Happy you’re near

I apologise to Eva for the disappointingly short blog post. But Dad would always call on New Year’s Eve and say “happy you’re near”, even though I almost never was – but in that moment I felt near. And I just needed to send this out in the universe tonight.

So whoever you are, wherever you are: happy you’re near!

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Why I stopped believing in Santa Claus (aka A young girl is fiercely protective of her father)

I’ll be the first to admit: I probably believed in Santa Claus longer than I should have, and longer than most children do. See, I have this hope, even now as an adult, that magic actually exists. Like, proper magic. Unicorns, leprechauns, magic wands, super powers – like the ability to fly or become invisible, magic carpets – you name it. Any day now I expect my Hogwarts letter to come through. Those whacky owls must’ve been misdelivering it for the past 24 years… It’ll be a little awkward to be going to school with a bunch of 11-year-olds, but I’ll take it.

I’ve always had this fervent hope that there is more to life than meets the eye. And I don’t “just” mean an afterlife or some sort of divine but obscure power. I mean Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Dumbledore, toffee trees.

My childhood fantasies by no way limited themselves to the good stuff, by the way. I swore I saw huldra waiting for me behind a tree outside my bedroom window, waiting to lure me into the underworld where I’d be lost forever – never mind that huldra traditionally lured men. I also suffered, amongst many other things, from a bad case of vampires-under-my-bed-so-I-can’t-sleep-itis. Oddly enough I was always comforted when mum told me that if I saw any vampires I just had to tell her and she’d come bite them in their back foot… So, I’ve always had a very rich fantasy life and odd coping mechanisms.

My point is that, much like Mulder, I want to believe…

***

I don’t remember exactly what age I was but I’m pretty sure we were home for the holidays from England, so I’m going to guess 9-10. I was having a day out with Dad. I remember literally nothing else of this day except the following conversation.

Scene: We’re walking down a shopping street on a dark, Norwegian, December afternoon. It’s probably snowing. People are bustling here and there with packages under their arms, because it’s almost Christmas. Enticing lights shine through all the shop windows around us. There’s little mechanical gnomes in Santa hats and fake snow in the display windows.

Dad: Since you’re old enough now to know that Santa Claus doesn’t exist,  I thought we could just go to a shop and you can pick out a Christmas gift. Does that sound alright?

In this moment, a lot of things happen. It’s as if the moment expands and time momentarily halts its progress. The clocks stop ticking, the snow freezes in mid-air, the mechanical gnome in the window display next to me is no longer moving his ladle up and down between his mouth and the pot of porridge. I realise I have to stop clinging to my last desperate hope that Santa Claus actually exists and that it’s only a coincidence that my grandfather always has to walk the dog right before Santa arrives and ends up missing him every year. And more than that, I see my father. I see, somehow, that he is a poor, lonely man, trying to make up for lost time with his daughter, trying to do something nice. And I know what he what he needs me to say.

Me: *swallows hard* Yes, absolutely. That would be lovely.

 

 

 

It all falls apart

Galway ~ then / Almere ~ now

I recently finished Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal, which was confronting in many ways, not least of which in the way that it dredged up a lot of memories from the last days of Dad’s life.

The book deals with problems of confronting and working with our mortality – old age and illness, what works and what’s important to a person in the last phase of their life.

If you know what’s coming, you may have time to deal with it. You may sit down and think about how you want to die, what should happen with your things, and with your body, and not least how you want to spend the last little bit of your life  – within the limitations set for you by health, age and money.

My father had been in questionable health for at least the last 10 years, so had had plenty of time to think about his mortality and how he wanted things to be in those final days. But it was uncomfortable to think about the inevitable end, so he chose to ignore it (and hoped it would go away) – as do many of us.

The consequence of this was that I’d only barely managed to have a conversation with him about making me his emergency contact – even that was too loaded a subject. And as he lay dying, in the beginning barely able to speak at all and at last not even that – I had no idea what his wishes were.

So, I had to go by what I knew about my father and what I felt in my heart. And though I think I made the right decisions, I don’t actually know if this is really what he would have wanted, and that little nagging doubt haunts me.

I think I knew my father as well as anyone knew him. I knew his stories, his passions, his weaknesses. But even so, when you suddenly find yourself in a different country without a permanent roof over your head, having to make decisions about DNRs, it’s overwhelming to say the least.

Gawande talks in his book of the minimum acceptable trade-off – what makes life worth or no longer worth living? For instance one patient said that as long as he could watch TV and eat chocolate ice cream, life would still be worth living. So that’s the threshold his next of kin set when they were asked whether to go ahead with surgery. I had no such clear indications to go by, so I had to make my own. Contrary to my father’s mantra in his final days (“home, beer”), I did not think that a life where he was able to go home and able to drink beer would be enough. And it was doubtful even that would have been possible. He definitely wouldn’t have been able to go back to his old flat where he’d have to contend with a flight of stairs to get to his front door.

The thing is, although he was leading a pretty OK life for the past 10 years or so, it had already gradually started shrinking. He had no purpose, no close family or friends nearby and very little money. His health was poor. Once when he came over to visit we cycled very leisurely in to the town centre where I live, along typical flat Dutch bike paths. It’s a 4-5 minute bike ride. Dad had to stop twice. Not to mention he was always travelling with a miniature pharmacy. The only thing that remained to him was his music and his mind. And his Sundays at the Crane (which were indeed musically inclined).

