Category Archives: Mortality

What a difference a year makes……..

It is a year (approx.) since my two adult children left home.
One year- 12 months- 52 weeks- 365 days- 8,670 hours – 525,600 minutes.

Time has unglued us from being one complete unit into becoming separate people living apart. This has led to many changes in our individual lives.

Learning to live without the constant ebb and flow of my children coming and going has been difficult. It has brought a new quieter rhythm to the house and one that has not always been welcome. I miss the noise although I appreciate the quiet. I miss the mess although I love the tidiness. I miss the gangs of pals although I relish the choice of seats in the sitting room in the evenings. I miss their late nights out although I realise that I can relax and sleep soundly and not have to wait to hear a key in the door. I miss waking up during the night although I don’t worry now if the house is in darkness as I realise that I turned the last light out and there is no one else coming home.

This is the melancholy side of things….
On the flip side there is a whole new order.

Being able to come and go without having to be there for formal meals is a huge freedom. Our family tradition had us all at the dinner table every night at a particular time having dinner and discussing the daily national and political news. While I always loved that part of the day, it is far less interesting when there are only two voices in the foray. It can descend into a major disagreement in no time.

My dinner time routine has changed.

Sometimes my hubby and I don’t even have dinner! We have the freedom to up and go to mountains, lakes and seaside destinations and we do so regularly. We go to restaurants, pack picnics and are generally less rigid in our evening routine than we have been in the past. We absolutely love this new independence although I am usually the driver of moving beyond the kitchen table.

I particularly love weekends. I am a volunteer with a national charity and my chosen slot is an early shift in Dublin City Centre on Sunday mornings. I finish around midday and my hubby usually collects me afterwards and we take this opportunity to make the most of the day and to enjoy the freedom of not having to be home for dinner. We go wherever the fancy takes us, and we stay out as late as we like. We have no one to please except each other and this adds a fun element and unpredictability to our lives. We are learning how to be a couple again after being parents for such a long time.

Our children still live close by and are welcome visitors all the time. They pop in unexpectedly for chats and impromptu meals that are conjured up in minutes by their Dad. They also come by for more formal ‘invited‘ dinners where the traditions are observed and the topical arguments continue. These dinners are special and very precious. Time tick tocks in the background as our lives move on independently but with habits and rhythms that bind us to each other.

I arranged to meet my daughter today and we spent two leisurely hours bantering and chatting over a delicious lunch in a local restaurant. If she was still living at home I don’t think that this coming together would have held the anticipation and ultimate pleasure of her company that I enjoyed for that short space of time.

Who knew what changes a year would bring.

Destiny can be about rearranging the jigsaw of life and seeing a different picture.

People- and the way they touch our hearts and minds….

Meeting someone pivotal in your life is often not greeted by cymbals and drum rolls. Sometimes they just slip in unnoticed and non-assuming, yet they can subliminally change how we think and act in quiet and unobtrusive ways. People like this are like jewels. Colorful treasure in a sometimes grey, monochrome world that can make us sit up and take notice of the beauty and sparkle that is inherent in life.

I met a man twelve years ago who changed me, fundamentally and quietly without his knowing. We met weekly and exchanged thoughts, philosophies, visions and ideas. He was older than I was and had a broader life experience and education than I had at the time. He spoke to and listened to me, and encouraged me to believe in my aspirations, beliefs and hopes. He supported me as I took the first tentative steps to thinking beyond the person that I was at the time, and he shaded my dreams with pencils of colour and substance.

Looking back, I recognise that I was at a crossroads in my life. My children were in their late teens and were on their own paths of discovery. My job at the time was well paid but I hated it. My husband had his career and was working hard at it. I was approaching my 40’s and I truly didn’t know who I was or where I going to. My life was predictable and mostly enjoyable, but it was lacking something that I couldn’t articulate or name.

This man encouraged me to read the works of great philosophers and writers, and to think deeply about the things that produced joy and happiness for me. He believed in the power of silence and self-reflection and taught me not to feel afraid in the quiet of my mind. Through our weekly discussions we explored what the universe had to offer us as humans and what we could give back.

We debated and argued back and forth about what was meaningful and relevant in a world gone mad with consumerism and greed. We agreed that it was people and how they felt that mattered most when it came to actual living.

I looked forward to our meetings and I was rarely disappointed. We were in a work environment so not all the time was spent chatting, but I loved having time out with this wonderful man learning something new in almost every encounter. He made me think in a way that I had never done before.

Trying to help my husband and children understand the monumental shift that was occurring inside me was difficult, as I was learning to think, to do things differently, and to reflect on where I was on my life’s map. I was also menopausal at the time which may have contributed to their lack of engagement with me as they all thought I was going nuts anyway. My new “Airy Fairy” way of thinking and my constant quoting of this man’s viewpoints made them laugh and dismiss me a lot, although they were never deliberately unkind. They just didn’t get what I was getting.

They didn’t understand the effect that this man was having on my consciousness. Although they listened to me, they didn’t really hear me or understand my new way of thinking. I knew that he did and I simply loved him for it.

I eventually emerged from the menopause mentally intact (although my family may disagree on this issue) and began to slowly build a new individual way of being, hugely influenced by this gentle man.

My thoughts and practices are different now and have been since I knew him. His gentleness continues to affect me in how I view the world and his wisdom will never be forgotten.

I do not see him now and have not for many years. Our paths diverged and we are not in contact. He has absolutely no idea how he influenced and changed my life.

