I felt real dread as 2013 dawned, and I was right
I dreaded 2013. I couldn't tell you why exactly. Maybe it was the traumas visited upon my mum over the previous two years; the vague sinister suspicion that bad things always happen in threes. Or some deep-rooted superstition about the '13' – a number I'd avoid on doors, telephone extensions, Lottery tickets.
Whatever, as soon as Christmas Day was over, I battened down the hatches for New Year's Eve and blocked out any sound of Big Ben and – perhaps more understandably – Jools's Hootenanny. As midnight passed, I dug deeper under my duvet, shuddered and offered up a silent prayer.
And I was right. It has been a horrible year. Hardly had January kicked off when mum started to feel unwell. Spool forward to a Saturday evening, late July. I'm staying at home when she stumbles into my room at 2am. She is in a pain so intense she can barely breathe.
I help her back to her bed. I try to comfort her. I wake my brother. I ring for an ambulance. In the maelstrom of panic, fear and adrenalin I think how amazing that the operator can hear me over the sound of my heart, clattering like a Lambeg drum.
I run out of the house, onto the road and stand there in the darkness, waiting to flag down the ambulance. I think that it's not going to come in time. I look at my watch and can't believe how long a s-i-n-g-l-e minute can be.
Our home is on high ground and I remember, years earlier, when our father was ill and we'd dialled 999, my nerve going and brother saying suddenly: "Listen". And there was the sound of a siren, some way off, but coming ever-closer. The most beautiful wail. The sound that says: "You are not alone."
But here on this summer's evening, there is no sound. And then, suddenly, rounding the corner at the bottom of the hill, bouquets of deep blue lights, shimmering like violets; so gorgeous in their luminosity. No siren had sounded because there was no traffic.
Of course, many have faced the sickly glow of the amber lighting in A&E in the small hours. Observed the bewildering contrast of frantically busy staff with those who can only stand, still and silent, waiting, watching, hoping.
There was a lengthy hospitalisation. And then, last week, surgery to remove a gallbladder. It's an operation that would be straightforward in most cases, but at mum's age – and, no, exhausted as I am, I'm not yet recklessly stupid enough to reveal that in a newspaper – it can be more problematic.
My brother and I took her to Craigavon hospital last Tuesday for 7.30am, then stayed with her for as long as could. For me, leaving her was like that moment in Armageddon, when Bruce Willis presses the button and all those happy moments in his life flash by.
Mum taking me, aged three, into the sea for a paddle, teaching me to make an apple tart ("your daddy's favourite"), waiting patiently to see me, the 72nd child onto the stage, to recite a poem at a speech and drama festival, tearing a strip off me for my maths O level result, cheering me on in tennis matches, packing me off to university, cutting out my first splash in this newspaper.
Hearing she was in recovery was wonderful. At the time of writing, she's still in hospital, but with a fair wind should be home by Christmas Day. Fingers crossed.
And, tough as it's been, it has also been hugely uplifting. The professionalism, kindness and care of her surgeon, doctors and nurses on Ward 4 North (who have now heard hundreds of times from mum that she can't eat the food). The cheerfulness of the auxiliary staff. Himself, helping me hold the line yet again. The lovely barrage of texts from friends, with their kind thoughts, rallying cries, prayers, beeping late at night.
Our clergy, in to see her the day after surgery. Our family butcher's understanding when I'd to cancel the turkey. My frantic present shopping spree, when everyone was so helpful. Small towns are great; people know you. Our lovely new friends, Jacqui, whom mum got to know during her previous hospitalisation, and her husband, Dominc.
Under pressure it most certainly is, but much of the NHS remains magnificent. In so much of it is the true spirit of this season, but all year round. And if mum gets home, it will have given us our best gift this Christmas.
True, the only chap sitting down to turkey tomorrow will be the cat, courtesy of the bespoke tins mum fills his little larder with.
But, still. There are others who will remain on the wards – patients and staff. I'll be thinking of you all. Happy Christmas. And thank you.