By Jim Gibney (for the Irish News)
I know exactly the time and where I was when I last saw Sinn Féin councillor Michael Ferguson alive.
It was 3.45pm on Friday September 9. I bumped into him in Andersonstown Leisure Centre.
Two days earlier I heard with shock that Michael had an operation for testicular cancer. I do not know why I was shocked; cancer is so prevalent.
Everyone knows someone who has died from or is fighting cancer. But Michael Ferguson and cancer sat uncomfortably in my head.
I saw him before he saw me. I watched him from a distance for any outward sign of the illness. But there was nothing.
It was the same old Michael, mobile phone in hand pressed to his ear, energetically moving from one leg to another, occasionally spinning around as if to talk to an imaginary person.
I was determined to speak to him to ask him how he was coping with an illness people find difficult to speak about.
I could see the effects already. He was gaunt. His hair clipped much shorter than usual.
There was a look in his eyes that was not there before. I am not sure how to describe it.
It was not Michael’s look that I met over the years.
Perhaps it was the look of a man who knows in the back of his head or maybe in the forefront of his head that he has a life battle on his hands.
He spoke candidly about his operation and illness; about cutting his hair short to prepare himself and those around him for his hair loss due to chemotherapy.
He spoke confidently about beating cancer but he also said he was surprised that in his fifties he had a ‘younger man’s’ illness.
As we left the topic of his health, he characteristically swiveled on his heel, mobile phone to his ear and asked did I know anyone who had a mini-bus. He needed it for a group of children that weekend.
From cancer to a mini-bus in the same breath! I hardly had time to respond before Michael strode out the door of the centre, off on another journey on behalf of his many constituents.
I know exactly the time and where I was when I learned of Michael’s death. It was 8.45am on Monday September 25 when my mobile phone rang. I was abroad on holidays.
The hot sun streaming through the window was chilled as the cold wind of death carried the message on my friend’s lips that Michael had suddenly died.
I was stunned. I thought of his partner Louise who told me a few weeks ago about Michael’s illness and that he was going to be alright. And now he was dead.
I thought of their young children and how they would cope losing their daddy so young.
I thought about myself and my friends losing our fathers young. And how over the years as we got older and better understood life we spoke about the gap in our lives losing our fathers so young.
I thought of my mother, a widow at 46, left to raise seven children and now Louise faced that with her young clan.
I thought how cruel life can be. That at times of a sudden death life has neither rhyme nor reason. Just this black void we stare into and temporarily wonder why.
The abiding memory I now have of Michael is of him swiveling on his heels, mobile phone clasped to his ear.
It is how I saw him regularly on the Falls Road and when I did I knew he was helping someone.
Michael Ferguson was a onstituency-campaigning politician with an independent streak who knew the value of the media to a worthy cause.
His style of representation helped make Sinn Féin the campaigning party it is today.
He was at his most relaxed among the people of Twinbrook and Poleglass who elected him.
He was very popular there and respected in Lisburn Council which adjourned its monthly meeting in sympathy.
Michael is a great loss not only to his family but to Sinn Féin and to the cause of Ireland’s freedom.