My aunt died recently, at the ripe old age of 92. For most of her life she had been a lively, bubbly, gregarious lady.
Aunt Maud spent her whole life in Belfast, the town of my birth. Her husband (my uncle), their family and my family spent lots of time together. We had many days out together, would stay each other's holiday cottages/caravans, and dined together frequently. Her children were a similar age to my sister and me, and we were close childhood friends.
She became widowed when I was an older teenager but still the families met regularly. Things changed when her daughter got married and moved about 35 miles away. Then her son got married and moved to England to live. I got married and my sister followed suit soon afterwards. My mother died. Family events ceased then.
My father still visited Aunt Maud regularly. They went on picnics on nice days, went to the theatre, went for a meal and occasionally visited me.
A few years later, I moved to England and my father joined me soon afterwards. Aunt Maud still kept in touch. She and my father phoned each other regularly.
Then my father died. Oddly, Aunt Maud didn't come to his funeral. I was surprised, bearing in mind how much time my father and she had spent together. I assumed that the cost of travel from Belfast to England's West Country was too much. After all, she was a pensioner living on a modest income.
Years passed. By this time, I had met Marie, set up home with her and our first child, Joseph, was born. I decided to take them to Ireland to see the places and people important to me. We visited my Aunt Maud - one of my important people. She was still living in the same little house she had always lived in and she was fit, healthy and still smiling. It was a lovely day and we went to a nearby seaside resort and had a delightful lunch at a restaurant which Aunt Maud recommended. Afterwards we drove along the scenic coast road. I stopped at a beautiful, empty beach. I took Joseph down to on the beach to play, knowing that Marie, due to her agoraphobia, would have to stay in the car. Aunt Maud volunteered to stay with her.
Later that evening, after Aunt Maud had been returned to her home, Marie told me of her conversation with my aunt in the car while Joseph and I were on the beach. Learning that Marie was agoraphobic, Aunt Maud revealed that she, too, had agoraphobia. She had been agoraphobic all her life.
This was a surprise to me, but when I considered this news, everything began to slip into place. Now I knew why Aunt Maud hadn't come to my father's funeral. On family outings, the adults would always sit near the cars. Aunt Maud never visited us on her own. When we went out for a meal, it was always Aunt Maud who picked the restaurant. I never knew her to take a bus trip anywhere - my father used to drive her around in his car. Her children and grandchildren who resided in Ireland quite often visited her, but she rarely visited them - requiring them to first come and pick her up in their car. She never visited her son's home in England and seldom saw her English grandchildren. For most of her later years, she spent the majority of her time sitting in her house, connected to the outside world only by her telephone. She was able to go to the local shop and Post Office - until the government closed the Post Office and the shop became uneconomic. After that she had to rely on her home help for shopping.
After that trip with Marie, I called to see my aunt every time I went to Ireland. I always took her out - to a place of her choice. I know that she really enjoyed these outings, although heart problems meant that she was becoming increasingly frail.
When I tried to call her on her 92nd birthday, the phone had been disconnected. I phoned my cousin to find out why. Aunt Maud, he informed me, had become too ill to look after herself and had to be moved to a nursing home (thanks for letting me know at the time, dear cousin!). In fact, she was so anxious about this that she had to be sedated so that the move could be effected. She never settled in the nursing home and died, friendless and with no family nearby, soon afterwards.
Aunt Maud, if I'd known how ill and unhappy you were, I would have flown over to see you.
Agoraphobia can be a hateful affliction.