He called me. Me. He picked up the phone and dialed my number. Not the favourite
daughter who admittedly lives farther away, or the ‘son and hair’ as he was known by
his flowing locks in the ‘70s, who lives closer.
The bane of his life. The thorn in his side. Me.
He could barely breathe, his voice all gargled and weird – like there were bubbles of
soap in his throat. I told him I’d be right there but, worried, I called my brother first.
“There’s something wrong with dad,” I said, “can you call the doctor and I’ll pick you
up on the way?” It was late on a Sunday night, a lovely uneventful July evening that
offered no harbinger of all that was about to change. I’d only spoken with him a few
hours earlier, to wish him bon voyage on his trip to Dundalk where he would teach
an art course for two weeks. Watercolour painting was his thing. He was very good
at it. Very correct.
And therein lies one of the bazillion things that was wrong with our relationship.
Dad had this habit of leaving the key in the lock when he had secured all for the
night. That might seem like a smart thing – you don’t have to look for keys in a crisis
– but it also caused a problem. We couldn’t open the door with the spare, retrieved
from its hidey hole. My brother, like our father, is a tech man – loves all things
gadgety – so he put his mobile phone, a fine brick of a thing, to use. Dad had used
the phone by his bed to call me so now he had to haul himself, breathing erratically,
from his prone position to let us in.
Christ, he looked awful. Grey faced, wheezing, the ugly bubbling noise erupting form
his windpipe. And scared. He looked scared.
When the Doctor arrived dad was already lapsing in and out of consciousness and
suddenly we were scared too. “Call the priest” are not words you want to hear, not
when he was fine, honestly fine, when we had chatted earlier. No time to tidy the
piles of unwashed clothes stacked on chairs, to sweep the hall or wipe the years of
tobacco stains from the light switches. No time to stem the flood of shame that I had
allowed the man to live like this, that I didn’t fix this, no time to overcome this unpleasant reality. No time. Before the priest could arrive from the village the doctor told us, quietly, our dad was gone.
But you can’t put a good man down, and when Fr Mac burst into the room bellowing,
refusing to believe us, the man in the bed stirred. I don’t know who was more
shocked, us, the doctor or my dad himself. Not Fr, who just did his thing with the last
rites, exactly as dad would have wished.
We followed the ambulance to Wexford General. It was an unreal journey, my
brother and I discussing, abandoning and rehearsing various scenarios. I’m the
scenario queen, I kid you not. Give me a set-up and I’ll have a myriad of ways it
could possibly go down. It’s a control thing, my long suffering husband says, but
useless, he always adds with an unseemly amount of glee. “You never know how
you’ll act till it actually happens” he would say. But I knew better. You have to think
things through before the bad stuff happens so that you have a sane, rational and
composed plan already made because, God knows, when the shit hits, all bets are
off in the calm department.
The harsh white light of the emergency room did nothing pretty for dad’s pallor –
waxy and pale, he looked like death was already visiting and taking tea. Nobody
could tell us anything except they were ‘doing what they could.’
Does everyone say daft, inane things at a time like this? I bet they do. Because do
you want your father to lie on a trolley in a curtained cubicle and only hear scary
medical things? I don’t think so. So I took his hand in mine and rested my other on
his shoulder. My brother was in the corridor phoning our siblings and spouses with
the news no one wants to give, or worse, receive. Things did not look good.
“It’s all right dad,” I lied fluently, “everything is fine now. The doctors are taking care
of you.” I kept up a flow of words – I even told him how nice the ambulance men
were – a titbit of information vital to any dying patient. Did he hear me? Haven’t a
clue. But he was responsive, the hand clasped in mine squeezed a bit, so yeah.
I spent the night on a trolley in a darkened corridor close to the ICU. And the next
Nurses looked at us curiously as tears streaked down our faces – little did they know
it was that verging on hysteria laughter that had caused the collective leaking, not
worry. All five of us were in that odd space between the main hallways and the ICU
itself, sitting on plastic sofas that were as uncomfortable as they were ugly. We were
doing a crossword, a family pastime, while dad was being washed and turned. It was
late Tuesday afternoon and my next-up-from-me sister had arrived from England, the
eldest from Roscommon. The favourite had arrived on Monday and had been in and
out, efficient at organising coffees and sandwiches. My siblings were telling jokes as
we did the puzzle, each outdoing the other. I had made some idiotic attempt at an
answer, misspelled and mispronounced of course, which had caused unholy mirth.
And that had led to a ‘did you hear the one about…’ sequence.
