Let me tell you about my 95-year-old grandmother. You probably don’t know her, and frankly, that’s a shame.
She is the same age as the Queen, and for as long as I can remember, I’ve always made a loose sort of connection between the two.
Like Queen Elizabeth II, Eilish Sweeney has been the gravitational centre of our family for decades; a benevolent yet indomitable matriarch. The gently smiling figure at the centre of all group photographs. Somewhat shamefully, it’s only now in her 95th year, as the tides of time are beginning to catch up to her, that I’m beginning to appreciate the person she was.
For years, my granny was simply a woman who’d cluck animatedly whenever we arrived in the house, lavishing us with freshly baked buns and, as is customary in Donegal, Football Special [a soft drink].
We loved her dearly, but as kids, we were probably more excited about the cousins our age, the new babies, the amusement arcade down the road, or the fiver that a relative would press into our hands as we were leaving. Granny was just… there. And given her might and sheer forceful personality, I assumed that she would probably always be there.
Eilish Sweeney is a woman that, despite having never touched a drop of alcohol in her life, has danced her way into every party she’s ever been to. As a young mother, her idea of paradise was to go to the cinema on Sunday nights with a bag of toffees. She never asked for much from this life materially, and for that, she has lived as well as a billionaire.
“I thought we were millionaires, or at least the richest family on the terrace,” my dad recalls of his Donegal childhood. They had relatively little in the overall scheme of things, but because they had Eilish, they really believed they had everything.
Even into her eighties, she was so joyfully involved in everything around her: choir, ICA, amateur dramatics.
She worked part-time in a book shop, and found time to deliver Meals on Wheels to her ‘old dears’ (some, younger than her). If anyone knew how to suck the last delicious drop out of life and how to be happy, engaged and alive in the world, it is this woman.
Eilish Sweeney is unapologetically herself, always sunny, mischievously funny, a natural-born optimist.
I recall her creating a particularly salty routine out of a news story involving Liz Hurley and a pair of jewelled underwear some years ago, delighting as my cousin and I fell about the place, slack-jawed with shock and laughter.
Her prosperous mindset has trickled down into the rest of the family. No one does glass-half-full contentment like the Sweeneys. Even during his biggest personal disasters, my own father will say, “there are a dozen men in Glasnevin cemetery who would probably give anything to have the problems I have”. It’s a spectacularly impressive way to look at life, and though it’s slightly at odds with my own gloomy reflexes, it’s still a gift to bear witness to.
And yet, my grandmother has experienced great loss, too. Her husband died when she was in her early sixties. Several decades before that, she lost her toddler daughter, Colette, to a sudden illness.
Now that I have my own child, I’m convinced that if I were to experience the tragedy that she has, I would never, could never, get over it. More than ever, I wonder how she managed to find it within herself after reaching one of the worst outposts of human suffering, to not just get out of bed at all, but to eventually jump out in anticipation of what goodness the day could bring.
At 95, she no longer dances gregariously into every party she enters. She is a little less sure on her feet. Dementia has taken some of the light from her eyes. And yet, this isn’t a story with a sad ending. My grandmother is surrounded by family who provide round-the-clock care, and are more than happy to do it. In fact, they consider it a real privilege to do so. There is never a sense that anyone is burdened, or even that dementia is a horrible, dark monster slowly robbing our family of the very best one of us. There is still so much contentment and quiet joy in my grandmother’s house. “Aren’t we lucky to have her for as long as we have?” one of my aunts said to me recently.
I have friends with slightly more ambivalent, perhaps more complex relationships with their elderly parents, and theirs is a different journey. Siblings pass the job of caring for their elderly parent around like a hot potato. They are heavy with the weight of duty. They haven’t been blessed with my family’s innate cheer.
Last week, a cousin sent me a video, taken recently with a smartphone, of our grandmother singing an old ballad. “And if you can’t be good…” my aunt said, ready to sign off. “Be bad,” my grandmother finished, with perfect comic timing and a mischievous laugh. Some things, the tides of time just cannot take.