Eleanor Doherty, by Niall Doherty
"As the '80s came to a close, so too did our time as a duo..."
The best thing that my mum ever said to me, apart from when I got a headache after having my first ever cigarette and she asked me if I’d been sniffing glue (it was the mid-90s, sniffing glue was a big topic), was that you earn respect.
Wisdom like this was often imparted in a rush, usually in the car in the morning over the top of Terry Wogan’s silky tones on the radio. Eleanor Josephine Doherty, born in Derry in 1950, was pretty much late for everything. But she had a lot on her plate, juggling a full-time job at Norwich Union and being a single mum to two boys, plus all the other stuff she took on along the way: being Chairperson of the Derry Association in London, doing the accounts for her church, enrolling in an Open University course, making our house a stop-off for exchange students, things like that.
For the first nine years of my life, it was just me and her in our two-bedroom flat in Walthamstow. Mum and my dad, a music journalist (bad sort, steer clear), had moved to London from Derry in the mid-70s. They were both there on the Bloody Sunday march, mum jumping on her sister and uttering the immortal line “mum will kill me if we get shot” when the soldiers started firing. My dad went off and started another family six months after I was born in 1981 (you can read all about my daddy issues in Ted’s My Old Man book) and Mum considered going back home. She decided to tough it out instead. She was steely, and there was help along the way too, not least when my uncle Chas, her younger brother, came to stay with us for two weeks and I then shared a bunk bed with him for seven years.
There was no gap in my upbringing where a dad would’ve been, she had it all under control. There were Friday night trips to the West End to go the cinema, Saturday afternoons were spent traipsing up and down Walthamstow High Street, Sundays usually meant a roast in the Irish Centre in Camden, with permission granted for me to pop over the video shop opposite to see what Corey Haim and Corey Feldman films they had in stock. She’d take me to Oxford Street and let me drag her round the giant HMV and she’d withhold her critical opinion when accompanying me to see New Kids On The Block at Docklands Arena.
As the 80s came to a close, so too did our time as a duo. She’d met someone but, revealing the chink in her armour to be an amazingly bad taste in men, he was another absolute rotter. This one jumped ship whilst she was pregnant with my little brother Declan, making her a single mum two times over, but we became a power trio. Declan’s arrival coincided with a redundancy notice and for the second time she wondered whether to go back to Derry. I was 9 when she sat on my bed and sobbed, “what shall we do?”. It was the first time I’d ever seen my fierce, brilliant mum show vulnerability. Whatever words of encouragement I offered must have worked because soon after she took me to see New Kids On The Block again.
She ended up with a relocation to Norwich Union’s office in Chelmsford and we moved from London to Essex, out of the flat and into a house in a cul-de-sac that backed onto a field. I was a little bewildered at our new surroundings, but mum loved it. Over the years, she made a heap of new friends and enjoyed the rhythm of being in a ring-road town rather than hectic north London. We were a tight crew. Declan’s approach to being naughty was little and often and I became the diplomat between them both – “bruv, tell mum!” “Niall, please can you tell your brother!” etc. Mum made the surprising move into football mum territory, cheering on Declan from the sidelines and making a habit of delivering a post-match debrief to him and his mates whilst dropping them all off home. Soon after, she became the Club Secretary.
Our family dynamic was mostly based on making each other laugh, sitting round the kitchen table impersonating people and being silly. Sometimes, Mum would let me borrow her wig to wear to my friends’ house parties. I was always keen to see if they’d say anything, then get offended if they didn’t because, well, did my hair look like my mum’s wig?
Oh yeah - sorry, by the turn of the millennium, mum’s on-off-on-on-off-on-on-off battle with cancer had started. I know some people don’t like it when it’s characterised as a fight, which I understand, but that’s how she saw it and we were all in her corner. Her resolve and courage and strength were incredible, repeated sessions of chemo and radiotherapy failing to knock her off her stride. Now working in London, I came back to play nurse after one chemo session only to find an empty house and a note on the oven saying, “put it on for 20 minutes. I’ve gone to flower arranging, I’m not staying in!”.
She got the all-clear towards the end of 2006, and we were all tentatively pleased. She’d had the all-clear before. I rang her one Sunday before Christmas for a catch up and her demeanour was extremely un-Mum. She was moody - and she was never moody! I called back later, figuring that maybe she was worn out after a long year, but this time her speech was slurred. I began to panic. What was this? She was fine, she assured me, just a bit tired. I reluctantly said, “OK”, but later that evening she fell ill and Declan called an ambulance. The hospital kept her in.
A few days later, sat in a room waiting for her to have a scan, we could hear a choir going from ward to ward singing Christmas carols. At this point, watching mum get rolled into the MRI scanner, it sounded like the saddest thing I’d ever heard. She’d had cancer for seven years now, but it felt like we were into something different. A few days later, the doctor told us that the cancer had spread up her back and to her brain. She was allowed home for Christmas, although Christmas Day involved an emergency trip to hospital. To take the edge off, me and my girlfriend Jade took Declan for his first ever driving lesson in an empty car park. A few days later, Mum was moved to a specialist unit in Colchester. The plan was for treatment to begin when she got her strength back.
She died on the 5th January, 2007. We were there to say goodbye, with lots of comical moments (come on, it’s been 16 years!) where mum would draw a huge breath, go silent for a bit, I’d ask the nurse “is that it?” and then mum would start breathing again. It was like when you think Neil Young has finished playing Rockin’ In The Free World and he goes in for one more chorus. I was stood by the bed, one hand on Mum, the other arced back onto Declan, sitting behind me. Jade said it looked like I was protecting him. The previous summer, Mum had sat me down for one of the only serious, formal chats we ever had to talk about what was going to happen with him if she died. It was a quick conversation: I said that Jade and I would look after him, and so it was put into her will that I’d become his legal guardian. One power trio had been broken, but now we had another.
I wondered if I had it in me to write this piece when Ted asked, not because I was worried that the emotion of doing so would be upsetting but the opposite. It’s been so long now – could I write about this without feeling like I was doing a When My Mum Died Wikipedia page? It turns out I could, because the grief ebbs away but the love doesn’t. Even if somewhere along the way all that turbulence and devastation just becomes a fact in your history, the sort of thing where you say to people, “don’t worry, it was fucking ages ago!” when they get awkward about it and you get older and you realise this was the natural order, the love is always there. Any good I’ve got in me was put there by my mum. She showed me what family means, she showed me how to love, showed me how to earn respect. If that’s all I’ve got left to take forward with me, then that’s OK.
This is a place where we can share tales of our mothers or fathers. All posts edited by Ted Kessler. For any submission, please email farfromthetreeTK@gmail.com. Thank you for reading. Please do share.
Your mom is an example Niall, thanks for sharing.
This is a beautifully written, very moving piece. Thank you for sharing.