A life well lived, a spirit undiminished

A Eulogy for Evelyn McCullough

When I first started out in landscape photography just over 5 years ago, little did I know that I was on the cusp of making some wonderful new friendships as a result. As I shared my work online, mostly on Flickr in those early days, a wee community of faithful commentators would post some encouraging words about my early fumblings, and I of course tried to return the compliment. It didn’t take long for the odd pseudonyms we seemed to use on Flickr to become increasingly familiar names. And we began to get to know one another through the photos we posted and the comments we left.

Before long, it seemed only natural for us to extend these friendships beyond the virtual world and for us to meet up in real life. And so, it was with much excitement and anticipation that I had arranged to meet up with my first Flickr friend, someone who didn’t feel the need at all to use a pseudonym to hide behind, but who lived life out in the open for all to see. The Flickr buddy in question? None other than Evelyn McCullough.

We had arranged to meet along the Prom in Portstewart where she lived. As I left, my eldest daughter pointed out that I was about to do the very thing I had warned her never to do on social media: meet someone in real life you only knew from the online world. “What if it’s someone dangerous?” she asked, with a twinkle in her eye. “It’s not the same thing for an adult,” I mumbled by way of excuse, and off I went.

That day, my life and my world became larger, richer and more delightful.

My first abiding memory of Evelyn is clear and vivid: her smile. Not the kind of smile that barely escapes through pursed lips. But the kind of smile that explodes out in infectious beauty, causing Evelyn’s whole face to radiate exuberance as joy spills out to any and all who catch her eye. And those eyes, boy, those eyes. The spark of wit, humour, mischievousness and joy that was found in those eyes is like none I have seen in anyone else. If the eyes are the mirror of the soul, Evelyn’s spirit was expansive, and wonderful, and beautiful.

We spent just a few minutes chatting that sunny day outside of Roughans, but I knew instantly that my daughter’s concerns for my well being were nothing to be worried about! I knew instinctively that I had met a new friend that day, and I looked forward to being able to get to know her better.

And, as I got to know her more and more, I was invited into the wonderful world of Evelyn McCullough. Her warmth and enthusiasm were unique. She was one of those people who had the gift of making you feel better about yourself and the world simply by being in her presence. Partly, it was the interest in you and compliments she would pay you. But it was as much due to her infectious enthusiasm for life.  She didn’t believe in just bumbling along. She grabbed life by the shoulders and led it in a merry jig through all the circumstances she met. Her sheer, larger than life wild abandon made her a delight to spend time with and my family and I always enjoyed our wee visits round to see Evelyn and her sister Elizabeth in their wonderful home in Portstewart.

But, inevitably with Evelyn, to be invited into her world was to be invited into her wide circle of friends. And it wasn’t long before she was busying herself into organising occasions for me to meet some other wonderful folks from Flickr. There are lots to mention, but especially the times with the master of wit Rodney Harrison (another one with a glint always playing around his eyes) and the serene beauty of Mari Ward (another whose smile cascades out in warmth to all around her). The times we met sharing Evelyn’s hospitality are times I will always treasure.

And, of course, the photos. I must mention the photos. It was photography that first brought us together, and although our friendship was much more than this, photography still played a central part. I remember one particularly entertaining photo trip with Evelyn and Rodney along the north coast on sunny afternoon. Evelyn insisted in driving - something Rodney and I will never forget! When I say she lived life with wild abandon, that spirit seemed to spill out into all aspects of her life - including when she was behind the wheel! The craic was fierce that day in our white knuckle ride around the winding rounds of Tor Head. And, in the midst of our photo trip, Evelyn decided that it was just the right time for a wee dip in the sea at Ballycastle. So, before we knew it, she’d changed into her swimming costume and was off out swimming in the Atlantic Ocean, always with that smile on her face. If something was worth doing, why put it off? Just do it. Get out there and live your life.

Oh, there are so many memories. Our annual Halloween trip round to see Evelyn and Elizabeth with my girls all dressed up in ghoulish outfits, drinking tea and eating buns in her living room. The meeting up for coffee and buns (always buns!) on Portstewart Prom. Trips down with her to the Herringpond to meet her octogenarian friends who went for their daily dip in the Victorian rock pool near the harbour.  Sunset photoshoots at the Giant’s Causeway. The time we literally raced down to the Mussenden Temple at sunset, chasing the light, as I jumped over the cliff top wall in pursuit of the perfect shot while she stood the other side, with her heart in her mouth and her constant words of caution, just in case I slipped The time I took Evelyn in the pitch dark down to Dunluce Castle to show her the aurora, as she slipped and slided in the mud on the way down.

She was fascinated by the aurora and wanted her dear mum to get a chance to see it one evening (she had seen it as a child near Ballymena, Evelyn told me). And so I was given strict instructions to give her a text anytime I thought there would be a show, so she could call round to pick up her mum and head out. And so it was in March 2015, when one of the biggest aurora displays of the current cycle was slamming into our planet, that I phoned Evelyn with excitement to tell her to head out. I felt sure that this would be the night she would see it.

But, when I was speaking to her on the phone, for once she wasn’t her usual chipper self. “I’m not feeling very well, “ she told me, “I’m quite tired, so I don’t think I’m going to head out tonight.” That’s not like her at all, I thought to myself. She must really be under the weather. Little did any of us know at that stage that these were the first signs of a rare and aggressive cancer that was already beginning to ravage her body.

