Optimism in the face of life's problems

Last updated 05:00 22/02/2014
Brian Kennedy
HOPEFUL: Brian Kennedy just wants to live long enough to see his first grandchild born.

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Christchurch Earthquake 2011

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Today's earthquake memorial service means a little more to one particular widower who is unsure if this will be his last. Brian Kennedy talks to OLIVIA CARVILLE . 

The earthquake took his wife and now motor neuron disease is stealing his future.

Suffering two such great tragedies would dispirit most - but not Brian Kennedy.

He has faced adversity fearlessly and still believes himself fortunate.

When his wife of 34 years was killed in the collapse of the CTV building three years ago, Kennedy took up the role of spokesman for the victims' families.

He fronted the television cameras, questioned the authorities and fought to give a voice to those who needed it.

Now, with his body wasting away and only a few years left to live, the 67-year-old widower still considers himself a lucky man.

Lucky that his two daughters will have the chance to say goodbye to him, an opportunity they never had when their mother was killed.

And lucky to have had two chances at love.

Kennedy and his high-school sweetheart, Tash Newton, 67, lost their long-term spouses within a year of one another.

The widowed pair had given up on love, but found coping with grief was easier together.

In 2012, around the same time Kennedy began unknowingly suffering symptoms of motor neuron disease (MND), the couple began dating again.

"We have been given a rare chance of two bites of the cherry. One who gets two bites of the cherry is incredibly lucky," Kennedy says, in his slurred speech.

Leaning back in a leather lazy boy chair, Kennedy uses pidgin English and his own version of sign language to communicate.

He runs his fingers down his face to show how his daughters cried when he told them he was suffering MND and now on a "one-way trip" to the grave.

He turns to Newton to help him finish sentences when he is misunderstood or the words are too difficult to enunciate.

MND is a debilitating disease with no treatment and no cure.

It progresses slowly, with the brain cells that control muscle movement eventually shutting down, leading to severe disability and, finally, death.

Kennedy's first warning sign came in early 2012 when he began rapidly losing weight.

It wasn't until May 2013 that he received his diagnosis and was told he had between three and five years to live, maybe less.

Kennedy has accepted that one day his lungs will slow down, his breathing will cease and his heart will stop beating.

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He just wants to make sure this doesn't happen before he has the chance to meet his first grandchild, who is due to be born in July.

"I am not at the stage of wanting one foot in the grave or waiting for God . . . there is a grandchild I have to meet and a new lemon lager I want to try," he says, high-fiving Newton with a shaking hand.

Kennedy is not defined by his illness; instead he is empowered by it.

"One of the things with this disease is that depression can be a huge problem if people don't know how to cope with it, but not in my case. I put my hand up at the wrong time, I get it, you just have to take those knocks in life on the chin."

In the past two years, he has lost 35kg.

"If I need to laugh, I'll take my shirt off and do my Charles Atlas pose in the mirror. You'll never see anything worse in your life," he says, with a smile.

The former warehouse supervisor can no longer open a stubbie or swallow food.

And he is slowly losing the ability to talk, which is unbelievably frustrating for a man with a quick-witted sense of humour.

"I'm 100 per cent until about here," he says, dragging a finger from the top of his head to his mouth. "It all goes wrong from here down."

It has been almost two years since Kennedy quietly stepped down from his role as the quake families' spokesman.

Most of the families do not know about his condition and will probably find out at today's memorial service.

Kennedy is unable to draw comparisons between the two tragedies he has faced.

It feels as though he was "wearing one shirt for the earthquake and another shirt for what I'm going through now".

He has thought about whether it would be better to "go just like that, like in the earthquake" compared to what he is facing, but says he is not at a stage to know just yet.

Right now, he is happy spending the time he has with Newton.

The pair first met at Aranui High School when they were 13.

They dated throughout their sixth form year.

After leaving school, they both married, had children and only saw one another at high school reunions.

In February 2011, Kennedy lost his wife and in November that same year, Newton's husband died.

Kennedy attended his funeral and as time went by, he began regularly meeting Newton for coffee to talk about their grief.

"It was such a comfort to talk to each other as we had both been through a similar sort of trauma. His was very public and mine was very private," Newton says.

They had both assumed they would be on their own for the rest of their lives and say falling in love again was totally unexpected.

Kennedy retired in October and moved in with Newton two weeks ago.

She will care for him during the last few years of life.

"The future doesn't scare me; it makes me sad. This is not a kind disease and I don't know how I would have managed without his sense of humour," Newton says.

The couple agreed they would get married when they both reached 89.

"We thought that was a fairly safe bet," she says, laughing.

In the meantime, Kennedy has a bucket list to work through.

He crossed one item off on New Year's Eve, by driving through the Catlins with his window down, drumming his hands on the steering wheel to Led Zeppelin.

The rest of his list includes:

Walking through the trees in Hokitika. Visiting friends and family. Playing horrendously loud rock music on his flat screen TV. Going to Feilding to visit police inspector Mark Harrison, who was head of the Family Liaison Unit following the quake. Kennedy got along well with Harrison and wants to "stir him up a bit" before it's too late.

And, staying alive to meet his grandchild.

A realist rather than an optimist, Kennedy has already started to plan his funeral.

He wants to handpick the music and is already one third of the way through writing messages he wants loved ones to read out on his behalf.

"I will be in a box of ashes. No memorial. Blown out to sea in a decent westerly."

- The Press

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