Over a decade ago I moved from Ireland to make Portland, Oregon my new home. My father, back in Ireland, turned 86 at the beginning of March, right before the rigid coronavirus restrictions were set in place. A spry and thoughtful man, my father was enjoying life before the pandemic and I was delighted to hear about his regular monthly coffee mornings with the retired teachers and the outings organized by his small walking club. When COVID-19 spread rapidly across the globe my biggest fear was for my father’s well-being. Nobody knew how bad things might get and we weren’t sure what to do about any of it.
I grew more anxious when Ireland introduced a restrictive lockdown. A necessary step, and one that eventually helped set my mind at ease, the rules were tough on the over seventies who were forbidden to leave their property and I worried about the impact on their mental and emotional health. My father has always been a walker but he is adhering to the rules, spending the majority of his time tending his garden.
For the first few weeks of quarantine we didn’t speak about our concerns too much. Gently and as casually as I could muster, I suggested my father wash his hands and clothing even more frequently than before and practice care with groceries brought in from the stores. In Portland my sleep was troubled and one morning when all of this was in its early stages, I woke with the sensation of having cut glass lodged in my throat. I wanted desperately to fly to Ireland and care for my father but there were restrictions in place, making travel extremely difficult, and if I did go home, I could potentially carry the virus with me and make everyone sick. There wasn’t anything I could do, but check in with Dad on Skype and hope he would be okay.
After my mother died when I was eleven it was Dad who took care of my brother and me. He dedicated his life to raising us and has always been kind and generous in his parenting. Today we remain close and we get on incredibly well. It wasn’t an easy decision moving so far from him, but I found a place in the world where I felt I belonged and have since married a wonderful Portland man. Yet, I worry about my father and always have.
Five years old when my mother, Kathleen, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, I became acquainted with illness at an early age. She underwent surgery and several invasive treatments but the cancer returned shortly after I turned seven. For years my mother suffered, going in and out of hospitals around Ireland for weeks and months at a time. Somehow through it all she remained positive and gracious. Determined to remain in this world with her beloved husband and their two young children she lived with purpose and hope until early 1988 when it became clear she would not make it. At that point my mother decided not to return to the hospital. Home with her family was where she wanted to be.
I clung to the chance of a miracle throughout my childhood as I witnessed my mother’s suffering and decline. As a family we prayed the rosary on our knees, flew with my mother to Lourdes twice in search of a cure and visited her in hospital as often as we could. While my mother received treatments, our neighbors drove my brother and me to school or kept us for hours in their homes until my father’s work day was through. We were blessed with kind neighbors who, down through the years, enjoyed my mother’s friendship and hospitality. Mam was warm, wise and kind. Her love for us materialized daily in our small kitchen as her home-baked bread and treats browned in the oven. She earned her deep friendships and valued them.
In January of 1988 our neighbors came up with the idea of creating what they called the rota. My father gratefully approved the suggestion as it would allow Mam to remain at home while he went to work teaching at the secondary school a mile away. The women on the list were my mother’s friends. Most of them lived close to us on a busy road leading into Tullamore town. The majority of these women were in their forties, though a few were older. All had families of their own.
Our house began flooding with constant visitors. We had night nurses on rotation who helped my father look after my mother but weekdays from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. others stepped in. Not every friend or neighbour was able to dedicate several hours a day on a weekly basis to my mother’s care but in their own ways they showed up. Showering us with kindness during my mother’s illness people stopped by with flowers, home baked brown soda bread, apple tarts and biscuits. They dropped off cards, well wishes, mass bouquets and cake. One lady patched up my jeans on a few occasions because my mother no longer could. A friend took home our ironing. My father’s cousin, a nurse, spent days at a time away from her husband in Dublin to help look after my mother. She taught me how to fold my clothes and how to bake chocolate eclairs. Relatives from all over Ireland visited every weekend. My mother, cocooned in love, slipped away from us gradually.
On March 2, 1988 in the early hours of the morning, as my father sat perched on their bedside, my mother drew her last breath. The days following my mother’s passing are a mix of clear memories and blurry confusions but the kindness of our neighbors extended beyond Mam’s death and into the years that followed. The women continued to take me to and from school in their cars and I spent many an afternoon playing in their homes. One lady, who succumbed to cancer herself a few years later, sent homemade desserts to our door every Sunday. Mam’s friend continued doing our ironing for years, insisting she enjoyed it, until I was old enough to take on the job.
I came to believe, as a young girl, that this was what happened when a person grew very ill; friends and neighbors rallied together supporting families in the toughest of times. I don’t mean I took it for granted; my father regularly referred to the attention our neighbors paid to us and pointed out how fortunate we were to have such good people in our lives. Thirty years on, we still speak of their kindness. But years later I started to believe our situation was unique. My mother was loved deeply in our community and our neighbors and friends were extraordinarily kind. I have never forgotten what those women did for us and what it meant for my mother to have such loving hearts surrounding her those last days. When I ruminate on the suffering and pain I bore witness to as a young child, I try to steer myself towards this part of the story, where my mother’s fear and pain must have been alleviated somewhat by the love and care extended to her as she left us and this lif e.
It is so interesting now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, to observe a similar outpouring of love and selflessness. As the weeks roll on, I’m bearing witness – long distance – to the attentiveness of our neighbors and friends in Ireland to the elderly and those requiring assistance. People phone and text regularly, reaching out to my father offering their help if he needs it. A considerate young woman, my own age, brings him his groceries regularly, going above and beyond in the kindness department. Neighbors drop off baked treats and chocolate and if Dad, usually extremely independent, lacks anything, these people are just a phone call away. A small local restaurant has called my father on occasion to see if he’s feeling like a delivery of his favourite Thai dish. He remains in touch with the women who were there for my mother when she died. All are elderly now and are cocooning indoors during the pandemic.
Though I’m fearful about the coronavirus, for everybody, but in particular the elderly and most vulnerable in society I am no longer anxious and scared for my father’s mental and emotional well-being. The profound kindness and thoughtfulness I’m witnessing, similar to what I observed as a little girl, is incredibly encouraging at such a frightening time. I thought we had lost the sense of community and coming together that was part of our lives during my childhood, but we haven’t.
In my youth I observed suffering and heartache while at the same time I perceived striking acts of decency and love. I never forgot the outpouring of tenderness towards my family during the toughest years of our lives. Now, the virus is revealing similar responses in people, some of whom we know well and others we barely know at all. I never would have foreseen such a development, but I find myself worrying less about my father during this coronavirus pandemic than before, because as an adult I’m witnessing the altruism I was certain had vanished. People have stepped up and showed up in ways surpassing anything I could have imagined before COVID-19.
Carmel Breathnach holds a B.A. degree in English literature and Irish language studies from Maynooth University and a Diploma in Education from St. Patrick’s College, Dublin. She writes regularly on the themes of bereavement, childhood grief and mother loss. Her work has appeared in The Irish Times, Huffington Post, Upworthy, Scary Mommy, Modern Loss and Voice Catcher, as well as in an anthology published by Golden Dragonfly Press. Carmel is currently working on a memoir titled Briefly I Knew My Mother. She blogs at https://alovelywoman.wordpress.com/