In Memory of my Mother

Darren O'Gorman UCD School of Medicine and Medical Science, University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland


My mother Ann died on the 29th of August 2005 in the Intensive Care Unit of St. Vincent’s University Hospital. She was 38 years old and left behind a husband and four children. Her illness was short, she had no idea that she was dying; these are both comforts.

At the time, the situation made me feel helpless, but in the days, months, and eventually years that have since passed, this helplessness has slowly chipped away. It has steadily eroded as my life has transformed and advanced in a way that it maybe always would have. As this time passes, I have felt an increasing urge to mark the significance that my Mother had and continues of have on my life. 

Mam died on the Monday before the end of summer holidays and Dad wisely suggested that returning to school as normal was in our best interests. Returning to school would enforce some level of normality to our lives that were upset by such a significant loss. 

I don’t remember the transition back to school feeling particularly laborious. That is, until we came to Patrick Kavanagh’s poem “In Memory of my Mother” in class. I could sense a palpable discomfort within the room as we turned to the page and read the title. The teacher called on a classmate to read the words aloud. As he did, I felt hot, salty tears begin rolling down my cheeks. I got up and left the room to compose myself. The class as a whole felt more comfortable to fail to acknowledge what was happening.

In the poem Kavanagh paints a picture of the warm affection he had for his mother. Although I share this sentiment, this is the only comparison I can draw between my Mother and his. My Mam was not the type for “second Mass on a summer Sunday.” However, the poem and my encounter with it still stick out in my memory. It marks a time when I had to publicly acknowledge the grief of having lost Mam.

While this was an upsetting occurrence, I’m not particularly resentful of the teacher for choosing to cover the material as normal. The experience prepared me for the many other instances like this in my personal and academic life, particularly since starting graduate medicine this past year.

Acknowledging the loss of my Mother is something I forced myself to consider when pursuing a medical career. It would be disingenuous of me to suggest that her loss didn’t affect my choice to study medicine. However, I also greatly enjoy science and how it forms the tools of medical understanding. Still, I fully expected that there would be – and will be – many more experiences like the reading of Kavanagh’s poem. When I started at UCD, I went to bereavement counselling for the first time, to try and mitigate some of the exposure to my loss that I believed lay ahead. It surprises me that after ten years, acknowledging the loss of Mam still inspires similar feelings to hearing Patrick Kavanagh’s poem read aloud in class that day.

I was perhaps unprepared for just how often this acknowledgement would occur. During first year, it seemed that every time cancer was mentioned, the particular and quite rare cancer that Mam died from got a mention. I quickly learned that this makes logical sense from a medical perspective. The cancer she had is predictably caused by a particular agent, a prime learning example for budding doctors. It was also oddly comforting to learn that this type of cancer is reliably fatal. This helped me appreciate that regardless of when her cancer was detected, there was actually nothing at all that could have been done to prevent her death. 

With the prospect of hospital work ahead, I have also given thought to the potential for me to end up practising on the ward where she died. I hope that, similar to hearing that poem in my Junior Cert year, the experience will in some way be constructive. 

These reminders I have had in the pursuit of my medical education along with the significant milestone of ten years since Mam died have moved me to write this tribute. The tribute that I can offer my Mother is not a romantic description of her daily goings-on as Kavanagh did for his. Instead, my tribute is to appreciate that the presence of my Mother in my life has shaped it so much more than her loss ever will. The friendship that I had the privilege of sharing with her has given me all that I will achieve. The qualities that she valued and encouraged in all of her children are what have given me the ability to cope with her loss. The actions of the husband she left behind, my Dad, gave example to us on getting through. The resilience we as a family have shown together means that I almost take these actions for granted. Her qualities in all of us that inspired this resilience would have been nothing without Dad’s example. 

Many years have passed, as will many more. As a doctor, I will likely witness many losses just like mine. There will be more times I’ll be reminded that I’ve lost her. But this is all part of her tribute that I live every day.