still having coffee mornings with these two ladies, and several others, and Carol and her husband Ray were responsible for the plate collection at Brenda’s funeral.

After being in the same house for ten or so years, I suggested that we might perhaps move to a bigger house. Brenda said we could but it would have to be within 200 yards of where we lived and, if possible, could we get the neighbours to move with us? Clearly, Brenda was saying that a loving and caring community was worth more than the pleasures a new larger house might bring. This may seem to be a trifling matter in the context of Brenda’s life; but, it did demonstrate her heavy indifference to material possessions as a route to personal happiness. Brenda wasn’t a restless spirit – she was at ease with herself and her place in the world. As a professional environmentalist I later referred to this as social capital, as opposed to environmental and financial capital. It was an important lesson for me. The valuable assets acquired by living in a community are easily overlooked.

Whilst in Whitley Bay, Becky was borne and the duties of a mother, daughter, wife and friend were played out to the full. The visiting and shopping for elderly people continued and Brenda became a home-visiting Minister for St Edwards Parish Church.

She was there for a number of people in their final moments of life. I remember her coming home early in the morning after having sat with a lady through the night for her final hours. And the gratitude of this lady’s children knowing that there mother wasn’t alone when she died. I felt so proud of her, and had so much admiration for what she had done. In Brenda’s last 48 hours of life we were able to do this for her.

And there were numerous fund raising activities in our house. It seemed to me that whenever a famine or natural disaster was reported in the press or on television, Brenda would respond by holding an event in our house. I remember a house packed with people, money being extracted from compliant ‘victims’, and me in charge of the cloakroom.

And then the onset of her illness five years ago

Between her operations and bouts of radiotherapy she raised about £15,000 for the Mouth Cancer Foundation by organising various events. This included two 60th birthday parties – mine and hers. I vividly remember Brenda’s response to Leah Bell, a North East comedienne and singer who appeared at Brenda’s birthday bash and sang “Simply the best” to her – that wonderful celebration of all that is good about the human condition. Brenda was embarrassed in having the spotlight shining on her so strongly. Brenda was the most selfless person I have ever met. She spent very little time reflecting on her own situation and virtually no time agonising on how life had treated her.

She also joined Vinod, the Mouth Cancer Foundation’s Chief Executive at several NHS NICE meeting to make the case for the use of the drug Erbitux for mouth and other cancer sufferers.

Since her death I’ve received sympathy cards from many people. They also point to Brenda’s unique qualities. Here’s a sample of what they said:

“We feel privileged to have met Brenda.”

“She has been so brave and touched all our hearts. She will always be remembered and will continue to inspire us.”

“A truly lovely lady who loved and cared for her fellow men and we in turn will be forever glad to have been part of her life on earth.”

“I feel so lucky to have known Brenda. She was the kindest most courageous person I have known.”

“Brenda was truly one of the most caring people I’ve met, even when struck down with that cruel illness she continued to care about the welfare of other people and was always first with ‘how are you’. The world is poorer, many hearts will be heavy but lovely memories will be with those who like me feel privileged to have known such a brave and tenacious person.”

Brenda spent a lot of time on the Mouth Cancer Foundation web site, exchanging thoughts with other survivors on its discussion forum. After her death, many of the forum members have told me how Brenda inspired them. It demonstrated to me how valuable this web site is to people who have had to confront this devastating illness. Here are some examples of what they said:

“She is a wonderful human being, a very gentle and caring lady who loved everyone here on the forum.”

“Brenda has been a great support and source of information for me since I came onto the forum. She gave me hope for the future when I was so worried.”

“I met Brenda for the first time this year. Brenda was nice to talk to and gave me inspiration. I am really gutted by this news.”

“I am not an emotional person but as I type I have tears in my eyes. I have met Brenda several times and each occasion was both a pleasure and an inspiration.”

“I met Brenda for the first time in London earlier this year and was blown away by her courage and inner strength. I am fighting back tears writing this.”

“I feel completely devastated by this news. Brenda was one of the first people to lend me support and she gave me such early inspiration. I wanted to come to the web site today and announce my personal goal of getting just over half way with my chemo/RT but that seems just so insignificant now.”

“I am so saddened by this news, Brenda helped me so much with support and advice. I was so pleased to eventually meet up with her at the voice awards.”

Brenda also wrote poems, particularly for special occasions. It was a talent she most probably inherited from her father. Six weeks before she died who wrote her final poem. It was a reflection on what had happened to her since the onset of the illness. I want to share it with you because although she was in constant pain, her fortitude and sense of humour come shining through.

But first, some words of explanation. Five years ago when her mouth cancer was beginning to present itself, Brenda complained of a small hard object under her tongue in the floor of her mouth. The doctors thought it was a blocked saliva gland. Brenda called it her “pea”. And one of the two secondary tumours in her head was treated with Gamma Knife radiotherapy at the Cromwell Hospital in London. So here’s the poem:



My pea

It’s 4 plus years since the knife went in

removing the pea and most of my chin.

16 months later the pea reappeared.

A second procedure and use of a saw

removes said pea and the remains of my jaw!


Another pea surfaced to threaten my life

this time it’s my head – answer, Gamma Knife.

Too deep in my head for an operation

within days bags we’re packed and off to the station.

Admitted to the Cromwell for Gamma Knife

in an iron mask I make an unpretty sight.


