Mary Johanna Boyle, 1917-2013


My Grandmother, Mary Johanna Boyle, died on October 8. Had she gone on to her birthday on January 30, she would have been 97 years old.

I admired my grandmother greatly and I hope that as I grow older I become more and more like her. She was the very definition of toughness, embodying the adage, ‘tough times don’t last – tough people do.’

There was nothing coarse or rough about her, however; she matriculated from Genazzano College in 1933 and won a place at the University of Melbourne, a conspicuous achievement for a woman at that time. She chose to study nursing in direct opposition to her parent’s wishes, however. They wanted her to return home to Barnadown and work on the family farm.

“You won’t last,” said her father.

“I’ll do this if it kills me,” said she.

She did it.

There are many anecdotes I can tell about her, but these are my favorites.

The first relates to the little finger on her left hand.

As she aged, she began to slowly lose weight, shrink away and shut down. She said to me one visit that,

“I feel as if I’m slowly drying up. One day you’ll come in here and find nothing but a pile of dried leaves.”

Her hearing diminished and her sight progressively dimmed. She suffered from dupytrons contracture, which meant that her right hand was slowly closing up. The hand was getting to the point where she couldn’t hold her teacup or steady her walker. Rather than accept it and continue to shrink away, she had a quiet chat with her doctor.

One day, My Aunt Margot went to visit her and Jo said,

“I have something to tell you and I don’t want you to carry on.”

It turns out that Jo had decided to have the offending finger amputated. It would free up the other fingers on that hand and return the dexterity she was losing. The doctor removed it in such a way that there wasn’t even a stump; it seemed to be folded away somewhere toward her palm. She continued to hold her teacup and push her walker and no more was said about it.

My uncle, aunt and I held vigil over her as she died. Some days she was speaking, other days she was sleeping. Toward the end, she would drift in and out of consciousness. One day I had been sitting with her for a while and before I left, I leaned over the bed and put my nose against the tip of her nose. She opened her eyes and I looked into them. She smiled; I knew that wherever she was going, she could still see me.

She was unconscious for the last few days and we sat for hours and watched her breathe. She would hold a rhythm for a while and then stop, then suddenly return with a pull and a gasp. I went to the gym afterwards and did squats. At that time, I was training for strength and doing five sets of five repetitions. That day, I did my heaviest sets ever; 165 kilograms for five, except for the last set, when I managed six repetitions. As I drove out of the nadir, I looked up at the sky outside the window and growled, “I’m alive/ I’m alive/ I’m alive!”

It was easier for me to do those squats than it was for her to breathe.

I was asked for something for the newspaper obituary, and I remembered the poem, ‘So We’ll Go No More A Roving’ by Lord Byron.

‘For the sword outwears its sheath,

And the soul outwears the breast,

And the heart must pause to breathe,

And love itself has rest.”

These lines came to mind immediately. The struggle of her breathing those last few days was the sound of her sword wearing through the sheath entirely. She wore it all the way through.



2 Responses to “Mary Johanna Boyle, 1917-2013”

  1. Peter Riseley Says:

    Wow well said Jarrod ! She had a great life and was years a head in her time in the 30’s going to Melb Uni for a women, was a big thing back I’m those times !

  2. Beautiful Jarrod, a really loving entry she would have been proud of mate.
    I hope someone writes as moving a tribute for me when the time comes.

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