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.
Lovely tribute Maggie…..she was always really proud of what you achieved although she probably never said it to your face but that was just her way, she certainly said it to other people. Xx
I know – she made me laugh when I showed her my books. She kept saying ‘did you write that?’ as if she couldn’t quite believe it – good job I don’t crave approval, bless her!
Hi Maggie, I am so very sorry to hear about your mum’s passing. I have read your moving and very fitting tribute to your mum and now have a lump in my throat. I lost my mum in April this year and are still coming to terms with my grief. A lot of the clichés you hear have some truth in them. I’m sure you will continue to have good days and bad days and spend much time thinking of your mum each day. My mum Brenda is still on my mind last thing at night and every morning and the approaching Christmas will be difficult, it’s all the first hurdles of anniversaries, birthdays and happier moments that I can no longer tell her about that I find the most difficult. I can also identify with your reference to the compassion that animals show you. I have cats and even they can sense when I am feeling raw and come to sit near me or on my lap. I am thinking of you Maggie and send you all the best wishes. Take care. Ps I’m in Cornwall again staying in Looe from November 25th for 4 nights if that’s anywhere near you and you fancy a coffee. Xx
Thanks Anthony and I remember that you lost your mum back in April – I know how close you were to her and it must be hard facing all those first anniversaries. We should try to meet up this time when you are in Cornwall. Looe is the other side of the county from us (we’re in the far west) but I’m sure we can arrange to meet part way somewhere. I’d definitely like that! We can also raise a glass or two to our mums. Lets sort something out soon so that it is in the diary and mentime have a good weekend. Your comments are lovely and I’ll pass them on to Bonnie dog! xxx
Hi Maggie I’m sorry to hear about your mom’s passing.
I read your tribute to your mom which struck so many cords with my experiences of my mom. My mom passed away in 2016 in similar circumstances. She had dementia but unlike your mom she was unable to speak in her last months. It’s such a terrible condition. Like you also I never really knew if my mom really took interest in my career and I also gave it my whole time and attention alongside my family. I have learnt that mom was not only proud she was at my side urging me to work hard and succeed. She still is and I expect that your mom is doing exactly the same. The diminutive fiesty Irish women who come to Birmingham in the 1950’s were the backbone of the community and contributed hugely to the success of the Irish in Birmingham today. They will always have a place in our hearts and souls.
Keep your memories alive, meeting with your siblings to share stories and laughs is the best tonic. I wish you well in your journey of reconciliation with your fond memories of your mommy. May she rest in peace. Take good care xx
Thanks Eileen, lovely comments. Yes, your mum must have been proud of your achievements (you have done brilliantly in your legal profession), and it was just their way not to say too much. For working class second generation Irish girls like us – succeeding in punching through really tough competitive professions – it meant giving your all and making some sacrifices on the way. Still, we have resilience and great people skills – the very things I’ve told my University journalism students they need to develop more of. (Some younger people hve been over-praised which isn’t a good thing either). Like you, I found out from mum’s neighbour that she was always telling people to watch out for my TV programmes or read the newspaper features but of course, I knew nothing about that. I also remember looking around at the people in the Birmingham Irish Business Forum and thinking what an amazing job all those 1950s/60s Irish parents did. It was great to see you honoured recently by Birmingham City University alongside my good friend Pogus Caesar – so when we’re next up in Birmingham we should all meet up for a drink and we can both raise a glass to our feisty mums! Keep doing what you are doing, inspirational lady. xxxx