The following year said pea reappears

somewhere between left eye and left ear.

Dash down to Birmingham to see a top man

a month of radio therapy his advice ran


A face mask was made of very hard plastic

it was tight and hot, and claustrophobic.

Each day a good friend would come in the taxi

They gave their support – I didn’t need to ask it.

That was last year – I’ve been well for the most part.


The pains back again – more scans on the chart.

It’s hard to explain the affects of one pea

it’s brought pure devastation to my body and me.

Bones from each femur construct my new jaw

scars down both legs show the path of the saw.


Half my tongue had to go from the front to the back

replaced with some flesh – they called it a flap.

It was cut from my forearm around my left wrist

with skin from my left thigh to cover what’s missed.


Before my big op, a small one was done

to insert a ‘Peg’ right into my tum.

A ‘Peg’ is a tube to allow one to feed

with all that’s happening, there sure is a need!


Did I mention as well, the neck dissection

and throw in for luck an MRSA infection.

After 4 plus years I look back and see

what that tiny little pea has done to me.


Not a day goes by without some pain

my face is deformed and to speak is a strain.

My mouth feels like it’s stuffed with a loofah

And my diet is soup, soup and more soup ugh.


Don’t get me wrong I’m glad to be here

I thank God for His blessings each day of the year.

If I’m asked “what soup would your favourite be?”

My reply is anything so long as its not pea.


– Brenda Brady


At the funeral service I ended the eulogy with a celebration of her impact on others and how she cherished her friendships and the community she was part of. To me Brenda was a wonderful wife and partner – a friend, mentor and rock to lean against. At work when faced with a difficult decision I would often have an imaginary consultation with Brenda. I might see some opportunity to be evasive or slightly devious to gain personal advantage. Brenda’s voice in my mind would always be telling me to take the honourable and honest course. Quite recently my daughter asked Brenda who her ‘rock’ was. Brenda’s reply was immediate – she would turn to Jesus Christ. As a life long atheist I had never made the connection between my morals and the Christian church, but here it was.

Brenda was a wonderful daughter. Mary her mother had a life of care and devotion from Brenda. She lived across the road from us and Brenda cooked for her, shopped for her, and spent time with her constantly.

Brenda was a wonderful sister to Bill and his wife Gail (who she regarded as a sister). Although Bill and Gail live in Brisbane, she remained close and their relationship was marked with much fun and laughter. Bill tells of their teenage years in Leeds when Brenda would be entertaining a boyfriend in the house whilst Bill would be fending off another one at the door.

Brenda was a wonderful mother to Dan and Becky. Both were there during her final hours and I know she was proud of what they had become as human beings. The pain of loss will subside; the memories and her example will linger for ever.

And what wonderful friends; Brenda was blessed with hundreds of them in Whitley Bay and further afield.

I’ll finish with some words from Brenda. Throughout her illness she kept a diary. She chose the hymns and readings for her requiem mass and invited everyone to a reception (“my treat”). She gave me these details just before her death. When she new the end was near she wrote the following words:

“I’ve had a lifetime of love. I’ve been very lucky. Always loved and cherished as a child by mum and dad as well as grandparents. And I have had 30 plus wonderful years with you John – a very precious love. Two fantastic children; I’m so proud of you both and love you dearly – all topped off with a great daughter in law Cathy who I know will make Dan very happy. My brother Bill and lovely Gail are very special to me as are Matt and Ben. Mum – we have always had a closeness and special love. We will all meet again, I love you all.”

“I have to say a word about my wonderful friends. This illness has allowed friendships to flourish in ways I never could have imagined. It has brought strengths and blessings that I don’t think even they knew they had. We have all grown closer. The gestures of kindness and caring by each and every person have filled every possible void – from cooking a meal to walking Roxy, sitting with me whilst John is out to giving Mum a lift to church. The list is endless. A special few have been particularly wonderful. They know who they are and they have got me through many rough days and have never tired of supporting me in their own special way over many months and lots of ups and downs. Bless them all.”

And finally:

“A happy life is not how many years you have managed to live, but rather how much happiness you have put into the days you have been given.”

Brenda’s was a wonderful life.

Brenda with Eva (end of May 2008) edit

Brenda with her granddaughter Eva in the back garden, end of May 2008



Video below of Brenda dancing with family in the living room, Christmas 2004




Below: One of the last photos of Brenda, taken with her family in Whitley Bay, 24 May 2008


Bradys at rendezvous cafe 2008).jpg

5 comments:

Daniel Cosentino said...

Dear Sir, What a wonderful memorial. I'm sitting here weeping for its tenderness. Thank you. I found this blog while researching side effects of morphine. My love, Julie, a vibrant young 27 y.o. woman, just underwent a surgery to remove a cancer including her eye and some brain tissue. We fight the good fight with faith and resolve. Good thoughts to you, it is my hope this finds you well and with health. Daniel

Daniel Cosentino said...

Dear Sir, What a wonderful memorial. I'm sitting here weeping for its tenderness. Thank you. I found this blog while researching side effects of morphine. My love, Julie, a vibrant young 27 y.o. woman, just underwent a surgery to remove a cancer including her eye and some brain tissue. We fight the good fight with faith and resolve. Good thoughts to you, it is my hope this finds you well and with health. Daniel

Aron Paul said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Turtle's Back said...

A very beautiful tribute.

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