This was a man whose only constant in life had been freedom, whose home – as cliché as it sounds – was wherever he chose to lay his head. This was of course for better or worse – travelling the world with your guitar, harmonica, a tent and whatever petty cash you made from busking hardly constitutes a glamorous existence. But it was the only life he knew. And I think on some level the freedom was worth the trade-off. It’s just that later in life he had to deal with the consequences.

The doctors had a conversation with me and Eirin about his health and his future. They told us that he had a 5% chance of recovery. They asked questions about resuscitation without being leading, but I could still tell that they thought I had made the right decision when I told them that they should not resuscitate him. I saw the look of relief on their faces. But as anyone who has been through a process like this will know, making a choice like that – one way or the other, is one of the hardest things you’ll ever have to do. And as the official next of kin, it was my decision and mine alone (though of course if my sister had disagreed with that decision I would have listened).

Even with The Decision being made, things were very fluctuating and uncertain for a few days. He never really got better, but he didn’t get that much worse. I was desperate and tired. I was emotionally overloaded. My days consisted of going to the hospital and essentially watching my father suffer, of nightly phone calls from the hospital with status updates, and moving around Galway with my backpack on. In a way our life in Galway was reminiscent of our father’s earlier life; travelling around not knowing where we’d be sleeping and relying on the charity of strangers.

One night when we were staying in a flat behind the church in Salthill and my sister was in the shower, I spoke to God. No, spoke is not exactly the correct term. I wailed, begged, prayed and parleyed. I bunched my fists, sobbed, gasped, hyperventilated and hugged the pillow as I rocked back and forth. And as snot and tears ran down my face and neck, I prayed for my father to be allowed to let go. To be free of suffering.

Even though I know my father would have been miserable in a home (as indeed he already was lying in the hospital bed), being dependent on others to help him – maybe even help him go to the toilet or help him eat, I second guess myself. I know he would have literally nothing left to live for except the occasional visit from us – if he could no longer play his guitar, walk around town, see his friends in the pub, but still I can’t quite shake that doubt.

To be fair, I doubt things would have gone much differently had I made different choices. So my troubles are not so much about the result as they are about the intention and my ability to speak on my father’s behalf. Had I staunchly proclaimed that any little bit of life my father could still have was sacred and valuable and begged the doctors to fight tooth and nail for his survival, the odds are overwhelmingly in favour of his still having died when he did. Everything in his body was failing. I believe he was surviving on sheer willpower. Because that’s what you do. That’s what he’d always done. Fight it. That’s one of the things Dr Gawande talks about in his book as well. How it’s almost hard-coded into our DNA – doctors and patients alike – to fight it. Too rarely we pause and reflect upon what we’re actually fighting for and if it’s worth it.

And even if there is a God and they heard my pleas, I do not think that my father died because of divine intervention or because I had asked for it. My problem is more that I asked for it. What kind of person prays for their parent to die?

I have all kinds of rationalisations and explanations for what I thought, felt, and did. And I genuinely think, from an objective point of view, I did what was best. I prayed for what was best for my father, I made the decisions that were best for him.

He died in a private hospital room, after having received a dose of morphine for his pain. He had 2 of his daughters with him. We sang to him and we held his hands he crossed the threshold into the next world. Was that a better death than a long(er) hospital stay, lots of rehabilitation, and eventually slowly deteriorating in some form of nursing home, where he wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the last little pleasures that were left to him? Unquestionably. And I am thankful every day that I was there when it happened. Even though it broke my heart it was so important and meaningful to be there in the moment, and I know not everybody gets that chance.

But the truth is, for all of my love and virtuousness, there was some small part of me that prayed for his release from this mortal coil for my own sake. I didn’t want to deal with the stress and uncertainty, I didn’t want to deal with the guilt of my father being in a nursing home and not being able to visit often, I didn’t want the burden of constant worry. When I prayed for him to be released I was also praying for my own release. And as much as I still believe it was the right thing for him, I struggle to forgive myself for the part of the decision that had to do with it being the right thing to do for me.

***

Are you there Dad? Can you hear me? Do you forgive me?

 

The Aran Islands – the sea and the silence

Aran Islands ~ now

I have always loved the sea, passionately, deeply. It is friend, family, lover, unknown and always known to me. It is nature and eternity. Our origin, the spring of life. I could wax poetic about the sea until such time as it sees fit to swallow me – to take me back.

There is always something of coming home in a meeting with the sea. There is something deep inside me that recognises it as nature in its purest form and speaks of a life lived long ago.

Maybe my love of islands can partially be explained by my love of the sea. But there’s also something special about life on an island – at least smaller ones. It just seems to move at a slower pace. People have time, and take time. It’s quiet and peaceful.

I first went to the Aran Islands – more specifically Inis Mór – maybe 5 years ago on a visit to Dad’s. He told me there was no point in taking the morning ferry as there wasn’t much to see, and as a result I ended up frantically cycling around the island for the few hours I had there, trying to absorb as much as possible. And even at that accelerated pace it was wonderful, and I got some sense of the magic of the place. And though the islands are popular with tourists, they still have an unspoiled and ancient feel about them. I vowed to come back.

