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.