Hands locked each other in an embrace of laughter. The pavements of the city thronged with a jostling populace shouted ’Victory Victory’. Tall buildings leaned towards each other on either side of the street, as if to nod their approval in rhythm with a cacophony of notes played by a brass band of tubas, drums, saxophones, sashaying upwards towards the open waving windows. Unfurled flags cracked and clapped in the breeze. The President stood on a raised dais, waved, – and the crowd cheered.
‘Ireland like her sister countries are celebrating the end of the Pandemic’ said a reporter from C.N.N.
A kaleidoscope of noise and stunning displays of visual delights enthralled those who were too old to partake in the festivities. Still imprisoned in nursing homes, their fingers perched on the sides of armchairs like elderly yellow parakeets; the skin of their whitened palms had survived touching cold glass to hear scraps of endearments from loved ones. Communication now with the celebrating outside world was through another window-a smart television in the corner of the day room. Grandfather Jack drank his pint of Guinness in a crystal glass specially commissioned for the occasion. Grandmother Julie rocked in her chair and sang the National Anthem’ The Soldier’s Song’.
Marie the nurse in charge examined her nails in boredom. She would love to have been released to join her family today in celebration- but guidelines issued by the Dept of Health dictated that all staff must remain -inside. ’Only another week to go and I will be free’ she thought. She had kept a diary describing the daily routine in the nursing home. Her writing kept her sane. She could describe her emotions and feelings in glimmers and observations. Marie wrote
’ Nurses and doctors dressed up like Princess Diana when she walked across that minefield in Perspex face shield, gloves, blue gown and boots. But Princess Diana smiled. Nobody smiles here now, and if they do, we can’t see each other’s mouths. Our masks suck air in and out, and we appear like silent puppets.’
Marie remembered one particular resident who reminded her of her own mother- now deceased. Marie recorded in her diary the day she took a photograph and a letter to Maisie from her daughter Helen, who had dropped the package at the door of the nursing home. The contents of the package were immediately sanitised and wrapped in plastic before they were brought to Maisie’s room.
Marie wrote. Tuesday- July 21/2020.
‘I brought the photo of Helen and her son Niall standing in front of a whitewashed cottage. The back of the photo was dated Donegal 2014. Helen was tall and blond, and the boy dressed in a blue tee shirt and jeans, seemed shy; his left foot lingered behind the other.
‘This is your daughter Helen and your grandson Niall’ I said, pointing to the photo.
‘Yes Helen- your daughter, and that’s your grandson Niall’.
I could see chaotic feelings stir inside her, and I sighed because it reminded me too much of my own mother’s last days, and my despair when she couldn’t remember who I was. So, I began to read Helen’s letter slowly.
I am enclosing a photo of our holiday home in Donegal. Do you remember our home in Donegal? You loved to paint the rocks and the cliffs. Your favourite spot was the little cove. It was our special place. We picked seashells and the waves were our playmates. Niall learned to relax eventually. It took him some time to get over being bullied in boarding school- but Donegal won. You taught him what mattered Mam: creativity, imagination, stories and the power of words. I miss you Mam. I feel lonely now that I can’t see you because of Covid. I miss your laughter. I went back to the cottage when lockdown ceased in Dublin. But I turned around the car- too many memories because you are not there to share them with us Mam. Please God we will see each other again soon.
Your loving daughter Helen.’
Marie finished reading, and her throat was tight with gulps of tears.
Maisie pointed at the photo’ What does she mean – a home in Donegal? I don’t have a home in Donegal……. Who is Helen?’
Marie gently prised the photo from Maisie’s hand, and as she did Maisie said softly.
‘When I go to sleep, I can see Mammy and Daddy. I don’t feel alone anymore. When I sleep, I visit Mammy and Daddy, and I get lots of hugs. I don’t get hugs here anymore, and I feel like I am the only person in this world of strangers. I want to go back to sleep now- Mammy and Daddy will be there to hug me -just like they used to do, when I was little.’
Maisie turned her back and looked out the window. A July sun spread its fingers on the smiling sunflowers. Her back seemed to say’ I can’t take any more of this’. Neither could Marie, so she closed the door on the old lady, and her ghosts.
Years later when Marie retired, she revisited a postscript in her diary dated July 2020.
’ The residents of nursing homes and I have something in common. We are all alone with thousands of others. Solitude in kitchens, sitting rooms, nursing homes, has created a goldfish bowl of memory, as we swim around trying to escape this Reign of Terror.
Claire Galligan winner of the P.J.O’Connor Award for Radio Drama and the Harveys of Bristol Theatre Award. She has directed nationally and internationally in Ireland, U.S. Egypt and Italy. She is a member of the Inkslingers, and Irish Writers Centre.