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.

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