Finding joy in the face of tragedy

Published on August 5, 2014

Welcoming a newborn is always a joyous occasion, but for the family of a Newfoundland man who died in a British Columbia avalanche in March, the birth of his daughter is particularly special.

Named after her father, AJ Cleary, Adrienne Rose Cleary was born July 28 to mother Laura.

“I guess it’s the saddest happiest day of our life,” said AJ’s mother, Joan Cleary, the mayor of Come By Chance.

“I just find myself so fortunate in this unfortunate situation to have a grandchild. There are a lot of mothers and fathers who have lost children and haven’t been as lucky, if you can call it that, in their situation as we are. What better gift can you have than to have a child?”

AJ Cleary, 34, was born and raised in Come By Chance. An avid cyclist and adventurer, he was buried under 15 metres of snow while snowmobiling near Vernon, B.C. He died after turning back to try to save his friend.

“For him, dying while saving another life and doing something he loved would be something AJ would have probably said, ‘Well, if I’ve got to go, that’s the way to go,’” Joan said.

In the face of tragedy, Adrienne’s birth is a tremendous gift to the Cleary family.

“She’s just part of him. It’s his DNA, and hopefully some of his looks and some of his mannerisms — and hopefully not all of them,” Joan said with a laugh.

“He was a very unique young man. He was a very good friend, he genuinely cared and he was a very good listener. Those characteristics shone through with everyone he met. Hopefully we will see some of these good things in this baby.

“I guess the most unique thing would be his smile and the sparkle in his eyes. That would be what I hope would come from this child. But if not, I’d be happy, too,” Joan said, choking up over the phone.

“It’s sad. This baby will not have her father to (watch her) grow. And everybody who’s had a child can imagine how horrible it is to have had a baby and to have lost the father three or four months before. It’s a nightmare. The good thing is, hopefully, I’ll see that sparkle.”

AJ graduated with a degree in nursing from Memorial University 10 years ago. He and his wife, also a nurse, met while walking their dogs in Calgary. Soon after, they moved to Vernon, where they lived for the past seven years. They got married in April 2013, less than a year before AJ’s death.

Adrienne was born at the same hospital where AJ and his wife both worked.

Joan says although it is a struggle, she is trying her best to maintain normalcy after the death of her son. She remains active, continuing to run and hike, and has recently moved to Clarenville. She plans to resign as mayor of Come By Chance in the fall.

“You can’t just lie down and die. The situation’s not going to go away and correct itself and no amount of mourning is going to bring him back. So you just get on with the new normal,” she said.

“Nobody knows their strength until you’re put in the situation. If people had told me this five, 10, 15 years ago, I’d have said, ‘I don’t know how anyone can cope. I’d be losing my mind.’ But you do. You do cope. Life goes on. Every day you put your shoes on one shoe at a time.”

As for AJ’s wife, Laura, Joan says she, too, is coping the best she can.

“She’s a pretty tough lady,” said Joan. “We went out there last month and she was eight foot up a cheery tree picking cherries. She said, ‘If I don’t get the cherries, they’re not going to be any good and we need them for the winter.’ She was eight months’ pregnant.

“She’s a very strong, independent woman. I’m sure it’s not without its challenges, but she has amazing support out there. Laura’s a very young woman. I don’t want her to be living a life of grief. … But (Adrienne’s) given her something to love and hug and kiss. I think that it’s given her something to live for as well.”

Although Laura kept her own last name, Elward, after marriage, she changed her name to Cleary following AJ’s death.

“He always used to say, ‘Laura, change the name so the three of us will have the same name,’” said Joan. “That was his wish.”

Joan has yet to meet Adrienne, but she is excited to visit her in B.C. in the fall.

“Anything can happen in childbirth, but that worry is behind us now. Adrienne’s a happy baby and a healthy baby, and hopefully she’ll live a great, full and exciting life. Probably not as crazy as her dad’s, but then again, he didn’t think it was crazy.”