She died at 5.30pm on Christmas Day 2016 in an isolated single room in the Women’s Medical Ward of Sligo Hospital. 43 years and 252 days after our “I wills” were said on St Patrick’s Day 1973. 43 years and252 days of hard work, six kids, much happiness, some sadness, a few cross words but a massive amount of love.
We had left her at 2.30pm at her bidding. “Go home and have your dinner” were the last words to us. She looked radiant, the best I’d seen her in months. She had suffered greatly in the preceding while. Daughter No 4, Son No 2 and I drove a hungry 30 miles back to Boyle. We ate our prepared Christmas lunch and at 4.30pm she rang. She had just seen the doctor and they were letting her out on the morrow, St Stephen’s Day. We celebrated with a glass of wine. Again at 5.00pm the telephone rang, “Mr Malpas, can you get here quickly, Helen is in cardiac arrest”. The miles were never devoured as quickly, not a vehicle on the road. We were met by a Muslim doctor, I suppose the only one willing to work on that Feast Day. “She died 10 minutes ago, I’m terribly sorry, the resus team did their best. Just wait here a moment the nurses are just cleaning up the room.” I signed a proffered form donating her vital organs for research. Not a word was said. We waited then went in. She looked beautiful, if that word could be used in her cadaverous state. Her forehead still warm to the touch. On close inspection wounds could be seen on her neck, arms and hand from the work of the resuscitation team.
A long dark journey home, painful calls on landline and mobile, interspersed with mouthfuls of strong liquer. The next day neighbours called, the undertaker summoned. The process was put into operation. A post-mortem was necessary. She had died in hospital of a condition she was not being treated for. The pathologist’s report said “Sudden cardiac death due to marked cardiac hypertrophy”. But they were not treating her heart, she was supposed to have a cystic kidney with sacral metastases. Who are we to judge, the 99.9% ignoramuses of the population. We should be left in ignorance whilst the medics weave their web.
In the following days friends, relatives and children gathered. The autopsy done on 29th December and the body released and we cremated her the next day at Lakelands Crematorium in Cavan town. He death was not announced but it was heartening to see the large crowd that gathered. Jungle drums working as they always have. People had travelled for miles, many hundreds for some. It was a great delight to see a large contingent from the Dublin stage community as well as acquaintances I never expected to see.
20 or so of us gathered for a few quiet pints in Boyle, the landlady being the sister of the undertaker. Over the following few days visitors had to return to normality, the kids had their own lives to deal with and by the time I realised that 2017 had been born, I was on my own. Desolate, scared and lachrymose and for the rest of January and most of February those conditions worsened.
Nobody tells you, nobody and nothing conditions you for the death, for the end of 43 years and 252 days of love and companionship. I can tell you it is horrible. You become virtually quadriplegic, in a state of stasis, but you have to eat. You stumble to the shops. You meet somebody offering kind condolence. You flood with tears, looking idiot-like at the till. You go home and cannot eat that which you bought. You go to bed but cannot sleep. You get up, sit in a chair and cry as though tears were going out of fashion. You doze, the telephone rings and you do not hear it. The postman calls “Paul, I have only just heard”. You discourteously close the door in case the next wave of tears washes him away. Nearly two months of this purgatory makes me wonder now how I survived. I wanted to write but couldn’t. I wanted to socialise but couldn’t. I realised a house without a woman is no longer a home but just a pile of bricks, slates and timber.
Things move on, the undertaker calls with the ashes but no bill. A cardboard tube with a tasteful brass plaque, her whole reduced to just over a kilogram. Telephone calls and e-mails to children. Decisions made. We would scatter her ashes on my birthday in the tumble down shack she was born in on 18th March 1949.
On the days before the 19th February we gathered, children, spouses, partners, grandchildren and cousins, and on that day, suitably booted, we made our way to Scanlon’s old house in Shaskin, a suburb of Gowlaun, in the metropolis of Rooskey, six miles north of ” Charlestown too, in the County Mayo”. A stricken, waterlogged place of 11 houses on top of the bog, overlooking Cloontia and the distant Ballaghaderreen. Families lived here for a 100 years before deciding it was too feral an environment, eventually deserting the place in the early 1950s. Helen was the last to be born here. A tumble-down ruin of two rooms which housed nine or ten of family at one time, the stone built out-houses showing that the kept animals had more room than the dominant humans.
I gave a talk on the history of the place, the kids scattered the ashes in the little back room where she was born, a bottle of donated Hennessey was broached and completed as we drank to her memory. A very happy/sad cathartic occasion; an occasion necessary for the grieving to heal. The kids went to their homes gradually and I had a few more sad days.
Trips to Malta, Morocco,France, Italy et al were planned. Isolation was knocked on the head. I was desperate for conversation, the grieving was nearly over. I joined clubs and societies, they helped tremendously. I am still in the tunnel but I can see the light at its end. Her wonderful memory remains, wrapping me in a fantastic shroud.
GOOD BYE AND GOD BLESS, HELEN. I STILL SEE YOU IN EVERY ROOM.
And there are still tears but now happy ones all the way through the writing of this much needed piece. The box of Kleenex is nearly empty.