Welcome to the funeral of Patricia O’Donnell.
Everyone here will have been greatly saddened to hear of Patricia’s death. Many will also have been very shocked. Patricia was in some ways a profoundly private person – despite her inexhaustible public life and wonderful sociability – and this explains, in part, her failure to forewarn everyone.
The way in which Patricia managed her long-running illness –and her dying – was totally in character. For over a decade she suffered from a blood disorder – sometimes known as pre-leukaemia – that required careful monitoring and management. This disease always had the potential to transform into a much more dangerous illness, and this is exactly what happened earlier this year.
Being the Patricia we know and admire she insisted on being told how long she was likely to survive, and then began planning the rest of her life accordingly. Almost the first thing she did was appoint three women who had never met each other – but whom she trusted implicitly – to have medical power of decision making: Anne Beaumont, Maggie Maguire and Pauline Nestor. A friend from her schooldays; a partner in cultural warfare against the philistines; and the soup-making friend with whom she loved to fulminate against Donald Trump after their latest MSNBC viewing.
In Patricia’s own inimitable fashion this commitment was formalised over lunch in a local Italian restaurant with proper tablecloths, and the owner acted as witness. This was to be the first of regular lunches, and I was to attend as note-taker – or as she described me, ‘her brain when her own wasn’t working too well’.
Sadly there were only two lunches – but none of us was in any doubt about Patricia’s instructions. She identified the Sacred Heart Church on Rathdowne Street as the place in which her funeral was to be held, and Marion wine bar as the place for the wake. We also found handwritten cards with instructions about the kind of funeral, including who might speak.
Some of you will have noticed the cancelling of lunches or dinners at short notice, or found yourselves the recipient of odd gifts. I was given an expensive pair of unworn jeans, which – much to my amazement – fitted me! They had been bought with the prospect of overseas adventures, but were no longer needed. At the same time Patricia focused on her plans to maximise the size and impact of her generous bequests through various cunning wheezes and deals. I was instructed to step up as ‘chief nagger’ to keep things moving.
About two weeks ago Patricia again had to admit herself to St Vincent’s Hospital with predictable symptoms, texting me her instructions. These included keeping quiet about where she was, and preventing anyone from visiting her. At one point she accused me of blabbing, but I swear it wasn’t me.
Patricia simply never wanted to be treated as someone who was ill, or who needed sympathy – and she needed all her energy to deal with the treatment. She was also busy with her plans for reforming the delegated powers of different layers of nursing staff, with the wisdom gained from decades in hospitality management. We gave quite a bit of gratuitous advice on the 6th floor of St Vincent’s.
All this was done while dressed every day in beautiful black silk, lipstick applied. She would have kept her hat on had she not been obliged to lie down. Patricia told her palliative care team she would like four or five weeks if that were possible – to finish sorting out her affairs.
It seemed entirely likely that Patricia would be able to return home for a while at least, and some of you will have received proposals for lunch or drinks just a day before she died. Patricia knew that her many friends would be concerned – she was not oblivious to our love and admiration. This became wonderfully clear when, on Monday – much to my surprise – she suggested that we might start a sort of ‘newsletter’ to be sent to everyone, which would explain what was happening and how she would stay in touch. She told me she didn’t want to sound self-important and asked: “Would that be a good idea?’
But the following day Patricia woke with a headache. The palliative care team – whom she trusted completely – arranged for a brain scan while we joked about her insistence that she be moved wherever in the St Vincent’s empire those specific doctors would be able to care for her. By lunchtime she had slipped into unconsciousness and later that afternoon Anne and Maggie were called as her medical decision makers, with Michelle Garnaut who was back home and staying in Gertrude Street.
In the early evening Patricia simply stopped breathing, having suffered a major brain aneurysm – quite unrelated to her illness, and unexpected by any of her treating team. We all knew what she wanted us to do, and how we should mark her death – and we have tried to follow her instructions to the letter. I hope that this account brings some comfort to you all.
– Belinda Probert, 25 October 2018