I recall my granny’s words the day she was taken into the hospital: “Go up there on that stool and rummage around in the top shelf of the wardrobe.”
She lay on her bed helpless, arthritic, pinched with pain, yet spirited and hopeful. How she coped, I’ll never know. Her body, her back, even under her breasts, oozed with open sores.
Still, I never heard her complain.
With vulnerable, kind eyes, she would reach out to me: “Anna, a girleen, would you ever shake some talcum powder on my sores?”
I was no doctor but I wasn’t sure if the talcum powder was having any effect on the open wounds.
They never healed.
At nine years of age I learned what cortisone was, and I felt the relief she got when I gave her the tablets.
“Sure Granny,” came the words of a contented nine year old.
Granny Murphy was a rare breed. No stranger to hard work, I had heard stories of how she had worked in the fields and raised nine children at the same time. Housework didn’t count, it was just expected of a farmer’s wife.
“How did you get the arthritis, Granny?”
“Oh Anna, I’m not sure, but I’d say ’twas the dampness, working in the wet and cold.”
The story that stung me the most, though, was the one I heard about her tilling the beet on her knees during the day and giving birth at home that night.
No prenatal classes needed.
I never did feel a distance between myself and my grandmother. There were no orders, no reprimands, just contentment. It was like we were one.
It’s perhaps why, years later, when in pain on the final day of the Camino, when my left knee would no longer bend, she was the one I called on.
“You go on without me,” I said to my walking friend. “I’ve been to the great Cathedral of St James in Santiago de Compostela before. I’ll catch up,” though not exactly knowing how.
The woods en-route from Sarria were about 15 kilometres from the finish and I was nowhere near a road.
The grey morning mist that lingered over the treeline was receding, and the day was already showing signs of brightening up. The green rolling landscapes of Galicia on the last stage of the Camino Frances had enchanted me. After what seemed like an hour of my routine stretching and bending and trying to walk by pulling my leg after me, I was making no headway.
There was nothing for me to do but sit down and surrender. Resting on the ditch, I watched the pilgrims walk by in their droves. I could see the concentration on their faces as they headed for their final destination. After days, and weeks of walking for some, their prize was in sight.
I recalled the first time I reached the Galician capital of Santiago, standing in the great square stretching in front of the cathedral, seeing people cry tears of relief, tears of joy. Each had a personal reason for their Camino. For many, finally reaching the Cathedral of St James was cathartic, the fulfilment of a life’s journey.
Sitting there I felt surprisingly contented but no one stopped to ask if I needed help. Was this contrary to the pilgrim’s ethos I wondered. It was as if they didn’t see me.
Being out in the open air was a help. I surrendered to my fate and took comfort from the passing pilgrims. It was still only 9.30am and a long day lay ahead. Something would happen.
It was in the midst of this reverie that my eyes were drawn to the translucent, thin-skinned, pink scar on the inside of my right thigh, visible now below the edge of my hiking shorts.
The memory of the day it happened came flooding back.
There and then, I heard myself imploring for help: “Granny, you must be an angel by now, please, please help me, help me get my leg working, help me walk again. Help me reach Compostela.”
I could hardly believe it was me talking.
I felt possessed. Over and over I called on her, knowing it was the right thing to do. I couldn’t say for how long. The emotion was intense.
Before I knew it I was walking again, really walking this time, not dragging one leg after me.
I caught up with my friend and arrived at the cathedral on time. I didn’t explain the inexplicable. My Camino. My miracle.
I always did what my grandmother told me. I moved the stool closer to the old mahogany wardrobe and reached in as far as I could. I stretched my hand into the shelf and felt something sharp.
“No, no, that’s not it,” Granny said, impatient now, as if she was half wishing she could do it herself. I thought she was going to rise from the bed. “Put your hand in further and rummage around for a paper bag,” she said.
I was on my tiptoes now and there wasn’t much more of a stretch left in me.
