This is a love story. It's about Miriam and Ronan. Subjectively, Miriam Brady tells Ryan Tubridy, Ronan – her husband – is the best guy in the whole world. No wonder, then, that she fell in love with him that very first time that she saw him.
"As soon as I saw him – this sounds very strange – but I absolutely fell in love with him and I turned to my friend and I said, 'Oh dear, that’s the man I’m going to marry.’"
At the time, Miriam Brady was a young actress and Ronan Smith was the artistic director of TEAM Educational Theatre Company. 32 years and countless adventures in the world of theatre later, Miriam and Ronan are still together and still in love. Ronan is the son of the legendary theatre empresario Brendan Smith. Unfortunately for Ronan, a love of theatre isn’t the only thing that Brendan passed on to his son, as Miriam explained:
"Ronan has what we call familial Alzheimer’s disease – FAD for short – and only one per cent of all dementias, there are around 110 types of dementia, and one per cent of them are FAD. It’s quite a rare gene. And the peculiar thing about FAD is you get ill exactly – exactly, almost to the day that your father got sick, or your mother."
Ronan started as a child actor and went on to be a successful stage actor in the Gate and the Abbey, as well as being artistic director of TEAM and producing shows. Quite often, Miriam says, he’d be working from 8am to 10pm. And although being a workaholic can be a feature of working in the arts for a lot of people, it’s not good from a health perspective. Miriam believes it’s as dangerous as other isms:
"It’s as important as other isms, like alcoholism. The common denominator is that you leave behind, you leave an absence in the people around you, for the people around you."
Workaholics, Miriam believes, much like alcoholics and people with eating disorders are on the run from themselves. It is, she says, a psychological disorder.
Miriam first noticed Ronan might have a problem when he was 56 and they were on holidays in France. She sent him to the shop to get two things and he came back with one. This behaviour repeated itself, and progressed from there, leading Miriam to become suspicious. And when Ronan was doing some work for the Science Gallery in Trinity College, he started to feel he was encountering problems, and although Ronan didn’t articulate his feelings to Miriam, he did record them in his diary. Miriam encouraged him to get tested for Alzheimer’s.
"So, we went to the memory clinic, had the testing done and then we were called back, to be told it’s not good. Probable early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, was the diagnosis."
Telling your children this kind of news is never easy. For Miriam and Ronan, they waited until their son Loughlin had finished his Leaving Cert, but their daughter Hannah found out by coming across a book about dementia in Miriam’s bag.
"She took the book out of the bag and she said, ‘What’s this about?’ and I nearly collapsed."
Miriam says she can cope with what she calls the day-to-day practicalities, but she finds herself spending a lot of time trying to protect Ronan from his own sadness.
"When I see him really sad, I just want to reach into his soul and take it out and make him happy and that’s a challenge for me because I know I can’t do that. And I’m working on that."
You can hear Ryan’s full conversation with Miriam Brady by going here.
If Memory Serves Me Wrong: A memoir of theatre, love and loss to early-onset Alzheimer’s by Ronan Smith and Sue Leonard is published by New Island.