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Opinion 'Love and loss in the time of coronavirus... Together, apart, we wait for the dawn'

Maura McElhone writes about how the imminent birth of her first child makes her reflect on the loss of her grandmother, and in turn on what this current pandemic means for families.

THE BELFAST SKY is the colour of slate and we blink in the rain. It’s the cold and mizzly kind that comes in swirls and seeps into our faces but lingers lightly in silver droplets on our heavy winter coats.

Unlike the fat, warm tears that fell just moments before as we joined the priest for prayers around the coffin.

But we don’t cry now; like a finger pressed to lips, purpose pauses those tears. There is a job to be done.

The boys –our brothers, cousins, and partners– come to a halt in the road. We girls hand our umbrellas and bags to family members. We step forward and into position, two at the front, two at the back. We square our shoulders and brace for the weight.

“You have it?” says the undertaker.

We nod.

“Alright, that’s it now, nice and slow.”

We start our walk, the wet road slightly muffling the crunch and scrape of impractical heels. One arm is draped across a sister’s or cousin’s, the other kept free, that hand used to secure our precious cargo. Four granddaughters, honoured to carry our Granny’s coffin to her funeral mass.

She died on January 15th, 2019 – her 90th year. Just three months prior, my sister and I had called in to visit her in the Belfast care home where she had spent her last few months.

We were en route from Dublin to our hometown of Portstewart where I would be married three days later. Not able for the hour-plus journey North let alone the commotion and emotion of the occasion itself, Granny would not be at my wedding.

Still, I wanted her to be a part of the build-up, even if she, herself, didn’t realise as much. It was only right that she be included as I reached what she, in particular, considered to be an important milestone in my journey through womanhood. 34 years of age, her namesake and eldest grandchild, firstborn of her own firstborn and only daughter, I had been fielding her queries regarding the absence of “any glitter on that finger” for quite some time.

In September, 2017, over sandwiches, tea and buns at her kitchen table in Andersonstown, she advised that I give him, “three months. And then you tell him, that ship has sailed.”

By then, her good days were becoming few and far between. Yet, lucidity seemed to find her when she felt it was most needed.

When she arrived at my family home for Christmas some three months later, I showed her the ring he had proposed to me with just days earlier. Looking for clues, wondering would it register, I studied her face as she studied my hand.

She raised her eyes to heaven.

“Well, thank God for that,” she said, treating us to her once characteristic wry humour by that stage more often veiled by the grey fog of dementia.

We let go of the breaths we hadn’t known we were holding. We let tensed shoulders fall.

And we can look back now, grateful for the miracle. For the good day that became her best of those we spent together in her final 13 months.

Mother’s Day 2019 was the first we spent without her. It was particularly tough on my own Mammy.

This Mother’s Day, we believed –for one reason in particular– would be better. We would spend it together as a family; my parents, brother, sister, and I, along with our partners. We’d planned on celebrating my sister’s 30th birthday in Dublin on the Saturday and Mother’s Day, then, on Sunday.

Instead, paying heed to social distancing, my mother, father, and brother remained at home in the North, my sister and I doing the same in the South. Divided by an invisible border, together in our shared war against an invisible enemy.

On the Wednesday, once it became clear that we would not see each other that weekend, Mammy shared a photo in our family Whatsapp. A tiny white cardigan with buttons in red, yellow, purple and blue. The cardigan she’d planned on giving me on Mother’s Day.

The cardigan she’d knit for her first grandchild, my baby, now due in five weeks time.

I hadn’t realised I was pregnant for the first six weeks. The first test I’d taken was negative, albeit falsely. In mid-September, I took another one to rule out pregnancy as I knew this would be the doctor’s first question when I went for my scheduled appointment to get to the bottom of my months-absent cycle and extreme exhaustion. I stared at two blue lines, like folded arms, one across the other. Defiant, definite.

The following morning, together, my husband and I turned over the second test and stared at the two pink lines. Side by side, like soldiers. Unwavering. Resolute. In our mid-to-late thirties and mentally prepared for getting pregnant to take some time, it wasn’t until we had our dating scan that we dared believe we might be this fortunate.

The nurse moved the scanner across my tummy and a rhythmic swoosh filled the room.

“That’s your heartbeat.” she said, kindly.

Then, after a moment, “And that’s your baby.”

Something that resembled a jellybean appeared on the screen. A different heartbeat filled our ears. This one much faster than mine. More eager. As if it had more to prove. This was our baby.

The nurse calculated our due date.

“May 12th,” she said.

Of course.

May was Granny’s birthday month, and, according to Catholic tradition, the month of the Blessed Virgin Mary of whom Granny was a life-long devotee. When Granny died, my sister and I travelled to Belfast that morning to start the preparations for her wake. That evening, my husband texted me. He repeated his sympathies and promised that my Granny’s memory would live on in the family of our own that we hoped to one day be blessed with.

When we visited Granny’s grave for the first anniversary of her death, I placed my hands on my bump. That two of the four generations present were not visible didn’t matter. If these strange times in which we’re living have taught us anything, it’s that sometimes, it’s exactly that which is invisible that wields the most power.

In the midst of this pandemic, I’m grateful that Granny is no longer in a nursing home and my heart aches for those forced to keep their distance from their loved ones, or worse still, who cannot hold their hands and say their goodbyes.

Tears have been shed. More will be shed still.

And yet, sadness is a wave that crests and falls. It’s in the still waters on either side that we find buoyancy and strength, restored. We don’t cry then; purpose pauses those tears.

There is a job to be done. Health to be minded, lives to be saved. New life to be welcomed.

New chapters begun.

And so, we square our shoulders. We brace for the weight. Together apart, we wait for the dawn.

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