Once we navigate our way out of Dublin, the traffic thins and traffic lights aren’t needed. Concrete bypasses divert us around provincial towns as we head westwards.
New housing estates have sprung up everywhere. We drive past rolling hills surrounding lakes, overgrown fairy forts, through modest villages and tracts of bog land and forestry plantations that go on for miles. Further along, the land improves and the hedges have been severely cut back, denuded like tillage stubble at harvest time. Most of the fields have been doused with slurry, and its acrid sewerage like smell hangs in the air. Intensive farming methods around here have always been hard on the land, as farmers strive to extract the maximum return. The road narrows, twisting and turning. Not far now.
We’ve sent photographs of our daughter who they haven’t yet met. They’ve received DVDs of her birthday parties but this is the real thing, my adult version of show and tell, proof, in my mother’s view, that I’ve at last settled down. Overhead a jet plane on its way to Shannon airport leaves its long white line in the blue sky. There’s the sound of a tractor starting up in a field nearby. A pair of pigeons noisily takes flight from an ash tree near the gable of the house. When I get to the front door, I can’t decide if I should ring the bell or just go in. I opt for the bell but as I reach for it the door opens. My mother, wearing her flour smudged apron, is standing there. ‘Yis are here, at last,” she says, rubbing her eyes and reaching out for an awkward shy embrace.
We follow her inside, along the hallway and into the kitchen. In her slippers and apron she seems smaller, more stooped than I remember. There’s the smell of cooking and the sound of a clock ticking. The old man is sitting in an armchair facing the television, a crushed newspaper on his lap. There was a time when he wouldn’t take the time to sit during the day. Usually it’d be after dark when he’d return. He’d drive the tractor home with no head lamps on “to save the battery.” He never shirked physical work. He’d spend hours rebuilding collapsed stone walls, cutting turf every summer, fencing, splitting firewood, foddering on freezing winter mornings, picking stones in the fields, grinding barley in the loft (eschewing earmuffs), mucking out sheds, dosing cattle in spring, shearing: an endless list.
“Yis’ll have tea, now,” my mother says, retreating to the kitchen and reaching for the electric jug, setting herself a familiar task.
“We will,” I say, as I watch her open a cupboard to fish out the crockery. She still has the Maxwell House clock; she got “for free,” by saving her coupons on the wall over the window in the kitchen. They’ve replaced the linoleum and someone has repainted the walls a heavy blue colour.
“And a wee sandwich, sure, ye must be famished, after being on the road,” she adds.
“Grand,” I say, lapsing into the local vernacular, and knowing she won’t accept any other response. I walk over to where he is sitting. As I get closer I notice a walking stick partly covered by the newspaper. He looks up at me with a queer confused look, his eyes distant.
“Hello,” he whispers, after a long thoughtful silence. There is no attempt at a handshake. No awkward laugh. No talk about the weather. No chit-chat. No need to worry about any of his political polemics. He stares at me without any hint of recognition. He looks past me with a confused expression. “And who’s this little one?” he asks, pointing his stick at his granddaughter. Although it’s still early, it seems as if this day is well on its way, maybe even already gone. The jug is boiling. My mother doesn’t pause from her sandwich making. I’m sorry, we’re late, I say, aloud, to no-one in particular. You can’t imagine how sorry.
“This is Molly,” I tell him, “your granddaughter.”
“Aye,” he says. “Aye,” he repeats but his puzzled look remains.
“Sit over here, now,” says my mother, standing poised with the teapot at the table. “Sit over now.”
He will live for another five years. He will outlive her by three months. She will go quickly, shocking everyone. She will tell Owen one evening she thinks she is having a heart attack. She won’t regain consciousness. She will die four days later at the local hospital. Nine of her children will gather at her bedside. One daughter will not come from Melbourne, for reasons that remain best known to her alone. Hundreds of people will call to the house during her wake. Scores of Mass cards will pile up on the side board.
His final years are a cruel decline, his existence a lingering twilight existence. She will look after him through it all. “Why don’t you just bloody well shoot me?” he will whisper to my brother as he helps him into bed one evening. He will become aggressive and demanding at the close of day. Evenings will be worst. He will yank at locked door handles in a vain attempt to get outside - to go to Mass or to check on a cow. He will shed weight, lose his conversation skills, and forfeit his ability to read. He will be unable to make sense of the images on TV. Eventually he will need a special air mattress to lessen the risk of bedsores. He won’t be able to feed himself. He will sit in his wheelchair in the lounge room, hour after hour, day after day, staring into empty space, and gazing out at the outside world that he no longer can partake in. He will need weekly shots to counter his red blood cell depletion.
I will have returned to my own life in Melbourne, of little or no use to them. Whenever I ring she will tell me they are managing, that “Pa is fine.” In her last year, their last year, I will hear the tiredness in her voice. She will concede that she wishes it wasn’t so hard but she will not hear of a nursing home. “He wouldn’t want it.” End of story. They will put up with it and they will get by, as best they can, as they grow older with every passing day.
At her wake he will be wheeled into the lounge room and he will stare at her in her Sunday clothes in her coffin. He won’t say anything as he daubs at his tears with a handkerchief. In the days and weeks following her funeral he will wait for her to appear. “What the bloody hell is keeping Ma?” He will keep trying the door handles at dusk. Just before he stops eating in his final week, he will stop asking for her. His death certificate will describe him as a widower even though he was married to her for all but three months of the previous fifty-one years.
They will be buried side by side in the frozen ground of Finea cemetery during one of the coldest winters on record. They will lie less than two miles from where they were born and reared. My brothers and I will slide their coffins out from the back of O’Hara’s hearse, lift them onto our shoulders and we will carry them to their final resting place. My sisters will carry the wreaths. At their funerals I wouldn’t’ve cared if it had rained or snowed. It didn’t do either of those things but the sun didn’t show itself either.
Right up to the end she’d take the bus every Thursday afternoon to town, to shop for “bits and pieces.” A carer would take over for the two hours she was away. She’d have shed her apron and slippers and she’d have put on her good clothes. She’d have worn her coat and scarf. She’d have brushed back her grey hair. She wasn’t one for make up or jewellery. Her shopping list, probably written on the back of an envelope, would be in her handbag. She’d have a cup of tea and, sometimes a bun at the café near Tescos, nothing too expensive or grand. “I can see more from the bus,” she’d tell me, a few weeks before she died.
I wonder what she saw, what she thought about as she headed off to town. Did she mind being away from him? Did she glance up at the ivy changing its colour on Fagan’s house on the hill? Did she look askance at the unfinished bungalows clustered together on the outskirts of the nearby village, in fields where crops were grown every year? Was she repelled by the miles of bland pine plantations? Did she notice the stillness of the bog, and the late afternoon’s sun rays falling on the heather and sedge?
After she boarded the bus, she wouldn’t have said much to the other women, perhaps just a smile and nod, or an authoritative remark about the weather. I imagined her sitting up the front near the driver with her handbag and shopping bags on her lap. Did she lament the fact that over half of her children live abroad, and most of her grandchildren remain utter strangers? What went through her mind on those free afternoons? What did she see on the road ahead?
When the bus’s door swung shut and she headed back inside with her bits and pieces to where he was waiting, she wouldn’t’ve known it was her final time to enjoy the view, her view from the bus.
Her life’s work was about to end. Soon he would follow.