Category Archives: Funeral

My sister’s birthday is approaching…..

I was born in 1960, the 2nd child in a family of five children. I don’t remember the  births of my two younger brothers but I do remember with absolute clarity the night that my baby sister Annie was born when I was ten years of age. She was born on November 7th 1970.

That particular summer, my mam didn’t want to go to Kerry in August on holidays as we had done previously. I remember being disgusted that I wasn’t going to see my friends in Ballyheigue that year because my Uncle Paddy, my mams brother, had offered us his caravan in nearby Clogherhead instead.

Looking back I realise that my mam didn’t want to be too far away from her doctor when she was in her advanced stage of pregnancy, but as a ten year old child I had no idea that a baby was on the way and that this was the rationale for the location of the family holiday that year.

That summer was very hot, and we had a great holiday in Clogherhead but it just wasn’t Kerry. Although I enjoyed the caravan holiday, I remember the time as being strange and disruptive. Mum was just different and I didn’t quite know why. Pregnancy was not talked about as openly as it is now, and as a child I had no idea that my mother was shortly to give birth although I had asked her about why she was ‘getting fat’ without getting a satisfactory answer. She brushed those questions aside that summer and I never suspected anything until I was back in school in September. I vaguely remember asking her if she was going to have a baby with no real idea of why I was asking the question, and mam telling me that her ‘bump’ was wind!

By the time October rolled around, she did tell me that she was going to have a baby but that I wasn’t to tell anybody! News like that was too much for a curious ten year old and I constantly bombarded her with questions about the new baby although I hadn’t a clue that this event was linked to her growing tummy! (I was a very innocent child at the time).

Anyway….. She had an elective delivery and was well prepared in advance.

Her gynaecologist had booked a room for her in a private nursing home on a particular day in November assuring her that he would ‘induce’ her and that her baby would be born that day. A-la-carte delivery days were all the fashion back then…

I remember being packed off to my grandparents’ house with my older sister and my two younger brothers…. It was a weekend, but we had never all stayed away from home together without one of my parents being present. I didn’t settle well in the double bed that I was sharing with my older sister that night.

My dad’s car at the time had a broken exhaust and it was very loud. You could hear the car coming before you saw it.

That night on November 7th 1970 I lay awake beside my sister Bernice in a strange bed in the darkness, listening to the different street sounds outside my grandparents’ house on the canal in Dublin city. At some stage during that long night I heard a noise in the distance and listened carefully as it grew louder and louder. I knew the sound of dad’s car (and the broken exhaust) and as it got closer I got out of bed knowing absolutely that it was my dad approaching and I crept down the stairs while the rest of the house slept.

I clearly remember the moment I opened the front door in my pyjamas, and saw my smiling dad as he walked up the garden path in the darkness towards the steps of the house. He leaned his arm against the door frame, grinning at me and said “you have a new little sister”.

This story is part of the landscape of my life.

When my darling sister Annie was old enough to listen, she loved to hear me recounting each special moment that I remembered of that particular night as she grew up. It was called ‘her story”. As she became an adult and a friend in my life, it was a ‘thing’ a ‘routine’ between us that would happen on her birthday. She would wait in anticipation that day for a phone call from me recounting faithfully my memories of the ‘day of her birth’, and she would suspend whatever it was she was doing at the time in order to hear the story. If lunchtime arrived and I hadn’t called, she would be on the phone indignantly demanding to hear it. It was and still is like a script in my head that contains colour, sound and texture of one of the most memorable nights of my life. This was one of the most precious things that we shared.

That first birthday – November 7th 2009 after her death was dreadfully sad for me as I couldn’t phone her and do the thing that we had done for so many years … No one will ever know or understand the simplicity and joy contained in that story and what it meant to us as sisters every year it was retold.

Her birthday approaches yet again…. I miss her constantly and my life is bereft without her.

November 7th 1970 is the day my darling sister Annmarie Patricia O’Neill was born. I am so thankful to have had such a wonderful and beautiful relationship with this lovely girl, and I will gladly recount the story of the night of her birth to anyone who cares to listen because sadly she is not here to hear it anymore…..