So, last time J and I visited Ireland on holidays I dragged him with me to the early ferry because we needed a whole day there. It was warm, sunny and beautiful (which, if you’ve spent any amount of time in Ireland you’ll know is unusual – I had to go to the islands only grocery store and get some freakin’ sunscreen!) We brought a picnic, we rented bikes, and set off on an island adventure. We leisurely cycled to the far end of the island, stopping here and there to enjoy scenic views of the sea, the typical Irish stone walls, fields with cows and horses and the occasional house dotting the landscape. We had a break on a beautiful sandy beach and I waded as far out into the water as I could with my trousers rolled up – the fact that I had forgotten to bring my swimming costume with me the only fly in my ointment. Well, that, and the fact that we had to leave again that same afternoon. So I told J that next time we’d have to stay overnight.

Of course I didn’t know at the time that next time I’d be arriving with a jar half full of Dad’s ashes.

We had decided to spend a few days on the islands at the tail end of our memorial trip to Ireland, and since Dad had told me Inis Meain was his favourite of the three islands I thought it would be nice to bring some of his ashes with me to spread there as well.

We were booked for 2 nights at the Pier House B&B on Inis Mór (the big island), right across the road from the docks and the beach. Our room had a gorgeous view out over the sea, and it was gloriously quiet and peaceful while we were there. Just the ticket after a few hectic days in Galway, surrounded by rabid hurling fans.

Our first afternoon we again rented bikes and set off in the opposite direction from last time, in order to see more of the island. This time I had remembered to bring my swimming costume. And after a while we came to a beautiful, silent, sandy cove, with not another human soul in sight. I felt the sea drawing me to it, and the overpowering urge to swim. J rolled his eyes at me in disbelief that I was actually going to go swimming on a grey, cold, September day in Ireland – although he should know me well enough by now to not bat an eye at such antics.

The water was admittedly bloody freezing, but it was also glorious. I swam, waded, ran and jumped out towards the mouth of the cove, where I could see some frothy white, blue, and green waves tempting me to come play with them. And I followed their siren call. The mouth of the cove was quite far out and around a bend, so I had completely lost site of J by this time, and it was just me and the sea.

I had one of those moments. Those moments that mostly seem to happen in the waves (but sometimes also in The Wave), of pure ecstasy, of belonging, of being in the here and now. I whooped, and jumped and dived – running in and out of the waves and teasing them to follow me. I lifted my eyes to the heavens and opened my arms wide, and I talked to my father and to the powers of the universe. “Here I am, I am alive, I am here!” I shouted, “this is what I plan to do with my one wild and precious life!”. Some time later I came tumbling out of the sea towards J, grinning like a maniac.

As Elizabeth Gilbert says; go to the water. In particular the sea, but any water will do in a pinch. It’s magical and life giving in more ways than one. Trust me. It hasn’t failed me yet.

The next day we went to Inis Meain, and very nearly got stranded (OK, it took the boat an unusually long time to come pick us up, but for a while they really had us wondering). While it’s a beautiful place, it was starker and more desolate than the inherently cosy Inis Mór. Though I can imagine a dramatically different picture is painted on a sunny summer day (I believe they get one of those a year in Ireland too, it’s just that this year it didn’t coincide with our visit to the islands). By the docks there was only a small bus shelter, and we walked for what felt like ages up the island without meeting anyone or coming across any shops or pubs (in most of Ireland you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a pub). We eventually found what seemed to be the only café and had some lunch there.

When we came back down to the docks some hours later, the wind was so strong we were almost bowled over by it. So when I went to the edge of a pier to pour out the remaining “ration” of ashes I had brought with me I had to be very careful not to get a face-full of them. And maybe that is the reason I didn’t feel that same ancient and magical peace that I felt when scattering ashes in Galway. Or maybe I only get one of those – we’ll see. Or maybe I just need to feel when the moment is right, and go with it. Like when I was dancing in the waves – that was a moment. Or when the sunset over the beach outside our room was so beautiful I had to drag J back out into the cold with me – that was a moment. Still, it feels right that part of him remains out there on the islands. Not only does it feel like a “Dad place”, it’s a place that makes me intensely happy.

Yet again our stay on the islands was too short. I’d initially imagined we’d have oodles of time there because of the slow pace of island life. I imagined I’d have plenty of time to read and write and sit and contemplate life – all that stuff I’m usually too busy for. But before I knew it we were catching the ferry back to mainland Ireland, and I was wiping away tears. Not only were we saying goodbye to the islands, we were saying goodbye to Ireland, and I really didn’t want to.

We’ll be back though. And next time we may need to stay even longer. I mean we haven’t even been to Inis Oírr yet…

***

I think I could be happy out there on The Arans. I often have that feeling on an island, like I could settle down and be happy and that my life would magically fall into place. I feel the same way when we visit the island of Texel here in the Netherlands.

Like I suspect many do, I feel as if I were born in the wrong time. Get me right – there are a lot of great things about the current day – the internet for one, and a more enlightened attitude towards gender, race and human rights. But there is something deep inside me that yearns to live a quiet island life, removed from most modern day culture, convenience and contrivance. Being an HSP, who also happens to suffer from tinnitus, there’s something inherently appealing about the slow and quiet life.

And however far fetched it sounds, if I could wake up every morning and go to bed every night, looking out at the sea, I don’t see how I could possibly be unhappy. Or even just smell the promise of the sea on the air, as long as I was surrounded by trees and earth and quiet. By life, not by buildings and asphalt. By birds, not by mopeds. Then I could be truly happy.

