I’m back on the old sod for a week to attend the wedding of one of my oldest friends. She’s the second of our old school gang to tie the knot, and on the cusp of 30 I still don’t feel old enough to be watching them walk down the aisle. I have a little snigger to myself when I hear them refer to their ‘husbands’. Get lost with your ‘husbands’.
Watching Laura walk down the staircase to meet her future husband was tough. She looked beautiful and happy, sweeping down on her Dad’s arm. He looked so proud of her and I think there may have been a little tear from both of them as he handed her over to the man entrusted to mind his little girl from then on. It was tough because it reminded me, as so many things do, of my own father, and how if I ever went through some kind of wedding ceremony of my own, I’m not sure I would be able to cope with the sadness of his absence. I had, the previous day and for the second time in as many months, landed in Dublin airport and scanned the crowd in the arrivals hall for his face. He loved a trip to the airport, and would have been horrified at the thought of me making my own way back home late at night. I think no matter how grown up you are, you still turn to your parents for so many things, and my independence forced by his death makes me sad sometimes.
Dad died just before 10pm on May 25th 2008 at the age of sixty. Even though it’s well over 2 years ago now, I can see how some people may never get over losing someone. He battled cancer for several years, first in his lung and then in his brain. He went through bout after bout of chemotherapy, radiation and even two brain surgeries, and rarely complained. The brain tumour changed his behaviour, made him irritable, cranky, meant he couldn’t drive, couldn’t do so many things for himself, but never once did anyone lose their patience with him, because he was a good good man and he deserved the best. In his final months he hardly saw anyone outside of the family, because he was so changed. My friends, who loved him and who he loved like his own children, said they’d rather not see ‘Uncle Les’ in the bed in St. Lukes, or Tallaght Hospital, or Naas Hospital, or whatever bed he happened to be in that week. They said they’d prefer to remember him smiling and laughing and making his terrible terrible jokes. He died with very little dignity in a nursing home in Clane, Co. Kildare. A place reserved for people 20 years his senior, because there was no space in a dedicated hospice. He went from a bed in Naas Hospital to a bed in the nursing home and died 6 weeks later. One of the most heartbreaking things I’d ever seen was when, months earlier, I think it finally hit him that he was going to die. In a consultant’s office with me and my mother, he tried to smile through his tears, not wanting to let himself down. The tears came often after that, as the brain tumour took more and more of him away from us. He would start to cry as you walked onto the hospital ward, and say nothing, just holding your hand. As he got sicker, I think he became less aware of what was happening to him, but you could still see it sometimes, the tears in his eyes.
A week before he died we brought him home for a final time. A kind taxi-driving neighbour organised to borrow a wheelchair-friendly vehicle and we bundled Dad into it. He was barely speaking at this point but when my eldest brother wheeled him up the homemade ramp into the kitchen and asked ‘do you know where you are Dad?’ he smiled and simply said ‘home’. I had had tearful arguments with kind and overworked palliative care nurses assigned to Dad’s case, as he asked every day to be taken home from the nursing home. They were kind to him there, but he hated it until he was too sick to know where he was. The nurses said it would be too hard for us to care for him. He couldn’t walk or use the bathroom, or even sit up in bed. He was swollen from too many steroids and prone to massive chest infections. I persisted in my quest to bring him home, and convinced my mother we could do it. But by the time we’d organised the special equipment needed it was too late. He slipped in and out of consciousness, and when the nurses thought he might be in some pain, they fed him a massive potion of morphine through a pump under his skin to help him on his way. Something I would have done months earlier if they’d let me. He would have been horrified at the indignity of it all and the months my mother spent sitting by his bedside. When he died it was like a massive relief that it was all over for him. We gathered around his bed with his sisters as his breathing got slower and slower, and kissed him and said goodbye. We stayed at the nursing home into the small hours, keeping him company and talking and laughing.
Dad taught me how to drive and he even taught some of my friends how to drive. He picked us up from nightclubs and never breathed a word to their parents about how unsteady on their feet they had been for healthy 17 year olds. He was fond of slipping me a 20 euro note when my mother wasn’t looking, or of buying me something he saw me looking at in a shop. He was Grandad Les to his beloved grandaughters and Uncle Les to my friends. He had been in the Air Corps, based in Baldonnel for many years and was hopelessly impatient when it came to waiting for anyone and never ever late, probably as a result of his army training. He marched everywhere. He loved gardening and feeding the birds, going for walks and watching war movies, fantasy movies and anything with an explosion. He was also partial to video games, playing the same one on the Playstation for hours on end when he was sick.
Mostly he was kind and loveable. We fought like cats and dogs when I was a teenager, but the older I got, the more I respected and appreciated him. He worked every day of his life to give his children every opportunity he could. He gave us money when he thought we needed it, much to the horror of my thrifty Fermanagh mother. But in the years since his death, she too has become fond of the phrase ‘it’s only money’, which should really have been on his headstone.
I gave the eulogy at his funeral, because I felt he deserved it. I got up and said pretty much all the things I’m saying here now. And we played his favourite song ‘Forever in Blue Jeans’ in the church before his old Army buddies carried his coffin out, draped in an Irish flag. He would have LOVED the importance of it. The priest tried to stop us from playing the song, said it wasn’t appropriate. But hey, if you can’t be defiant on the day of your father’s funeral, when can you be? As the song played my small nieces danced in the isle, and Grandad would have loved it.
Serious illness in a family is heartbreaking, but it can also bring a family together. We were all prepared to drop everything if Dad needed to go to an appointment or somebody needed something brought to the hospital. We all pushed it to the limit with our employers with days off, half days, and days spent staring into space. I was lucky enough to have an employer who refused my offer of taking unpaid leave or handing in my notice, and who worked around me in those last few months. After Dad died, we didn’t know what to do with ourselves. All the time that had been taken up caring for him was now empty. We’d missed out on months and years of socialising and normalcy. We were almost afraid to be in each other’s company in case it was too sad. My brother refused to come for Christmas dinner because he said it would be too hard. We stayed away from each other for the most part, and my mother and I sat in different rooms in the house, afraid to see each other’s tear stained faces. I thought to myself ‘ I can never go home again’. Not physically, but back to our old home and life.
But time does heal. It doesn’t heal all, but it does heal. I miss him every day. I miss him when there’s something wrong with my car or I need a lift somewhere or I need DIY advice. I miss him for my mother. They were best friends and a real countryside pair, fond of walks and the garden. I miss him at Christmastime and when the weather gets cold and the birds are about looking for food. I know that losing a parent isn’t uncommon, and that maybe nobody will relate to this post but myself, but I like remembering the great things about him, and if someone else wants to read about them, then that’s even better.
I read this verse at his funeral, and it helps to think that he’s somewhere lovely, with a fishing rod in one hand, some old friends around, and our old dog Chieftain racing past…..
I know you’re in a place where the sun shines, rivers flow
Someday I’ll be there too, but for now I have to stay a little longer, be a little stonger
But I’ll see you in the place where the rivers flow