After a career in teaching spanning thirty years, Maria O’Rourke is now a full-time writer, currently completing a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Limerick. She draws on her own challenges in personal, work, and family life to bring out what is universal in each individual experience. Writing both prose and poetry, her favourite genre is creative non-fiction. She has recently been awarded the Wild Atlantic Writing Award for this genre. She is married to David, with three grown-up children, sharing her home in Carlow with a dog and three hens.
‘I want to apply for an extension and I need your help.’
Maureen Purcell’s blue eyes stared steadily through round-framed glasses which had steamed up three times since she entered the surgery. She wiped them with the edge of her woollen scarf and placed them back carefully on her nose. The doctor’s delay in replying gave her a tightness in her chest, but eventually, he spoke:
‘Do you know the terms and conditions, Maureen. They’re very stringent. Do you have the form?’
‘No I don’t. I’ve sent away for it, but I trust I can count on your support.’
Her voice inflected upwards on the word ‘support’ prompting a nod from the younger man.
‘Yes, of course. Of course.’
Without eye contact, though.
‘I’ll be off then. I’ll come back when I have the form filled in.’
And she rose as steadily as possible from the seat, walking smartly to the door.
‘Good day, Paul. Tell your mother I said hello.’
The form arrived the following morning. A brown oblong envelope with a glassy window bearing the name Mrs. Maureen Purcell, and the number 120741. Her date of birth without the conventional ornamentation. How kind of the state to remind her, she thought, as she carefully sliced it open with the wooden letter-opener she had used her entire life. The same one that had opened the official birth certificates of her three children, and the death cert of her late husband. Birthday cards, bills, and bank statements. And now this. And how many more?
Maureen originally trained as a secretary, doing a commercial course, which led to a job in a solicitor’s office. Typing sixty-five words a minute and dealing with clients in a pleasant, professional manner made her an invaluable member of staff at Brady Brothers, gradually training and mentoring junior staff as the years went on. They called her ‘The Oracle’ and she couldn’t count the number of thank you cards she got from the girls she worked with over the years who moved on to brighter lights.
Her second career began at sixty-five when she became secretary of the Vincent de Paul Society. Mondays were spent sorting clothes in the charity shop, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays she helped pack food parcels and on Thursdays and Fridays, she held discreet meetings with people requesting help, sometimes in their homes or in a corner of the hotel foyer. Tonight was the AGM. Were the others speculating that she might step down? They probably were if they knew her age. She’d let them wonder. Let Mary Morrissey’s tongue wag for another while. She’d see.
The form was offensively short. The usual details and then one large box to be filled in – Reason for extension request (see panel 4). Just one side of an A4 page for such a big decision. Turning it over, she saw that the back, Panel 4, outlined the acceptable reasons, finishing with the warning No other circumstances will be considered. Black and white. No negotiations. Documentation should be attached and then returned to the Department. No name.
Maureen put the kettle on and rummaged in her bag for a biro. She’d fill it out today. Large black letters on the top of the form warned that there was a six-week turn-around, and with her birthday in three months that didn’t leave much time to spare. Her eightieth birthday. If she hadn’t lived in the same town all her life, people might’t know. She could have drifted past the milestone inconspicuously. Her health was good, her hair a discreet shade of brown, thanks to fortnightly visits to Sally’s Salon and she always had a smart coat and shoes. You could tell when someone had given up by their shoes. But the government couldn’t see her black patent lace-ups and she supposed they’d find her no matter where she lived.
Putting two spoons of sugar in her tea, Maureen took a Rich Tea biscuit from the cupboard and settled herself at the kitchen table. She’d read the conditions carefully. Number one seemed the most likely to succeed. In fact, it was the only hope, but the more she read it, the less it seemed to apply to her. A sickly feeling at the back of her throat made her gasp, before she gathered herself again. She had never given up on anything in her life, and this would be no different. There was a good case to be made. She’d draw up a list – a letter from the doctor, a bank statement, her record of service to the Vincent de Paul, The Time-Share apartment she never wanted Tom to invest in. It would work. It had to.
‘All of the conditions are predicated on the applicant being of sound mind. This must be verified by a General Practitioner who is known to the applicant for a period not less than two years.’
