On the landing of our semi-detached house facing St Anne’s park on the northside of Dublin, we sat down to dinner all that summer. A card table of my grandfather’s carried up by my brother and a chair for me from downstairs. My mother Eileen in her armchair, propped up by cushions – a blue mohair shawl providing warmth.
She could no longer do the stairs.
We called her Mam, her choice. She didn’t like mummy or mammy and mother was what she called her mother – a woman from another era.
We had white wine, mostly to stimulate her appetite. As the cancer spread, food was hard to absorb. She had a great sense of the ridiculous;
‘I hope I don’t get too attached to the wine!’
Her illness gave us a chance to explore her past and mine.
Tall and slim with a strong physicality, she had been national drill champion in her teens and played camogie, winning three all Ireland medals. Later she was a keen golfer playing to a low handicap for years.
Born in 1916, she was part of the new Ireland. Women’s focus was on domestic matters. They were not expected or encouraged to have a public role.
One day, she told me that growing up she had little interest in children. She imagined herself as a writer, a designer or a dancer. Her great loves were ballet, poetry, clothes and whimsy.
And yet she had seven children. Once we were born, she told me, I wouldn’t send you back, but it was a lot!
Her physicality and endurance mattered throughout her life. When she needed to have an operation in the sixth month of her fourth pregnancy, she had it without an anaesthetic to ensure her baby was not harmed.
Quiet and introspective, she had a great word horde, fed by a love of poetry and by noting unusual words from the Guardian and The Irish Time crosswords.
For a number of years, she wrote, directed and made the costumes for a satirical show in her golf club. I would help by singing Gilbert and Sullivan tunes so that she could get the beat!
When I was born in 1954, the sixth of seven, her body started to fail. She told me that she saw a warm light, a place she could rest and find sanctuary. The medical staff revived her; it took twenty-four hot water bottles to get her warm. We went away to a nursing home in Bettystown north of Dublin, so that she could recover.
I could only imagine how she felt, not going home after my birth, all the children waiting to welcome her home and to see the new baby.
She never talked about the loneliness or the sense of guilt she had at that time. Like many of her generation she contained her grief.
Facing death was her final act of bravery.
We both loved radio three. One day the Four last Songs by Strauss was on and she asked me was it about death. Yes, I said and explained what the songs were. Beautiful and poignant, she said, they capture the sense of being on a journey alone, as well as the sorrow of dying.
For me they captured the tension between letting go of life and the wonder of being, of enduring. She would find a joy on most days, a bird on the tree outside her window, a night sky or visits from family and friends.
When I play the songs now, it takes me back to her small room at the front of our house. Her low keening at night as pain set in, and the helplessness I felt when I couldn’t relieve her suffering.
The swell of the violin, the soaring voice make my heart race and my spirit ache.