Early morning calls are rarely good news. When the call is from your brother, his voice freighting two words with loss and grief, it’s about as bad as it gets.
The call came at 6.45 AM on Sunday. For a few hours, I ran on automatic, alternating between doing what I normally did and trying to figure out what to do next. Actually confronting the news would wait. Would have to wait. My family were a hundred miles away from me in the midst of a pandemic. Could I be with them? Through the morning, I narrowed in on that question, and by lunch I had an answer from my doctor: yes. A visit to the hospital and a Garda checkpoint later and I was heading north.
I arrived not long before the body came back. He’d died at 6.00 AM, and as always with these things, matters followed their own course. My parents were lucky enough to have most of their immediate family living close by, so my mum had support as what needed to be done was done. By the time I arrived, I was there to fill in a missing piece. To offer support and presence, and to help figure out what came next.
My big contribution that day was to provide a photo of him that people could use. He wasn’t the most comfortable photo subject — in most photos of him, his smile was thin, if there at all. Perhaps he’d just gotten used to the formality of the job he’d held as head teacher of a primary school for 40-odd years. I found a different one. One where he was laughing. One of him and me, as it happened. I cropped myself out of it and sent it on.
The photo came from a couple of years before. My mum had been ill, needing heart surgery and then a lengthy recovery in hospital. I was between jobs, so I decided to head north and stay with him for a few months. Despite the circumstances, I appreciated that time we had. I think I told him that. I hope I did. The photo was of the two of us attempting to bake an apple tart. Despite it being the middle of summer, we’d decorated it with the only pastry shapes we could find cutters for: Christmas trees. Maybe that’s what he was laughing at.
The tart turned out pretty well, in the end.
After the pressure of the first day, the next few were all waiting. We had time for realisation to sink in, as the body lay in repose in the house with us. Mum fielded condolences from her and dad’s expanse of family and friends. I did useful things, like cancelling his satellite TV subscription (awkward) and deleting his Facebook account (easy enough, as he’d never really posted much there).
The last missing piece arrived on Tuesday night. My brother flew in from Australia and arrived a little before midnight. Like me, he’d needed permission to travel through the pandemic, but his journey had been much longer and the prospects for his returning after were far more questionable.
The day of the funeral was … strange. I suppose it always must be, but then 2020 hasn’t been a normal year so far. The weather seemed to feel the strangeness. There was sunshine before and sunshine after, but during the funeral itself, there were two hours of squally, cold rain. Even so, the road between our house and the chapel was lined with people seeking to pay their respects. Not able to attend the funeral due to the pandemic, they did all that they could.
I helped carry the coffin to the grave. Helped lower it in, along with my brothers and uncles. Then we walked home again, through the easing rain. I found myself wanting to do everything I could but not knowing whether anything I did could make a difference. The funeral was over, and now the living without him had to begin.
It’s a huge gap to fill. Most people probably feel the same way about their parents, so please excuse me if I talk about him for a bit. I often tell people that I know that I’ve been pretty lucky in life. A strange thing to say, given my medical history, recent and otherwise, but my mum and dad are at the base of why I believe it.
He was born in Ardglass, County Down, a few years before World War II ended. Grew up there, made friends, got an education, saw a bit of the world, then came back. Got a job in a local school, became headmaster, got married, had four kids, retired, played golf. A life summed up in a paragraph; accurate but missing almost all of the important things.
His four kids are pretty different in temperament. We each took different things from our parents, but all of us learned from his curiosity, both about the world and the people in it. How to treat other people is the most important lesson that parents can teach, and he and mum aced that.
When I was young, I was constantly amazed at how many people would come up to him on the street and start chatting. As a shy kid, it was incredible that so many people knew him. Part of that was down to his job, which brought him into contact with so many. But mostly it was because he was interested in them, and they picked up on that. Not that he always remembered who they were on first meeting, but he never let on and usually figured it out quickly enough.
You could see that attention repaid in the crowds who braved rain, wind, and pandemic to line a narrow country road and see the coffin go by. You could see it in the generous tribute in the local paper, written by the father of several children he’d taught years before. The letters that crammed into our letterbox as the days went past after the funeral. He’d given out love into the world, and the world gave it back.
