It was the last Friday in May 2006. From Trocaire’s office window in Maynooth I could see the shrubs and flowers in St Joseph’s Square bathed in sunshine. Maurice was home from Nairobi and keen for a round of golf. It was promising to be a good week-end. By the time I was leaving the office a four-ball had been organised for the following Monday morning. I was feeling great as I drove out of Dublin that morning and down the A4 to Knockanally golf course in north Kildare. On that glorious sunny morning I drove up the tree-lined avenue to the clubhouse, parked the car and took out my golf clubs. I was feeling a bit excited but otherwise there was nothing to suggest that I would never drive a car again.
Approaching the third green I first noticed that something was different but I could not pinpoint what had changed, and proceeded to the next teeing area. After a weak drive I had difficulty locating my golf bag. When I tried to play my next shot the club, the ball and the grass all looked a bit strange and I was now feeling slightly unsteady. I called to my colleagues and said that I would like to go back to the clubhouse. We agreed that they would continue with the golf and I headed up the slope to the clubhouse. I had difficulty finding and opening the door. Without much delay the club manager arrived on the scene and soon made contact with my colleagues on the course. A few minutes later Maurice was in the clubhouse. I had some difficulty following him out to his car and he immediately decided that we should go straight to A&E at the Mater hospital. On the way to Dublin I got very sick but remained conscious. In less than an hour we were in A&E. My blood pressure was dangerously high and I was classified as a serious emergency case. I just remember progressing from chair to trolley to bed without much delay. I think I was conscious all the time but I have only a hazy memory of the time and sequence of events that afternoon.
The following morning the neurologist, Mr Kelly, was at my bedside. Speaking in a friendly, calm and unhurried manner he gave me the first clue as to why I was there. He told me that I had an internal bleeding towards the back of my head. The blood had damaged some brain cells. He was waiting for scan and test results to decide if surgery was necessary. The following day Mr Kelly informed me that the bleeding had stopped and that surgery would not be necessary. The bad news, he said, was that it was unlikely that I would drive a car again. The damage to my brain had left me with reduced vision. There would be some improvement over the coming months, but the damaged brain cells would never fully recover. The good news was that I would probably be able to play golf again. I later learned that of the 15 stroke cases admitted to the Mater hospital that week 14 were caused by clotting and only one by bleeding.
I spent the following eight days in the Acute Stroke Unit where I got excellent attention and care. I was very impressed by the professionalism of the nursing staff. The handing over process was new to me and particularly interesting. The nurse going off duty and the one coming on would stand together at the foot of my bed and exchange details of what the nurse had done for me and every move I had made during the previous shift. It was a fully transparent process.
I had a number of tests aimed at establishing the extent of the brain damage. My balance was perfect but in other respects there was something missing. One test involved ticking off short lines, scattered like matchsticks, on a sheet of paper. This seemed an easy task which I completed, or so I thought, in less than a minute. I was asked to look at the paper a second time; much to my surprise, I saw a number of lines that I had not ticked. It took a third or fourth visit to the paper to complete this simple task. Next I was shown a number of shapes and then asked to draw similar shapes on a blank sheet. I was reasonably successful with simple shapes but I failed to copy complex shapes. It was all a bit disturbing; I was observing myself struggling with tasks that I knew to be easy. Whenever I moved away from my bed, however short the distance, I was unable to find my way back unassisted.
The day I arrived home from hospital I was amazed by what I saw; everything looked that bit different: the houses on Hollybank Road were lower and somehow crammed together. The chimneys were out of proportion; the cars on the street were shorter and uglier than before. In fact nothing that I saw looked streamlined or attractive. I wondered how many people see things this way. I have always taken it for granted that others see things as I see them. During those first days out of hospital, as I walked the ground in front of me seemed to be constantly in circular slow motion. Familiar street junctions caused confusion. Frequently I was unable to retrace my steps. Walking along busy streets I was repeatedly hitting off people approaching on my left. I also made contact with the wing mirrors of cars parked on my left. It took some time before I figured out that objects to my left were a short distance to the right of where I saw them.
During my first week at home the arthritis in my knees flared up and was more painful than ever before. My mind began to focus a lot on what I had lost – part of my vision, my ability to figure out where I was going, and the fact that I could not walk in comfort. I felt emotionally unsteady with surges of elation and depression which I tried to hide as much as possible. During the following couple of weeks I began to show considerable improvement in all areas; my eyesight gradually improved, I developed ways of coping with the missing areas in my field of vision, and the arthritis was no longer a problem. As my confidence returned my emotional reactions became less pronounced. The people around me began to see me as fully recovered and soon forgot about my stroke. Within two months I was back on the golf course, and within six months I was back in the office working part-time.
I still continue to have difficulty figuring out routes and can easily lose my sense of direction. I believe that the story might have been very different if Maurice had not managed to get me to A&E within two hours of the stroke.
Time to start writing
On Pembroke Road look out for my ghost,
Dishevelled with shoes untied,
Playing through the railings with little children
Whose children have long since died.
When I mention that my memory is not great I am frequently told that this is just part of the ageing process, but I think there is more to it than that. The thought that maybe I am gradually losing the story of my life, as I saw it, has pushed me on to have a go at writing down what I can recall before it is too late. For me it has been an interesting journey from my childhood days in north Westmeath, during the Second World War, to my retirement in north Dublin, as the Celtic Tiger days were coming to an end. The experiences and details that I now recall and record are inevitably a random selection from over six decades. They were shared with many different people in many different places. It is my version of my story.
As I write, the audience that I have in mind is my grandchildren. I’m very grateful for the moments that I have shared with them so far. I imagine that as they grow older they may one day ask some questions about Grandad Gaynor: Where was he born? Where did he go to school? What kind of work did he do? Did he have any interests apart from going to Croke Park? I hope that the following pages will help in answering these questions. I had very little contact with my grandparents, and I know very little about them. Both of my father’s parents died before I was born. Even though I had reached my teens before my mother’s parents died I saw them only during brief visits, which happened roughly once every two years. I would like to have known more about them.