'I wish my mother was here every day' – rugby star on how losing his mum to cancer at the age of 12 shaped his future career

By | March 23, 2019
His mother’s face: Andrew Porter says Wendy was always smiling. Photo; Kyran O'Brien
His mother’s face: Andrew Porter says Wendy was always smiling. Photo; Kyran O’Brien

Laura Lynott

There’s not a waking day that Ireland rugby star, Andrew Porter, does not wish he could hold his mother’s hand, walk with her, or hear her voice again. And in a bid to honour her memory, the player is supporting the Irish Cancer Society, as it campaigns to save lives.

At just 12 years old, Andrew, now 23, was left devastated by the loss of his beloved mother, Wendy, who died after suffering breast cancer.

The pain and trauma of knowing that his mother was not going to survive was so great, Andrew still cannot remember being told Wendy was going to die.

And just a day after his mother’s funeral, the sportsman started first year at St Andrew’s College in Dublin, knowing she’d never be there to meet him at the school gates, or ever see him play rugby again.

His world had fallen apart, a happy, carefree childhood changed irrevocably. Without his mother in his life, Andrew couldn’t cope for a time and went on to develop an eating disorder. “Those next few years throughout secondary school were the toughest because I was so young,” Andrew says.

“It was such a hard thing to deal with and I didn’t know how to deal with death at that age.

Andrew Porter's mother Wendy
Andrew Porter’s mother Wendy

“I felt on my own for a bit, not knowing how to process it. I went through a lot of mental distress. Grief led me down dark paths – I was feeling very down for a while.

“I had an eating disorder and went from being the biggest kid among my friends, to the skinniest.

“I saw photos of myself a few years ago of around that time. I had to rip them up and throw them away. I had to forget it. But all that distress and anguish I went through, is what made me who I am.”

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Today, as we mark Daffodil Day – the Irish Cancer Society’s drive to encourage the country to fundraise for a cause that will touch most of our families, Andrew remembers his mother Wendy, his heroine.

And it is clear for anyone who’s fortunate enough to spend time with Andrew the lessons his mum taught him. He has a down-to-earth, gentle, yet determined manner, any parent would be proud of.

The loss that almost broke a young boy just over a decade ago somehow also built him into the man he is today: strong, independent, respectful.

“My mum was one of the kindest, most genuine, good-hearted people and nothing could ever replace her,” the Ireland and Leinster player says.

“From everyone that tells me about her, she was the nicest person they could have met.

“She was friendly and outgoing, a big influence, not just on me but on a lot of other people too.”

Wendy’s name is inked on to her son’s forearm, fittingly nestled beside a peace dove.

“I wish mum was here everyday,” Andrew says. “I have tough days. And obviously I’d have loved if she was there when I got my first cap for Ireland in New Jersey. My dad, Ernie, was there on that day and he was there when we won the Grand Slam last year and when we won the Champion Cup in the Pro 14.

“Dad is always there and I’m truly grateful for that and for all he’s done for me. I do wish mum was there too but I know she’s looking over me and I hope I’m making her proud.”

The former banker turned full-time mother, was clearly a towering figure in her son’s life – instilling “respect for others” in Andrew, from a young age, teaching him to “treat others the way you want to be treated”.

The player remembers his mother cheering him on, as he played rugby as a schoolboy.

And Andrew smiles again, reminiscing how he revealed to her he wanted to play professionally. She was delighted and encouraged his passion. Anything was possible, she insisted.

But tragically Andrew admits, up until recently, he could no longer remember his mother’s voice.

“Every time I remember mum, it’s with a smile on her face,” Andrew says. “In every photo I see of her, she’s smiling. But I couldn’t remember her voice.

“My sister got hold of old home videos, put them on a USB stick and then I heard her voice again and I watched her in those videos and again, she has a smile on her face.

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“After hearing her voice again, everything started to jog my memories. I can picture her shouting me on from the side of the pitch now. I can remember that vividly.

“I was always a very keen rugby player when I was younger and I’d always say to mum I wanted to play rugby professionally when I was older. She enjoyed that, she tried to keep me as involved with sport as she could.

“Mum always encouraged me to play. Dad was my coach when I first started and it was good mum always supported me like that, believed I could do it.”

As he poses for photographs among a sea of daffodils in a park in Cabinteely, south county Dublin, the Ireland and Leinster player appears the perfect ambassador for the Irish Cancer Society.

“I learned that despite such an all-consuming loss, a person’s family will be there, no matter what,” Andrew says now. “Family is everything to me, it was them who got me through losing mum. Children going through a loss, need to talk about it.

“I didn’t want to talk, as I thought people would think less of me but it helps talking about it to someone – to family, friends, whoever. It’s a macho thing, not to talk, some guys still think they can’t talk to about their problems but that was the mistake I made, bottling it up all those years.

“All the players would be good about talking about any health concerns and I encourage the old man [his dad] to look after himself.”

Throughout most of the period Wendy was seriously ill, Andrew was sent to stay with family in his father’s native Carlow.

Ernie had to work and there was no one to mind the schoolboy. But he now believes this was also a measure to “shelter me” from the fact that his mother was so profoundly ill.

“I missed a bit of school, as I was staying with my uncle and family down in Carlow,” Andrew says. “I probably missed the worst of it while I was away. I feel it was probably for the best, as no one wants to see their mum going through anything like that.

“I realised when mum was losing her hair, when she was getting chemo, that something was very wrong. I asked ‘what’s going on?’ They told me she was sick and I thought it was a tummy bug – that it would go away.

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“I only realised how sick mum was, when she was in the hospice in Blackrock for a long time, the year I turned 12. It was a tough year.”

Andrew has achieved exactly what he set out to do as a young boy and it is without doubt down to his mum, a former Old Alex hockey player and his father, a former Old Wesley rugby man, cheering him on, during those formative years.

They were their son’s biggest fans and today, he is theirs. He admits the loss of his mother has taught him lessons for which he is grateful. Money and celebrity are “irrelevant,” in his world. His father, his two sisters, his family, are all that matters to him.

“Family is number one for me and I’ll do anything to support my family. It’s one of the best things you can have – family,” he says.

“They’ll always be there and I want to thank them for the support they’ve given me in the last few years.

“During those tough years, after losing mum, I thought I was on my own but they were always there, the whole time. I’m really close to my sisters, as a result.

“And mum has stayed with me. I feel like she’s there with me through every achievement. Her influence has rubbed off on me. To see someone that friendly, that respectful of other people, she made me who I am. And I can’t thank my Dad enough for also making me the man I am. I don’t know how he put up with me during those years.

“He was a single dad all those years, doing his best for his kids. I can never do enough to repay what he did for me. I hope I’m making them proud, that I’m making mum proud. And I hope I can help highlight the good work the Irish Cancer Society does to help save lives. Fewer people are dying from cancer today because of their work.”

The Irish Cancer Society’s annual Daffodil Day fundraiser appeal takes place today. For more information log on to cancer.ie

Irish Independent

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