Let me tell you about my 95 year old grandmother. You probably don’t know her, and frankly, that’s a shame.
he is the same age as the Queen and for as long as I can remember I have always felt a loose connection between the two.
Like Queen Elizabeth II, Eilish Sweeney has been the gravitational center of our family for decades; a benevolent but indomitable matriarch. The gently smiling figure in the center of all group photos. Somewhat shamefully, I’m only beginning to appreciate the person she was now, in her 95th year, as the tides of time catch up with her.
For years, my grandma was just a woman, cackling happily every time we arrived at the house and showering us with freshly baked buns and, as is Donegal custom, football specials [a soft drink]. We loved them dearly, but as kids we probably looked forward more to cousins our own age, the new babies, the arcade down the street, or the fiver that a relative handed us when we said goodbye. Grandma was just… there. And given her power and sheer forceful personality, I assumed she would probably always be there.
Eilish Sweeney is a woman who, despite never having touched a drop of alcohol in her life, has danced her way to every party she’s ever been to. As a young mother, she imagined the paradise of going to the cinema on a Sunday night with a bag of toffees. She has never demanded much materially from this life, and for that she has lived as well as a billionaire.
“I thought we were millionaires, or at least the richest family on the terrace,” my father recalls of his childhood in Donegal. They had relatively little in the overall scheme of things, but because they had Eilish, they truly believed they had it all.
Up until her 80’s she was so happily involved in everything around her: choir, ICA, amateur theatre. She worked part-time in a bookstore and found time to deliver meals on wheels to her “old loves” (some younger than her). If anyone knew how to suck the last delicious drop out of life and how to be happy, engaged and alive in the world, it’s this woman.
Eilish Sweeney is uncompromisingly herself, always sunny, mischievously funny, a born optimist. I remember a few years ago, out of a text message with Liz Hurley and a pair of jeweled underwear, she created a particularly salty routine that delighted me as my cousin and I dashed around, mouths open in shock and laughter.
Her wealthy mindset has had an impact on the rest of the family. No one drinks half-full satisfaction like the Sweeneys. Even during his greatest personal disasters, my own father will say, “There are a dozen men in Glasnevin Cemetery who would probably give anything to have the problems I have.” It’s a spectacularly awe-inspiring way of living to contemplate, and while it slightly contradicts my own somber reflections, it’s still a gift to be witnessed.
And yet my grandmother also experienced a great loss. Her husband died when she was in her early sixties. A few decades earlier, she lost her young daughter Colette to a sudden illness. Now that I have my own child, I am convinced that if I were to experience the tragedy that she has, I would never get over it. More than ever, I wonder how she managed to find it within herself after reaching one of the worst outposts of human suffering, not just getting out of bed at all, but eventually leaping up in anticipation of what the day would bring could.
At 95, she no longer socially dances to every party she goes to. She’s a little less sure of her feet. Dementia has taken some of the light out of her eyes. And yet this is not a story with a sad ending. My grandmother is surrounded by a family that takes care of her 24/7 and is happy to do so. In fact, they consider it a real privilege to do so. There is never a feeling that anyone is burdened or that dementia is some horrible, dark monster that is slowly robbing the very best of us from our family. There is still so much contentment and quiet joy in my grandmother’s house. “Aren’t we lucky to have her for so long?” one of my aunts said to me the other day.
I have friends with slightly more ambivalent, perhaps more complex, relationships with their elderly parents, and their journey is different. Siblings pass on the job of taking care of their elderly parents like a hot potato. They are heavy with the weight of duty. You are not blessed with my family’s innate happiness.
Last week a cousin sent me a video recently taken with a smartphone of our grandmother singing an old ballad. “And if you can’t be good…” my aunt said, ready to say goodbye. “Be bad,” my grandmother finished with perfect comic timing and a mischievous laugh. Some things just can’t stand the tide of time.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/my-95-year-old-grandmother-is-mischievously-funny-dementia-has-taken-some-light-from-her-eyes-but-this-is-not-a-sad-ending-41503256.html My 95 year old grandmother is mischievously funny. Dementia took some light out of her eyes, but that’s not a sad ending