WHEN Ann Gardiner had her leg and hip amputated five years ago due to cancer, she thought her life was over - but the Banbridge Musical Society ‘Unsung Hero’ is now busier than ever.
For a former dancer, walker and hill-climber, living life from the confines of her wheelchair has not been easy, but the determined 75 year-old continues to support the society and recently travelled to Killarney for the runner-up ‘Mary Kelly Unsung Hero Award’ presented by AIMS (Association of Irish Musical Societies).
Having held the positions of patron, secretary and honorary vice-president over the years, she was nominated for her “vast” and “wise” contribution to the growth of Banbridge Musical Society and says it was an “honour” to be singled out.
“It was a fabulous experience, but when I first heard I had been nominated, I thought there was no way I could get to Killarney in a wheelchair as my husband was due to attend Kilbroney vintage car rally that weekend,” she says. “I used to drive myself around and people would be very kind about lifting the wheelchair out of the car boot for me, but we have a specialised ramp fitted now and you can’t really ask strangers to get involved in all that palaver.”
In the end, her friend and patron of the society, Joan Bloomer, came to the rescue and the pair enjoyed a memorable all-girl road trip South, ending with Ann being presented with her framed certificate by Richard Lavery, AIMS national president.
A self-confessed “backroom and chorus member”, it was a rare moment in the limelight for the brave grandmother who, even before her traumatic surgery, shied away from prinicpal roles with what was then Banbridge Choral Society when she first joined in 1971.
Although brought up on the stage as a teenager and trainee teacher - she was a member of the former Pat Boyd School of Dancing in Belfast and also worked part-time as a make-up assistant and ‘dresser’ at Belfast’s Grand Opera House - Ann joined the Banbridge group more for the camaraderie than anything else.
“At that stage I was teaching and looking after my young son and elderly mother, so getting out of the house to rehearsals once a week was a complete break for me,” she says. “It was like stepping into a different, fairytale world for a few hours. I never sought the lead role and I was happy to hide in the chorus. That was where I felt happy and comfortable.”
Today Ann, who holds diplomas in both singing and piano, still attends rehearsals when she can - to keep updated on the twice-yearly shows and “to check the dancers are doing the right footwork”.
“I love the theatre and dancing, but sometimes it is very hard going to watch,” she confides. “Sometimes I am sitting close to the stage in my wheelchair and I think it would just take one step and I would be up on stage with the dancers again.”
The retired teacher first became bitten by the musical theatre bug after performing in ‘Brigadoon’ with the Ulster Operatic Society, although up until then she had been a keen member of community and church-based amateur dramatic groups and had the honour of carrying the victory flag at an event at Belfast’s old Empire theatre to mark the end of the Second World War.
In 1965 she left her native city to move to Liverpool for husband Tony’s job - but she kept up her interest by joining Birkenhead Musical Society for a year before the couple, who now live in Portadown, moved back to Northern Ireland and settled in Omagh.
“We moved around a bit due to Tony’s job as an engineer, although we also shared a love of travel overseas on adventurous, walking holidays,” Ann adds.
“In fact, it was during a trip to the Great Wall in China in 2004 when I first noticed there was something badly wrong with my leg. I could hardly walk and I was in pain.
Following various tests on her return home, Ann was eventually given the devastating cancer diagnosis - and faced the option of traumatic surgery if she wanted to try to beat the disease.
“I panicked and very nearly didn’t go through with it,” she says. “I thought about the severely restricted life I would lead and the pain I would suffer, but in the end I decided I wanted to live to see my new grand-daughter grow up.”
It was a decision she hasn’t regretted, despite the fact she is now restricted to her wheelchair most of the time, having given up on a cumbersome prosthetic leg and hip - “it is a beautiful leg but is two stone in weight and is now gathering dust at the back of the wardrobe” - and having torn a shoulder muscle from leaning on a zimmer frame.
“It is very hard, being so dependent on Tony, but you just have to get on with it,” she says with trademark stoicism. “I try to get of the house as much as I can - it keeps me going and stops me feeling sorry for myself.
“Tony and I are both members of the Cedar Walking Group based in the Jethro Centre in Lurgan. I sit and do my nails and read a book while the others go walking. I also try to work on my upper body strength with a tai chi class at the centre which I find helpful.
“There is always something to do and somewhere to go - whether you are in a wheelchair or not.”