Truly touching story in the Age about Zach & Jackson and their parents Herbie & Cathy. Certainly makes you remember that there is way more in life than just football...
Bombers Zach and Jackson from a family full of Merritt
Herbie Merrett rushed to the hospital as soon as he got the call. His fiancée was lying in the bed, a professor of medicine at her side. After the doctor told the young man about the awfulness of the disease – and what to expect in the years ahead – he delivered the words that have become famous in the Merrett household: "You have to understand how difficult this is going to be. If you want to get out, you have to get out now."
Herbie didn't get out. Nor did he and Cathy pay any attention to another of the doctor's suggestions: not to have kids. They went on to marry and have two boys, Jackson and Zach, both of them Essendon footballers. Zach last year won their their best and fairest at 21.
Cathy vividly remembers the day 27 years ago that she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. It was, she says, the happiest day of her life.
For weeks, doctors had feared that she had motor neurone disease or a brain tumour. No one had mentioned MS. Cathy – she was Cathy Garner then – had been getting her mind around the idea that her diagnosis was one of those two equally awful options.
After analysing the MRIs, CT scans and other tests, the doctor came to tell her the news. He held her hand. Her mum sat on the other side of the hospital bed. "Catherine, you have multiple sclerosis," he said.
Cathy (no one ever called her Catherine and it upset her that he did) remembers that she sat bolt upright in bed. "Oh," she said. "Well that's good. You don't die from that." Then she picked up the phone and rang Herbie.
Herbie (his name's Greg, but nobody calls him that, either) was a 27-year-old butter factory worker and local footballer in Cobden in Victoria's sheep-belt west. Cathy, 23, was originally from near Colac. The pair had been dating for about four years. They had plans to marry soon, have kids and live quietly in the country.
Now the doctor was telling them that if they were planning to travel they should go soon because before long Cathy would be in a wheelchair.
"I am not going to end up in a ■■■■■■ wheelchair," she told him.
"I just thought then 'stuff that'. I made up my mind there and then to just get on with it. That disease wasn't going to kill me and it wasn't going to stop us doing what we wanted to do."
Zach Merrett never really made the connection in his mind that his mum was sick. He knew she was, but he never really knew how sick. She rarely let on to him or his older brother Jackson about her bad days, when the lesions on her spine or brain would cause pain so acute she struggled to get out of bed. She'd smile and ask how their day was.
Cathy didn't want to miss seeing her boys do anything and, more importantly, didn't want them to miss doing anything because she had MS.
“I just thought then 'stuff that'. I made up my mind there and then to just get on with it.”
She stood in the backyard with her cane and threw thousands of tennis balls to Zach to practice cricket – his first and, for a long time, primary sporting love.
Zach smiles a lot as he talks about his mum.
"With junior footy and cricket rep teams you would have to drive to Mildura and Melbourne and Dad was the only one who could drive so he had to do all the hours, but Mum would sit in the passenger seat and keep him company and talk to him.
"I just remember sitting in the back with pillows half asleep all the time and driving all over the state pretty much to achieve my dream. It paid off in the end but there were a lot of hours in the car and Mum was always there ...
"She would fight through the pain to make sure she didn't miss out so I never really noticed how sick she was or how much pain she was in, I never thought she was any different to the other mums. It was only when I matured and got a bit older I started to understand what the disease was."
Cathy had first noticed something was wrong when she started falling over playing netball. She was a good player. She played in the centre for the teams in A grade around Cobden and Camperdown and was playing three and four times a week. Occasionally she found herself inexplicably falling over even when the ball was at the other end of the court.
"■■■■■■ hell, I'm having a bad night" she'd tell herself and pass it off as nothing. Sometimes she blamed new runners.
When she got pins and needles in her fingertips in her late teens the doctors told her it was growing pains.
Then her vision went. It happened suddenly, almost in a blink. One moment she was OK and the next the person in front of her had four faces. When she watched TV the picture kept going from black and white to colour. It was not a TV fault.
Then one day at work at IGA managing a couple of delis, her vision in one eye went altogether. She went to the doctors and was initially told she appeared to have optic neuritis but they would do further tests. Eventually those tests led to the MS diagnosis.
She only knew of MS from the Readathon she did as a primary school kid but somewhere in the back of her mind she was sure it was not a disease that would kill her. She didn't know how bad the symptoms could be, but from early on she resolved that the disease would not define her, nor stop her.
These days, when her cane is not enough she uses her wheelchair. But she still refuses to let her illness win.
"MS is not a nice disease, but it is still better than the alternatives I was facing," she says.
As they grew older, the boys came to understand more about their mother's disease and it's progression. Over time her hospital visits grew longer. In the early years it was normally for two or three nights every few months at the Camperdown hospital. The boys would drop in at the hospital on the way home from school. Then she went into the Geelong Hospital for a longer stay and Zach realised probably for the first real time how sick his mum was. "You walk in and Mum's got drips in her arm left right and centre, and they are doing tests. She was in hospital for longer at that stage when I was in about year 10 and that was probably the time Jackson and I realised something was not right. That was probably when it was scary that this is pretty serious," he said.
"To see how much pain she was in and how sick she was, it was pretty daunting."
As a sportsman Zach says he would always have been motivated to perform, so his mother's illness does not change that. But watching her deal with the pain and debilitation of the disease does put his trifles into perspective.
"You have a loss and you can come off the field feeling pretty down and then you see Mum and you quickly change your perspective," he said.
It is a frustration to Herbie and the boys that the symptoms of MS are often not obvious so people are oblivious to the suffering it causes.
"People can see when someone has a broken arm and they understand. With this they just don't understand," Herbie says.
At the moment Cathy is struggling with symptoms known as MS Hug, described as like a mixture of a heart attack, an asthma attack and anxiety attack causing a constriction of breathing and acute chest pain. A constant mixture.
"She works so hard to get herself up to see them and watch their games. It takes a lot out of her," Herbie says. "But we have always taken the approach that you don't miss out on anything."
Now Zach has established his own fundraising page for MS to generate initially at least $20,000 to go towards small scholarships to help out others with respite care, a holiday or maybe to write a book on MS.
Zach feels that being in a small town meant they had more help and care. His grandparents lived nearby and were always heavily involved helping out with the boys. Close family friends, carers, cleaners would drive the boys to their footy training when Herbie was working and with his mum unable to drive. It takes a village to raise a boy, it took Cobden to raise the Merretts.
"I feel like I have been fortunate not to miss out, but there are probably a lot of other families that have had to miss out on things because of their mum or dad having MS," he says.
Zach knows he must be in Melbourne for his career and that it is where his mum and dad want him and Jackson to be, but he is also tormented by the idea of where he is not.
"The hardest part is when you realise Dad is down because Mum is down and you sit back and watch how sad he is, especially when she is in hospital and he is home alone now, with Jackson and I being in Melbourne. I think that is the hardest part when he is at home alone without her."
He feels torn now when he sees his mum after his own games, knowing how much it has cost her to get there and see him play. She takes two days recovering after a match but for both of them it is worth it.
"It makes you realise time is precious," says Zach. "I enjoy that 10 or 15 minutes post match with family more than anything else."