'Sometimes I just find myself looking at them and maybe cry' ... Jarrad McVeigh talks about the loss of his daughter Luella. Photo: Anthony Johnson
The Sydney skipper opens up about his grief over losing his daughter.
Jarrad McVeigh leans forward on the couch, offering his phone for shared viewing. As he flicks through the photos of his daughter, Luella, you can hear the pride in his voice - punctuated by a gulp of emotion - and see the love in his face as he scrolls from one picture to the next.
One of the hardest parts for Clementine was as soon as Luella was born, she only got to hold her for about two minutes before they took her away.
Every father's photos are special, but these, and the accompanying memories - many painful - are all the Sydney co-captain and his wife, Clementine, now have of their baby girl.
Luella was born on July 25 last year with a serious heart condition. Four weeks later, on August 24, she lost her fight for life in Sydney's Westmead Hospital.
Speaking for the first time about the family's loss, McVeigh admits his emotions span the spectrum when looking at pictures of his daughter's month-long life.
''Sometimes I just find myself looking at them and maybe cry, or I'm happy,'' he says of the photos. ''I think after every game I played at the end of the year, I'd go and sit in the toilet and just look at my phone.''
He says he's happy to be finally talking about his little girl, because he's so proud of her. ''She's touched a lot of people here at the club, a lot of people who never met her, even though she was here for only a short time,'' he says.
''There was a little spirit in her that everyone who saw her could feel. She was a very strong little girl. She went through a lot of trauma with four operations and kept fighting back [but] it came to a point where there was nothing anyone could do.''
As the first anniversary of Luella's birth approaches, the emotions the McVeighs are feeling will be heightened by the fact that Clementine is due to give birth to another daughter in July.
She fell pregnant in Italy two months after Luella died. The couple had decided to go overseas to try to work through their grief. ''To get away from everything, to spend time together and heal together, was very important for us,'' McVeigh says.
The first most people knew of McVeigh and Clementine's tragedy came on Saturday, August 27, last year, three days after Luella's death.
Wearing black armbands, the Swans stunned Geelong (who also wore black armbands in honour of Luella) by ending the Cats' 29-game winning streak. The emotion of the moment was personified by the sight of McVeigh's close friend and co-captain Adam Goodes in tears after the game.
''I think that's the first game Clementine has watched fully. That [win] put a smile on our faces,'' McVeigh says.
Goodes, who, along with coach John Longmire and teammate Jude Bolton, was among a close group who had shared the McVeighs' tragic journey, recalls how ''incredibly hard'' it was to get ready for the game.
Just four days earlier the trio and another mutual friend had made the sombre journey to bid farewell to, as Goodes says, ''a brave little soul''.
''We went out and saw Luella - it may have been 12 hours before she passed - and we all said our goodbyes,'' Goodes recalls. ''The next couple of days you are just shaking your head saying how the hell does this happen to two fantastic people?''
The year had begun with such promise for the McVeighs. Knowing they were pregnant with their first child had brought extra joy to their Christmas and New Year celebrations at the end of 2010.
But that excitement quickly turned to anxiety when they went for the standard three-month foetal scan in January last year. The monitor showed their tiny baby had fluid around its heart. Every fortnight for the next six months, they travelled to the hospital for scans as doctors monitored their daughter's condition.
''From January to July, that was the hardest part - not knowing what the actual issue was,'' McVeigh says. ''The whole pregnancy went really well. We didn't have any complications with anything else. Clementine had a natural birth and … [Luella] was a good size.''
But as soon as she arrived, it was clear how fragile Luella's condition was.
''One of the hardest parts for Clementine was as soon as Luella was born, she only got to hold her - every mother wants to hold their baby - for about two minutes before they took her away.''
The McVeighs moved into a flat across the road from the hospital, and spent every moment they could with their daughter.
''Horse [Longmire] was great and gave me a lot of time off,'' McVeigh says. ''I could always speak to him openly and there were a few tears, but he understood, he's got children and everything comes second.''
Doctors found the left side of Luella's heart was half the size of the right and scheduled an operation. ''We walked her to the surgery area and … just before she went in, she opened her eyes to us, just to say 'I'll be all right'.''
The operation was due to start at 8am and last for four to five hours. It went for 10 hours after doctors realised that Luella's circulation was back to front. Suddenly the McVeighs' beautiful little girl was living minute to minute. ''Slowly that got to hour by hour, then they moved her into the intensive care unit, where we could go and see her, but they had six or seven doctors beside her 24 hours a day. Her chest was still open at this point and … I actually couldn't look. Seeing her chest open and the heart beating, just with a bandage over it, it was too hard for me at first.''
Luella had retained large amounts of fluid in her body as a result of the surgery and doctors were unable to close her chest because it would have placed too much pressure on her heart.
''We ended up massaging her for up to 10 hours a day trying to get [the fluid] out - myself, Clementine, her mum, my mum, Clementine's sister, all rubbing her, and she seemed to respond well to that,'' McVeigh says.
But Luella's condition deteriorated and she was still retaining fluid. The multiple surgeries had left her with severe brain damage. Then doctors discovered that her right lung was half the size of her left. ''We didn't know at that point [that the end was near] but I think the doctors did.''
The hospital gave the McVeighs one last night together as a family. ''They put us in a room with her and gave us a double bed. They took as many of the wires and stuff off her as they could, for us to be able to hold her and cuddle her, and that was the first time we bathed her that night. She really liked the water. She opened her eyes, she was really receptive to us and our voices.
''Then the next day that was it … then the whole world changes. It was us as a little family holding her, before she passed away. She opened her eyes to us, and then looked at us, before she went away, which is something we can hold with us for a long time,'' McVeigh says, as his voice breaks and eyes well with tears.
McVeigh returned to the field the week after the Geelong game, and was among the Swans' best in their final outings for 2011.
But as soon as the football season was over, the couple headed off on a two-month trip to Europe and America to grieve and heal together.
McVeigh says they found comfort in realising they had done all they could for their beloved little girl. Then in Italy, Clementine discovered she was pregnant again. ''It was a really special moment for us. [But] it was a bit sad as well. We asked ourselves if we were doing the right thing. 'We're not forgetting her [Luella]. Are we forgetting her?' But we realised it wasn't about that.''
Scans show the new baby is healthy. ''It's good to try and get back into normal life, and prepare for another baby, and we can put all our effort into giving her a good life,'' McVeigh says.
''But it doesn't stop. Everything we do, we still think about Luella every day … She will always be a part of us. We treasured every moment … Just that look, and how she would squeeze our hands all the time, that was the best.''