Despite his hesitation, she knew Paul would endorse that for her – there was loyalty between the two families since she had discreetly helped his mother out when his father ran up a huge gambling debt that threatened to bankrupt them. Number One stated there must be evidence that the applicant was making a valuable contribution to the national exchequer by means of assets or services. In brackets, it explained ‘This cannot be based on past means or actions, but on present-day or future defined contribution.’
The box was a square of about ten centimetres, with a thick black border around it. It reminded Maureen of Tom’s mortuary card with his smiling picture over the words ‘Life has changed, not ended.’ But his life with her had ended, leaving her to rebuild a world without him – forcing herself to get up, breathe in and out and in and out until the pain became bearable. And she had filled her days with people and things that made her feel useful until, one day she realised she was actually enjoying herself. She wasn’t ready to let that go.
Practicing on a blank piece of paper she tried to summarise the people she helped every day – the couple who asked that she leave the food parcel behind a bush at the end of their street so the neighbours wouldn’t know, the Syrian woman who looked so relieved that she could get her children’s uniforms for less than ten euros, she did a dance in the shop. There was the woman who wanted to pay off her son’s drug debt so he could go to England and start a new life. And the family who brought her into the house to show her that they had burned all the wooden furniture and some of the doors to keep warm.
How do you write all that and so much more in a box? Would the civil servant reading this value her work at all or should she use terms like ‘cost-saving’ and ‘value for money’ in terms of the economy. Who would support these people if she and others like her didn’t? How much would it cost the state? Is that all they’d care about or even understand?
Scribbling over everything she had written, Maureen decided to take a tranquilliser. One of the green ones Paul had given her when Tom died. She hadn’t taken one in months, but suddenly she felt edgy and uneasy and her mouth was dry. What if all of this amounted to nothing – tossed into a waste-paper basket in an office where split decisions affecting other people’s lives were made routinely.
Putting her wrinkled hands flat on the table, she steadied herself. Her wedding ring was loose now, but she still wore it. It would go down with her, she decided. She hadn’t taken it off in years. The small bumps around her knuckles were painful from time to time, but these hands had so much more to offer. Holding them up to her face, she took a deep breath. Another sip of water and she’d look at the other conditions again. Maybe one of them would be more suitable if she studied them carefully.
Number two was definitely out. ‘Advanced medical knowledge beneficial to the community.’ And the third one looked hopeful, until she studied the small print. ‘Completely self-sufficient with means to support applicant for a period of not less than one year. (This must not include state support or assets.) Ignoring her dry throat, she read on to number four. ‘Making an active contribution to the creative arts at a national level.’ Ok. The only hope was number one, so picking up her silver pen, she began to write.
Three weeks later there was a knock at the door. She knew by the blurred shape through the frosted glass that it was Richard, the postman. He had a large package in his arms.
‘Sorry for ringing the bell, Maureen. I hope I didn’t disturb you, but this package wouldn’t fit through your letter-box.’ He smiled, and Maureen laughed.
‘You should have put it through the cat-flap, then.’
‘I have a few letters for you, too. You’re a great woman for the letter-writing.’
Maureen took the post out his hands and, putting the package on the hall-table, she flicked through the letters. She knew from the handwriting one was from her sister, another looked like it was from the chiropodist and a bank-statement. The last was a brown envelope with a harp. For a moment she thought it was a pension statement, but then it occurred to her that maybe this was it. Already. The reply she had been waiting for.
She knew what was in the parcel – there was no need to open it yet. Light and in the shape of a shoebox, it was the slippers she had ordered with orthopaedic insoles. Everything else could wait. The one with the harp was like lead in her trembling hands.
Clasping the wooden letter-opener she carefully slit it open with razor-like precision. Inside was a single sheet of A4 paper folded in half. She could see another harp on the top and the first two lines of writing. She’d have to take it out to read the rest.
‘Dear M. O’Connor,
Thank you for your application for an extension under the End of Life Bill, subsection D2. We appreciate you taking the time to apply and thank you for your contribution to life in Ireland. Your application, however, has been unsuccessful, since you do not meet the criteria.’
Maureen sat on the bottom step of the stairs to read the last few lines, suddenly feeling clammy and weak, she put one hand on the wall to steady herself and took a deep breath before reading on.
‘Accordingly, on reaching your eightieth birthday you will receive your euthanasia appointment. This will come directly from the relevant facility in your area. There is no appeal process.
Administrator, End of Life Team’