 

The right place

Galway ~ now

It felt surreal but right to be back in Galway one year on. It felt like coming home, and like a place we could never truly go back to at the same time. Walking through the high street I couldn’t help wonder which of the musicians out playing in town my dad would have approved of. As I passed Tig Coili’s I remembered the many times Dad would be sitting outside with a pint waiting for me to return from some errand or walk. Crossing the bridge to the Claddagh I thought of the family of otters he told me about last time we were on holidays. But the most powerful triggers to my memories and emotions were the blue door of his apartment complex and of course his beloved Crane Bar.

As I passed by the blue door to go to the SuperValu I was assaulted by memories. I felt my breath catching and could barely stand. So many times I’d popped over to the shop to get some groceries and a bottle of wine, only to come straight back to Dad’s. He’d be smoking and watching telly and talking about the Euromillions and what we’d do with our inevitable winnings. Every week his faith that this was the time he was going to win was just as strong. I think it was a dream that kept his spirit from being crushed – the only hope he had of getting out of relative poverty after his health put an end to travelling the world with his guitar. I still cannot quite grasp that behind that door and up those stairs there is… Nothing for me anymore. He is just gone. He has ceased to exist.

Nevertheless it was good to be there and to share thoughts and memories with Eirin. She and I, her partner and mine, were once again a small temporary family brought together in mourning and celebration.

***

I didn’t know quite what to expect or how to feel about this whole scattering ashes thing. I had an idea that it would be a nice symbolic thing to do for me and for Dad, but didn’t know what it would actually be like when I got down to the act of scattering itself.

I felt kind of clumsy and awkward walking down to the Galway Bay with my small band of followers and my Fruit Friends cup in my handbag. What was I doing? What if people showed up in the middle of it? Was this a bad idea? But by the time I reached the end of the pier a strange kind of calm and certainty settled over me. I quietly sat myself down, took out the Fruit Friends cup, and held it in my hands. I took a deep breath, and I thought about my father. It felt right. It was the right place. He would have wanted this. Galway was the home he chose for himself, and made for himself. It was right that part of him should always be here. I could feel him and all the guiding spirits there with me. As my father’s ashes slowly descended into the bay, it was as if a part of me that had been missing since he died slowly eased its way back into place and I became whole again. It was in short a magical and otherworldly experience that was bigger than I could ever have imagined.

After our own private ceremony, we headed towards a slightly more public commemoration at the Crane Bar. It was Sunday and they were having their usual lunchtime session. There we joyously reunited with the friends who had played such an important role in making Dad’s funeral the perfect musical send-off almost one year earlier. The musicians were all gathered in the corner, right under a beautiful portrait of Dad that a very talented artist friend of his had made on the day she heard he died. It comforts me to know he’s always there with them, and they tell me they always feel his presence when they’re playing.

Greg, who is a lovely man and passionate and talented musician, sang and played Bob Dylan’s Shooting Star in memory of my father, as tears of joy and gratitude rolled down my cheeks.

***

Unwittingly we had come upon Galway on a very special day. The day Galway was part of not one, but two hurling finals – and actually won both. There were very few people in The Crane that afternoon – it’s not exactly your typical sports bar. But there were a couple of young lads dressed in Galway gear, watching a telly in the corner. And when a goal was scored and they shouted “yes!” a little too loudly, they immediately looked over to the musicians and sheepishly apologised. But they got only goodnatured glances and smiles in return, and I could see the musicians peering interestedly up at the screen themselves in between musical numbers. It was nice to see such a symbiosis of cultures, of sports and music – two of the most cherished past-times in Ireland that my father also enjoyed.

That day the whole town erupted into celebration. J and I went for a walk in the evening – an unusually pleasant and rain-free one, even the weather was cooperating – and there were people out in the streets celebrating. Almost every car driving by was sporting little Galway flags and honking. As we walked past the throngs of people sitting along the edge of the Corrib and out towards the bay, my heart soared at the sounds of life and celebration, and I thought: Dad would have loved this! I just know that if he had been behind the blue door watching the match(es) and I had been at home in The Netherlands, he would have been texting me updates on match status and goals scored, even though I don’t give a toss about Hurling (sorry Ireland!), because he’d be excited and wanting to share that with me. And I do believe he was there sharing it with me that day. The whole day was just filled with his presence and with celebration.

Three sisters and Thai food

Galway ~ then

For a short while we were three. Our older sister arrived to burst the bubble Eirin and I had been living in since we got to Ireland. It was strange, comforting and a lot of other things at the same time.

I had not seen Tiril for about 10 years and Eirin had never met her. I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault. We never grew up together, and the person who should have connected us flitted in and out of all our lives so randomly and rarely – family gatherings were never really a thing on my father’s side of the family. We are three different women with completely different lives, who happen to be sisters. Of course when we met we experienced some common ground and shared interests or feelings – I’m not saying we are total strangers. The incentive to connect and keep in touch has just never been strong enough.

Dad was always sad about that we weren’t close. Particularly later in life. I think because he found himself quite lonely once he was forced to settle down because of his health, he realised how important it was to have a network, to have family. So what I perceived as nagging and unrealistic/sentimental expectations on his end for me and my sisters to suddenly become “real sisters”, was probably his way of trying to communicate that he had made a mistake by alienating most people in his life and that family was important.

