Farewell to my beloved sister

Posted by on Aug 30, 2017 in Brian's Blog | 0 comments

My beloved sister Mary was destined to bring the gift of music into our Dublin household when she came into the world in August 1950.

As I tell the story in my book of memoirs, Leaving Dublin: Writing My Way from Ireland to Canada, my mother was pregnant with her third child. I had arrived first, my brother Michael came next, and now – five years later – my mother was hoping for a little girl.

My father struck a deal with my mother. If the baby was a girl, he would buy us a piano. If another boy, he would get us our first car. My mother didn’t particularly want the car – she said public transit could get us anywhere in Dublin – but she really wanted that piano. I think she envisaged a daughter serenading us with Mozart and Bach while her rambunctious sons were debating who the greatest goalkeeper was to ever play for Manchester United.

The piano, a shiny new Danemann upright, arrived on cue within a week after Mary was born. As it turned out, she never actually learned to play – my brother and I became the musicians in the family – but the sound of the instrument in our home instilled in her a love of music that she kept for her entire life. She may not have been a player but she was a devoted listener. She numbered among her favourites Celtic Thunder, Van Morrison, Tom Petty, Narciso Yepes, Prince, Carlos Santana, George Harrison, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and the soundtrack from Grease.

Mary didn’t need to do music, she had other talents. I could never do math, she excelled at it. A strong, independent-minded feminist, she became her family’s breadwinner after they immigrated to Canada in 1973, when her first husband started studying for his PhD. From minimum-wage work waiting on tables at a St. Catharines restaurant, she moved to the Bank of Montreal to take a job as a teller, and gradually rose through the ranks because of her skill with figures.

She divorced after her eldest son, David, died in a freak accident at home. She bought a house in the Upper Beaches area of Toronto and raised her second son, Frank, while continuing to work at the bank. By the end of her career, cut short by long-term disability leave, she had risen to the position of resource manager and computer systems specialist for the BMO Financial Group.

She was never in the best of health. At age seven she was stricken with chronic asthma, and over the years her breathing difficulties gradually increased. Other medical issues followed, including diabetes, kidney problems and congestive heart failure, but she never saw these as insurmountable obstacles. When her lung capacity diminished to the point where she couldn’t walk more than a few steps without stopping for a rest, she bought herself a motorized wheelchair and achieved a new degree of independence.

“The doctors are amazed I’m still alive,” she said after one of her many trips to the emergency ward. They would look at her charts, marvel at the amount of medication she was taking for her various conditions, and just shake their heads. “I think they’ll be writing whole medical books about me after I’m gone.”

Her multiple medical issues would have put someone else in a state of depression but Mary was always upbeat, always smiling, always ready with a quip. “I expect to go straight to heaven after this,” she said. “I’ve done my purgatory here on earth.”

She never expected to see her fiftieth birthday. Every day after that was a bonus. She appreciated every sunrise, every sunset, every day when she could spend time in her garden, every day when she could share good food and conversation with her former bank colleague and second husband, Azher. They had married in 1995, shortly before her 45th birthday. The song played for their wedding dance was Chris de Burgh’s Lady in Red.

Azher became her main caregiver in recent years, when a succession of health setbacks sent her back and forth to the hospital for surgeries and other treatments. “He’s my rock,” she said. “I’d have to be in a nursing home if he wasn’t at home to look after me.” Home for them at that point was in Colborne, Ontario, 140 km east of Toronto.

She kept family and friends up to date on her medical adventures – as she called them – by posting regularly on Facebook, often including pictures of herself hooked up to hospital machines, adding captions that revealed her characteristic good humour. She praised the Ontario medical system as the best in the world, and looked forward to her stays at a respiratory rehabilitation centre where the therapy brought her temporary relief.

The last year was especially hard for her. An untreatable shoulder injury, suffered in a fall, prevented Mary from posting to Facebook, and also stopped her from playing a favourite online word game with family and friends. Being active on social media had provided an important lifeline for her, and now she was denied that contact, that simple pleasure. This diminished her quality of life and darkened her mood.

A week ago, she was admitted to hospital suffering from respiratory problems. This time, the doctors said the best they could do was keep her comfortable because she wasn’t responding to treatments that had worked for her in the past.

She died early this morning, on her 67th birthday. The birthday greetings on her Facebook page have given way to outpourings of sadness. Tonight, I will play Chopin’s E-flat Nocturne for her on the piano. It was another of her favourites.

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Copyright 2017 Brian Brennan - Author

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