My destiny lies in our past and my future without her……

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At the end of the day………

It’s such a commonly used expression –

Irish people use it all the time. We throw it around casually in conversations….. “At the end of the day she was acting the maggot and I will NEVER be friends with her again”… “At the end of the day the score was even and the ref was SOOOO right”. “At the end of the day he was such a fecker that I dumped him”.

“At the end of the day” is a colloquialism- a part of the popular Irish vernacular, and although a lot of people use it frequently in conversation, I don’t honestly believe that we think too much about what lies behind the words that we are saying.

Circumstances have a way of making you sit up and take notice of what was once ordinary become extraordinary…….

At the end of the day on Wednesday I learnt that my mother’s terminal cancer had spread to other organs in her body…

At the end of the day I realised that her treatment had not halted this terrible disease despite medical interventions and chemotherapy….

At the end of the day I was alone with her as we were told that the results of her recent scans did not herald good news…..

At the end of the day we were sitting together quietly in a hospital room hearing words that extinguished all hope….

At the end of the day I was sitting with my mother the moment that we realised that the actual end of the day was coming sooner than we thought….

 

I am currently confused about the meaning of Destiny…..

Matriarchs.

Mam & Dad circa 1955

Most Irish people in the past 50 years have grown up in households where the matriarchal figure was the most powerful force in their lives.

“Irish mothers”. They are legendary, and many stories, plays and movies have been written about the archetypical version that so many of us are familiar with.

My mother didn’t fit into that category. She had a different outlook on life and one that was at odds with most of the other “mammies” that I was surrounded by as a small child growing up in the suburban streets of Dublin.

My father was a lovely man but he was also a man of his time who believed that he was entitled to nights out with boozy pals while my mam cared for myself and my other siblings at home. This was a ‘normal’ landscape for many couples in Ireland during the 1950’s/60’s.

Unlike the mothers of my friends that I was familiar with, my Mam simply believed that she was born to dance. She practiced it with vigour alongside her sisters as they were all growing up, and she was a regular “girl about town” in her day before she met my Dad. During their days of courtship they danced in every dance hall and every ballroom in Dublin. When she could, she would dance five or six nights a week.

My mother’s looks were stunning. She looked like a movie star. A “Maureen O’Hara look alike” she was. She had beautiful red curling hair and a figure that was “Pure Hollywood”. She was a great dancer too, so she was popular and was never a wallflower. She had many a suitor but was never inclined to ‘go out with’ anyone who couldn’t dance.

This is what defined my mother as a young woman in the post war years of Dublin. She lived her days working in a local factory making cigarettes, and when her beauty was noticed by a senior manager she was plucked from the obscurity of the factory floor to become a guide, taking tours of visitors around the production area explaining the process involved in the manufacturing of cigarettes. By day she conducted endless tours of the factory earning her wages, but by night she donned her sparkly shoes and clothes and  danced until the early hours of the morning when my Dad would walk her home, or give her a cross bar on his bicycle when her feet were too tired after a nights dancing.These are her stories relayed down through the years.

When she married, the law in Ireland of the time meant that she had to give up her job.

The reality of being stuck at home after a honeymoon baby must have been a culture shock for her, and I have often wondered at how different her life was as a young married woman compared to her previous carefree existence as a single girl.

My early life is full of images of her getting ready to go out. I remember sitting on her bed as a child watching her getting dressed in beautiful clothes with sparkling jewelled accessories. I realise that there were days when she was washing clothes and ironing to beat the band, but my most vivid memories are the ones where she was fussing and excited, and these were all associated with dancing and going out with my father.

She was animated on those nights and made sure that dinner was over early and that the baby sitter was organised. I believe that because of her beauty she got a lot of attention in social settings and when she went out she was able to revert to being that young and carefree girl and dance the night away with my father, leaving behind her life as a wife and mother.

These days were the days that my mother loved. In reminiscing and talking about times past she would speak of how people loved what she was wearing and about how exciting the Dublin social scene was. It was all about the clothes, the jewellery, the dancing and the attention from my father. Looking back at old photographs I know that she was telling the truth, and there are so many captured images of her looking vivacious and happy, surrounded by laughing people who never looked quite as beautiful as she did.

Times change and the ballroom scene in Dublin changed during the 1960’s. The music changed too. The great show bands of that era were replaced by a new pop culture and I remember her hating the Beatles and all the new groups that were emerging during those times. The music that they produced was not music that she could dance to, and she yearned for the halcyon days of her youth and the crooners like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Ella Fitzgerald.

