‘Happy birthday, Mam. Even if you don’t know it’
In a word. . . My mother doesn’t remember much but she still knows all of us. Her children. Her troubles.
It would appear the first European was also Irish.
Today is a peculiar day in our house. Our mother is 91. Our father is dead 20 years. Yes, he died on Mam’s birthday, August 24th, 1999. Typical of our father. Unconventional in life, unconventional in death. And he died in his sleep, like a baby. He was no baby. He was 80.
They met thanks to that great hero of mid-20th century Irish healthcare, Dr Noel Browne. I owe him my existence. I have not always been grateful.
My parents both worked at a sanitorium he set up in the late 1940s to fight TB. In Castlerea, Co Roscommon, to be exact. You could as easily say I owe my existence to TB. It won’t make me feel any more grateful.
The psychiatric hospital in Castlerea was taken over and its patients transferred elsewhere, temporarily. It became the main centre in the west for treating TB patients until 1952, when Merlin Park opened in Galway.
My father already worked at Castlerea as a psychiatric nurse before training as a general nurse. Who would have thought it?
Mother began work at the new sanitorium in December 1948, as a student nurse. Her parents tried everything to stop her - they were afraid she might get TB - but to no avail.
That’s my mother. A will of steel, except when it comes to sweets.
She wanted a job and independence and Noel Browne gave her both. She remained forever grateful to him. “We thought he was God,” she once said, when she could remember. She doesn’t anymore.
But she still knows all of us. Her children. Her troubles.
When we talk now she sometimes speaks of old friends and doesn’t flinch when I say something such as, “Katie is dead, Mam” or “Bernie died years ago”. I became casual. Recently she was wondering where my father was and I said “Mam, he died 20 years ago”. I shouldn’t have.
She fell into that stunned, dark place I had witnessed during family crisis past. I then dived down to where she was and grabbed her attention with, “are you alright, Mam?” She just said, “it’s an awful lot to take, all at the same time.”
The consolation was that within five minutes she had forgotten it all.
Happy birthday, Mam. Even if you don’t know it.
Birthday, from Old English byrddaeg.