I Am in My Mother’s House

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.

Mum in kitchen

Mum back from hospital at her kitchen table

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.

St Patrick

St Patrick

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

teacup

Great grandfather’s teacup

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.

Radio

My moneybox from 1963

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.

Bonnet

My bonnet – still pretty

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.

Selfie in hospital with Mum

Hospital selfie – Mum, Trish & me

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.

17 comments

  1. Well done Mary. Remember to look after yourself – those sunrises and sunsets, beach walks and books will certainly help! Best wishes for the times ahead.

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  2. Beautifully written Mary.
    I too had some experience caring for my Granny a few years ago and its amazing what we can do when we have too. You and Trish are doing a fantastic job sorry not “job” but you know what I mean.
    Take each day as it comes, dont let the cloud hang over your heads, enjoy your time with Mum and when the time comes you both can look back with no regrets.
    I’m thinking and praying for you all.
    Much love & hugs from me & my Family.xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Totally…. No regrets.
      That has to be the key.
      We want to keep her and hold onto her forever, but life and our bodies have a different plan.
      Thank you for your lovely words of support xx

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  3. Excellent and thoughtfully written with a realistic view of what it’s really like to care for your mum which you and Trisha both do with much love. Its the best gift any of us can ever give to our parents, giving back for the years they cared for us. I don’t know you but I know Trisha and have no doubt you will both support your mum and each other through it all!.

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  4. When this kind of news comes knocking. The first thing I wanted to do was run up a hill.(not often used in any of my sentences) but with Mary’s help and of course Paul ,Olivia & Gene. I went into mummy mode. A mode you don’t know you use till a crisis rears its ugly head.
    Mum is the queen in a crisis. We have s lot to learn Mary. But we’ll muddle through together.
    Another Irish saying is “what’s for you won’t go past you”

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  5. Mary,

    Thank you for sharing this with us.

    I’m really sorry to hear about your mum. I have been thinking about you without knowing that you were making several transitions at once. I know this territory quite well having lost my Mum to breast cancer 15 years ago and having had my own brush with it, as you know.

    My only advice is if you are offered help, take it. It’s wonderful that you are there and these are days to treasure with your Mum but it’s also a huge change so make sure that you look after yourself. It’s great too that you have a wonderful sister to help.

    Know too that you are very loved and have sooo many friends in London and elsewhere who are always here for you, myself included.

    Take care and call anytime,

    Catherine

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  6. Well done Mary on a touching heartfelt letter. The photo you have shared with you ,Patricia and your mum is beautiful,it’s obvious that your mum is enjoying having her two girls at home with her,just look at her lovely smile. You will get strength, to face this time from each other and your family and friends in the time ahead. Have as much fun and laughter with your mum listening to all her stories,go out for drives and enjoy the Donegal air. Take plenty of photo’s. You will both be surprised at how much laughter and humour will come your way each day, you won’t be expecting it but it will happen. Take care of each other.

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  7. I don’t know you Mary or trish but you blog made me smile as my family were in same position . We all came together for the last 6 years of our Mams life and never any minute of the day or night was she on her own . We have some lovely memories of sing songs and outings with her and above all no regrets . But miss her dreadfully every day ….
    Wishing you the best with your Mams care which will be a very rewarding experience …

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  8. Mary I can’t tell you how the timing of this beautiful blog is so spot on. Two good friends are dealing with the grief of losing their mum, another two are saying goodbye as the last days approach. I’m spending a few days with my mum and I finally realise how lucky I am. Yes she’s older, slower and as she would say a bit futtery now but I need to slow down to her pace to enjoy these small and precious moments. I’ll hopefully see you at some stage for a coffee but meantime you and your mum and sister will be in my thoughts and prayers. You will have lots of support both in person and through other channels. This is a new chapter and it will bring joy and sadness and new experiences to help you grow. I know you’ll meet these challenges and never regret this time spent with those that matter most.

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  9. What an honest and moving blog. Mary, take care of yourself as well as your mum. I think there is something special to be together for the everyday moments when you stay for a while – fitting in with her routine, seeing the little pleasures that make life joyful etc. am just back from my year of travelling. It’s been amazing, yet one of the pleasures has also been spending quality time with my 78 year old mum, in between trips. I’m really glad I have had the chance to enjoy her company in good health. So thinking of you, and sorry not to see you at the CAST event on the 30th.

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  10. Hi Mary

    I found your blog by chance this week after reading a snippet about you in last Friday’s Donegal News. I then checked out your website – Kicking Assets – the name really tickled me, and you really gained my attention with your post about returning to Donegal to care for your mum. ‘Hey’ I thought, ‘someone in my shoes!’

    I returned home (from the Wirral) almost 2 years ago after my dad (now 91) had a fall and badly dislocated his shoulder. My mum rang the doctor and, after a brief visit, the doctor told them that my dad should go to A&E. He did – using a taxi driver that he knew (rather than calling for an ambulance) as they don’t like bothering people (ring any bells?). A couple of days later they let me know what had happened and then my sister (in Kent) and I became a “tag team” of “decision makers” and “gatekeepers” (in much the same way that you and Trish have become).

    I had been back to Donegal many times over the years and I knew the place fairly well – but it’s not the same as living here. What would I do? How would I live? I’m not quite of pension age, and my parents aren’t (apparently) incapacitated enough for me to receive carer’s allowance. So, cutting a long story short and rolling forward 18 months, I have now set up my own small business so that I can (mostly) work from home.

    Like yourself Mary, I was a “carefree flibbertigibbet and social butterfly” and I greatly missed my family and social network in the first few months of being here. Now the positives are beginning to outweigh the negatives – and broadband definitely helps!

    I love the quality time that I now have with my parents. I love the fact that my dad and I have ‘special projects’ – like fixing his swivel chair, or gardening tasks that he likes to direct me on.

    And my mum? Well, she just loves the fact that she has her daughter home (which I’m sure you can both relate to).

    Caring for someone elderly is not all sweetness and light and it helps to read blogs like yours about how others are coping with the difficult times. Taking care of parents is often more of a marathon than a sprint, and there will be bad patches along the way.

    That said, when people say to me “aren’t you great taking care of your parents”, I know that it’s not a one-way street. They’ve given me so much too – like the opportunity to ‘stop and smell the roses’.

    Mary and Trish – you’re both doing a great job!

    I hope we can meet sometime.

    Trish

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  11. Mary this is the most beautifully written blog post I’ve read on any subject – and it came at the perfect time for me (not that this is about me, obviously!).

    My mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer last year, which has come as a big shock. We’re very close and she’s an integral part of our family life, but I’m ashamed to say that my money worries and career demands dominate my time and energy.

    You’ve made me realise that I need to remember what’s really important – thank you, and warmest wishes to you and yours as the coming months and years unfold.

    Hope to see you soon

    Henry

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  12. Hi Mary, I’ve just read this blog while sitting in my mother’s house in Inishowen. She is 86, in bed sleeping with a few medical conditions and acute memory loss. My family and I have been staying over night and doing her meds and meals for 2. 5 years now. It’s tough when everyone has their own family to give up the time but so good that we can do it. Your blog has inspired me so thank you. Love the saying the longer we have them the longer we want to keep them. So true and I hadn’t heard that before.

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