Today was my granny’s birthday, and feeling sad she’s not here anymore, I got to thinking about how much I missed of her when she was still around. When she was younger, fitter and more lucid, she was too busy asking me about me, (or, more importantly to her, what my husband did and what exactly was a computer anyway!) than telling me much about her own past life. Admittedly, she was quick to boast (quite justifiably) about being one of the first female doctors in Ireland, and married to a man who came from a small farm in Donegal to become the moderator of the Presbyterian church. I remember her telling me about the Belfast blitz, and many funny tales about her work, like when she asked a lady how long her father had been ill when the patient lying in bed was actually her mother, or the time she taught herself to drive a car in a day so she could do the job as a locum GP (she had to ask a man at her patient’s house to reverse it for her though!) There were so many laudible things about this little lady, and yet, painfully, she passed her last years sitting, mostly alone, in an old people’s home. The visitors steadily tailed off, and my granny, previously sociable, ever admirable, was frequently forgotten.
I wonder how many wonderful, praiseworthy older people sit by themselves, their many achievements overlooked, as they’re called ‘love’ and ‘pet’ a thousand times more than ‘hero’. Because that is what they are: they lived through turbulent times, they broke down previously unassailable boundaries, and now, they’re belittled, and unheard. How many inspiring stories do they have, now silenced by neglect and loneliness? How many lessons are we missing by not taking the time to listen? As the third age extends in years and numbers, these questions need to be taken seriously. And not just because this will be us as well one day.
The one thing I am sure about is, any time I have sat down with an elderly person, I have walked away feeling blessed, and humbled. There is frailty of body, but rising above that, there is often unparalleled strength.
My granny died this week, and as I was trying to grab hold of my best memories of her, these were three of the many things that came to mind.
Granny never did anything by halves, and before old age caught up with her, she moved through life like an unstoppable five-foot hurricane. She never walked; she always jogged or skipped everywhere, whistling under her breath. Or, if she was on her bike, she took no notice of the highway code, but zoomed back and forth in the middle of the road – so much so that the police had to ask her to start using the footpath. Granny did not observe protocol, in any setting, causing huge embarrassment to everyone but herself. Maybe she was still moving too fast to notice the carnage she left in her wake. And also the many many blessings…
Even though Granny always rushed, one of my most precious memories of her is when she sat on my bed and told me the story of Goldilocks and the 3 bears – every time she babysat in fact. She made me feel safe, and happy then. Another comfort was the frequent supply of ‘smiley biscuits’ – ginger nuts pressed with a cutter to mark smiles, clearly made by someone in a rush, but definitely the happiest biscuits I’ve ever eaten. Granny’s ‘no half measures’ approach unfortunately made its way into the amount of salt she put into her cooking, and the Vesuvius-sized fires she built. How apt that she once taught me how to play syncopated piano music with the song ‘Smoke gets in your eyes’.
What a larger-than-life person my wee granny was. Of course this meant that she sometimes rubbed people up the wrong way, but she often prompted them to change too. Granny always left her mark, and always will.
I can just imagine her skipping and whistling her way into heaven – no-one will miss that grand entrance!
children wondering why papa
Or will not play;
His heart joins them
While his body cannot respond
Those are the lines of a poem that my grandfather wrote towards the end of his life. Out of a whole book of poetry, I have always remembered those particular words – mainly because they gave me a connection to someone who went out of my life when I was only eleven years old. But now, I am recalling them because I am beginning to truly understand the struggle behind them.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a chair in Donegal, affectionately known as ‘papa’s chair’, forced off my feet with a bout of MS fatigue, and watching my husband and two children play hide and seek in the garden. I suddenly caught a glimpse of how my papa must have felt, sitting in that very chair, watching me, my siblings and cousins play outside, and looking beyond to the fields he worked hard in when he was young.
And yet, it struck me that it was most likely when papa was in that chair, often not out of choice. that he plumbed deeper depths of thought and feeling than he ever had before. In the closing lines of the poem, he writes:
Maybe I’m missing a lot;
Sunset is always
The most beautiful part
Of the day
I have hoped that in my struggles with MS, the same deepening of insight will be brought to me too. I never really knew papa, but strangely now, taking a few small steps in his huge ones, I feel like I am closer to him.