It’s been a while since I last posted a blog and that is because the past six weeks have been a sad and traumatic time for our family.
After a long hard battle with Vascular Dementia, and more recently, the devastating effects of a stroke, my mum Rita passed away on October 7th. Her quality of life hadn’t been good for some time and although we are all devasted by her passing, there is an element of relief that her suffering is over.
Inevitably the death of a parent causes you to re-evaluate your own life, to look back to your childhood and beyond, to examine your relationship with your parents, and to face the stark reality that you are now the older generation within your immediate family.
So here’s my personal tribute to mum, the feisty Irish woman who kept that fighting spirit right up until the end.
Like a lot of her generation, mum devoted most of her life to bringing up her four children, while my dad worked as a carpenter. They were private, modest people who came to Birmingham in the mid 1950s to find work. Mum was born in Belfast and dad in Dublin and for them family was everything.
After dad died at a relatively young age, mum’s life revolved around her five grand children and every so often she would make the journey ‘back home’ as she still called Belfast, to see her northern Irish family.
Like many daughters, I had a complicated relationship with mum and when my all consuming career in journalism and TV production took off, I have to admit that family priorities were given a back seat. While working long hours, travelling across the country and on a number of occasions to the USA, visits to see mum had to be squeezed in around these commitments. For a number of years work became the main priority and although loving what I did, at times it felt like living to work rather than the other way around.
I also (wrongly) assumed that mum took no great interest in the stuff of careers, not really understanding why anyone would put so much time and effort into the world of work. Then, just before I headed off to Bermuda in 2011 to join my husband who had been offered a forensic post on the island, mum handed me a large package. Inside she had collected a mass of magazine and newspaper cuttings, going right back to the start of my career. I was taken aback and extremely touched by this – although she never really said much, she had read all of the features and had hung on to them. I must admit to shedding a few tears that day, realising not for the first time how I’d misinterpreted her views.
Looking back, there were signs that mum was becoming ill a few years before her diagnosis. Little things that in hindsight all add up. She would often ask the same question over and over, would forget what food she’d bought, stocking up on stuff she already had in, calling at odd times of the day and then forgetting why she had rung in the first place. Without knowing the cause, this behaviour seemed bizarre and sometimes annoying. Once it became clear that her illness was causing this, the shutters came off and perversely my own relationship with mum improved. What I’d seen as a failure to listen, someone who was calling at the times I’d asked her to avoid, suddenly had an explanation. Mum wasn’t being difficult or awkward, she was simply showing the signs of the cruellest of illnesses. Yet another misunderstanding.
Despite everything mum kept the essence of her personality up until the end. Well into her illness, she could still remember her Irish dancing steps and the lyrics of songs. She would point to the map of Northern Ireland on her nursing home room door and until recently, could still recognise us when we made our visits from Cornwall. She was surrounded by photos of her family and had a regular stream of visitors from my siblings and her grand children.
Today, we all are trying to remember the happier times before the illness took hold. Her love of sweet foods, probably caused by rationing during the war. Her constant quest for bargain deals at the Bull Ring market – often turning out to be anything but. Her turns at Irish dancing at family parties, the Catholic icons dotted around her house, (some of which frightened her grand children when they were growing up!), and the feistiness which never left her.
So RIP mum Rita. It took a few years, but I now realise just how strong you were and that you did your best for all of your family. Thanks to you, I still have those early cuttings too – a part of my own history that you saved up specially. You will live on in your children and grand children, all of us the keepers of your memories.
One little postscript. Animals, especially dogs, can be incredibly attuned to emotions and moods. In the past few weeks our dog, Bonnie, has realised that something was amiss and that we were feeling sad. She followed us around the house, constantly checking that we were OK and cosying up to us at every opportunity. She knew we needed some extra affection and like all dogs, gave it unconditionally. However sad we felt, we had to take her out for walks and exercise is a great mood enhancer. So thanks Bonnie dog, you’re a little star.