Good morning everyone.
In a song by R.E.M. called ‘Untitled’, Michael Stipe proclaims his love for his parents.
I made a list of things to say
But all I want to say
All I really want to say is
Hold her and keep him strong
While I’m away from here.
In April, Mum attended the funeral of an old family friend online with my wife Sharon. She couldn’t attend in person. The eulogy that morning was a moving account of a life well lived and Mum said to Sharon, “I wonder what they’ll say about me”. Two weeks ago, I held her hand and I asked her what she would like us to say. But I had waited too long and she couldn’t tell me. So I tried to tell her what I would say.
I told my Mum I would say how much I loved her. How much we all loved her. How much we appreciated her. What a wonderful mum she had always been. How grateful we were that she and my dad, Tom, had founded and shaped our close and happy family. That all this closeness and happiness was her doing. I told her I would talk about her happiest moments.
When I think about these moments, I think about photos of Mum across the decades.
The one I’ve been thinking about most is a picture of Mum and Dad in Dublin in Spring 1969. They have just come out of the cinema. There was a man on O’Connell Street who would take your picture as you passed by, and you could go back and buy it off him. Dad told me that he only took photos of the handsome couples. Looking at this picture, you’d well believe him. Dad is dark and dashing and Mum is so beautiful. She had just turned 21. Her hair is pulled back by a band and it is hard to look away from her face. Conjure in your mind the brightest smile you can–now brighten it. She is luminous.
Many of Mum’s happiest moments were in Mayo. Mum was born Mary Lavelle in Westport in 1948 and was lovingly reared by Paddy and Nora. She had one sibling, Michael, who is still in her phone as Little Brother. When they were young, Mum dearly loved Michael and also found him annoying, because that’s the deal with little brothers. Mum moved away and Michael stayed in Westport but he would drop everything in a heartbeat for her. Some of Mum’s sweetest smiles in her final few days were for Little Brother. The corners of her eyes would crinkle up when she saw him.
During her Westport childhood, Mum developed her remarkable gift for friendship. There are school photos from the Fifties of Mum with her best friends Mary Mulhern, Maureen Moore, and Bernie Conway. Photos from sixty years later show the same quartet, thick as thieves, in hotels around Ireland, sharing afternoon tea and a sneaky G&T.
Mum moved to Dublin to go to Carysfort in 1965. She met Dad on Halloween night 1966 and they married in Westport in August 1969. Mum and Dad have always lived in Dublin, but she retained dual citizenship. Mum and the four of us boys would head down to Mayo during 1980s summers and luxuriate in western freedom for two long months. Dad had to work and I felt so sorry for him heading back east on Sundays. Something we learned from Mum that we never unlearned was that dread of the return to Dublin after a trip to Croy.
Mum taught primary school for over thirty years. She taught in Rutland St from 1967 and loved it. She started in Our Lady’s Girls after her first baby boy arrived in 1970 and the fledgling family moved to Woodpark in 1971. She taught here for the remainder of her career. She loved when a child she had taught greeted her as an adult and told her what she was up to now. She loved to help people flourish.
Mum never lost her gift for making friends: in her schools, in Chestnut Grove, on holidays with Dad, and even on John Houston Ward in St. James’s, where she spent a couple of months last year, becoming the matriarch of her six-bedded room. I work in James’s so during a visitor ban I could still sit with her and get the gossip. She knew everything that was going on for the ladies in her room. She was endlessly interested in other people and when she trained her attention on you, you felt you could tell her anything.
Another joyful picture shows Mum and Dad in Malawi in 2007, when they came out to visit me and Sharon with Sharon’s mum, Geraldine. Mum loved to travel but she was not fond of flying, and Malawi meant flights from Dublin to Amsterdam to Nairobi to Lusaka to Lilongwe. At least those four were all on proper passenger aircraft.
We then took them to Nyika, a mountainous national park in the remote north. Nothing that you could reasonably call a road went into Nyika so Mum had to fly again, this time in a tiny six-seater Cessna, bumping and swerving around clouds. Mum dreaded this, but she did it. The joyful picture is of Mum in a jeep on a bright blue day on a game drive to spot leopards and zebras. Dad’s arm is around her and her smile expresses ease and affection and fulfilment and shared adventure.
I keep coming back in my mind to that picture of Mum and Dad on O’Connell St in 1969.
I sometimes wonder, when I see an old photo of a beaming young person, how they would feel then if they knew how their life was going to turn out. So I’ve been imagining a conversation between Mum at the end of her life and her younger self.
Here’s what I think Mum would say to young Mary:
You’re going to marry this man. You are going to keep teaching. You will nurture generations of kids. You will nurture your own children. You will have four boys. Your home will be filled with laughter and music and books. You will rear your boys to be secure and happy and they will all do fine. They will have their own families.
Young Mary asks: Will I have a daughter?
No–but you will have four daughters-in-law who become your daughters.
Now–It won’t all be easy. There will be sickness and sadness. You will suffer a serious depression after one of your boys is born. But that does not rupture your bond with that boy. If anything, it makes it stronger. Your grief when your mother dies will be hard to get past. It will take you a few years to recover. You will recover.
Young Mary says: Listen, I know life can be hard. I accept it. Can we get back to the good stuff?
You will have nine grandchildren. When your grandchildren arrive you will thrive, and you will help them thrive. You’ll be a hands-on, go-to Granny. You and those kids will dote on each other. You will give and receive an astronomical amount of hugs. You really enjoy living, Mary.
Young Mary says–that all sounds pretty good. But what about Tom?
Oh, but Mary. That’s the best bit! He is by your side every step of the way. For the fun and craziness of raising the boys. Through all the harder times. For all your travel. For sunsets in ancient cities. For cocktails and cruises. You navigate your lives arm in arm. You have the romance of the century. And when you get sick for the final time on the day of your 51st wedding anniversary, he is there with you, and he is there for you to the very, very end.
And young Mary says: Sign. Me. Up.
Now, we are here and we are stunned and we are so sad. Mum was the beating heart of our whole family. We have no concept of a world without her in it. We have a lot of fumbling around, finding our way, ahead of us. But I also want to remember to be grateful, to be happy for her and for all of us who got to be with Mum and experience that boundless love of hers.
I must mention Mum’s final few days. An Irish Cancer Society nurse who cared for Mum on the last two nights of her life told us that witnessing how Mum was while dying made her less fearful of her own death. Mum modelled a way of living in her final moments that could give anyone courage. She stayed so plainly herself. She kept minding us. In her final week, when she opened her eyes it was to beam that luminous smile and tell us, so tenderly, that she loved us. We told her too. Nothing was left unsaid.
Three days before she died, Mum turned to Dad, seated a few feet away. She said “Tom–don’t be afraid”. I have to say I gasped. Mum was days from dying and she knew it. She was accepting our care and still bestowing her care upon us. The way she stayed present and nurturing, to the end, was her final and greatest lesson in love and bravery.
I sent Mum a poem last summer. She shared the poem, so I have taken that as her blessing to end with it here.
Late Fragment. By Raymond Carver.
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.