This is the last of my regular columns in Frontline and I’m using it to remember Aoife, the cause of my coming to the world of learning disability. Since Aoife’s death I’ve been surprised by the number of lives that she wormed her way into, by the number of people who knew about her likes and dislikes, who talked to me about her beautiful smile. In a poem I once wrote for her, I said that her smile ‘promised even faithless attendants, a sort of resurrection’—and this wasn’t just true for me.
Losing Aoife has been a very sad experience for me, but there has also been a sense of completion. We have been able to close the circle of care around Aoife; we brought her up to the age of 29 in relative health, although we would have liked a few more years for her. She died peacefully. In this world, nothing can now touch her further and, like Simeon and Anna, the old people in the temple, the main task of my life is now complete.
Because I had Aoife when I was young, she was the constant companion of my adult life. Like Suzanne of the song, she has travelled with me through good and bad times, and she has been the link with the vanished world of my youth. She was the only one of my children to be born before the death of my father. He never knew of her disability; the day of her burial was his birthday.
It looked to most people as if Aoife depended on me, but I think I depended on her almost as much. She showed me a different road; she gave me a constant sense of purpose. She had that way of looking into my eyes as if I was the most important person in the world. I didn’t fade for her with adolescence; and though her reactions were slow, you could see her pleasure when she recognised people she loved.
She taught me a lot. Like ‘the beggar leaning on his wooden crutch’ in the Leonard Cohen song that she loved, she said to me: ‘you must not ask for so much.’ She taught me that no-one really needs the fancy things—to ride up and down in the glass lift of the Jervis Centre, or to sit on my lap when I played The Entertainer was enough for her. I missed for her the things she couldn’t do, but she didn’t seem to. To me, a doing sort of person, she showed the value of being; she was quite happy as ‘a lily of the field, neither toiling nor spinning’.
I came of age in a time of feminist values; equality and independence are important to me. But Aoife reminded me of the older values: constancy, endurance, cheerfulness. And, although words are important to me, Aoife showed me how much can be said without them.
Aoife also taught us that no family is an island. I’ve been embarrassed by the number of people who think we’ve done something heroic in looking after Aoife all these years. We couldn’t have done it without the sensitive and timely support we received from an awful lot of others—in particular, we are deeply indebted to St Michael’s House, especially the different frontline staff who looked after her over the years, and who loved her as much as we did. I want to thank them, along with our wider circle of friends and the priests, nuns and neighbours from our parish in Bayside. I’d also like to pay tribute to my own family, particularly two women who went to God before Aoife—my own mother, Molly O’Donoghue, who helped me so much in Aoife’s early years, and my aunt, Sister Nuncie, who gave me such great support after my mother’s death.
In later years my husband Ian and I couldn’t have managed without our three younger children, Cormac, Dara and Bláthnaid—to whom we owe grateful thanks. I’d also like to thank my sisters and my cousin Margaret.
We and Aoife were also very lucky to have been part of the Breakaway and Homechoice schemes. We will never forget the devotion of Carol and Jimmy Behan, Aoife’s foster family over the last twelve years, and also the Astons, the Hoppers and the Dawsons who took her when she was younger. I hope and believe that they all got as much back from Aoife as we did.
People today have different ideas about God and the mystery of the life to come. I think of Patrick Kavanagh who pictured his mother not ‘in the wet clay of a Monaghan graveyard’, but ‘free in the oriental streets of thought’. I’d like to end by inviting you to imagine Aoife’s Paradise, where Buddy Holly and Leonard Cohen are always singing, where she—and eventually me too—put on those perfect reconstructed bodies which allow us to do the things we couldn’t do in this life, like gliding down the ski slopes of heaven.