As her family grew larger, her nights out became rarer and eventually they stopped altogether. By the time my younger sister was a teenager my mother and father no longer danced together.

Raising a family of five children meant that a lot of her days were filled with washing, cooking, cleaning and other mundane chores that were hallmarks of life during the 60’s and 70’s. By the time my Dad died when she was a young woman in her early fifties, she was still rearing teenagers and worrying about future finances as my father had left no pension or nest egg to make life comfortable for her.

She was the most terrible cook !

Her philosophy of food was that “she ate to live -unlike most people who she believed lived to eat”! She dieted constantly and maintained her pre marriage weight through discipline and denial and “kept her figure” throughout her whole life. As children, we suffered burnt, horrible and unsavory meals and we were encouraged to” eat bananas” if we didn’t like what was on offer. She still considers banana sandwiches to be a “meal”, and despite her loss of appetite recently she still gets through at least one a day !

Her determination and vitality were instrumental in her going back to work full time after my Dad died and she continued working until she was into her mid seventies long after all my siblings had left home and built their own lives.

She has enjoyed wonderful holidays to many countries with close friends, and her two dear sisters who remain a huge part of her life. She has travelled the world visiting relatives and has clocked up more air miles than I have. She has kept a loyal circle of old school pals close to her heart throughout her life, and has had to deal with heart-breaking loss as three of them have died in recent times.

At eighty two years of age she still enjoys watching dancing programmes on TV and it’s still all about the dresses and the jewellery.

She is a punchy little woman who is much admired for her indomitable spirit and unflagging energy. Her recent terminal illness has made many people realise how old she actually is and how her life landscape has changed so radically.

She has had a good life filled with music, dance and love, although her time is now taken up with hospital visits and treatments in the hope of gaining some extra time. She has a large extended family of siblings, children, grandchildren great grandchildren, nieces, nephews and cousins. She is loved and respected and is a true Matriarch although she never quite fitted into the archetypical role of the “Irish Mammy”.

Now is a time to celebrate her life and to look back at all it was. A life filled with dancing, beauty, fun, love and laughter. She possesses a determination, energy, stubbornness and an incredible quick wit that is unique to her. She has suffered the unbearable pain of losing her husband and her youngest daughter to untimely deaths, and yet she still has the strength and resilience to get up each day and live.

I may not say it often and sometimes it’s hard to recognise something special when it’s up so close to you, but I love her- and I fervently wish that she had more time to do more things, to go on more holidays, to laugh more and to live more.

“Stay with us as long as you can Mam- because no one will fill the hole that you will eventually leave behind”.

Is this feeling of living loss part of my Destiny?

Spring brings life….

February can hold the chill of winter, but can also herald the promise of spring. I believe that it’s a time to look forward, and to observe all the differences that the changing season brings. A very dear friend of mine recently and sadly said good bye to her beloved mother after nursing her through a debilitating illness that took its toll on her and her whole family. Her death was dreadfully sad, but my friend who has great faith, believes that her mother has gone on to a better place where she will be reunited with loved ones and will not have to endure the struggle of the past few months. Her funeral was a celebration of her life and was attended by the many people who loved this quiet, gentle and lovely lady.

While relaying the sad news of her demise earlier to another friend I was reminded of the youthful and carefree days of my youth where death only happened to “old people”. I remembered the scorn that I poured on my parents habitual reading of the local death notices and how often they would speak of someone who had recently died and their constant attendance at local funerals. They seemed to be forever speaking about dead people and although these people were their contemporaries they were so far removed from me and my young untroubled life that I had little interest in their lives and/or their subsequent deaths.

Now that I have reached a certain age I understand it all now. I am now the same age my parents were when I was a callow youth, and I too feel that sometimes I am surrounded by the never ending rituals of death and funerals. It is the constant never changing cycle of life.

In my youth I believed that life would go on forever- as we all do, and it is only as we get older that we realise that it is not so.

How we make that jump is down to life experience and age, and although it brings its own sadness as we lose those we love, it can be a hugely life defining chapter in our lives if we only realise it and use it to our advantage.