And therein was another chink in my disastrous relationship with my parent. I had no
sense of humour. Or at least I didn’t have the family sense of humour. The wit, sharp
and razor like, the clever asides, the constant punning, the ability to remember every
joke you ever heard and retell it with gusto – yeah, all that, passed me by. Maybe it
just ran out by the time number seven arrived. My two eldest brothers died as
babies. One was only 23 months and the other barely a week. They died within five
months of each other. No parent should ever have to deal with that level of
insurmountable grief. It’s simply untenable.
But back then, sure it was God’s will, wasn’t it?
I had no real rapport with my dad. I never enjoyed spending time with him even as a
little girl – by the age of 7 I could already feel his disappointment with me - it was
palpable, even if unrealised and unrecognised by either of us. I remember pushing
the shopping trolley into his heels in Findlaters on the ‘big treat’ of Saturday
shopping to Dunlaoghaire. I hated when it was my turn. I had nothing, nothing to say
to him in all the quiet time of the journey in and out on the number 8 bus. His
irritated, impatient glares when I caught his ankles with my inadequate cart pushing
skills, crushed and silenced me some more.
Shit went down in our family, as it does in every normal dysfunctional family the
world over. Ours was no better or worse than anyone’s. By the time I was in my midteens, any lingering respect I might have felt for my father was gone. I didn’t even like him. I may have loved him in some corner of my heart, because I knew I must, but liking and respecting was a choice and I chose not to. And I was, by then, not afraid to disagree with and worse, challenge, the man of the house, a total aberration in our home.
The artistic talent that brought my parents together was passed down to me – ah, I
hear you think, something to share… Wrong. It was a curse. No matter what I drew
or painted, it was never, ever, good enough. When I got my leaving cert results and
got an A in honours art, his comment was to wonder why I didn’t get an A+. It was a
harsh reality check – I was still not measuring up. On reflection I believe he felt I
deserved a higher grade but communicating, unless through funny stories, was not
his style. Complimenting wasn’t either. He hated my wedding dress – mostly
because it was a dress not a gown of lace and frills and of course, no veil. He
couldn’t understand, or ever acknowledge, that I kept my own name, went on student
marches, listened to punk and, shock/horror, questioned the Catholic Church. Everything I did seemed to bewilder and perplex him.
Yet all I could think of as I shifted uncomfortably on the hard trolley, a lightweight
polyester blanket slipping off throughout the night, was how well he taught me how to
change a tyre on my first car – this from a man who rarely found 3 rd gear when
driving his own – who thought going ‘right at the roundabout’ meant right, not around,
but could strip and rebuild an engine with ease.
And amends were made. If he dies, I thought, at least distance, place –me in
America for 12 years – and time, had eased the sting of resentment from our
No, we didn’t talk about it. That was never going to happen but something else did
happen - to me. Parenthood. As soon as I got used to being responsible for my
firstborn I began to let go, just a little, some of the tightly held bitterness that had
become my shield in all of our encounters. Looking at my two year old nestled in my
father’s arms, seeing the grief etched on his withered scratchy cheeks, seeing the 40
years slip away since he had held his own dying son, the heartbreak as he gently
stroked blond curls so like his little boy’s - that happened too.
What did I know about love and loss? Nothing. Not really. My petty disrespect and
teen angst was nothing in the face of his kind of pain. My choice to not understand,
to not look or listen or delve deeper had reared up to smack me in the face. This man, this elderly man remained tortured with pain and mostly unshed tears. And how
terrified he must have been showing any real emotion to us kids – because, just like
that, in the blink of an eye, we could be gone.
Back in Ireland living only a few miles from the family home had me bringing him on
errands, including him in Sunday dinners, meeting him for lunch on pension day. My
boys were a bit in awe of him, a tall bearded man with the remains of a west-brit
accent, always accessorised with a hand tied silk bowtie and wonderful, colourful,
exotic tales of growing up in the heat and dust that was India during the Raj. Hard
not to be enchanted – enthralled. And I was glad.
A few weeks before his death I asked him what he would like for his funeral when the
time came – what music and readings, what he’d like to be buried in – back to the
scenarios, I’m afraid. But this time my fascination with the probable came in handy.
So I could, in the end, honour his wishes.
It was a good day, the day we buried him. I greeted neighbours and locals who came
to say goodbye. They said how proud he was of me. How he loved his trips to the
US. What a good daughter I was. What a great mother.
It was hard to take in.
But, when the time came, he’d called me.
Pamela's first short story, Time Heals, was shortlisted for the Colm Tobin International Short Story Award, May 2017