We buried Boss a month ago today, June 19, three days after he took his last breath – or as my brother might say, sank his last putt.
June 16 was already etched on my memory, courtesy of James Joyce’s Ulysses and the Bloomsday celebrations. This year, it was also the Feast of the Sacred Heart (celebrated the first Friday after Corpus Christi). But now, June 16 will forever be the day my father died.
It sounds strange to say those words. The. Day. My. Father. Died. He was supposed to live forever. Invincible. Some man, for one man.
We waked him at home for three days with friends, neighbours, and family coming and going, paying their last respects. I saw grown men cry, silently acknowledging the end of an era. I cried with them.
Intellectually, I was prepared. At 97, Boss had seen his fair share of life. Arguably even more than his fair share. His side of the family aged well. Hardy stock.
But emotionally? That’s another story.
We were brought up with a pragmatic approach to death. It is an inevitability. There’s no escaping it. We can only hope that the end will be quick and painless.
An aunt told me once that a friend of hers prayed that she’d die peacefully in her chair with a book open on her lap. No drama. No grand exit. No fanfare. Just a gentle passing into the good night. And she did. Just that.
Back when I was in my twenties, an old boss and dear friend prophesied that my death would make the headlines. It remains to be seen.
A Dublin fortune teller told me years ago that I’d live till I was 87. At the time, that sounded ancient – now, I’m not so sure.
Many moons ago, a former colleague and lifetime friend asked me to pray for a speedy death for her husband; the alternative was a life he wouldn’t have wanted to live. I did.
Coming into the open plan office one day shortly after, her PA told me that he had died. My reaction was a loud and fervent ‘Thank God’. Everyone within hearing distance turned to me in shock. How could I be so heartless?
One of the many mother-mantras that make up the narrative of my being is that there are worse things in life than death.
We had four months of daily hospital and nursing home visits. We were blessed. It could have been four years.
In those four months, with each journey home, I watched my giant of a father waste away to nothing. As life slowly eeked from him, the strong man I loved faded into a shadow of his former self. And strangely he’d never had more presence.
To be able to sit up with him through his last five nights in the nursing home, keeping vigil, was a gift for which I’ll be eternally grateful. I had time for a long goodbye, to get my head around what was going to inevitably happen. I prayed that he’d breathe his last and be on his way. I asked him why he was hanging on, and what was keeping him.
He didn’t answer.
On one of those nights, he opened his eyes, looked at me, sat up in bed, stretched out his arms, and gave me a big hug and a kiss. I suspect he might have thought I was my mother, but I’ll take it. He sank back into the pillows, going back to whatever world he’d come from. It would be days before he’d engage again.
Have you been to a nursing home lately? State-of-the-art as they might be, they’re populated by people, many of whom life has forgotten. Too old, too ill, too forgetful to be left on their own, they’re lucky enough to have amassed the small fortune needed to keep them there. Early bird or night owl, no matter: Their former schedules are ignored they necessarily become one with the institution.
Watching Boss’s decline prompted lots of questions and a triple asterisked note-to-self to check into living wills. As I say, we were blessed it took four months and not four years.
It’s hard to witness the circle of life close, to see a fine, strapping man become once again completely dependent on others for care as he had been as a child. As every piece of him grew smaller and his moments of engagement more rare, his hands stayed the same.
Big. Strong. Capable hands.
Hands that had held mine as a child, imbuing in me a sense of security that no matter what life threw at me, my dad would always be in my corner, there to fix the inconveniences and right the wrongs. It’s difficult to come to terms with the fact that he’s gone, leaving behind a huge, empty void.
One of my earliest childhood memories is walking beside him, holding his hand. I’m wearing a pink dress. One of my most recent memories is sitting at his bedside holding his hand. The same hand.
The accompanying feelings, though, were entirely different. I’ve gone from knowing he would always be there, to knowing that he’ll not be there again. From knowing that he would always take care of me, to knowing that he’s taught me all I need to know to take care of myself. From knowing that he was my True North, to knowing that he didn’t take his moral compass with him.
Not literally anyway.
He’s still here, still around. I still talk to him, ask his advice, wonder where he’s at and what he’s up to. He’s always been my conscience. He told me once that I’ll know I’m leading a good life as long as I can look myself in the eye and not flinch.
For the last 56 years, my dad has been there for me. No matter what. And for that, I’m truly grateful.
And now, he’s gone. It’ll take a while to adjust to this new reality.
Ní bheidh a leithéid ann arís.