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Anguish of my mother, a woman lost to bewilderment

SHE dreams of a cow dung-scented milking parlour. On a three-legged stool, her robust mother sturdily extracts milk from teats into a bucket between her legs. She remembers her mother's staunch refusal to attend her wedding breakfast in Virginia 60 years before.

Well, she had insisted on marrying a man from the town, thwarting her mother's plan to give her decent dowry to neighbour's child Tommy Tierney with his big nose, baldness and rolling acres.

Her father would object and stand up for her. But he is dead and she is in the fug of dementia. To her, Mammy and Daddy are alive 40 and 50 years after they've gone. More alive than her own children.

She talks of cycling home the six miles from Jackson's Garage in Cavan where she does the accounts. In her head, she is preparing the tea in the low-ceilinged kitchen, with its dry battery-powered radio, open fire and butter kept in the freezing and unused hall behind.

She doesn't remember the names of her grandchildren, but she talks with great lucidity of her dead brothers Micky, Packy and Gene and sister Meg. She, too, is long gone. I knew them. They were my uncles and my aunt. The woman who believes they are still alive is my mother, Julia, Judy to the family.

For me and my brothers and sisters, our mother has died. Her life force and her soul have gone from her. Just turned 84, a lady who walks and talks and looks like my mother wanders the bright and warm and soothing corridors of a nursing home on the Cathedral Road outside Cavan.

She is an impostor. She is not my mother.

My mother has left the terrestrial building, she has gone elsewhere. Not suddenly or dramatically. Her death notice has not appeared in

the newspapers or been macabrely enunciated on the local radio station she so enjoyed tuning into.

"Guess who's dead?" she'd ask when I called from London. She'd have gleaned all the most recent departures from Northern Sound radio or on her frequent trips to Dunnes Stores up the street.

And if I had made the mistake of calling during the televised golf at home or abroad, she would make it palpably clear that it was not a good time. Young McIlroy's US Open triumph would have been a prime example. Now, it doesn't matter. Her golf clubs are mothballed, the winning Waterford Crystal four ball prizes are no longer dusted.

Her passion for golf playing on TV, I miss. She doesn't. I miss her wit and her gossip and her total engagement with the life of a small town.

It sneaked up on her, and us. Our father died aged 86, 14 years ago. Younger by more than 20 years, she was devoted to him. But there was a sense of relief that his final illness and eventual departure occurred just in time for her to assume the captaincy of the local golf club.

She had always been eccentric. But perhaps because she was good-looking and charming, her curious manner with people was always excused. "This is my son John, of whom I am extremely proud," she would declare in bars and restaurants from Cavan to Dublin and to London.

I once in print eulogised late-night hot ham sandwiches from Monahan's pub in Kells restoring famished McEntees en route to Cavan. On my next trip home, she somehow engineered a visit to Monahan's at the top of the hill in Kells. She asked to see the proprietress: "Is Mrs Monahan about?" she asked politely but insistently. When she appeared, my mother immediately launched her excruciatingly embarrassing mantra. Pointing incessantly at me, she declared: "This is my son John who wrote about your sandwiches." I bolted like one of Aidan OBrien's thoroughbreds and joined my father, who had seen it coming, on the doorstep outside.

Then she won big money, not once but twice, on the National Lottery's televised Wheel of Fortune. The second time it was about €80,000.

Myles, my brother in Dublin, called to ask if I'd received a letter from Judy. I hadn't. "I won't spoil the surprise," he said. A missive arrived in her familiar old-fashioned handwriting. I opened the envelope. There, under the religious card featuring the technicolour beating heart of Jesus, was a note. "God Bless John, Mammy." It was £1,000-worth of Masses being said in my honour by a priest I'd never heard of.

There were seven of us in the family. The cleric must have been saying Mass under floodlights for a considerable amount of time. I could only thank her profusely.

Despite the cavalcade of Masses, one of the seven --my brother Aindreas -- was taken from us with an inoperable tumour. He was her favourite, but she seemed to take it in her stride. She didn't.

Then a small house fire was turned into an inferno when she poured water over an exploding TV. She was rescued, but was more annoyed about the destruction of an ancient and ugly rubber mat in the hall that my late father had acquired with coupons from the John Player fags he smoked in the Fifties.

We moved her temporarily into the home that is now her permanent residence.

I came home from London to see her. She seemed the same bright, vivacious, people-loving mater of old. I'd booked a table for supper at Sean Quinn's Slieve Russell Hotel 12 miles away. We were running late. She'd forgotten her cardigan; then she had to help a fellow inmate who'd fallen out of his wheelchair. Finally, she emerged. In the car park was a lone, tall woman standing De Valera-like, obviously waiting to be picked up. As I held the car door open for my eternally affable mother to step in, she said to the total stranger: "Did you hear about the fire?" She then regaled this person with a 20-minute account of the drama. Eventually I got her into the car. Her response? "I wish people wouldn't ask me about the fire."

And so she returned home. But unbeknownst to us she was turning up three hours early for morning Mass at the local cathedral. She was also wandering about the town asking people who she was.

My sister Ann returned from Boston. On the morning of her return, Judy fell in the kitchen and broke her arm. She was distressed and confused. It wasn't just the arm. She was diagnosed with dementia.

And then, over the most heartbreaking 18 months confined to a home, she did all she could to escape. Twice she broke through the emergency exit and was caught in the fields heading homewards. My sainted brother Dessie had to deny her time after time the key to the front door of her own home. In the meantime, her clothes were stolen. She was still compos mentis and this was awful for a dignified lady to bear.

"Why am I here?" she asked, like Jesus in the Desert. Her dignity and high self-esteem were gradually eroded.

I came home in the bleak winter of 2009 and took her out. Driving back to the home, she asked me politely for the key of the front door. I declined. In the hallway of the home, as I removed her suede coat, hat and scarf for safekeeping, she pointed to a notice on the closed door. "What does that say, John?" she asked innocently. I opened the door and walked out to read it. She was instantly at my elbow. "John, take me home, please take me home."

Tears welled up in my eyes as I gently led her back into the hypnotic warmth of the home. I left her there.

Now there are no pleas for her door key. No tricks to escape, no plan to get away. She simply doesn't want to leave. It is the way of the world: drugs and dementia. The woman I see is to all intents and purposes my mother. I know she isn't. I don't know where she is. Now the gentle chemical tip tap has taken over. Not quite One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, but close. No cruel nurses or rebellious Jack Nicholson, but she has been subdued and tamed nonetheless. Bed by eight. Some bingo and Ludo and painting. Lots of tea, and biscuits and cake. Soothing. And then there is the meal she must prepare for her long- dead father and mother.

"Can't speak. Who are you? Must get home to Mammy and Daddy. They are waiting."

Sunday Independent