Eirin and I always got along, and would meet up whenever I came to Norway. We had things in common and enjoyed spending time together, though since she was 11 the first time we met, we never had that natural sibling bond. Fortunately – given what was about to happen – Eirin and I grew a lot closer during our last meeting, a few months before we met again in Ireland under very different circumstances. During an honest and personal meeting at a café in Trondheim, I opened up about anxiety and depression and she opened up about things she was struggling with in her life. And we realised we had more in common than we thought – such as both being HSPs (highly sensitive people)*. Because of this deep and meaningful conversation we had, things were a lot less awkward than they could have been when we found ourselves travelling roommates in Galway a few months later.

I’ve found plenty of little signs like this, that things came together in a certain way, as if there was a meaning behind it all or that someone was pulling the strings. From the trivial – me lamenting that I didn’t have a decent fish and chips when I was in Edinburgh, only to find myself at The Fisherman in Salthill, Galway later that week, to the more profound like the continually breaking harp strings and the bonding conversation I had had with my sister. I also remember that when J and I were in Galway in May, Dad had mentioned that we should come back one year in September as that was the best time to visit. So, when I found myself back again in late August / early September I thought “well, here I am Dad, just like you said”. And because he died in September, that will always be a time to remember him and Ireland.

***

Eirin and I were both sitting nervously outside the ICU waiting for Tiril on the day she arrived. Eirin was about to meet her sister for the first time and I was worried that I wouldn’t recognise her after 10+ years (I did, naturally..) and just worried things would be plain awkward. Other people being uncomfortable makes me very uncomfortable.

It ended up being quite a strange experience, in the middle of quite a strange experience – but certainly not awkward. After the necessary practical exchange of information, and after Tiril (who speaks doctor, being that she is one herself) had a chat with Dad’s attending, we decided that it would be nice if the three of us had dinner together. And one of the other small things that came together was that I’d been having a real hankering for Thai food, and that was exactly what my sisters wanted as well – I guess we do at least have a fondness for Thai food in common.

Tiril is a very unusual person, which I think can be explained by her having quite an unusual life. She ended up living by herself in Oslo from a very young age, because she did not get along with her step-father. She is – at least on the surface – very logical and detached from emotion. A fiercely independent career woman. In other words, she is pretty much my opposite. And though I see some likenesses in appearance between her and Eirin (I’m pretty much the spitting image of my mother and have been mistaken for being one of her younger sisters – which is less offensive than it may sound as she’s the oldest of 4 and had me very young), I don’t believe their temperaments or interests are very similar, despite the fact that they both work in health care.

I have to confess that I’m a little afraid of my big sister. She was perfectly nice, friendly and interested the entire time we were with her, sharing of her own life and experiences, asking us about ours and genuinely trying to get to know as much of our lives as was possible during the time we spent together. But she has a hardness. A type of hardness that I think a lot of people who have had to fend for themselves from early on have. And let’s not forget she had a father who abandoned her. In some ways we all did, but since my parents were married for 6 years, and since my mother was the love of my father’s life, I was ostensibly less abandoned than my sisters. I also never let my father push me away, and therefore he was always in my life to some extent, though I did give him a good telling off once or twice.

Because of this impression of hardness, I am afraid to disappoint Tiril. I am afraid that she’ll judge me if I show any sign of weakness. And she is after all my big sister so I want to make a good impression. Despite the fact that she told me to close my mouth when she was taking a photo of Eirin and me, in a way that made it seem like smiling with teeth is something only morons do, I do believe that this fear of judgement I have is at least 95% me projecting my insecurities.

It had been a few years since Dad and Tiril had last spoken, and I believe it was a healing experience both for her to come and see him and for him to know that she was there. That any animosity or personal differences can be set aside when it really matters. And in his final days my father was granted one of his fondest wishes – we three sisters were together. Bonding and talking about our lives and plans.

But Tiril soon had to go home again to her job, her husband and her 4 children. Since we didn’t know what was going to happen with Dad and how long he may still be lying in hospital, it was practically impossible for her to stay. Though as fate would have it our father took his last breaths as my sister was on her flight home. I kept trying to call her, and eventually caught her to tell her the news when she had just landed in Oslo.

***

I’m not sure what Dad was waiting for. As I’ve mentioned before, he was a fighter, and maybe he was just waiting for that fighter’s instinct to allow him to be at peace at last. Maybe he was waiting for all his daughters to have had the chance to say goodbye. Maybe he was waiting to be allowed to die in relative dignity.

One of the last signs from the universe that maybe there is some benevolent force watching over us, was that on the last day of his life, my father was given a private room – which in the Galway university hospital seemed nothing short of a miracle. I guess those medical professionals have some idea of what they’re doing and could see his last moments coming. And so it was that my father took his last breaths while me and Eirin sang to him. The songs of our childhood and of Ireland. Music was the other great love of his life, and it was only fitting that it guided him on to the next stage of the human experience. “He can hear you, I know he can” my mother had said previously when she had encouraged me to sing for him, and I know that he did. I could hear it in his breathing and I could see it on his face though he could no longer speak. He could hear me, and he was ready to move on.

He even found a way to say goodbye to Mum. After I called to let her know that he had passed, she was walking through the streets of Oslo, praying for him and searching for him, when she came upon Lawrence – an old busker friend of Dad’s. She told him what had happened, and that I’d been singing for Dad as it happened. She asked Lawrence to play a song for him, and as she walked away she heard the first strains of Star of the County Down playing behind her – one of the songs I had sung, and she said it was as if all the peopled she passed on the streets of Oslo were crying.

