I wonder would Emma Hannigan have been surprised at the award, given to her family, in recognition of her writing, at the Irish Book Awards last week? I hope not. I hope she knew how much she meant to people; to her readers and the people who knew her and miss her and who -some of us, anyway – still talk to her a bit in our heads.
She would have been pleased, of course she would – recognition is always nice. But I can’t imagine she would have been too excited. I doubt she cared all that much about awards. From what I could see, it was writing Emma loved – I remember her telling me: “Writing is my therapy; some people find God, I found books.” Writing, and being read.
I remember doing a panel discussion with Emma once, in the Smock Alley theatre – it was, if I’m correct, on writing and motherhood and how (if!) the two go together – and I asked her beforehand if she was nervous. I asked because I was. And she said, not in the slightest, that she loved meeting people and talking to them, and meeting readers was the best of all.
Sure enough, out there in front of the audience, Emma was completely natural. By which I mean, completely herself – funny and bright and charming, but also completely unsentimental about the realities of life as a writer, and a mother, with cancer.
That total lack of sentimentality, or any kind of self-pity, makes me think Emma might have laughed a little at us – at me, anyway – if she had watched the tributes to her that were screened at the awards.
I, and a few more of Emma’s friends, talked about her, and about what she meant to us. Each of us said the same thing, in completely different words: that she was the bravest person we knew, with a very particular kind of grit and tenacity that came wrapped in sparkle and mirth and charm, and that didn’t ever give way, even under enormous pressure.
Sometimes, it takes a bit of distance to see how truly unusual someone is. Emma has been gone nearly nine months now, and there is no doubt in my mind – she was a very unusual person. She had the gift of courage. And the gift of grace, both physical and psychological.
Emma told me once “Life is precious. Everybody has adversity, you’ve got to take it as it comes, but by God you’ve got to grab the good times and the fun, and focus on it and enjoy things.” Anyone can say that – lots of people do, or stuff very like it. But Emma lived it. And that’s what’s so unusual.
There is now a research scholarship in her name. The €133,000 raised in the weeks immediately before Emma died, along with another €39,000 raised afterwards, has been put towards research into the breast cancer that killed her. The Emma Hannigan Breast Cancer Research Fellowship has been awarded to Dr Damir Vareslija at the Royal College of Surgeons, who met Emma in February 2016.
The main focus of Damir’s research is into metastatic breast cancer, meaning cancer that has spread to other parts of the body; the single biggest cause of mortality in breast cancer. Which means, we hope, that another woman, many other women, and their families, will be spared what Emma and her family went through. That’s some legacy. Much more than most of us could hope for.
Thanks to Emma, more women talk about what happens to them, mentally and physically, when they have cancer. They are less ashamed. They don’t feel the same need to pretend nothing has changed, because they have her as an example. She told me once that she would happily have stood naked in St Stephen’s Green if she thought it would do any good – by which she meant, encourage women to know that cancer may be what they have. It is not what they are.
In recent times, several people close to me have been diagnosed with cancer – of course they have, more than 100 people a day in this country are diagnosed, over 40,500 new cases a year – and I try to be for them what Emma was for me: steadfast, positive, encouraging; a source of light, with plenty of very dark jokes thrown in.
I have a couple of new catchphrases thanks to Emma.
One of them is, ”There’s no point in fighting to be well, fighting to live, and then being a miserable cow”. I say that one to myself on days when I am feeling particularly ratty and stressed; going around aggrieved and irritable and counting woes instead of blessings.
Her voice pops into my head, and so far, it hasn’t let me down. Once it’s there, in my head, I stop moaning or stressing, and go for a walk or a run, or I smile at my children and suggest we do something fun, instead of nagging them about homework and picking up shoes. According to the wellness folk, we all need a mantra. I think that’s mine.
The other catchphrase is ”love and light”. I think a lot of people are using that now. I see it on social media, friends of Emma’s signing off from a post, or readers commenting on something to do with her work. It always makes me smile. It’s so her.
Love and light, Emma. We miss you.