When I was a boy I used to stay over at my Granny's small farm every summer. One summer when I was there I paid a visit to my aunty Philomena -- we called her Meena -- who lived nearby with her husband, John. I think it was 1980, making me 7 at the time. It was a glorious day so Meena took me for a walk to Peter's Lough, which was just over the hill. The walk to the lake was delightful - it took us along a quiet back road, where the only stir was the busy hummmmm of the bees, hovering impatiently over the wild flowers in hedgegrows, or the ocassional chirp overhead. The air was sweet with the scent of summer, and as we went, I plucked at the long grasses that hung out into the road to greet us.
As we turned in towards the lake I noticed a huge rock in the middle of a small round field. There were no other rocks around it, just one giant, rounded boulder dominating the little field. "Where did that stone come from?" I wondered. "Fionn McCool threw it from the top of Breesy mountain, and it landed there" Meena explained. I looked towards Breesey and then at the stone. To dispel my doubts she continued "You see that big hole in the side of it - that's the track of his thumb". I was convinved.
Meena lay down by the lake to soak up some rays, while I waded into the shallows. The shore of the lake was sandy like the beach at Murvagh, and lovely and soft on the feet. I remember looking down at the sunlight playing on the water, and feeling the sand swirling over my feet. "Don't go out too far" Meena warned "there's leeches where it gets deep".
"Leeches?" I wondered.
"They're wee boys like worms and they'd go up into your foot".
"And then what?".
"They go up your leg".
"Jesus" I said, stepping back to safety.
Meena loved the sun, she knew it made her look prettier, and she would grow an inch when someone complemented her tan. She was in her late twenties at the time and a consumate socialite. People loved her company and she had an enormous, admiring circle of friends. She was good crack. She was dependable. She was always very kind to her parents and years later, when her own kids came along, she was a devoted mother.
So everyone was shocked when, still only 38, she was taken ill. I recall that my mother said it was the big C. Meena underwent treatment. I remember her visiting us after her mastectomy. My mother hoped that "with God's help that'll be the end of it". But Meena had her doubts "Now Mag, knowing my luck it'll come back". As a teen, I still couldn't grasp the enormity of her ordeal, but even then, I knew it was something terrible. Her phrase was heavy with dread and it burrowed deep into my young mind.
Within a year of her diagnosis Meena lay terminally ill in Sligo General Hospital. The cancer had spread to her lymph nodes and finally to her lungs. She bravely underwent repeated chemo, despite the terrible stress. And she endured great pain while the doctors used giant needles to remove fluid from her lungs. My parents remarked on how she courageously bore her fate, and always kept asking to see her little three year old daughter.
One evening, after the doctors had ruled out any hope, my parents were visiting her. She was in a bad way. While my parents were there the medical staff administered another injection - chemo I think. Her husband John, who had kept a constant vigil by her bedside, had nipped out for a cup of tea. Shortly after the injection, Meena raised her head and asked my father "give me a kiss". My father leant in, and kissed her on the cheek. Then she raised her arm and made a little feeble wave, and said faintly, "Bye bye now". Her head fell back on the pillow and her life drained away. It was as if the angel of death had tapped her on the shoulder and allowed her a few seconds to say goodbye.
Even now, the mystery of how she knew that death was upon her gnaws at the very root of my conception of the world. Seventeen years later, I still feel the intensity of my family's grief. How one day, when I met uncle Pat crying, I knew. And for days, words went out of use.
When I think of Meena I always remember the trip to the lake, and I recall the face of the big stone, and something makes me want to go back, to climb in over the hedge, to kneel at the stone and feel the imprint of Fionn McCool's thumb.