August 31st 2017 – Almere

Today I got my dad’s ashes out of the pantry, where they were stashed beneath an empty frying oil can, and poured a measure of them into a plastic children’s cup with a screw-on top. It’s a blue cup with little pictures of cut up fruit, and  Fruit Friends written all across it.

There are several points in this very short snapshot of my Thursday afternoon which may have caused me to giggle if it wasn’t also deeply upsetting to me. There was something about the physical ashes that brought the reality of my father’s death screaming back to me. The weight, the faintly metallic smell, the fine and gritty texture and the superfine dust that seems to rise and mix almost seamlessly with the air as soon as the urn is opened… This is what remains. But I’ll be the first to admit the absurdity of the situation.

Then again, the reduction of a living person with a soul, with breath, smell, stories, desires, and consciousness to a box of ashes is innately absurd.

It’s absurd to be standing next to your father’s hospital bed, watching him expire, and a few days later pick up his ashes (50% for me and 50% for my sister) at a crematorium in Dublin, complete with instructions for how to deal with said ashes at the airport.

It’s absurd to be wandering around Dublin airport with 50% of your father’s ashes, waiting for your flight to board.

It’s absurd (and maybe even a tad disrespectful) to come home and stash the urn in the pantry along with mops, brooms, cleaning products and empty bottles. But what are you supposed to do? Put them on the mantelpiece? A reminder every day that someone you love is dead? An awkward conversation piece when people come over?

This plan that I have started to take shape fairly quickly, so I knew that it was only a temporary resting place before Dad would be out on the road once more – where he belongs.

It’s absurd to sit in the hall – because I don’t want people to see me through the window in my trembling, silent grief – and pour ashes from an urn into a Fruit Friends cup, while one of my cats wonders if I’m playing a game with him or if there’s anything there he can eat. But sometimes my romantic nature has to bow to the slightly more practical, and my searches for “travel urn” had been largely unsuccessful.

I decorated a sheet of paper with an inscription in different coloured pencils and taped it to the outside of my makeshift urn. It makes me feel better about the whole matter, even though I know it still says Fruit Friends underneath.

And thus (part of) my father is ready to travel home, and I am as ready as I can be to begin the long farewell. Of course I know that he’s already gone, and I’ve already said goodbye so many times in so many ways in the last year. His soul, his spirit, is somewhere in the ether, or in heaven, or whatever you choose to believe. But I am sure that there is some part of him apart from the physical, tangible ash, that follows me on this journey.

And even when the journey ends some part of him will always remain with me.

Love you always Dad.

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Introduction – in which I explain what on Earth I’m doing

A very brief biography of my father

My father was a complicated man. I know that’s a clichĂ©, but really, not everyone is.

He was born into your standard poor catholic family in Tralee, Ireland in the summer of 1947. After a rough childhood, including a traumatic stay at an orphanage – because his parents could not afford to take care of all their children – he had to leave school at the age of 12 and moved to London at the age of 14.

Perhaps it’s the Irish thing, but music was in his genes. And in those days he discovered he could scrape by as a busker, playing his guitar and singing on the streets. Much of his life was spent this way, on the road, never settling down, never feeling truly at home anywhere.

Though busking was his primary way of life, he had many other adventures. He helped build railroads in Australia, he worked on an oil platform off the coast of Norway, he lived in Budapest for a time where briefly rose to fame as a folk musician, and he spent some time in jail in Haarlem, the Netherlands for smuggling drugs.

He fathered 3 daughters with 3 different women.

On the surface his life may seem romantic, and sure it was full of adventures and experiences and he always had a story to tell that I’d never heard before, but it was also full of emotional and physical hardships. These hardships led to strained personal relationships as he learned to either run away from any conflict, or to blame others for his misfortunes.

Life on the road combined with excessive smoking and drinking also led to the inevitable physical decline. After multiple heart attacks, a triple bypass surgery with complications, and COPD, it was a stroke that ultimately ended the life of a man I’d come to believe could survive everything.

About this journey

I loved my father fiercely. I also carried a lot of anger and unresolved issues with me through most of our journey together, because of things he said or did, promises he broke, accusations he made, and for forcing me from an early stage to be the adult in our relationship. I knew that there was no point in bringing any of these things up with Dad as he’d either get defensive or – when drunk – incredibly sentimental and apologise for everything while still not really taking any responsibility.

I am no longer angry. I have only love for my father. But the impact of his presence (and more often than not, lack thereof) in my life always remains.

Because I want to explore this impact, our relationship with each other and the challenges we’ve both faced and experiences we’ve had, I’ve decided to take a journey.

I have 50% of my father’s ashes (one of my sisters has the other 50%), and I plan to travel to the places that were important to him and spread some of his ashes there, while chronicling my travels and the life of my father. It is a way to honour him, and a way for me to properly say goodbye.

The entire journey will no doubt take me years to complete, as I need to save up money and holidays to go as far away as Australia and New Zealand, as well as places closer to home, such as Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Hungary and the UK.

But the journey starts tomorrow with a return to Galway, the city my father chose to spend the last 10 years or so of his life and where he met his end a year ago in a hospital bed, with me and my sister on either side, holding his hands.