My mother died on Friday last, August 21st. Even to write those words is difficult but there’s a truth in them that has to dawn. I miss her. We, my father, two brothers, their families and me – we all miss her. May she rest in peace.
Shortly after I was appointed to Ballaghaderreen Parish in 2000 she became ill with septicemia and, as a result, her balance was badly affected. She lost much of her independence from then on and life was never really the same.
Before that, she lived for the road and loved to drive. That had been part of her life with my father. She and he drove to collect cars for servicing and delivered them back afterwards. They drove to Dublin to collect new cars – heading off in the morning and home straight away. Later on, as my brothers and I grew older we became her passengers and “drivers” and Bill stayed in the garage. She loved the car and the road. I remember once going to Dublin with her twice in the day (each run a round trip of about 250 miles) and then delivering a car to Glin on the Kerry/Limerick border. She was in her element.
Sickness took that away from her and the journeys became shorter and more laboured. My father would go places with her just to reassure her she could still drive but it was getting difficult. In more recent times, I tried – we all tried – to stop her driving and I know she thought we were wrong to do that. In time though, she accepted it and the driver became the passenger. It was still the road!
The balance problems took their toll and there were falls, some minor and some serious. No brekages though, thank God. Her worst fall was down the stairs, from top to bottom, about a year ago. I thought she would die that night but no. Mary bounced back as she often bounced back. Alzheimers had set in and even though we didn’t call it that or maybe admit that to ourselves, it began to do its work. Confusion, memory loss, frustration – sadness – moments of clarity, tears, fears …………. tablets, appointments, assessments ………….. horrible times for her. Horrible for all of us, especially my father who didn’t fully understand what was going on and felt she’d get over it. She didn’t. She couldn’t and we couldn’t make that happen for her, no matter how much we wanted to.
My father did everything he could for her. I remember staying at home one night and watching him help her in and out of bed several times during the night. From about 3am she wanted to get up, thinking it was morning. It was heartbreaking to see this and to hear her call him, not realising he needed to sleep so that he could help her the next day. He never grumbled and kept a lot from us all about how hard it must have been. He wanted her to have dignity. We all did.
Sometimes I felt angry with doctors and medical services. My anger was probably misplaced, since they were always there for her but there seemed, on occasions, not to be an awareness of how hard it was to look after mammy, even to physically take her for a medical appointment or to a clinic was an ordeal. Little appointment cards arrived in the post that seemed to suggest she could easily keep the appointment. There was nothing easy for her – somoene who could once travel five or six hundred miles in a day, found a three mile journey difficult. It was not so much the journey as the getting in and out of the car and the steps that had to be taken at both ends.
On Decemeber 8th last, my brother called me to tell me they couldn’t get mammy out of bed. She literally could not put a leg beneath her. Strength was gone. My father was worn to a thread. Mary, the “Home Help” was finding it increasingly difficult to cope. Our home was more like a hospital than the place I once slept, ate, watched TV and loved. We talked, my brothers and I, and felt that if we could get some extra help at home, maybe we could cope. I asked Declan and Eithne McGarry who run a nursing home here in Ballaghaderreen if they’d have a room where my mother could stay for a few days until I could get some help sorted. They kindly made a room available. Things seemed to be taking a turn. I drove home to our house and asked mammy if she’d mind going to the nursing home for a few days. I told her daddy needed a rest. She understood and, with some help, sat into my car and we drove together to Ballagh. I told her it was just going to be for a few days. I told daddy that too and absolutely meant it.
I got in touch with a friend who works with Alzheimers and he got a girl to contact me. We talked about what might be done and, for the first time, I really felt there was a way that things could be easier at home. Majella O’Donnell, the girl I spoke with, could not have been more helpful. She said she’d come and talk with my father too. She did talk to him and Majella’s presence and words were both helpful and appreciated.
Mammy got worse. Within a week or so, it was obvious she could not receive enough care at home. Declan and Eithne allowed space and time to my mother and, for this and all they did, we are so grateful. Mary stayed in the nursing home. It was local to us all and we could see her as often as we wanted. We had hopes to bring her home regularly and her first visit was on Christmas Day.
I celebrated Mass in the Nursing Home on Christmas Day and we hit out the road for Moygara. She recognised nothing until we got to Monasteraden Church where she blessed herself. We passed down by the house at home and her head never turned. There was no recognition. We went to my brother’s house for Christmas Dinner. Daddy was there and so happy to see her. She enjoyed it but there was no real sense of being “home”. I left her back to McGarry’s Christmas night. I knew things were changed forever.
There were a few more visits home but no real recognition. She’d sit beside my father and he’d hold her hand and talk to her. She’d talk as well but not as a conversation. At least not “conversation” as we’d understand it and yet they were “in conversation” – one that lasted over sixty years, fifty-seven of them as husband and wife. Words aren’t always necessary.
We saw Mary every day – sometimes a few times in the day and daddy went to her every evening at 6pm and waited til nearly 10pm. It wasn’t easy but that’s where he wanted to be. She always knew us “Ah, there’s my pet”, she’d sometimes say and I’d be a bit embarrassed but grateful that she knew me. That’s what I dreaded most – the thought that someday she’d not know me and, worse again, my father. I know that happens and the fact that it didn’t is probably my greatest consolation right now.
Cousins, neighbours and friends visited her too. Like many, suffering from Alzheimers, she could talk to them about things from years ago – remembering people and details but recent past was a mystery. We are so thankful to all who took time to visit our mother, talk to her, spend time with her and remember her. The staff in the Nursing Home were kind, committed and ever helfpul. We are all so grateful for that.
On August 21st, the 130th Anniversary of Our Lady’s Apparition at Knock Shrine, I got a call from the Nursing Home to go down immediately. When I got there my mother was in the arms of two members of staff who held a lighted candle between their hands and hers. Mammy was dying – I tried to pray as she deserved, prayers of letting go but they were prayed through tears. I feel sure they were heard though. Then phonecalls to my two brothers, widened the reality – my mother – our mother was dead.
I’m heartbroken ………. back where this blog post started. Somehow I think that’s the way it’s going to be. Circles of tears, smiles, clarity, gratitude, love, peace, hope ……………. tears.
Mary – thanks! “Sleep in Heavenly peace”
Thanks for reading this. I write it to clear my thoughts as I search for words to use at my mother’s Funeral Mass on Tuesday next. I write because I know there are countless families going through what my family has experienced. I write because Mary and all the “Marys” gave so much and from them Alzheimers has taken more. Remember anyone you know who has Alzheimers. Do anything you can to help. If, as a family, you’re living with this illness allow others to help.