Louise O'Neill: The irony of getting sick at Lourdes, the place most people go to for healing, is not lost on me

Louise O'Neill: The irony of getting sick at Lourdes, the place most people go to for healing, is not lost on me

It was my grandmother’s anniversary this week. I keep looking at the calendar, remembering the same date last year. Saying, “this was the day she first took a turn”, and “it was today the doctor told us she was going to die”. Remember? Remember?

The long hours sitting by her bedside, watching her slowly slip away from us. Cups of tea and red-eyes, teeth sticky with crumbs of biscuits that you’re not hungry for, but you eat anyway, just for something to do. The delirious conversations at 4am, circling around, saying nothing. She would wake occasionally and she would ask when she could go home. That was all she wanted, in those last few hours. To be back in her own house, to sleep in her own bed.

I have written in this column before about my grandmother’s garden. The narrow stone path, lined with blooming roses, the two towering monkey puzzle trees, reaching for the sky. I dream of that garden sometimes, and I can still feel the heat of the sun on my skin when I wake up, the scent of flowers heavy in my nostrils. During Storm Brendan, my cousin texts to let us know that one of the trees has fallen.

Louise O'Neill: The irony of getting sick at Lourdes, the place most people go to for healing, is not lost on me

My sister reads the text aloud and my mother and I ask her to repeat it, read it out again, for surely there has been a mistake? The monkey trees have been there since before my grandfather was born, they must be a hundred years old. Every time there was a storm, Granny would worry about them — they’re so tall, she would say, fretting about the damage they would wreak if they crashed into the house.

And we would reassure her that she had nothing to be concerned about. The trees had stood firm for all those years, there was no reason to believe that wouldn’t continue for another century. There’s something almost eerie in knowing that almost a year to the day of her death, finally, her fears came to pass. The tree was brought to its knees.

I haven’t been to the house since her funeral. It would hurt too much, I think, to see it empty and cold, the whispers of ghosts in every room. So, I can’t quite imagine what the garden must look like now, with only one tree standing sentinel, its brother lost. And I wonder if it was some sort of sign from her, and if so, what was the message? I can’t quite figure it out but I suppose it doesn’t matter now.

For the anniversary, there is Mass said, a notice in the paper thanking everyone who offered support to the family during that difficult time. We visit the grave, and I stare at the headstone, at the new name that is carved into the stone. I test how I’m feeling, as if nudging at a patch of ice with the toe of my foot, to see how solid it is.

I spent the first eight months after her death constantly on the verge of tears; the mention of her name, the sight of a fading photo, a childhood memory of her brushing my hair before Mass on a Sunday, and the grief would break in my chest, pooling in my throat.

I cried and I cried and I cried but — and this is the crucial part — I didn’t force myself to stop. I did what every therapist I’ve ever gone to told me to do.

I felt my feelings, without judgement or any attempt to control the experience. I cried when I felt like crying and after months of this, I suddenly didn’t feel the same need to do so as I had before. I was able to think of her and the thinking made me happy. I remembered our trip to Lourdes after my confirmation, how I was struck down with severe tonsillitis within a day of our arrival, and how gentle and patient she was with me when I had to take to my bed for 24 hours. (The irony of getting sick at Lourdes, the place most people go to for healing, is not lost on me.)

How kind she was to all of my friends, insisting they call her Granny Murphy too. I picture her sitting out in our sunroom, surrounded by the Sunday papers, having a full-blown conversation with my sister’s dog. I remember her trying on new shoes, and my boyfriend saying she should get the wine pair rather than the black because they were more ‘special’.

How thrilled she was by that, how she repeated it to my mother later. ‘I’ll take the wine pair,’ she said. ‘Himself says they’re more special.’ And I smile when I think of her trips to the Day Care Centre in Bandon, how excited she would be the night before, laying out her clothes carefully. I feel grateful that such a facility exists. She enjoyed it so much, the friends she made, the surprisingly beautiful paintings and crafts she created. I have a painting of hers on the wall in my writing room, and sometimes I look at it and marvel that she’d had this ability and we had never known about it.

Maybe she hadn’t known herself. Maybe she had never been given the opportunity to know.

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