The Passing of Kate Higgins
16 Sep 2006
|Marie's mum Kate looked so peaceful. As if she had merely fallen into a dreamless sleep. Her normally slim face - sharpened and prematurely lined from the many years of pain-had softened into a more youthful countenance. Death had mercifully taken back the extra years that life had given her.
Outside the Chapel's windows, an overcast and cold sky signalled the beginning of autumn in Ireland. It was hard to believe that just three days before, we had still been in Australia. It was late Friday afternoon and I only had another three hours at work. When my mobile phone rang, I was thinking about my plans for the weekend. My brother Jason and cousin Paul were coming up on Sunday to go surfing.
Then I picked up the phone and Marie's distressed voice brought me back into the terrible moment.
The next thing I knew, we were boarding a flight to Singapore. It was a warm and sunny day in the first week of spring and Brisbane's International airport was beginning to feel like our second home. After all, it had only been two months since we had returned from our last trip to Ireland. That time we had gone back because Kate had fallen and broken her hip but she had recovered well by the time we flew home. So it came as a great shock when we heard that she had died suddenly. She was just 66 years old and even though her body was weak, she still had a strong spirit.
Inside the Chapel, the two large wooden doors opened into a small and dimly lit room. Kate was wearing her favourite dress. The one that she had proudly worn to her youngest son Seamus's wedding three summers' ago. It was pale blue in colour and reminded me of a soft and cloudless autumn day. A rosary of white beads decorated her frail hands. Placed carefully and lovingly there by Paddy; her devoted husband of 39 years. And the small white cross that hung quietly from the rosary over her joined hands was indicative of the life she had led. A simple life of a deeply religious woman who had always been thankful for what she had been given - not taken away by her God.
Her long-term illness and constant suffering had been gracefully accepted as part of her faith. She wasn't known to complain about the losing hand she had been dealt in this life. In fact, in her own quiet way, she made light of her disability whenever she could.
"We could do with a set of traffic lights." She would often joke as she leant on her walking frame and waited for me to pass her in the hallway.
She wasn't a loud person. In fact she went quietly about her day like a field mouse. Always trying hard not to disturb anyone or to be any bother. Her days were spent reading the local papers and listening to the radio while she pottered about her kitchen. She never missed the daily radio broadcast of recent deaths in the local area and the families they knew of, she made sure that Paddy attended their Removals.
Though she would have been greatly embarrassed by the thousand plus mourners that then attended hers. Her first cousins, the four musical McLoughlin sisters played the piano and sang softly in the background while hundreds of people, young and old came to pay their last respects. They came in families, couples or alone to whisper prayers beside her open coffin before offering their sympathies to the immediate family.
I sat behind them in the second row, next to Kate's daughter-in-laws, Olivia and Sharon. In front of me was Paddy, then Marie with her brothers Liam, Seamus and Patrick. Kate's two brothers Georgie and James, her two sisters Mary and Rose and their first cousin Joe sat further down the pew. Jet-lagged and spellbound by the constant stream of people, I was taken by surprise when a woman slipped into the space beside me and embraced me warmly. It turned out to be Aunty Phil, the wife of Paddy's younger brother Johnny. The last time and the first time we had met was the summer of 2005 when Marie and I were living in Dublin. On a weekend visit home to Longford, we attended Cemetery Sunday with Paddy. Every year, a mass is given in the graveyard and families of those buried come to remember and pray for them.
"I hope the next time we meet, we are still above the ground." She joked as we said goodbye.
A born entertainer, Aunty Phil always has an amusing tale or a story about the old ways. She must have read my mind as we watched the mourners stop at the open coffin and cross themselves. I was curious as to why some of them bent down to touch Kate's body before moving away.
"They touch the corpse after viewing it so they won't have nightmares." She whispered.
It was getting late and people were still coming in when the family priest Father Kelly took centre stage and began offering prayers and finally a short homily. After he had finished, those people who had arrived during the service were also given time to say goodbye in their own way. Kate's remains were then removed from the chapel at Edgeworthstown Manor to the town of Granard. To St Mary's church where she had been baptised, made her Holy Communion, celebrated her marriage and where now she would be blessed for her eternal life. Built on a hill beneath the medieval moat where St Patrick himself once said mass, the large and grey stone church was an imposing sight as we followed the hearse up the steep street from the town.
