ONE MORNING earlier this month, my sister called to say our uncle in Ireland was unwell, and that the hospital which had become his home had advised Mum to come and see him while there was still time.
Mum and my sister were booking a flight to Dublin that afternoon, and Mum asked if I wanted to join them. I flew from Manchester and arrived around the same time.
When we got to the hospital that evening, it was clear that these would be our uncle Simon’s last days, though no-one could say how long it would be.
My Mum and cousin Anne kept vigil with him that first night – they didn’t sleep much, as uncle Simon was restless and agitated. He had been moved into a quiet side room earlier that day, and he was confused and scared at first, perhaps beginning to understand that this might be his last journey.
The next day, my sister Margaret and I took a turn to keep watch with him and give Mum and Anne a break, then I took a break to return for the second night so Mum, Margaret and Anne could rest.
I couldn’t help wonder if Simon would last the night, and I was aware of the privilege and responsibility of potentially being with him in those precious, intimate moments. I didn’t know him well, as he had only visited England once for a family funeral, but in recent years I had accompanied Mum to Ireland to visit him several times, and went to see him on my own for the first time last summer. It felt important to be there for him, Mum’s last sibling, and for her at this difficult time.
Simon was born in rural County Wicklow in 1934, one of eleven children – he had six brothers and four sisters. All of them moved away, around Ireland and England, but Simon stayed in the family home all his life, until he moved into a former hospital, now a care home, around five years ago.
As a teenager, Simon went to work on the farm of his neighbours, where he worked hard and with great loyalty for more than 50 years. He was so proud to receive a Long Service Award from the Royal Dublin Society for fifty years’ service in 1999 – there are few these days who can say they have a job for life, but Simon did, and he was so proud of it .
Though he had no family of his own, the neighbouring family adopted him as one of their own, and he adopted them too, growing up together with them. He always had time for children, especially the children of his former employee’s daughter – Simon was like a grandad to them.
He was great at keeping his brothers and sisters who’d moved away in touch with their family home, welcoming them and their families with generous hospitality when they returned. He would gladly share what he had with anyone. If you told him you liked something, he’d give it to you if he could.
To those who didn’t know him well, he could seem quiet and serious, but to those who spent time with him, he was a good listener, absorbing all their news for a good while before he’d take his turn to speak. His family and friends will remember him for his big heart, a great sense of humour and a cheeky smile.
He loved being involved in the church and community – he’d often go to Mass in one of the local Catholic churches on a Saturday evening and another on Sunday morning so he didn’t miss any news! He loved going to bingo, and church fairs, and was well known and loved by many around the parish.
Simon was a strong, independent man, used to having his own way, and he struggled at first to accept the kindness of strangers when he became too ill to drive and stay in the family home, but the nurses and staff at the care home surrounded him with tender loving care and made him feel at home. He took an interest in other residents and would always offer to help them and the staff when he was able. Without them, he would not have reached the age of 83 with such great quality of life.
As I sat alone with Uncle Simon for the last hours of his life, I read to him and said the rosary and other prayers at his bedside to let him know he had company and bring him comfort from hearing familiar words. The last words I read to him before he left us were:
‘The Lord Jesus says, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”‘
What better moment for him to go to God.