‘Daddy talks to me about Mammy a lot – even though they separated 35 years ago’

My parents, separated for 35 years, enjoyed a convivial Sunday afternoon family walk . . . then came Mammy’s heartbreaking question

George, ex-wife Mary and Áine on a Sunday afternoon stroll.

George, ex-wife Mary and Áine on a Sunday afternoon stroll.

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Daddy talks to me about Mammy a lot – even though they separated 35 years ago. Even though he only met her once or twice over those 3½ decades. Even though they were never a match made in heaven.

The sequence of questions is always the same. So too is the length of the pause beforehand.

It is as if it has just occurred to him to ask this question for the very first time.

“Tell me this, Áine . . . ”

His frown is Shakespearean. His eyes are set in the middle-distance. His lips are pursed in a particular way.

“How is your mudderr keeping?”

Even though George left his native town of Dundalk for St Patrick’s Teacher Training College in Dublin in 1949, he still has that distinctive Co Louth drawl. His “ths” are not part of his lexicon.

I pause too. I always like to answer Daddy’s litany of the same series of repeated questions as if hearing them for the first time.

On this occasion, though, my pause is a little more pregnant regarding “the mudderr question”.

That is because – lighter than a butterfly and long lost to some other cosmos – Mammy died in the early hours of March 14th in a Dublin nursing home. My sister Breda lay in a bed beside her during those last hours: attuned to the rhythm of her final breaths like a conductor of a symphony.

“Mammy’s not well, Daddy. She’s in a nursing home in Dublin with Parkinson’s and dementia,” I say. (It is easier to fib, not confuse him further.)

“Is her mind gone, Áine?”

He always enunciates this sentence very slowly, deliberately, as if he is considering what “a mind being gone” means.

“Well, she can’t communicate, not for the last three years, or so.”

“Well, God love her. I’ll say a prayer for her. Will you give her my regards the next time you see her?”

“I will, Daddy.”

Just like Daddy and me, Breda and Mammy had always been wonderful friends – Mary accompanying herself and Mick, her husband, and their three young daughters, around the world on their competitive canoeing expeditions back in the 1980s and ’90s.

We never knew what the phrase “happy release” meant until Mammy drew her last breath. She looked better dead than alive. She had been only been kept alive because of progress in medical science. While her nursing home was like a home-away-from-home, one that she would have chosen herself because of its gardens and artistic ambience, Mammy was no longer able to make such a choice by the time we took the step to remove her from her family home. Just like in the case of George’s incarceration, it was not an easy decision.

Peppered with its own ironies: they both ended up in separate nursing homes in April, 2015.

Sunday drive

In October 2014, Breda and I took Mammy and Daddy on a Sunday afternoon drive to the seafront at Fairview. Mammy in the front passenger seat and Daddy in the back with me.

She still lived in the family home in Lucan and he in his apartment in Inchicore. As I said, they had probably only crossed paths on one other occasion over the previous decades. They were always very different people. Mammy was very quietly-spoken – a passionate gardener, amateur artist, collector of antique furniture and baker extraordinaire. Daddy was a larger-than-life longtime Irish Times bridge correspondent, novelist, recovering alcoholic, rebel against all things conventional, proud scoundrel and rapscallion.

Anyway, here the four of us are crossing Dublin city centre on a sunny Sunday afternoon. George and Mary and their two eldest children, now in our 50s.

Frankly, it feels a bit bizarre. Although estranged for so long, they speak to each other with a deference that is remarkable. Like old acquaintances who are not quite sure how they know each other.

Of course, the incorrigible George always knows the right questions to pose: if it is a man, it is about football; if it is a woman, it is about how lovely her hair is, or how the flowers may be faring in her garden.

Well, he is of a certain era.

After our walk along the promenade – me linking him, Breda linking her – we return Daddy to his lair.

As is his practice, he stands in his doorway and waves us off cheerily.

As we turn the corner from his apartment block, Mammy turns to Breda and asks: “Who was that man?”

SERIES: Daddy, dementia and me
Part 1: I couldn’t face seeing him so confused
Part 2: How can I tell daddy his son is dead?
Part 3: The stand-off about a car
Part 4: Daddy talks to me about Mammy
Part 5: He left the wedding for a cigarette
Part 6: If granny had drowned that day

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