Grief is an exquisite agony. The pain is so acute because without great love there is no grief
In every book I’ve ever written somebody has died, is dying or is going to die. I’m not a morbid person. I’ve got quite a sunny disposition really. I love a laugh. I laugh a lot and at least once a day. I am also intimate with sadness. I’ve grieved many times and for many people. I lost my mother when I was 17 but I grieved her first aged 11 when she was too disabled and I was too young to stay together.
She became a patient in The Royal Hospital, Donnybrook and I became one of a family of six when fostered by my aunt and uncle in Kerry. I visited her during school holidays and spoke to her every Sunday on the phone but I missed her terribly and I worried all the time.
Then one day just after breakfast she complained of feeling ill so the nurse put her to bed, rang her sister and told her to come quickly. My aunt dropped everything and ran to my mum’s bedside in time for her to say ‘Goodnight Molly,’ and those were my mum’s last words.
The anguish I experienced wasn’t just heartbreaking it was breathtaking. I wasn’t sure I’d survive it. The physical pain was so intense it was difficult to breathe.
Mentally I vacated for a while. I disappeared to a place in my mind where I could just hang with her. I couldn’t be trusted to complete simple tasks like going to the shop to buy eggs, milk and a lotto ticket. I’d arrive back with bread, butter and a postcard. I was in turn numb, dumb, lost, lonely, angry, bitter and so terribly sad.
I can tap into those feelings easily. I don’t do it often, except when I work. They say to write what you know and that’s what I know.
I also know love and joy. My mother was an exceptional woman, funny, smart, witty, she had untold strength and she gave me the gift of all of those things. I’m lucky she was my mother. She walked out on a bad marriage in 1970s’ Ireland. When other women stayed she gave the man who failed her and the system the two fingers. When diagnosed with MS she fought for as long as she could and when she couldn’t fight any more she let me go to a family who saved me.
Grief is an exquisite agony. The pain is so acute because without great love there is no grief; there is only goodbye.
My mother taught me many lessons in our short time together, the best of which is to value kindness above anything else.
I fell in love with a kind man aged 21 and now we’ve been together longer than I’ve ever been alone. The first time I met his mother I saw a reflection of my mom in her. Terry McPartlin was another strong woman who didn’t suffer fools, was the life and soul of any room she entered and armed with a wicked tongue and a massive heart.
She knew something about everything and even on the darkest of days she always made me laugh. She inspired the character of Molly Hayes in The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes, a story about a young woman called Rabbit who is dying and her family’s fight to save her.
With Terry’s permission, the matriarch of the Hayes family, Molly Hayes, was born. She had some of my mother in her, two of my aunts but mostly she was a fictional version of Terry. She was thrilled and laughed at Molly’s antics. ‘
Am I as bad as her, love?’ she asked with a glint in her eye.
‘No, Terry, you’re better.’ I told her and she was. My mum, my aunts, my husband, my friends, my family both here and now in New Zealand are all better than any character I could conceive because they are real.
When Terry died I grieved and I watched my father-in-law, my husband and her daughters struggle to breathe. I watched them in turn become at times numb, dumb, lost, lonely, angry, bitter and so terribly sad.
We also laughed at every gem that had rolled off her tongue. We celebrated her achievements and a life that gave so much joy to so many.
I wanted to hang with her in my head, like I used to hang with mum years before but instead of going to the shop with a list to buy eggs, milk and a lotto ticket and arriving home with bread, butter and a postcard, I’d sit at my desk for hours on end bringing Molly Hayes and the Hayes family back to life so that they could grieve the loss of Rabbit as we were grieving Terry. It was hard to end Below The Big Blue Sky, because it meant saying goodbye again.
Covid-19 means we’re all grieving right now for the lives and life we’ve lost but that’s OK because although a reservoir of sadness will remain, it’s only because what we’ve lost was so great.
Below the Big Blue Sky by Anna McPartlin is published by Zaffre Books and available now