He loved sports, though for different reasons. Most of his sons picked up on his love for rugby and football, but I was the only one whom he snared into supporting his beloved West Bromwich Albion. He was a little more successful in passing on his contempt for Manchester United. He liked horse racing too, and golf, and he’d watch cricket as well, if only to see England lose.
He loved history, a love that kept my own love for it alive after school had done its best to bore it out of me. We’d planned to visit Venice and maybe other sites before the lockdown came in. He loved stories, both reading them himself and reading them out to his pupils. He’d have drained the local library dry of books if he could.
He loved quizzes more than almost anyone I knew, and they gave him an outlet for his curiosity and ability to retain odd scraps of information. It’s a love and a trait that I inherited too. He took part in several TV quizzes, most notably Mastermind, where his specialised subject was the Second Punic War. As a kid, I accidentally taped over his recording of that appearance. As an adult I retrieved a copy of it from the BBC archives.
Above all, he loved my mum. An ex-girlfriend of mine once turned to me after meeting my parents and said “They never argue!” or words to that effect. Which wasn’t exactly true. I imagine they were being on their best behaviour at the time, but the fact remains that they were together long enough to see several of their kids get married and have kids of their own, to build their own house in a beautiful part of the country, and to enjoy a retirement that saw them travel to various parts of the world both sunny and historical on a regular basis. If they argued, they loved and knew each other well enough to know that the arguments weren’t the important thing.
He wasn’t perfect. He could be a grumpy sod, especially when West Brom were being managed by Tony Pulis, the Irish rugby team were hoofing the ball into the air for no good reason, or Rory McIlroy was failing to putt properly. He had a tendency towards temper when driving that I’ve inherited as well. The world is full of idiots, and most of them are on the roads (a good proportion of them driving BMWs).
He never quite settled into retirement. His curiosity and need to be doing something wouldn’t let him. He churned through library books, wrote a book of his own, joined the local golf club and ran it for a while, volunteered to help out with charities and his old school, and did his best to fill his days. When his grandchildren came along, he loved them too, though they at last managed to remind him of the value of moments of peace and quiet.
I could go on adding detail until my memory ran out and all my readers had given up, but no matter how many words I added, it wouldn’t amount to more than the barest glimpse of a life. That he died so suddenly, without warning and a chance to say goodbye, hurts for those of us left behind, but the silver lining is there to see if you can manage it. It was a good life — it could hardly be a better one — and it ended without suffering. He left behind the best of memories and having done his best to leave the world better than he found it. We should all be so lucky.
For his family and friends, we now have to adjust. As much as death is an inevitable part of life, saying goodbye to a massive part of your life isn’t something that we’re taught to do. We have to figure out what our lives will be like in his absence. We’ll have to cope with the grief of all the moments that will never be. To be reminded every now and then that there won’t be another chance to talk with him. To see a photo, or read something and think of sharing it, and be pierced to the heart in an instant.
The sun is shining and the world is still. There are terrible things going on, and it sometimes feels like the worst people are running everything. But most of us have examples we can look to and know that it can be better. My dad was that for me. He is still.
I normally think of myself as a pretty stoic person, but starting to cough up blood the night before my dad’s funeral, while waiting for my brother to fly back from Australia in the midst of a global pandemic pushed me as close to panic as I’ve been for a long time. Exactly what the cause was, I don’t know, but the odds are that wearing a mask for extended periods of time was too tough on my lungs and a blood vessel went pop somewhere. Then I made it worse by taking part in the funeral while wearing a mask too — though that part I don’t regret at all.
As a result I haven’t been able to stay at home as I wanted to — even with the pandemic, there are still people dropping by to offer their condolences, and I need to be isolated so I don’t have to wear a mask. I did get myself checked out at the hospital and there are no signs of anything worse going on, and it’s now been several days since the last spot of blood, so I think I’m on the mend. Still, it’s a reminder that despite the good scan results recently, I need to take care. Especially amidst everything that 2020 has become.