“I’m sure that’s where I saw your grandfather put it,” she instructed from the bed.
More curious now, I stretched out my fingers web-like and balanced myself against the smooth mahogany with my left hand.
“I feel a lump in a paper bag, a round thick lump, Granny,” I declared.
“That’s it, that’s it, bring it here to me.”
Nervously, I stepped down off the stool, all the while excited to see what was in the bag.
The brown paper bag smelt musty and old. Crumpled and torn at the edge, I thought I noticed what looked like notes; pound notes!
“What’s that Granny?” I asked aghast, breathless now, feeling that I was part of something bad.
“It’s your grandfather’s pile and you’ve found it.”
Taking it out of the bag I could see it was money. Pound notes rolled up tightly.
“Come here now until I see what I’ll give you,” she beckoned to me, “he’ll never miss it.”
“But that’s stealing Granny,” I said.
“Don’t worry your head, Anna, a girleen, it’s not stealing. He’s been hiding his pension away all these years while I’ve been giving mine away to everyone in the family. Now is that fair?”
“ ’Suppose not,” I said, my head bowed, struggling between feelings of guilt and the promise, and thoughts of what I’d say to the priest in confession on Friday.
“I’ve only been able to give you a few shillings for Irish dancing every week. Now did I hear you saying you’d love a new bike?”
“Oh, yes, Granny,” forgetting all about confession and seeing myself with my very own bike.
“Now put that bag back carefully in the shelf and we’ll just take out one of these crumpled 50 pound notes. I’ll give it to your mother and father to buy a bike for you. You won’t be taking it at all.”
Granny Murphy reassured me, reading the concern on my face.
Her last words made it right. I was floating on air at the thought of my very own bike. We only had one bike between the lot of us.
That was to be the last time I saw my grandmother alive.
Later that day she had another fainting fit. This was no surprise to me. It was a common sight to see my parents carry my granny outside to revive her.
This time, though, she was taken away in the ambulance and my parents went with her to the hospital.
The sickly-looking scar on my leg triggered the memories of children playing that afternoon.
I was running through the hay shed, hot on the heels of my sister when I jumped on a plank with a rusty, protruding nail. Up it popped, instantly tearing a swipe from the inside of my right thigh. A sudden hit of pain, a rush of heat through my leg; I bent down to wipe the blood.
Commotion followed as word filtered through about my granny’s death.
It seemed impossible. I didn’t believe my granny had died; she was just missing from the room.
She was too real in my head to be dead. Wasn’t it only a few hours ago that she was planning to buy me a new bike? Why would she just go like that?
All changed in the following days. Relatives came home from abroad. Neighbours came in their turns. The house swam with people. They were in the kitchen, the back kitchen, the room where my granny was laid out. Drinking, eating, sitting around talking and what sounded like humming to themselves. I had never seen anything like this before in my life. Still it was good to have my granny back.
“Sorry for your troubles,” grown people said to me, one by one.
They hadn’t a clue. Granny was no trouble at all. “You didn’t know her,” I felt like telling them.
A man with a stick shooed me off a chair. “Get up out o’that young wan and let an auld man sit down,” he said. I found out afterwards he was Granny’s brother, my granduncle Pat.
I limped aside. By the time I had shown my wounded leg to my mother, I was too late for stitches.
The rusty nail had infected the wound. I was lucky I didn’t lose my leg, the doctor had said. I stayed home from school for weeks afterwards to allow my leg to heal.
The scabby scar was the least of my worries.
I never did get the new bike. I felt cheated.
I asked my mother several times what happened to the 50 pounds. She either pretended she didn’t hear me or muttered something under her breath like “sure that all went on the funeral”. Granny Murphy never dismissed my concerns.
For years after I wondered about the life I would have had, had she lived longer. The stories we could have shared. No one would ever match her.
The translucent, thin-skinned scar on my leg a permanent reminder of my very own guardian angel.