I remember him with fondness, thankfulness and a deep and abiding love. He provided me with a space that allowed me to express my feelings, my doubts, worries and dreams. He listened to me and never judged me. He encouraged me to be quiet in myself and to appreciate the silence that lies within us all. He taught me to accept people with all their frailties and vulnerabilities and to recognise that I have those feelings too.

He has been a kind of guru for me in how I live my life although he would hate to have that title. He believed in the sharing of life’s philosophies, education and knowledge, with the implicit acknowledgement that we have no ownership of them as they were never ours in the first place. I learnt from him that wisdom, kindness and understanding that is passed on is the greatest gift that we as humans can share.

Destiny can teach us about people and the unconsciousness power they have to individually shape our lives.

Care and kindness in unexpected places

According to all the current reports in the newspaper and on the TV, our Irish National Health Service is in shambles. There are stories featured almost every day about the heartbreak and suffering that vulnerable people have to endure at a time when they need care the most. There seems to be little praise for the services and for every bad story that is heard, there are another five waiting in the wings for their day in the spotlight.

I realise that no newspaper ever refused ink, and that good news rarely makes the front page, but I am heartened by my own recent experience with the Health Service and particularly with St James Hospital in Dublin where my mother is currently a patient.

I brought my mam (who is also terminally ill) to the A & E department of James Street hospital in Dublin late on Monday night June 18th on the advice of her GP. Her condition didn’t appear to relate to her current illness, but her GP quite rightly didn’t want to take any chances. From the waiting room she was triaged within five minutes and was admitted almost immediately. The care and attention that she received during the next few hours was of an exceptionally high standard, and was in contrast to previously heard stories about this particular department.

Despite being overcrowded with patients on trollies, there was one cubicle that was constantly kept empty during the night. Trollies were moved about by the staff with the dexterity of chess pieces as doctors came and consulted with, and diagnosed their patients. Each patient was wheeled into this empty cubicle in order to have complete privacy as doctors examined them. When the consultation was over, they were wheeled back out again leaving the cubicle ready for the next patient.

All this movement/ shifting/ wheeling/ tugging/pushing was carried out by the staff with constant cheerfulness and maximum efficiency. My mother was wheeled into that cubicle three times during the hours that we were there before she was eventually transferred to a ward. Being the beneficiaries of such a high level of privacy and dignity in the middle of a hustling busy A & E dept. was so welcome and so totally unexpected given the horrific experiences of other patients that are constantly referred to by the media. The current health service is hugely criticised most of the time- but my mother’s recent experience was one to be highly commended.

The unit that she is still on is staffed by dedicated people who look after her with diligent care, kindness and professionalism. Her every need is catered for and we are so lucky that her care team are so thorough in their work and expertise.

Since she was diagnosed with terminal cancer last year, the care and attention that my mother has received from the medical staff in St James Hospital has been nothing short of excellent. Her treatments and appointments run like clockwork, and she has always been present at the heart of every consultation and meeting about her illness.

Kindness, affection and good humour are the added bonuses that the staff provide, and my mother and the rest of my family are so grateful that she is being looked after with such compassion, thoughtfulness and consideration.

I have nothing but praise for all the health care professionals that surround us at the moment as my mother struggles to remain upbeat and as well as she can be given her fragile state. I have no doubt that while the Health Service in general is struggling and needs reform, St James Hospital as a centre of excellence is currently demonstrating how best practice can actually work as my mother and consequently the rest of our family are the recipients of this care.

Destiny can lie in the hands and hearts of unexpected people who come into our lives when they are needed the most.

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.

New View…..

When I was recently having surgery to insert intraocular lens into my eyes I was worried about my eyesight. Would I see things differently afterwards- would I see colours as I remembered them- would this surgery restore my sight to what the experts promised it would be? These questions were the biggest things on my horizon when I embarked on a journey that was frightening and uncertain. My distance vision has been impaired since I was about 15 years of age and so I’ve worn glasses all my adult life. This has never bothered me at all.

In the past few years however my near vision has deteriorated rapidly, and as I was not suitable for varifocal lens more radical steps were required. I have since had the surgery and have had a revolutionary procedure that has resulted in my distance vision now being better than 20/20 and my near vision being restored. I can now see the world in a sharper and clearer way.

I still had the bandages on one eye when my mother got the news this week that her cancer is terminal. Her breast cancer has spread to her lungs and as she is a frail 82 years of age, her surgeon sees no point in putting her through the trauma of the originally proposed mastectomy. She will be treated with oral chemotherapy to try to contain the disease to her lung and breast in the hope that it will not travel further.

Bravely- she asked the question about how long she had to live- and unhesitatingly her Oncologist answered. Two years.

Facing an uncertain future is something we all live with but we push it away and pretend that we have years ahead…. My mam is now faced with a finite date on her life and is determined to be as strong and upbeat for as long as she can be. She is wilful and stubborn and I realise that she will do it her way and not mine or my sibling’s way because she is an independent strong woman and despite a million and one rows that we have had over the years, I wouldn’t have her any other way.

Thinking about my own eyesight fears seem so petty and small compared to the struggle that my mam is going through and I wish that my new eyes didn’t register the worry and uncertainty that I saw on her face today. I wish I didn’t see the tiredness and I wish I didn’t see the effort that she was making to chat and remain upbeat.

I collected her and her sister to bring them to lunch and I kept an eye on her through the drivers mirror as I drove along. She was in the back seat of the car chatting with her sister when she leaned through the seats and said “I never realised how beautiful your cheekbones are- I never noticed them before because you wore glasses”.

Compliments from my mam are rare and treasured. Today we both saw each other differently and I wonder how that view will change in the coming weeks and months ahead.

Destiny is a path that changes all the time….

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.