Jarrad McVeigh and wife, Clementine, at their Paddington home. Photo: Anthony Johnson
This time it was different, from the first second. This time Jarrad McVeigh got to watch his wife hold their newborn daughter for more than a few minutes. This time the delivery room wasn't swarming with doctors, nurses and who knows who else, waiting to rush the baby away. This time Jarrad got to lift little Lolita-Luella into his car, to take his family home.
Now, he's speaking on the phone from Sydney and Lolita (as they call her) is in the background, screaming as loudly as she can. It's a nice noise. “You know what?” says McVeigh, of his eight-week-old baby. “It actually is. It's a pretty good thing to come home to every day.”
It's still hard. It probably always will be. At the end of July, Jarrad and Clementine celebrated what would have been the first birthday of their daughter, Luella. They took her ashes with them to the beach, walked together and talked about their little girl. Then, just four weeks later, they did it all again, this time to remember the day she died.
These days, Jarrad doesn't think so much about the serious heart problems Luella was born with, the hours they spent massaging her tiny limbs, all the operations she had. Instead, he wonders what would be happening now: what would she be getting up to?
“We talk about her all the time. We pretty much talk about her every day and the tears are there, but they're starting to feel a little bit further away, a little bit less frequent,” McVeigh told The Saturday Age this week. “I find myself thinking: 'Would she be walking now? What sort of personality would she have?' We had a lot of friends have babies around the time and we always look at them and wonder whether Luella would be doing all the things they're starting to do.
“Those feelings can be strange. They can be upsetting, but then you look over at Lolita and she's smiling, she's really alert at the moment and you can see the similarities with Luella. She's like a smaller version of her, you can see it in her face already and we feel like she's a little angel, like she's given us something we missed out on. So we keep learning, learning how to cope.
“We'll always remember Luella, what she brought to our lives. That's something you don't ever want to forget, which means it's going to be hard at times, but now we have a new little one to focus on, and spoil, and just love and be grateful for.”
McVeigh knows last year changed him, or at least shook and reshaped his perspective. What he can't be sure of is whether he seems like a changed person to his teammates, particularly the younger members of the side he co-captains, young men he wants to have watch what he does, as much as listen to the things he says.
He uses the world resilient a lot and feels like he knew what that meant before last year, that he knew how to play through injuries, how to pick himself up when things weren't going as he wanted them to. He played 20 games in 2004, his second year on Sydney's list, but just 13 the following season, missing out on a spot in the premiership side because he was injured, then not playing well enough.
He swore that day never to play in another reserves match, and hasn't. “I think I've always been determined to do well,” he said. “I've always wanted to improve, and work hard with what I've got.”
Still, football is a little bit different this year. McVeigh turned up, trained and played last year. He did all of it the best he possibly could, though his mind was understandably elsewhere. The second he stopped, his thoughts would turn instantly to Luella; after games he would lock himself in a toilet cubicle and scroll through photos of her on his phone. This year, he wanted to simplify things. To train hard, to lead his teammates, to play and to enjoy being able to do all those things.
“It's been good. Last year, it was just tough. Whatever was in front of me, I did the best I could, and I really tried to be resilient, and not let things affect me, and carry myself to a high standard. I wanted people to let me know if I wasn't doing that, to tell me so that I'd be able to try and pick myself back up.”
Didn't that take enormous energy? “Looking back, it probably did. By the end of the year I was pretty worn out mentally. I was fried, after games. I'd go off on my own all the time, sit by myself and think about Luella. Playing was fine, that was just running around, but coming back into the rooms and switching straight back to all the other thoughts was hard. This year I've just tried to strip things back a lot and it's been good. Everything's been a lot clearer, like a big weight has been lifted off my shoulders.
“There was never any burden put on me from anyone else, but, in terms of my own expectations, I feel a lot more comfortable this year and a lot more, like I'm not concerned about a lot of things now. If I have a bad quarter or a bad game, I pick myself up pretty quickly. I tell myself I'm a good player, that I can get back to that next week or at the next training session.
“It's back to normal, I guess. I love going to training, I love my teammates, I love seeing the young kids play well and win games of footy. I love going into the rooms and not thinking, just looking around at everyone and seeing the boys smile.”
He's starting to feel the same way when he gets home each day. At the end of last season, the McVeighs headed almost immediately overseas, through Europe and to North America. The weeks they spent together gave them time to talk, to remember, to think out loud about what was next and decide to try again. They were in Cinque Terra, on the Italian Riviera, last October when they found out that Clementine was pregnant and the news was exactly what they wanted. “You do go through some thoughts, 'Are we forgetting her?', but we're not. We're both strong people. I think. We wanted to keep moving forward.”
Even that has been challenging, though. Waiting for Clementine's first scan was a nervous time; not needing to go for nearly as many scans as last time made us both a little anxious, too. Realising that they had been left almost alone in the birth suite was strange for a moment, then an enormous relief.
“There were so many people in there last time that I sort of thought, 'is this right?'” he said. “That was pretty special, especially for Clementine, getting to hold her baby for more than two minutes. And then there's all the little things — putting her into the car, taking her home, setting up her room. All those moments are so special.”
Football can't compare, but McVeigh knows how important it is not to sweat over the little things, to enjoy the thought of what is possible, to make the most of whatever is happening next. He's enjoyed what his Swans have done on their way to September and is enjoying the thought of what they could do in the next few weeks.
“That's what we've spoken about, all this week,” he said. “You never know when your career might be over, when you might get a freak injury, when you might never get to play another game. You'd never want to sit back and think, 'Gee, I wish I did something in that last game'.”
He's looking forward to other things, too. Like watching Lolita-Luella grow up and telling her all about the big sister whose name she shares.
“I am, actually. I really am. We've got a lot of photos and that type of stuff, and I think it's going to be an interesting thing for her, to know how she came about and how she came to be with us,” he said. “Personally, I'm really looking forward to telling her about what happened before her. It's a part of her story, our story, and I think it will be something she really comes to treasure.”
This story was first published in The Age.