The shocking diagnosis soon followed, of course. And, I must say, much as I admired and respected the spirit and life of Evelyn McCullough before this point, I had no idea just what incredible inspiration I was going to see over the coming months as she faced up to that most life-crushing of news: terminal cancer.

Over the next few months, she went downhill really very fast. And when I called in to see her in Coleraine hospital, we were having conversations about her memorial service and how she wanted me to be involved. She wanted some music and thought I would know of something appropriate. I was so honoured even to be asked; “Would you mind if I wrote a piece of music for you,?” I suggested? She, of course, was delighted. Even in those dark times, the light still shone from her eyes. Yes, of course there was fear there too. But the spirit and determination and hope was still spilling out, and filling the room in which we sat in hospital. The next time I called in to see her a few weeks later to let her hear what I had written, she was thrilled. But she was also desperately sick. I remember thinking to myself: this will be the last time I spend with this wonderful woman.

And indeed it nearly was. With only days to live, she was rushed by air ambulance to Basingstoke hospital for what she called ‘The Mother of All Surgeries’. But, in the face of all the grit a determination that Evelyn could muster, despite all the risks and uncertainties, the surgery was a success in gaining her some more time. The cancer was still terminal, but she had been given a gift of life. And, if she was living life to the full before her illness, we had seen nothing compared to what she was going to do with her time over the next months.

She was a woman on a mission: she wanted to tell her story, and to tell it in a way that encouraged and inspired those going on a similar cancer journey whilst raising money for the folks in Basingstoke Hospital PMP Unit and Macmillan. And so the idea emerged of a book, featuring her photos of her beloved North Coast, along with some words reflecting her experiences on living with cancer. To help her, she assembled Team Evelyn! We rallied round to give whatever help we could. Rodney, Mari and myself (and others) all gathered around her to help bring her vision to life. I was tasked by Evelyn with doing the graphic design and assembling the book. And so it was over the Christmas break that a flurry of emails, texts and phone calls were exchanged as Shadows and Light came to life. I remember one particular phone call where we both sat at different ends of the country chatting about various aspects of the book whilst the two of us were editing together via an online document. She, of course, was amazed that such a thing was even possible, and enthused about it as we worked feverously. In particular, we both really enjoyed discussing the placement of commas! As a self confessed punctuation geek, it was a delight to get excited with Evelyn about where and how many commas were needed in this particular sentence!

Before long, Shadows and Light was ready and the whirlwind publicity tour began. The book launch in Coleraine; the radio interviews; the TV programme about her; the interview on UTV. It was classic Evelyn: spreading joy, energy and life wherever she went. But she was doing so with an honesty about the struggles. This was not burying her head and ignoring the fears and doubts. Evelyn’s spirit was strong enough to face up to the darkest of moments, to confront the reality of the fears that they brought, and still to shine with grit, determination and hope through it all. It was precisely because of her honesty about the battle that her hope shone with a vitality and integrity. And the money poured in from all over the world as Evelyn’s efforts raised thousands of pounds for Basingstoke and Macmillan. That was a real joy to her. But, more than that, the letters poured in from others who we facing similar fears, either themselves or with family members. It turns out it wasn’t just money that was being raised; downcast spirits were being raised too because of Evelyn.

And so, even as the cancer was taking its inevitable toll on her body, Evelyn was doing what she had always done. What she did that first time I met her on Portstewart Prom. What she did throughout all the time I had the privilege of know her. Her infectious joy and sheer passion for life were cascading out in waves of inspirational hope, not only to those who caught her eye along the Causeway Coast, but even to those all across the world who got a hold of a copy of Shadows and Light.

If you followed the comments on Evelyn’s Facebook page, the one word that seems to be used more than any other is ‘inspiration’. And a more fitting word does not exist. The word literally means to breathe into, and was used to convey the sense of imparting a truth or idea to someone. And that is precisely what Evelyn has done. Her entire life, she has breathed out a truth that we would do well to remember: take this wonderful gift called life, and live it to the fullest, wildest, most glorious extreme that you can. Smile often, find hope in darkness, bring joy to others, and use you time to make this world that bit richer and better and brighter than it was before you walked your numbered steps upon the earth.

In those every last days, when I called up to see her in the hospice, I passed a display of her photos in the corridor. Typical Evelyn, I thought. Spreading beauty and joy wherever she finds herself. I called into her room - her body was finally ravaged. She hadn’t eaten in a month; she was sleeping most of the time. But I had a few precious moments with her. I held her hand. As always, she said some wonderful things about me and my little family. And I looked deeply and intently into those glorious eyes of hers one last time. “I can still see your spirit alive and beautiful in your eyes,” I told her. “Can you?” she whispered. But she seemed pleased to hear me say that. To the end, those same eyes that had so struck me the first time I saw into them still shone bright.

Cancer has done its worst. And Evelyn is now at rest. But her spirit fought on to the end and continued to spill out. And the legacy she leaves behind for those of us honoured enough to have called her friend is one that will continue to shine forth, to spill out, and to inspire us. Thank you, my dear, dear friend. These words can only scratch the surface of all that you brought to me and my family, and to so very many others. I pray your spirit will now soar with the same wild abandon you showed us all during your life lived so very well here on earth.