* My sister told me the adorable story of how she discovered that HSPs were a thing and that she was one. Her boyfriend came home from the doctor’s office one day waving a brochure about HSPs and proclaiming “Eirin, I know what’s wrong with you!”. This is adorable because her boyfriend is just a genuinely sweet guy who loves her very much and was just excited that he may have found an explanation to what ailed her.

The Travelling Thompsons

Galway ~  then

Obviously our impromptu trip to Galway allowed for very little planning, and we were also very much stressed. I frantically threw things in or near my backpack and am frankly amazed that I remembered both toothbrush and underwear and didn’t instead bring 10 jumpers, a pillowcase and no socks. I even brought my swimming costume, which I’d later be grateful for.

We figured that when we got there, whatever the situation turned out to be, we’d get Dad’s keys from him and crash in his flat. So much for that plan. It turned out his keys, his phone and his wallet were missing and neither he nor anyone at the hospital could account for them. We would later find his wallet and phone in his flat (when we finally got in), but the missing keys remain a mystery. As it was too late to try and get in touch with a building manager, we booked a night at a random B&B not too far from the hospital. Fortunately for us Galway is about 50% B&Bs, and I’m only exaggerating a little. This would be the first out of 6 “homes” we had during our stay in Galway.

It’s odd to be confronted with unfamiliar housing arrangements and breakfasting in a room full of strangers who are all on holidays exploring Ireland, when you’re very stressed and emotional and everything already seems uncertain.

What I am most grateful for is not being alone in this, and having Eirin by my side. And nothing grows a quicker bond between two semi-estranged sisters than being sudden roommates during the last week of our father’s life.

We knew each other as well as we could from meeting about once a year for the past 10 years or so, and both making a reasonable effort. But I can confidently say that after our time in Ireland together, we really are Sisters. There is no time or room for awkwardness and putting up a mask, or making small-talk when you’re bone tired and your father is dying. She alone has seen me, supported me, grieved with me through this whole process.

She was there in home number one, without a working shower, where the nosy-but-I’m-sure-well-intentioned landlady made us worry not only about strokes but about the potential cost and ramifications of after-care.

She was there in home number two when we decided to let go a little and went out for a nice meal and shared wine and stories in our room until late at night. That same night that the hospital happened to call me 3 times. 3 times they woke me up from a fitful, wine-fuelled sleep, giving me information I could barely parse. He was maybe moving to the ICU. He was in the ICU. He was still in the ICU.

– OK, what does that mean, do you want me to come to the hospital? Is he dying? Should we put on our clothes and run half way across the city in the middle of the night?
– This is a courtesy call. We just thought you’d like to know.
– Can you do me the courtesy of telling me what this all means? Should I come to the hospital? Is he dying? Are you judging me for not coming to the hospital? I am not a medical professional, I don’t understand what this means, please can someone tell me what to do??

She was there in home number 3 behind the church in Salthill, after we’d cancelled our first tickets home. After we’d had The Talk with the doctor who had told us we should stay if we could, and that they could arrange some accommodation for us if we were running out of money (boy were we ever).

She was there in home number 4, the Death Home. The home itself was actually really lovely, courtesy of the Croi heart and stroke centre and it had the most amazing water pressure I’ve ever experienced in a shower (yes, water pressure was a recurring minor theme in our many homes – those who’ve been to Ireland may recognise it). But this is where we stayed when he died. This is where we made our spaghetti bollocks-knees (as he called it) in his honour and had our own private wake. This is where my sister dyed her hair purple and where I woke up with a major hangover and was faced with filling out a death certificate. (Mum, do you know what grandma’s maiden name was?)

Home number 5 we shared with 3 more people. Mum, Eirin’s partner, and mine. Home number 5 felt like space, comfort and family. It was exactly the house we needed, with its creaky floors and doors and charming old kitchen with a view of the back garden and its fruit trees. We gathered around the kitchen table and shared meals, stories and songs. We planned speeches. We practiced instruments and broke harp strings. We brought my aunt and uncle back there after the funeral for some fish and chips. We could breathe here and be together and alone as needed.

The last home was the waiting house. The impromptu last booking because we had to stay another night to wait for our father’s ashes to be ready for collection. Here our sad, difficult and partly beautiful adventure was almost an end. And though I was relieved to finally be going home and to stop travelling, there was a part of me that found it really strange to be going home to a different country than Eirin, the sister who had come to mean so much to me over the last two weeks.

It felt incredibly tiring to travel from home to home, never knowing where we were going to be staying, always wandering around Galway with all our luggage – back and forth to the hospital and back and forth between different lodgings. Though in hindsight I wonder if it was maybe also a good thing that we had something practical that occupied us. That we had something to do, something to figure out, something to literally keep us moving, rather than stagnating by our father’s bedside in the hospital. Maybe it was just enough of a distraction.

And I will say that with the exception of the insane bureaucrats in charge of my father’s rental agreement and flat, all the people we encountered were unfailingly kind, warm and went out of their way to help us. And that in itself is a very worth-while experience to have at a time such as it was.

