How did actor Aaron McIlroy get through every parent’s worst nightmare without playing the blame game? He told SUSAN SEGAR
Aaron (50), known amongst other things as the appalling father in South Africa’s ‘Spud’ movies, was born in Northern Ireland and moved to South Africa with his parents when he was five. He’s married to actress Lisa Bobbert and they have three daughters and a son.
Family man Aaron: ‘I knew something terrible had happened. It was bizarre and surreal.’
‘Lisa and I were absolutely thrilled when Holly was born in the year 2000. She was a beautiful, easy, peaceful child. We were ecstatic to have this new little addition to our family.
She was just five weeks old and I was returning home after doing a show in Mossel Bay. We had planned for Lisa to pick me up at the airport but when I landed she wasn’t there. I called her and when she picked up the phone, she said, ‘Get home… there’s been an accident’.
I knew something terrible had happened. I took the first taxi I could and prayed the whole way home, even though it wasn’t something I did much. When I arrived, there was an ambulance parked outside. Lisa was at the bottom of the driveway smoking a cigarette, something she had not done in years. I just knew Holly was dead.
As I walked up the driveway, the paramedics came towards me and one said, ‘I’m so sorry.’ I entered a scene of devastation. From what we could surmise, both our children, Kaylee and Holly, had been in the car after returning from an outing. Lisa had asked our domestic worker to get the children out of the car while she ran to the bathroom. We don’t know what happened next but somehow the car rolled backwards down the driveway and Holly’s brain was fatally injured. It was a bizarre and surreal accident.
It felt like one minute I’d been living on Earth and the next I was living on Mars. We were just wailing from grief. Our parents, siblings and friends arrived and everyone was distraught. It was carnage. If a bomb had gone off in my house, it could hardly have been worse.
I remember thinking that I couldn’t afford to go to pieces because of the family. Lisa was broken already, and I had to be there. I made the decision to do my best to function. In the days and weeks following the tragedy, I went into robot mode. The days were long. I thought I’d never sleep again.
Teamwork: acting duo Aaron and Lisa refused to play the blame game after their infant daughter Holly died
If you’d asked me before the accident whether I believed in God or Jesus, I would have said, ‘Yes, of course, God must be real’ … but I wouldn’t have been able to explain what that meant practically. I had my own ideas from childhood, but God was a mystery to me at that stage. After Holly died, Lisa started going to church regularly and I was happy about that as she said she felt really comforted in the bosom of God during this time. I, being a typical man, tried to strongarm my way through life for years. But while Lisa was finding strength, I could feel myself dying emotionally and spiritually. On the surface life carried on as normal, but my energy levels were rock bottom.
Declan, our son, was born in 2001 and Grace, our daughter, was born in 2005. One day, Lisa told me that she and the children were loving church, it had a great vibe and that she thought I’d enjoy it. I agreed to go along and soon became a regular at her warm church in Umhlanga, Grace Family Church.
One day when I was sitting in a service, I had a vision of myself hanging onto a branch at the edge of a cliff. I could see I looked exhausted. I heard a voice, which I believe was God, saying, ‘Let go … I will catch you.’ I remember saying to God, ‘If you’re not real, I’m going to shatter now,’ but the quiet voice kept saying, ‘Let go, I’ll catch you.’
Aaron specialises in playing gawky individuals. Original humour has made him one of South Africa’s most popular entertainers
I made a commitment that day. I said, ‘OK God, I’ll trust in you for everything.’ It was as if, from then, my life came back to me. I’ve kept my faith and not looked back since then. I pray every day and keep God close. He isn’t just a part of my life, He’s central to life itself.
The statistics of marriages breaking up in situations like these are horrific. We learnt a great deal from our tragedy: I believe it’s important to ask for help, both from people and from God. You can’t do it on your own. A professional counsellor is essential. That process of talking to someone who isn’t your spouse is so vital as everyone is bleeding around you.
In our situation of losing a child, the one thing that really helped us is that we never entertained the blame game. From the first minute, we both realised you could never take those words back once they got out.
Aaron: ‘Things happen in this world that you can’t explain or justify’
There’s a wonderful addition to our story. Fiona, the grand-daughter of our domestic worker Lucy, had lived with us since she was three because her mother Mbali was so young. I was the only ‘father’ she ever knew.
In 2014, when Fiona was still at primary school, Mbali died of encephalitis. We spoke to Lucy about formally adopting Fiona and she was happy with the idea. We contacted a social worker to get the ball rolling: the process took about six months and was a real blessing for our entire family. It’s amazing how God works. I believe that, in the long-term, what the locusts eat, God returns. I lost a daughter all those years ago and now I’ve gained a daughter who is such a blessing.
There are things that happen in the world that you can’t explain or justify. My belief is that God is so much bigger, stronger and more just than we give Him credit for, and no child will regret its existence, no matter how much it has suffered, once he or she is in the arms of a loving God. God has the final say on justice.’