US President Joe Biden's State of the Union address on Tuesday had more than the usual amount of Irish interest (yes, Bono was there) this year: Waterford man Maurice Bannon and his wife Kandice were guests of the President and he made an emotional reference to them and their daughter Ava during his speech. Maurice told Ryan Tubridy that the experience was very, very surreal:
"I couldn’t quite believe that it was happening on a day where, you know, everything that was happening, that was an even more surreal moment. And to hear it back now, it brings back the chills again, you know?"
This was not Maurice’s first time talking to Ryan and he gave listeners a recap of how it was he came to be a guest at the State of the Union:
"This time last year I was invited by President Biden to attend the launch of the Cancer Moonshot programme at the White House and it all came about because I had written to President Biden the year before to tell how his family had kind of inspired me and my wife when my daughter Ava was battling cancer. You know, I kind of explained how, you know, we drew strength from his strength, you know, just to thank him, to thank him for kind of embracing his emotions."
For Maurice and Kandice, the letter was an exercise in simply thanking someone – they never thought anything would come of it. But then came the invitation to the launch in the White House of the President’s Cancer Moonshot programme:
"Didn’t get to meet the President or anything, but got to be there for the launch of the Cancer Moonshot with him, the First Lady, the Vice President. Yeah, it was just an amazing day."
That was, Maurice reckoned, his once-in-a-lifetime chance to go to the White House. But then came a call from a man called John Scanlon at the First Lady’s office:
"And John asked me if I had a couple of minutes and then he said, 'Look, I’m just going to ask you straight out, I’m just going to tell you straight out why I’m calling.’ He said, ‘The First Lady would like you, Kandice and Ava to attend the State of the Union address by the President in Congress as a guest of the First Lady.’"
Not the sort of call you get every day. Maurice told Ryan that, when he put the phone down, he had to sit on the floor in his office, the call was so unbelievable. And Maurice and Kandice couldn’t share the remarkable news either, as John had told him that they shouldn’t mention it to anyone until the White House announced it first.
Ava – who was diagnosed with a rare form of kidney cancer when she was just 1 year old – will turn 4 in March and though she was, in some ways, the star of the show, she was too young to attend the State of the Union, so she had to stay at the White House with Maurice’s sister-in-law. That was just as exciting as it sounds and Ava’s parents were able to enjoy a worry-free evening:
"You know, when your daughter is in the theatre room of the – you know, the movie theatre room – of the White House, protected by the Secret Service, you’re like, ‘I think she’s going to be ok,’ you know? ‘I think I can relax.’"
And as if it’s not enough to be invited to Washington as a guest of the First Lady to attend the State of the Union address, the excitement didn’t end there. After the State of the Union had finished, the Bannons were taken downstairs where they met the President:
"We were introduced as Maurice and Kandice Barron, cancer advocates. And the President turned to us and said, ‘Ava’s parents.’ and we walked over to him and it was this extraordinary moment and he told us, ‘I’ve met Ava. I’ve met Ava. She’s so beautiful,’ he said. ‘She was so tired when I met her, it took me 5 minutes to get her to give me a hug, but she eventually gave me a hug.’ And we had no clue that Ava had met the President."
As it turned out, President Biden has dropped into the theatre room before the State of the Union and spent some time with Ava. And the President told Maurice that he’d be visiting Ireland, and Maurice felt obliged to jump in on behalf of his home county:
"Of course, I had to, I had no choice but to officially invite him to Waterford. I said, ‘Well, you have to visit Waterford, sir, if you can,’ and he’s all, ‘We’ll definitely do that.’"
Waterford – time to get the spring cleaning under way. You can hear Ryan’s full conversation with Maurice by going here.