From home to hospital

Galway ~ then

It felt as if I’d just got my foot in the door from Scotland and the Fringe when I got the call about Dad. By this time he’d already been in the hospital for 5 days or so. The well-meaning fool had refused to let them call me while I was on holiday because he didn’t want to worry me… Fortunately I still made it to Galway in time to say goodbye. A strange, difficult, stressful and dragged out goodbye to a father who was already partly gone. But regardless of how difficult it was, and how close I constantly felt to falling apart, I am grateful for the time we had, such as it was.

As you can imagine I’d not gotten much sleep after I was wrenched out of my jam making world and thrust into the reality of my father laying dying close to 1000 km away. Early the next morning saw me sitting on a bus to the airport and then the first morning flight to Dublin. I honestly only remember one thing before landing in Dublin, which is the owl.

It stands out in my memory in a similar way that childhood incidents do, where I talked to animals (I had an entire conversation with a heron on the roof of my neighbour’s garage once) or saw ghosts, but at the same time it feels real. I mean those things did at the time too, but I’ve since rationalised it with my adult mind as just being by-products of my overactive imagination.* As we were taxiing up the runway I saw an owl, hovering in mid-air just outside the plane window. It was just… there. Quietly, barely moving, looking straight at me. I looked around at my fellow passengers, but nobody seemed to notice or care about this owl, and I thought it was there just for me. I thought I was too late after all, and the owl was the spirit of my father, come to say goodbye. In fact, I still kind of think it was. Because what met me at the hospital was really only a remnant of my father, of the man he used to be. It was the sick, cracked framework of a man, who’s only thoughts centred around being able to go home and drink beer. I think his creative and sensitive spirit had already let go, and what was left was the Boxer. I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains…

***

In Dublin it turned out that my sister and I had landed in parallel universes – or so I rapidly became convinced of. What probably actually happened was that we landed at different terminals. However, to our stressed and sleep deprived minds, no logical explanation presented itself as we both wandered around the airport texting and calling each other to try and find out where the other one was. After about half an hour of “Where are you? Do you see a big weird yellow thing? No, I’m by the elevators!” We decided to meet by the Airlink bus. This turned out to pose yet another challenge as apparently there were only 16 bus zones in the universe inhabited by my sister, but I was waiting at zone 20. Though this reinforced the parallel universe theory, I insisted that there really was a zone 20 and surely if she just kept walking past zone 16 she would find me. And so it was that after what felt like hours, I finally saw a thin, gaunt, pink haired young woman walking towards me and was finally able to embrace my sister, while trying prevent this temporary relief from letting me melt into the puddle I could feel I would become if I stopped gritting my teeth and tensing every muscle in my body.

A little while later while we sat at Heuston waiting for our train, another strange thing happened. I was explaining to Eirin how I’d wanted to get hold of our older half sister Tiril, whom Eirin had never met, to let her know what was happening with Dad, but that I had no contact information for her. When Tiril and I were younger she – to her credit – made an effort to forge a relationship with me and even came to visit mum and me when we lived in the north of Norway. At that time I remember being in awe of this cool older sister who was so clever and independent and knew how to speak Elvish. Though as the years went by I guess we both slacked off, and by now she was married with 4 children and with a busy career life as a doctor. I’d only met the oldest of her four children maybe 10 years earlier. She and Dad did not really keep in touch, which I can sympathise with, and which was the case for many people who had been in his life at one point or another. He hadn’t been around much when she was growing up, and had since used his normal alienating tactics of accusatory drunken texts or calls with little to no real contact in-between. Nevertheless, it felt strange that he was lying in a hospital bed in critical condition and she knew nothing about it. I’d tried to look her up online but she’s one of those few people who has little to no online presence and actually lives her life through real life human interactions rather over the internet – quaint, right? Anyway, just as I was explaining this to Eirin, I realised something. I had Tiril’s phone number. She was right there in the contact list on my phone. Of course the fact that I hadn’t realised this sooner can easily be explained by the fact that I was extremely stressed, but at the time it seemed completely bizarre. As if a door in my brain that I didn’t know existed had suddenly opened up. And that is how I ended up having a very matter-of-fact conversation with a woman I hadn’t spoken to in about 10 years about our ailing mutual father.

***

I was the one who had suggested we take the train to Galway as I prefer trains to buses, but regretted it almost as soon as we got on. There was a group of rowdy young men who were shouting and drinking the entire trip. Being completely exhausted I’d been hoping I’d be able to doze off on the train or at the very least read, but the shouting and uproarious laughter was too much for me to be able to focus on anything, let alone sleep. I’m non-confrontational (read: a scaredy-cat) any nature, but given my mental and physical state at the time, and given that politely asking a group of drunk young men to pipe down usually doesn’t give the desired result, we suffered in – well, overwhelming noise. When we finally got off the train in Galway 2,5 hours later, an old woman who had been sitting in the same carriage as us grabbed my hand and looked me in the eye with as much feeling as if we’d been through a war together. “That was awful, wasn’t it?” She said. And it really was.

Full of dread and premonitions and so tired we could barely put one foot in front of the other, we weaved our way through the city and up to the university hospital, where we were met by a recorded voice we would come to loathe, shouting at us not to smoke on hospital grounds. The smokers right outside the front door and right under the speaker seemed deaf to the appeal of “ropedama” (the screaming woman), however. After navigating our way through maze-like corridors that would soon be all too familiar, we arrived at our destination – the stroke unit.

