The view from death row

Posted May 29, 2017

The view from death row

I was told she had 48 hours to live. Three weeks on, my mum is still here. 

My world has shrunk to the confines of this small room. Days and nights are spent watching over her hospital bed. It is hot and stuffy in here and filled with antiseptic smells. But at least we have a view. The room is on the sixth floor with large windows that look out over the City. On a clear day I can see the soft, rounded hills of the Mourne Mountains in the distance. I picture myself walking there. My mum would hate it. The highest peak rises to 850 metres and she’s scared of heights. 

My mum is inoperable. Her decline will be quick, they said. She clearly had other ideas. ‘I’m a fighter’ she tells them in one of her more lucid moments, usually reserved for her Oscar winning performances during the doctors’ rounds when she sits bolt upright in bed and assures everyone she’s fine. She’s not fine. Far from it. ‘I’m strong’ she insists. Stronger than me or my siblings at this stage. We’re close to breaking point.

My mum is in the emergency surgical ward of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast. Her section consists of a row of side rooms, each housing an individual patient. I call it Death Row and for good reason. Since I’ve been here, five people have died. Each time, the empty room is scrubbed clean, a different name appears on the door and another patient is wheeled in. I wonder if the new occupant knows they’re on a conveyor belt to the great beyond. 

The relatives do. In the corridors and waiting rooms I encounter the crumpled faces of a distraught mother, father, daughter, son. All in shock - how could this be happening? I wish the pain could be shared, one woman tells me. I wish that too. If we could divide the pain up into tiny pieces and parcel it out amongst us, we could all manage a bit.

This will be the day, apparently. But then I’ve heard that so many times now. It’s been a rollercoaster. Preparing for the worst and finding it hasn’t come. Outside, the sky is full of grey, rain sodden clouds. Through the gloom, I can still make out the slogan on the gable end of a red-bricked house across the road

UDA RSD is painted in large white lettersUDA, I know, is short for Ulster Defence Association, a paramilitary group. RSD, I discover, stands for Roden Street Defenders. I think back to the days when my mum ran her pub. The country was split along sectarian lines but everyone who simply enjoyed a drink was welcome there - and the craic was good. 

As day rolls into night, twinkling lights transform the cityscape into something magical. I keep the blinds up so my mum might see it too. In the building opposite, it looks like another busy night for the specialist Maternity Ward. A midwife lifts a tiny bundle from one of the incubators. She cradles it in one arm and adjusts its tubes with the other. New life, fighting to survive. I turn to look at my mum, a mother of six, knowing she won’t survive. 

Two seagulls appear just before daybreak. I wonder if it is the same two seagulls who arrive every morning around about now. They dip, and soar, carried on the updraft. One drifts close to the window. It fixes an eye on me, like it knows, then flies off. 


Yesterday wasn’t the day. Today was. The slogan, the mountains and the maternity ward are still here but my mum isn’t. Now the crumpled face is mine. 

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