On both sides of the road, a long line of young and strong looking men waited silently in a guard of honour. They belonged to the two local Gaelic Football teams and as the hearse passed each one of them, they crossed themselves and bowed their heads in reverence. Paddy had been a great footballer in his day and founded the Ballymore club and is still the honorary president. As a sign of respect for his loss, the local football match was also cancelled on the Sunday after Kate had passed away.
St Mary's was soon crowded and latecomers had to stand in the foyer. A family of travellers unable to find a park abandoned their van in the middle of the street. Hundreds more people who had not attended the Chapel now filed past and offered their condolences to the family.
'Sorry for your troubles', was the most common expression.
It was 9.00pm by the time we arrived home with twenty or so of the immediate family following for the final wake. Kate and Paddy's humble kitchen was filled with people for the fourth night in a row since her passing. Numerous pots of tea and plates of sandwiches were consumed before bottles of beer and whiskey were opened. It was going to be another late night for the Higgins family. Fortunately the tradition of staying awake all night is no longer observed.
When Granny Higgins died in the old house back in 1972, there was a line of people going down the road. In the cold and rain, they waited patiently to enter the small two-roomed cottage where she was laid out. Back then, the wake would last all night, as it was tradition not to leave the body alone.
The next morning, the church bells tolled loudly and slowly to announce Kate's funeral mass. They reminded me of the Angelus that is broadcast every day before the 6pm news on Irish radio and television. The melancholy sound of those bells ringing always brings an uncomfortable silence to the room.
Inside the church, the St Mary's choir sang, "I have always loved you" and other songs of praise before a traditional Catholic funeral mass was given by Father Kelly and two other local priests. During Holy Communion, Oliver O'Reilly, Seamus's father-in-law, took up his tin whistle and played the rebel song 'Boolavogue'. Afterwards we turned to those surrounding us and offered each other the sign of peace; smiling as we shook hands. As a young boy, that was always my favourite part of Sunday mass because it meant that it was almost over.
When it was time to leave and accompany Kate on her final journey, Father Kelly led the way while Oliver's spirited tunes floated down from the gallery. Kate left the church on the sorrowful shoulders of her three sons, her brother Georgie, Johnny Higgins and myself. As the funeral procession slowly wound its way up the hill to the cemetery, the sun pushed through the clouds and began to warm her final resting place. She would have been pleased about that for she never enjoyed the cold and wet weather (on sunny days, she would always sit outside or tend her garden) and more then that, she would have worried about us all catching a chill.
She would have also appreciated the rainbow of wreaths that covered her grave with freshly picked flowers. Just like her own garden where every summer, a showy mosaic of colour would spread under Paddy's neatly trimmed hedges. She would have also been quietly proud to see her neighbours take up the spare shovels and help the gravediggers finish their work. Just like the old days when they would help each other to bring in the hay before the weather turned. Although I was glad that the tradition of filling the grave while the family watched was no longer observed.
We gathered at the Gowna village pub for lunch. I imagined Kate sitting quietly beside us as we listened to Paddy's siblings Rosie and Johnny Higgins reminiscing about the old days. She would have laughed out loud at Aunty Phil's story about Father Kelly. The one about how as a boy, he used to steal the freshly laid eggs that Granny Higgins used to leave out for the tinkers. And how I mistakenly referred to him as Father Ted.
"Oh God bless us." She would have said.
It was 6pm by the time the last drinks were drunk. The table was full of empty whiskey glasses and pints of Guinness. Kate would have been proud of her final send-off but she would now want her family to carry on with the business of living.
The next morning was misty and the green grass was covered in a sprinkling of silver frost. It was going to be a lovely day. Marie and I were up before the sunrise, drinking tea when she noticed the white cross in the sky. It spread out high above the fields. I knew it had been caused by early morning jet planes flying through the freezing air but romantically, we both hoped it was a sign from Kate that she had landed safely in heaven.