Martina Devlin: The wonderful day my mum smiled again
For two years my mother barely set foot outside the house. She's wheelchair bound, after a massive stroke, and can tolerate sitting for no more than a few hours a day - the rest of her time is spent in bed.
We grew accustomed to life that way. It stopped occurring to the family that she might like to get out and about. In the aftermath of the stroke, being outdoors troubled her - it disconcerted her with its vastness, its openness, and so we assumed she was contented within the four walls of her room in the family home.
Her environment never changed, day in and day out. She could see the garden from her window, and she'd watch the birds at our feeder or smile when the little boy next door bounced so high on his trampoline that his head bobbed above the hedge.
But there was little in the way of variety or stimulation for her. And we believed - because she never complained - that she preferred it this way. Then one day an ambulance arrived to take her to hospital for treatment. I was worried it would scare her, this break in routine, and prepared her carefully for the trip: wrapping her like a basket of eggs, promising I'd be with her every step of the way.
But as the ambulance crew slid the stretcher under her, I noticed she was reacting as though this was a jolly excursion. Good grief, was she batting her eyelashes at them? And as they carried her down the driveway, she craned her neck left and right, cheeks rosy as she looked about. Looked at trees with waving branches, at a crocodile of schoolchildren, at a cyclist spinning past. At things she had only seen from behind glass for the past two years. She inhaled, smelling fresh mown grass. She cocked her head, hearing birdsong. The breeze ruffled her hair.
Nobody could have reaped more pleasure from a hospital appointment.
I reported this back to my brothers and sister, and we began to wonder if our mother was ready for a trip out. But she can't walk or stand, let alone bend her body into one of our cars, and wheelchair taxis in the small town where we live are scarce. How could we manage it?
When she spoke about going to the graveyard to visit my father (it was rare for her to mention him, she seemed not to remember she'd been married for 40-odd years) we knew it was time to organise something.
Serendipity intervened. A cousin who works for a local authority told us about a new transport scheme for the elderly and disabled. The idea is to mobilise the housebound - people who have difficulties using public transport.
So we filled out a form on her behalf and one day it arrived. Her Door-2-Door membership card. The first trip was free, as a goodwill gesture and to encourage participation. We rang and booked, giving 24 hours notice as instructed.
A customised van arrived punctually, complete with a driver who helped me position the ramps to allow the wheelchair out of the house, chatting easily with my mother. I was still inclined to fuss, convinced she'd be nervous of a stranger or anxious about being gone from the room where she spent all her time.
Dang the bit of her. She loved every minute of the outing. We whipped through the graveyard tour and rewarded ourselves with coffee and scones in the local hotel; she'd be there still if our driver, John, hadn't arrived to bring us home.
Mum was tired afterwards, but dying to tell everyone about her adventure. That night she slept like a baby and next morning, bright-eyed as I fed her breakfast, she asked: "Where am I going today?"
This transport scheme has brought colour into a life that was monochrome. My mother no longer sighs, as she sometimes did late at night when the limitations of her existence hit home: "I wish ... I wish I had my legs back."
Now she has twice-weekly trips to lunch or morning coffee, or to inspect new homes which family members have moved into, or to watch the wedding parties milling around our local hotel, the Silver Birch. She revels in the throb of activity.
We're currently checking out pantomimes, so she can sit in the front row and roar "look behind you!" and she hopes to see the town's Christmas lights and the crib in the church - Christmas rituals she could not access last year, or the previous one, in the wake of her stroke.
I look at her now, head high as a queen's in the Silver Birch, an Irish Coffee at her elbow, watching the world go by. And for the first time in more than two years since that devastating stroke, I see my mother shine through again.
Door-2-Door was rolled out by the Department of Regional Development just over a year ago, and spread gradually to 27 towns around the province, including our home town of Omagh. It's subsidised and users pay a flat fee of £1.50 a journey - so her return trip to costs less than €5.
Like all the best ideas, Door-2-Door is simple; deceptively so, however, because it has the potential to broaden the parameters of people's lives. My mum's smile on Door-2-Door day is the proof.