May 1980. A phone call from Tom Walsh, my nephew, to say my mother was poorly and would I like to share the journey with him to Ennis to visit her. Oh yes, of course!
Fair weather, good wheels, quiet conversation –
while betimes I fell silent, my mind racing.
Skirting Limerick, then north to Ennis, Co Clare.
A quick lunch in an adjacent hostelry,
then to the nursing home, a crowded ward, my mother.
Shock! I was unprepared for what I…
A silver haired doll, bedded, lost to the world,
attempting to focus, search my face with faraway eyes,
struggling to respond as I pressed her hand:
“Mammy… Mammy, it’s me, John… John!.. Yes!..
‘Course you do! Sure how could you forget… your last?”
A weak smile and a glimmer of recognition – fleeting.
Then the fear was back, the awful insecurity,
as her eyes left mine and fixed again
on the ward behind me…
Oh, dear God! Derelicts in bed slippers…
geriatrics with glazed eyes
mouthing inconsequential drivel.
And directly across from her,
a distraught woman getting in and out of bed,
pausing, stark naked,
before beginning the ritual all over again…
Any wonder my mother was near losing her mind,
not knowing where in the world she was…
or was she out of it, maybe altogether,
and in another?…
Wishing… praying… clinging to the hope
that someday soon
some kindly person would lift her,
whisk her away to a comfortable bed,
clean sheets, warmth, nourishment…
Then sleep, ah sleep, uninterrupted.
So much I wanted to say… blurt out… whisper in her ear:
“Sorry… Oh, Mammy, I’m so sorry…
for all the hurt I caused you over the years.
All the long time I left you without as much as a line
to say how I was… or where…
And you watching for the postman
day after winter’s day…”
Hoarse words broken almost before I got them out.
Standing up, sitting down… clasping a cold hand.
Going, not wanting to go… Leaving, not wanting to –
Pulling at bedclothes… soothing, smoothing.
Turning away. Go then, go…
On the corridor, nurses under pressure:
catheters and bedpans, enemas and bed sores…
Go back, John. Go back in. One last time.
To say, say again what you’ve already said…
To try and… No. No better not.
Leave it be. Leave…
I was on the rack, homeward. And Tom sensed it,
let me be, settling for the road before him…
So many memories…
That very first year in Primary.
Mammy at the gate of the Friary national,
at the end of another school day,
waiting to greet and walk me home.
Always. Without fail.
Until I outgrew that time, began to flex a muscle…
Flashback. The second half of the 70’s.
I was domiciled in Wicklow, working in RTÉ
but still under a family cloud –
for having opted out of active ministry –
sisters and brothers keeping me at arm’s length,
incommunicado… The phone rings.
I’m coming up to see you.
Oh. Oh-hh… You – you’ll be very welcome!
Mammy?… Why are you doing this?…
Because you’re my son and I’m your mother…
I cradled the receiver as heartache gripped my throat.
Tom dropped me off and I thanked him
even as he turned north – the last lap –
leaving unspoken the inevitable:
we will meet again… soon…
May 16, 1980. ‘Phone ringing…
and I knew even as I lifted the receiver:
Wee Mammy had arrived…