There, in a room full of other sick people, decked out in a hospital gown and with various tubes and machines attached to him, lay my father. The once fierce warrior, poet and musician full of life force was barely recognisable.

As soon as he saw us, he burst out crying. He had no idea we were coming. We rushed to him and gripped his hands and wiped away his tears. My own were streaming freely by now. I am sure that he was happy and amazed to see us there, together, all of a sudden, but there were other feelings in play too. He grabbed hold of the nurse that was tending to him and uttered one of the few intelligible sentences I heard him speak while we were there: “I don’t want them to see me die”. And that is when the hard part truly began.

*One of my favourite things from the Hitchhiker’s Guide is the SEP field, or the “somebody else’s problem” field. In short it details how a space ship can be standing around outside Lord’s cricket ground without anyone noticing because it has a SEP field around it, meaning people don’t see it because they don’t expect or want to see a space ship, it doesn’t fit in, so they ignore it and class it as somebody else’s problem. I always thought this was a good allegory for growing up. When you’re a kid you don’t necessarily think that it’s strange to talk to animals (and have them talk back in a way you understand), it may seem perfectly reasonable. I can talk to a human, why would I not be able to have a conversation with a bird? But as we grow up we learn that there are certain things you can and cannot do, you learn how the world works and that in fact humans and birds do not speak the same language so you can’t possibly have a conversation with one. It makes me wonder about all the things we may be missing because we don’t expect to see them.

Prelude II – The Phone Call

One Thursday evening in late August 2016 I was making plum jam. Then the phone rang. It was from a hospital in Galway. It was The Call. The call I had on some level been waiting for my whole adult life. A stroke. OK. What does that mean? What should I do?

That Thursday evening lives forever in my memory as a separate kind of world. A world where my father was alive and well. It’s a distinct time and place that I can never revisit. The evening sun filtering through the blinds, the smell of boiled jam, the giant bowl of still unused plums spilling out over the kitchen table. It was a place where my biggest concern was if I had enough jars, a place where everything was OK. And then suddenly it wasn’t.

Suddenly I was throwing things frantically into a backpack and calling my sister to tell her to come if she could. 20 minutes later she had booked her tickets and we were to meet the following morning in Dublin.

There’s the Thursday evening where I was making jam, and there’s the Thursday evening where I was packing funeral clothes. It was one and the same, but they feel like two distinctly separate places, times and events. The train tracks split and went in two directions. I followed one, and then my father died. It’s not like I had a choice in the matter. I couldn’t stop the train and get on another one. Oh, but I wanted to.

 

Prelude I – The Planner (wherein I talk about my need for security)

One major reason I could never be like my father is that I have control issues and a need for security. Maybe that is partly because my father was the way that he was. I saw how well that worked out.

I am the opposite of spontaneous. I plan everything out. I studied theatre in high school and was part of amateur acting groups for years, and it thrilled an terrified me in almost equal measure. But the thing that truly terrified me was improv. In my last year of high school I had the leading role in our graduating performance against a guy who could not remember his lines for shit. He was an awesome guy, great at physical theatre and one of my closest friends at the time, but I’d have given anything to have literally any other actor play opposite me at this time. The progression of the play heavily depended on us saying the correct lines at the correct time, and in one particular scene it would be incredibly obvious if we missed something. Being the complete theatrical opposite of my friend I was always amazing at memorising lines but so-so at everything else.

Without fail, up to and including our general rehearsal, my friend would forget at least one line in this critical scene, I would freeze up, and our drama teacher would chew me out for not managing to improvise. Amazingly, come premiere night, he remembered every single line, and continued to for every single performance. However, had he not, I’ve no doubt I’d have frozen on stage in front of hundreds of people.

If things do not go according to plan, I freeze. I recently learned that my “fear response” is to freeze as well, which was to be expected. Needless to say, this is inconvenient, so I plan most things out to a meticulous degree.

Some measure of planning can obviously be quite useful so you’re at the airport on time, don’t forget your passport and have somewhere to stay. But planning where to be at exactly what time, pre-booking all your tickets and restaurants, and even making alternate plans for varying weather conditions doesn’t leave you a lot of room for just going with the flow, being in the moment, meeting new people and being open to new experiences.

I tried to plan my father’s funeral. In fact we were rather in a panic about it, not knowing what to expect of an Irish funeral. My mum was going to play the harp. It was really important as we didn’t know what else would happen and we needed some structure. But by fate or amazing coincidence, the universe conspired against her, as harp strings kept snapping at breakneck speed, and replacing them and tuning the harp at some point became an exercise in futility. And guess what? The funeral was absolutely beautiful. My father’s friends showed up, instruments in hand, and gave him a musical tribute that will not soon be forgotten. Later, Mum and I decided it was meant to be – the harp strings were meant to break.

And, maybe more metaphorical harp strings were meant to break but in my pig-headedness I’ve refused to let them, and missed out on important life experiences, or at the very least something beautiful.

As clichéd as it sounds, I want to stop and smell the roses. I want there to be room for making different decisions and winging it. That’s when life happens. And mistakes. But mistakes are OK too, and part of this whole learning experience that life ultimately is.

So for me, part of this journey is letting go. Not of my dad, but of fear, expectation and control. After many years in and out of therapy, I’ve not made much headway with fear and control. I have become more aware of them, but they are still my guiding stars. So I hope that by (measuredly) following in my father’s footsteps I can learn something from his free spirit and sense of adventure.