A man whose family moved from Derry to the USA in the 1970s has spoken of his “sense of peace” at being able to fulfil his brother’s dying wish to be laid to rest in his native city.
New York teacher Sean Leon (42) returned to Derry last week with his brother Wade’s ashes for a Funeral Mass and burial in the city he had fallen in love with and considered his first home.
Wade died at the age of 42 in 2012 after the lung cancer he was diagnosed with and treated for returned and spread to his brain.
As boys, Wade and Sean had spent their early years living close to the rest of their mother Anna Sweeney’s family at Dove Gardens, and for a time also lived at addresses on Hollyhall Road, Clooney Terrace and Bonds Street.
Sean, a high school English teacher in New York City, said that bringing his brother’s ashes home had been the most important thing he had ever done in his life.
Speaking to the ‘Journal’ this week, Sean described how their father had been a US sailor stationed in Derry who went on to leave the city and how their mother, Derry woman Anna Sweeney, later met and fell in love with another US navyman with whom she had three daughters, the first of which Brenda was also born while still in Derry before they decided to relocate to Louisiana in 1976, when Wade was six and Sean four.
“I would have some faint memories of the Bog,” Sean said. “I don’t remember the leaving part at all. Wade would.”
Anna’s other two daughters, Karen and Megan were born in America, but Sean said his family’s attachment and bond to Derry and their relatives in the city was always strong.
“In 1995 my mum came back to Derry for the first time since 1976, so it was her first time back in nearly 20 years. She came that year with my two youngest sisters Karen and Megan, and obviously Derry was quite different in ‘95, very different. When we left in ‘76 it was a war zone. She sort of again fell in love with the town. She stayed here for about a month, went back to the States and in ‘96 decided she was going to move back here for good. And so in the summer of ‘96 she came back to Derry with Karen, Megan and this time Wade joined her. So they came here prepared to stay. The only people left behind were Brenda and me and once I finished up my degree in ‘96 I then came over as well. And I think what is most important to the story is that early in ‘96 Wade fell in love with Derry, fell in love with the town, fell in love with the history, fell in love with the passion of the people.
“The summer of ‘96 was a rough summer here in Derry and so the media was labelling it one of the worst summers in many, many years.
“I think he fell in love with more than just the city...coming back to Derry he met our uncles Michael and Liam Sweeney (d. 2006) and immediately connected with both of them and saw both of them as father figures.
“Wade got a job in Transtech, and then he was offered a job in Seagate. At some point in ‘97 I was talking to him on the phone and there was only one thing he loved more than Derry, the immediate family and more specifically mum.
“My mother had moved back. In probably August ‘96 mum decided to move back to the States and really that was because my mum was a mum and wanted to keep her entire family together and we had one sister in the States.
“So Wade, once my mum left, was the only one of us still left in Derry. He decided to move back in ‘97 and he moved in with me in Baton Rouge.
“After ‘97 he came back to Derry numerous times. It was always in his heart his first home. This town really was in his heart his home. He enjoyed visiting Derry and he would never visit Derry as a tourist, he would come to Derry and he would be with family. Especially after Liam passed away Michael and Wade had a father-son relationship so Wade’s passing was very tough on our uncle Michael.”
In Baton Rouge, Wade worked as a bartender, but moved back to Opelousas in 2002 to be close to their mother as her younger children were all growing up. While there he took up a job at a Wal Mart distribution factory close by and remained there up until his death.
“He was the most selfless person I have ever known, period. No-one else comes close,” Sean said. “My brother was a human being we should all, especially men, aspire to be like, selfless, caring, compassionate, kind. An inspiring brother, an inspiring son.”
Around Thanksgiving in November 2010 however Wade’s health began to deteriorate. He was initially diagnosed with pneumonia, and then tuberculosis before it was confirmed that he actually had lung cancer.
By June, the first scans back showed the original tumour had gone, but by November 2011 it had returned, bigger and more aggressive. Wade initially kept it quiet from his family, they believe to try and protect them.
By January 2012, Wade started to lose his balance and had difficulty walking and around Valentine’s Day 2012 he was diagnosed as having a brain tumour. The cancer had spread.
“This was a shock to us because we didn’t know the cancer had come full blown in 2011. And so he went in for brain surgery, an 11-hour operation to remove the tumour from his brain.
“When he came home physically he was never the same. That was tough for all of us to see. He lost probably 40lbs, 50lbs he was very skinny. He lived for about six months. “When he was first diagnosed with cancer I’m talking to him on the phone and he says to me ‘Buddy it doesn’t look good. I’m trying to fly out to Derry. And I said ‘why are you trying to fly out to Derry’ and he said ‘because I don’t want to die here’.
“Then after the brain tumour I think Wade in fact wanted to die with his immediate family around him, but he made it very clear he did not want to be buried in Louisiana, he wanted to be buried in Derry. That’s where he was born. It truly is a story of a son of Ireland returning home.”
Sean said his brother’s burial in Derry was very much the end of the journey.
“Of course Wade’s legacy will live on forever in my heart and mind. Wade in so many ways in the way he lived his life illustrated what it means to be a man, what it means to live a selfless, caring life. He was never a guy who would say ‘I love you, I love you’.
“How he lived his life was all about showing that he loved us.”
He added: “Those last six months was tough on us but you wouldn’t know it was tough on Wade. He always managed to find humour. He was joking and laughing to the very end.”
Sean said there was a sense of fulfilment in carrying out his brother’s final wishes in bringing Wade home to rest in peace, with the blessing of their mother, who was not able to make the journey for health reasons.
“For the first time since he passed away she too feels a weight has been lifted and she feels at peace knowing that Wade is where he always wanted to be.
“The greatest thing I have ever done with my life was to bury my brother in Derry,” he said.
“When I came over last week I was very much excited. Wade lived his life doing for others, and finally I was able to do for Wade in the absolute most meaningful way possible.
“This was not a sad moment at all for me. It brought about a great deal of peace. This was very much proper closure. It’s the way Wade would have wanted it, and Wade wanted so little for himself. He was an absolute inspiration.”
The Funeral Mass and burial, attended by Sean and his local relatives (with whom he is staying while in Derry) was filmed and photographed so that Anna and the rest of her family will be able to witness the service back in the US when Sean returns next week.