I am so sorry that my dear friend’s mother Mary Sweeney has died and will not see the spring that is coming. I will mourn her loss and I will support my friend through her sad and long bereavement. My own mother is dying so that loss is coming down the tracks for me too.

But I also want to celebrate the fact that I am alive and I am looking forward to this New Year despite the losses that it will inevitably bring.

I am glad to see the crocus bulbs pushing up through the soil, and I am glad to see the early daffodils shaking their beautiful heads as depicted in the wonderful Wordsworth poem… I am glad to see the local birds nesting and feeding their chicks, and I am glad to see the frog spawn in the local ponds. I am glad to see my adult children come to visit me and eat, chat and laugh, and I am glad that I have my dear husband of many years still beside me as a true friend and confidant despite my irritating habits and foibles. I am glad for the many dear friends that I cherish, and I feel beloved by their kindness and affection in return.

Death does surround us and it can be overwhelming at times as we journey through life- losing people that we love. We are the ones that are left for now, and in turn we shall die and be missed and mourned by the callow youths of today.

Life is for living and we all have our day in the sun.

My destiny may be written in the stars-but I haven’t yet worked out its meaning.

Living life facing death…

Mam, me and Bernie my mother in law. 2010

Mortality or death is something that surrounds us every day. We are faced by the brutality and sadness of it in every news bulletin and newspaper that we read, and although it is a part of our daily lives, it is usually about someone that we don’t know. Someone distant who we might think about fleetingly but are not connected to. We may feel momentarily sad for their circumstances and for the people who might mourn their loss, but really their deaths don’t touch us, as it is about someone else- someone unknown to us.

Facing death with someone you love is altogether different.

Ultimately we all know that we will die, but while we are young we manage to put that notion of death on the long finger. The Grim Reaper is not for us! Most of us imagine that we will grow old and die a peaceful death (if and ever we have a moment in our busy lives to even contemplate it).

The reality of living with mortality is heavy and dark, and I believe that we never really consider it until we are faced with losing someone we love or have actually lost.

Coming to terms with a life threatening terminal illness is an indicator of how powerless we really are as humans in the face of disease. We may have the will to live, but “fate “can decide otherwise.

I am currently facing uncharted territory with two special wonderful much loved women, my mother and my mother in law. My mother is 82 and has terminal breast cancer, and my mother in law who is 93, is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s .

Watching these two wonderful women cope with their disease’s while hoping for a positive outcome humbles me as I realise that they do not want to die. They struggle every day to hang onto life despite their pain and suffering.

They are on their own particular course and I am on mine. They will ultimately die, and in time they will be gone. I will have to cope and get on with living although my heart and life will be bereft without them.

This is my tough future.

Loosing someone that you love unexpectedly is horrendous as you have no warning –like the sudden death of my darling younger sister Annie, but loosing people that you love dearly day by day, little by little is tougher still.

Having to be emotionally strong and to pretend that somehow death is within our control is exhausting, and providing reassurance knowing what the eventual outcome will be, is heart breaking at this moment in time.

Cliché’s about ‘living life in the moment so that you will not feel regret in the future’ are easily spoken or read. They are harder to live by when time is taken up by the day to day management of hospital appointments, shopping, meal making and other mundane repetitive household chores that have to be completed.

None of these things really matter in the grand scheme of things, and although it keeps a semblance of order in the minutes, in the hours, in the days, in the weeks that go by, it is all meaningless in the context of what lies ahead.

At the funeral, will people remember that the house was clean and that the dusting was done? Will it be noted that the carpets were vacuumed and that the kitchen towels were matched?

I don’t care about this and I am sure that the people who will come to mourn with me in the future do not care either. In the time that is left I want to tell these lovely women to forget about the house work and all of the stupid household tasks that are rendered useless and meaningless in the face of death.

I want them to embrace sunshine as the day dawns, and to smell the sweetness of summer flowers. I want them to rejoice in the simplicity of living and to enjoy if they can, the wonder of a star filled night. I want them to enjoy ice cream dribbling down their fingers as they try to catch the last bit, and to do all the things that are possible in the time that they have left. These are the things that I think are important, but I realise that what I want may not be a part of their thinking as they struggle towards an unknown future.

Living with their uncertainty has changed my own perspective on life, and the clichés about living in the moment have never held more resonance than they do now.

Living life and facing death is not just my destiny, it is universal to us all.