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.