LIFESTYLE

Elderly Woman Discovers Long-Lost Family Then Tragically Dies Just Months After Meeting Them

18/12/2015 12:59 | Updated 18 December 2015

A woman's search for her long-lost family had a bittersweet ending, after she discovered she had two brothers, but died just months after meeting them.

Phyllis Barker's daughter, Sally James, 53, spent nearly a decade trying to track down her mother's biological family, but to no avail.

After taking an online DNA test earlier this year, Barker finally made a breakthrough and discovered she had two brothers, Jim and Desmond, who were still alive.

Her daughter organised a reunion for Barker and her long-lost siblings, but the occasion was tinged with sadness as, by the time they met, Barker had inoperable lung cancer. She died just months later.

phyllis barker

Phyllis Barker in 2011

James, from East Sussex, explained: "If you have ever watched a TV programme where long-lost families are reunited and it brings tears to your eyes, imagine how I felt when I found mum's family after almost a decade of hitting brick walls.

"Mum, a former nurse, was naturally gregarious, but she'd had a hard life and she'd always wanted so much to know her true family. She and my father Ernest, who died in 1993, had a loveless marriage, and she'd always yearned for the love of a mother.

"I'd tried, but always come up against a dead end. It just shows you, in the end, blood really is thicker than water, because I finally found mum's family."

Born out of wedlock in 1930's Dublin, Barker, then Ms Little, started life in the notorious Bethany mother and baby home. She was then transferred to Kirwan House Orphanage, where she lived until she was 16 years old.

When she began the search for her mother's birth family, James had little in the way of clues. She knew Barker's mother Peggy had left her daughter at the orphanage in June 1937, providing an address in Co Wicklow - but nothing more.

Peggy's married name was Clancy, but as there were no matches for a marriage of that name, it made genealogy searches pretty much impossible.

James explained: "With mum's permission, I contacted the hospital Peggy was born in under The Freedom of Information Act 1997 & 2003. But I was advised that any information relating to the birth mother was private and confidential."

She later applied again through the charity Barnardo's and her mother's case was granted an appeal - but after six months, an independent commissioner concluded that she had the information already and there was nothing more to add.

"It was so frustrating," said James. "I continued on my own contacting local historians, archivists and councils. Everyone was very kind, but I was no closer to finding mum's family for her."

phyllis barker and sally james

Phyllis Barker and her daughter Sally James

Then, in July 2012, Barker - who was in her mid-seventies - was diagnosed with lung cancer. And both she and her daughter knew time was running out.

"Her health was seriously deteriorating, but she still longed to know who her real mother was," said James.

"I sat down one afternoon, taking her hands in mine and promised her as long as I lived, I would search until I found her, until my own dying breath.

"Mum had a tough life, and I was determined to do everything I possibly could to at least give her a happy ending."

In March 2015, James discovered an online DNA test via website Ancestry UK, and had her mum tested. Within hours, she had received three emails.

Two were from the same person - Matthew, who was a first or second cousin.

SEE ALSO:

Cancer Patient Given One Month To Live, But Hasn't Stopped Volunteering

28-Year-Old Diagnosed With Incurable Lung Cancer, Despite Never Smoking

Before contacting him, James checked out his family tree on the website and, to her astonishment, found a photo of her biological grandmother Peggy posing as a young girl.

She emailed Matthew back and, within minutes, he phoned her. Soon, the story began to unravel.

James learned that Peggy had also given up a boy named Jim the year after she left Barker in the orphanage.

She explained: "Peggy had hidden the truth of the illegitimate births from her entire family. Mum's brother Jim was fostered out. Nobody knew about him either until last year, when after a lot of detective work by his son Kieran and his wife Sharon, he found his mother's family."

Peggy had then gone on to have three more children after getting married in 1939 to a James Clancy.

Tragically, just a month after the couple's last child Desmond was born, Peggy died at aged 28.

James then emigrated to Canada, taking his children with him.

In 2014, Barker's long-lost brother Jim, who had discovered aged 12 that his real surname was Clancy, managed to track down his brothers Desmond and Brian, now living in Ontario and Arizona respectively.

"In a short space of time after my call with Matthew, a very excited Jim was on the phone to me," said James.

"He was literally beside himself with excitement about this sister he'd never known existed, it was so lovely.

"He was chatting ten to the dozen, but kept interrupting himself to say, 'Wow, I've got a sister'."

James also discovered that Peggy still had a 92-year-old sister - Barker's aunt – Eileen Magee, living in Melbourne, Australia.

Over the next few weeks, Barker spoke on the phone to her brother Jim and Skyped her aunt in Australia twice.

"Mum was extremely ill by this stage, but if she'd been well I think she'd have literally been jumping for joy," said James. "I don't think she could quite believe it was happening."

In June this year, 'Irish Jim' and 'Canadian Desmond' flew to England together to meet Barker for the first time at her care home.

phyllis and her brothers

Phyllis and her two brothers, Jim and Desmond

"It was a magic moment, mum meeting her two brothers," recalled James. "I just said, 'Mum, here are your two brothers' and she smiled and politely said 'I'm so happy to meet you both', but her eyes were filling up.

"I was biting my lip and fighting back the tears all day. But though she chatted as best she could and smiled weakly, I knew mum didn't have long.

"It wasn't like you see in the movies. They couldn't rush up and put their arms round each other, because mum was in a wheelchair. Though the conversation was polite and tentative, I knew the emotions underneath ran strong."

In that same week, James flew to Ireland to be welcomed to a big family reunion at a hotel in Slane, Co Meath – but upsettingly, her mother was too sick to make the journey.

Then, on 2 October this year, Barker lost her battle with cancer.

James, heartbroken, said she was comforted that her mother at least had the satisfaction of finally knowing who her parents were.

"Just a few months before she died, mum said to me, 'I'm so glad you found them. At least you will have them when I'm gone'," she said.

"She was delighted in the knowledge that she came from a large, loving family in Ireland who would have welcomed her, as they have me, with open arms.

"It may have been too little too late, but she was right. My new family are amazing. I'm visiting my aunt in Melbourne in March, Jim in Ireland next summer and am hoping to go to Canada soon. Desmond is always asking when I'm coming.

"Seeing them all together was beautiful but bittersweet. Mum was so ill. I knew watching them hug each other tight that she may not see her dear brothers a second time.

"Mum could have had so many more years of contact, Christmas cards, phone-calls - just that family love that others take for granted. At least she died happy. That's what keeps me going."

Speaking about the fascinating story, Brad Argent of Ancestry.co.uk, said: "We love hearing about cases such as these, despite the bittersweet sentiment in Sally's case. We're delighted that we could help bring the family together, after a lifetime apart."

Also on HuffPost:

Suggest a correction
Comments

CONVERSATIONS