My mother was laid to rest during an unusually warm September in Ireland. I squinted at crowds who couldn’t fit inside the church, spilling out over the avenue and blotting out large doors. The singing was deafening. That was 10 years ago.
My father was buried this month. There was no funeral this time. No wake. No neighbours with home-made cake or trays of sandwiches. No endless kettle boiling or tea making. Nobody standing awkwardly in the narrow hallway, waiting. No handshakes, no kisses and no hugs; definitely no hugs.
I woke up that dark morning to thick snowflakes falling. The sun broke through later to deliver a blue-sky day. “A powerful day”, Dad would’ve said.
When he was released from hospital for the last time, Dad was unstable and he was sleepy. But, he had tested negative for Covid-19. I’d flown home from the UAE to celebrate his 90th birthday. We had done the necessary quarantine and been tested, but the terrifying nature of this damned virus is that there is no guarantee.
Dad had contracted pneumonia for the third time in as many years. Such was our belief in his extraordinary strength that we were confident he would bounce back once more. And he did. But a few days after a quiet and memorable Christmas in the farmhouse where he lived his whole life, since 1930, he took a turn for the worse.
Looking back now, the signs were there. We watched the news and shared our disbelief at the escalating cases. We went into lockdown for a third time. We stayed away from my brother’s house because my two young boys would not social distance. My sister and I tried to entertain them. I phoned friends. But Dad had tested negative, and so we were relieved. Never did we think he could’ve brought it home from hospital.
He started waking every two hours. He needed help getting to and from the toilet. He was stiff and unstable, shivering and extremely tired. His appetite wasn’t what it used to be, this tall, broad, lean man who would clear his plate with room for dessert. He didn’t want to get out of bed at 11am, this man who would be downstairs at 7.30am making porridge, tea and toast.
He couldn’t remember things. He complained of a bad taste in his mouth. “This is my summit,” was one of the last things he told me.
There were periods of startling lucidity. Two nights before the ambulance pulled into the front yard to take him back to hospital – the last time I saw him alive – he spoke for 59 minutes on the phone to a neighbour. He wrote 23 Christmas cards. A man of humour, he still recognised a good joke, a familiar glint in his blue eyes. When he looked at you, it was resolute. He thanked me for coming home for Christmas. He told my sister I needed to get a job, that I couldn’t be looking after children full-time. He wanted the best for us all.
When the ambulance took him away, my sister and brother and I stood together, and watched as the doors closed. We were saddened he had to go back to hospital before New Year’s Eve, but we thought it was the same pneumonia, and with oxygen and steroids he would be fine.
The ambulance drove away, and I felt a sickening combination of sadness and relief. I was ashamed to be looking forward to a night of uninterrupted sleep. Sure, this was not why I had come home for Christmas, but how lucky that I was there to help when he needed it the most. I scolded myself.
Four hours later, I heard my sister across the hallway, talking. Dad had tested positive for Covid-19. We were in shock.
A few days later, on New Year's Eve, we spoke to him on his mobile, and he sounded in better form. He was sitting up, reading the newspaper. I was delighted. I set up a Zoom call with friends, certain that Dad was on the mend.
A couple of days later, his oxygen had been reduced, and this we took as positive news. But, we were frustrated with the lack of contact from the hospital, and often his mobile would ring out. We felt helpless and desperately wanted to see him. The cold days were long.
My final conversation with Dad came as a surprise. We stared at my sister’s phone in disbelief. “Dad Mobile”: it still shocked us as it been such a battle to convince him to use one. “I’m told I have to stay here for 14 days or I’m breaking the rules,” Dad told me, a familiar rebellious tone to his voice. He always had a healthy disrespect for rules, born at a time in Ireland when life was too challenging to bother with decrees and orders; his own man. “I’ll see you tonight,” he said.
On the third day of the new year, my sister and I braved the cold for a brisk morning walk. The day was crisp and inviting, a dusting of frost on the ground, sparkling silver threads dangling from bare trees and bushes. My boys delighted in jumping into shimmering pockets of ice.
Then my sister’s phone rang. Her silence. I knew immediately. It reminded me of the call I received from Dad when my mother had passed. The suddenness of it. The walk back was silent, save for intermittent sobs and curses. My children were quiet, absorbing our sadness.
We never got to say goodbye.
We drove to my brother’s house, hugged briefly and cried through our masks. We tried to keep apart as we made the necessary phone calls and drank tea. We couldn’t stay long, so back we drove to my Dad’s house, soon to be empty for the first time in more than 150 years.
The restrictions around the burial were overwhelming. Ten people. No funeral. We drove in separate cars. The hearse drove into the farmyard; a tribute to Dad’s love of farming and his lifelong vocation. Snow covered the ground but the sun shone brightly.
Neighbours and friends lined the four-mile stretch of road from our home to the church, masked, with heads down and hands crossed. Most had known this local legend their whole lives. Many had loved him. This was their goodbye. A rare day for a rare man.
This piece was written under a pseudonym