Anyone who knows me well will know that our move back to Ireland has been on the cards since way before Christmas. At first we were going to move in March, then it was April and eventually we booked the Liverpool – Belfast ferry for 17 May because we knew that without a firm marker in the sand, the drift would continue. London is a hard place to say goodbye to but the pull of Mother Ireland is very strong. In my case there was another strong driver – a desire to spend more time with my own (nearly) 87 year old mother.
I increasingly felt as if I’d short changed my Mum in recent times. During the Learning Pool years my Mum used to say to me that she’d seen me more frequently when I’d lived in London – even though my Derry office was only 10 or so miles from her home. That’s one of the realities of building a successful startup I’m afraid. The amount of time it consumes really takes its toll on your family.
Then on the morning of 13 May, just as I was about to walk into a board meeting on my last planned working day before the “big move”, I received a phone call to say that my Mum had had a fall in her home the night before, had been lying on the floor all night long & was just being taken by ambulance to Letterkenny hospital. I spoke to my sister who jumped into her car & headed for Donegal. As I made that call my stomach turned over and I felt the guilt that had been hovering somewhere in the back of my mind for the last 12 months or so land with a thud.
Fast forward a month. Mum is out of hospital and I’m living with her in her house in Donegal. I’ve been here since the day I stepped off the ferry in Belfast. I spent a 2 week stretch here before back in 2013 when Mum was recovering from a hip replacement operation. That was the longest period of time I’d spent with her since leaving home for university in summer 1977. I don’t know if anyone else reading this blog has returned to live with an elderly parent. I think it’s more usual for the parent to make the move – but my Mum doesn’t want to go anywhere else. She’s happy here in her own home, with her dog and surrounded by all her own things and I can understand that.
To say it feels strange is an understatement. I’ve swapped the life of a carefree flibbertigibbet and social butterfly – dipping in & out of stuff as I please – for someone who needs to be solid & reliable. Someone who needs to be the same calm, patient, pleasant and well-organised person every day.
Every morning at breakfast I can clearly see my great-grandfather’s teacup in the display
cabinet – and he died in 1934. I stumble across random things from my childhood several times a day – my plastic radio moneybox from the early 1960s stashed next to the weed killer in the garden shed, a dusty pink bonnet I can vaguely remember wearing for best as a 3 year old – now faded but still with its quality lining and fake fur trim intact. People who were dead long before I was born stare back at me from frames on the walls. I look for the family resemblances in their faces.
When I wake up in the morning, the first things I see include St Patrick in all his glory and then a photo of my Mum, my sister & I taken in November 1986, heading out for my Dad’s 60th birthday celebrations. On that evening he had less than 18 months to live but none of us knew that at the time.
So what have I learned so far. The time has been brief but the lessons are big ones. I’ve learned that sometimes the things that seem important aren’t the things that are important. I’ve learned to slow down – on any number of fronts. I’m having to learn that patience is my friend. Patience is something I’ve never had much of or thought I had much need of – urgency has always been my motto. I’m learning not to over analyse and to take each day as it comes. I’m learning to accept that someone else comes first and that their needs are far more important than mine.
I’m learning to appreciate the little things – a story long forgotten suddenly retold, the fun of a fox coming down the hill and through the fence and so close to the kitchen window that we could see its whiskers, the daily magpie versus jackdaw battle over the breakfast leftovers, the relief of listening to someone you’re caring for getting a decent, unbroken night’s sleep, a brief walk along the shore with Mum’s dog, reading real books late at night (there’s no broadband here). There’s a lot to be said for remaining in one place for a period of time. I watch the ever changing views of Lough Foyle and the moving colours of the hillsides and the big Donegal sky through every window. I inspect the strawberries, tomatoes, gooseberries and bilberries every day for progress. I go to the back door in the evening & look at the glorious Donegal sunsets. Everything has slowed right down to a snail’s pace.
It’s not all good. The standard set of hospital tests conducted in the days following her fall identified the presence of a tumour in Mum’s right lung. I will never forget the 20 minutes I spent with the kindly, nervous doctor as he explained the significance and likely consequences of that to me or the phone call afterwards with my sister from Letterkenny hospital car park. I didn’t intend to tell her on the phone but I couldn’t help it.
I thought I was coming home to enjoy the company of a less independent parent who’d just given up driving so was more housebound than she likes to be. To drop in a couple of times a day in passing for a cup of tea and a yarn. To collect my Mum to nip to the shops in Derry or go out for lunch.
Turns out I was wrong. My role instead is one I am sharing with my sister. We are learning to be a perfect tag team. Good cop and bad cop. Happy and sad in equal measures. Decision makers and gatekeepers. Our shared role is that of final companions, comforters, amateur nurses, cooks and cleaners, encouragers, tea makers and entertainers of visitors, providers of conversation when there isn’t much going on. We are the oil that keeps the various wheels turning as time slowly passes. It’s a role that we, as many others before and after us, are embracing to the best of our ability – grateful to our spouses and families for their support, grateful to circumstances that mean we have the time and opportunity to be of service in this very special way, grateful to the Irish health service for everything it and its agents are doing for us, grateful that we have each other.
It makes me sad when people say to us “Your mother has had a wonderful life”. We have a saying here in Ireland – the longer you have them, the longer you want to keep them. And that’s the place I’m inhabiting right now. A place of transition that’s neither one thing or the other. A place that isn’t quite real or of our usual world.
I have no knowledge of the road that lies ahead but I’m scared of it. I’m scared that I won’t cope or won’t be good enough or strong enough. I don’t want to let my mother down. I don’t want to let my sister down. Deep down I know we will manage. We always do, don’t we?
If you’re still reading, be a bit kinder to those nearest to you today. At the end of the day, all of that other stuff is of no consequence. It’s people that really matter in this life.
Why did I write this blog? Three main reasons – maybe some of you will have some words of wisdom for us, maybe it will help another person in some small way and lastly, it’s less painful than telling everyone I know individually on a one-to-one basis. Thank you for reading.
Addendum – 26 August 2016
We lost Margaret last Friday morning, 19 August. She passed away peacefully in Letterkenny Hospital on the morning of her 87th birthday. Trish & I were both at her side. She had a remarkable life full of adventures and laughs. We had an incredible last summer with her in Donegal. We went out most days for a drive and for lunch, entertained a lot of visitors and most of all we had a lot of fun.
We’re very fortunate to have been able to spend that precious time with Mum & it’s brought us closer together as sisters.
Thank you to everyone who’s read & commented on this blog & on my Twitter feed or on Patricia’s Facebook. Thanks also to everyone who came to the wake & funeral & to the people who’ve kept us going since May with support & love. We appreciate each and every one of you.
Last but not least, thanks to the nurses of Surgical 1 in Letterkenny. Despite your resource shortages you never let that get in the way of your care for Margaret or the incredible kindness you extended to us.