The sense of an ending, and many beginnings

Gail O’Brien is to be the guest speaker at Holy Trinity Parish Dinner on 21 October (see page 21). Tracey Edstein interviewed Gail at her Sydney home and learned something of her remarkable story.

One of the many titles on Gail O’Brien’s bookshelves is Julian Barnes’ The sense of an ending. An important part of Gail’s life has been the journey she shared with her adored husband, Dr Chris O’Brien, from the diagnosis of a brain tumour in late 2006 until his death on 4 June, 2009.

From that awful moment when “the world [had] tilted off its axis” to the state funeral and a more intimate parish Mass to honour and remember Chris, Gail O’Brien was all that Chris needed her to be and more: a supportive and fiercely protective wife, organiser of what she later described as “a rollicking household”, mother of Adam (baptised Christopher Adam), Juliette and James, daughter, sister, in-law and friend. Gail was also the one who determined to investigate every avenue that might help prolong Chris’ life or offer comfort and hope. Clearly, these endeavours did not work in the way the O’Briens would have chosen, but they did provide alarming insight, for a doctor and a doctor’s wife, into what it was to be a critically ill patient and the all-too-informed wife of a critically ill patient. Yet, in Juliette’s book, This is Gail: Life with and after Chris O’Brien, Juliette quotes her parents’ conversation:

“You know, it’s been such a terrible year…But I wouldn’t have been without it.”
After a few seconds of silence, he responded, “Neither would I.”

Seven years on – in many ways, seven good years – she says, “It was a gift in many ways, even though it was horrendous.”

Reflecting on the time when “She was just going through the motions, trying to be part of a life to which she felt no connection”, Gail says, “I’ve always been a coper.” Her natural energy and strength returned, and she says, “My raison d’être after Chris died was just to keep them together.” This task became all-consuming. As she had said to her young adult children, “Dad would not have left us….He loved us too much to leave us. And I’m going to find him.”

Gail’s search took her down many roads, to all manner of wisdom people, therapies and spiritualities. These were not alternatives to the Catholicism she had embraced earlier, the faith in which Chris had been raised and educated. Rather, they were her way of wrestling with a tough reality, one which will resonate with many bereaved people. It’s significant that Juliette’s book is titled, “Life with and after Chris O’Brien”, since Gail is convinced that he has not left her and their children. “It’s definitely not life without, I still have a relationship with him. He knows everything that’s going on!” she insists.

This means then that Dr Chris is well aware that the project he initiated before his diagnosis, which became the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, continues to be his tangible gift to the nation. It was very much born of the struggle the O’Briens undertook, “a translation of what we experienced and what other people have experienced in a fragmented system…” As the vision developed, Gail did not see herself as being actively involved, although her profession was physiotherapy. However, as the harsh reality of creating a new model dawned, she realised her role as guardian of the original vision was crucial. In fact, she’s the guardian angel of Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, which she describes as “a place based on compassion. We are absolutely committed to the original vision….we have an army of volunteers….120 clinical trials going on, 127 beds….We offer surgery, chemotherapy, radiation oncology, complementary and alternative medicine, social support, including support for the staff working there…”

Gail is a valued member of the Board, and regularly speaks about the work of the centre, highlighting its integrated approach. “I can’t quite believe I’m saying this, but there’s just this sense of community and family and love….it’s bringing love into a healing space.”

The need to ‘bring love into a healing space’ was heartbreakingly real when Chris and Gail’s eldest child, Adam, died at 29 after a seizure following the sudden onset of epilepsy almost two years after Chris’ death.

Juliette wrote, “My mother kept her faith. She did not believe that Adam was with Dad; she knew it to be so….She bears all this, all of them, folding them within.” Nothing can assuage the pain of losing a son, but perhaps all Gail’s explorations following Chris’ death strengthened her to face life after − not without − Adam. “The search doesn’t end just because you’ve written a book about the search – but I’m much more at peace about what I believe. If you stop searching you’ve reached the end of the road. You’ve got to develop the spiritual part of you constantly…if you want to be refined spiritually, you have to practise and practise…”

She says, “I don’t believe any of it’s been unfair.” After a long silence, I realise that for her, it’s not about ‘fair’ or ‘unfair’, it just is, and it must be lived. 

Gail continues to worship in her parish of Hunters Hill, and is a member of the choir. She has taken the enormous step of ‘downsizing’ from the family home, a task perhaps made easier by the conviction that her beloved Chris and Adam are with her always. There are many family photos, including Adam being held as a baby by Gail’s Dad, and as an angelic schoolboy. Gail’s favourite photo of Chris, which he signed for her in a hand left unsteady by cancer, holds pride of place.

Juliette O’Brien recounts that Gail is the daughter of Grace Bamford, and was born in Baggot Street, Dublin. Some will recognise the street as the place of the first house of Mercy built by Catherine McAuley, founder of the Sisters of Mercy.

Gail O’Brien laughs a lot, and it’s a laugh bigger than she is. She says, “I function on intuition a lot, and many women maybe do…” She intuits that she has a lot more life to live, and it’s clear to me that her life is being lived in ways that keep alive Chris’ vision and the warm memory of Adam, that sustain Juliette and James, that are open to the sense of new beginnings, that mark Gail Bamford O’Brien as a child of Grace and Mercy.

Juliette O’Brien This is Gail: Life with and after Chris O’Brien Harper Collins Sydney 2016. Read it, and please visit the Lifehouse wesbite

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Tracey Edstein

Tracey Edstein is the editor of Aurora Magazine, the official magazine of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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