Easter had always been yellow for me: yellow bunnies, yellow Cadbury tinfoil wrapping on chocolate egs, yellow filling on Creme Eggs, yellow stripes on Easter Rising lilies and on proudly raised flags above our public buildings on Easter Sunday...
When my father died, Easter became black. Black armbands, black suits and ties, black clothes, black death all around ...
He'd grown progressively more feeble over the past year. The Alzheimer's that meant his head had tilted a little too interrogatively when I introduced the kids or my husband had developed into tantrums, obduracy, rage ...
He lost control of more, more often, more terribly: his emotions, his body betrayed him at every turn now. Sometimes I welcomed the forgetting because he forget the embarrassment of the incontinence. I began to dread the phone calls home as much as the visits: his panicked shrieking in the background brutally interrupted our platitudes.
When he was admitted to hospital with breathing difficulties my first guilty response was, 'A break for my sister and mother!' But soon, there was no time for thinking, no time for anything but compulsive presence.
I rushed down and I was there. For the first time in years, since the Alzheimer's, since the stroke, since the kids were born, since I'd got married, since I'd left home. My new family came with me, holding my hands, rubbing my shoulders, watching and waiting with me. My husband had lost his own father -
how do you lose a father? what does that mean? is there a Fathers Lost & Found Office somewhere around the next corner?
- just a couple of years before. Occasionally over the next few days our eyes would meet over my father's bed and we could not bear to gaze upon each other. The memory of his father's last days threatened to unhinge me, it summoned such powerful demons within me, denouncing my pathetic hope with its fatal expectation. Oh God ...
I discovered God again, beside my father's bed. From the man who had threatened to beat me for not going to Communion, with whom I had boldly bargained: "I'll go down to Communion if you move into the body of the church! You never see me going to Communion but I never see you at Mass!" Where did I get the courage? I could never have talked back to my mother like that, could never have demanded a quid pro quo of that or any other order. But he listened, he tolerated and he accepted. With my mother it was 'My way or the high-way'. My father offered a third way, sometimes it was a better way, sometimes it was the wrong way but at least it was another way. He could stand up to my mother and the times when he did on my behalf were critical junctures in my life...
My mother wanted me to go to convent school. I dreaded the idea of the nuns. At eleven, I wanted to be at home, not boarded out to some cold institution with green walls and porridge every morning and lights out at ten o'clock. Though I had been raised on pleasant tales of English boarding-schools and the supportive solidarity of those boarding-school friendships I believed utterly that this would be a prison to me! My father had injured his back and could not move from the board on which he lay, but my mother insisted he arbitrate between us.
"Tell her, tell her she's got to go," my mother demanded.
"No," my father responded firmly. 'No, if she doesn't want to go, I'll not send her."
Abandoning him to my mother's angry imprecations, I ran downstairs, guilt-free, nun-free, home-free...
He died on my brother's watch. At the wake, I thanked my brother for being strong enough to let him go. His silent waiting at my father's side had been borne with much greater courage and fortitude than mine. I held fast to my fading father with incessant pleading and importuning of God and Man. It still pains me that my father received the Last Rites in a public ward with only a threadbare curtain to privilege a sacrament that did finally grant him peace and even some gracious serenity. But I also remember those nights at the bedside with my aunts and uncles, all that talking...
My father slipped away from us even as we discovered him anew ... He had been a famous turf-cutter before he met my mother ... His shooting, his driving, his penmanship, his extraordinary cordiality ... He taught my Corgi to herd sheep, restoring her to her ancient heritage, how her little tail wagged in delight ...As the rain buffeted the windows beside us, we recalled a torrential downpour in the 1970's when he arrived home with the car full of drenched Dublin students and their dismantled tent, my mother's gay, young laughter at the memory hinting at further mysteries ...
I wore pink to my father's funeral. We had long run out of clean clothes and I preferred my husband's presence to a new wardrobe. So we took an hour to buy clothes; who owns a black tie by choice? I came back with new clothes for everyone but I had not bought anything for myself. So I dressed in the black I'd worn in the hospital, my usual drab garb. Then my sister came in and borrowed some make-up. Though she couldn't raise a smile, she wanted to look good for Daddy. And I thought, he loved a bit of colour....
So under the lace wrap I'd lent my sister long ago for a special occasion, I wore a pink camisole. And linking my sister's arm just as my father had linked my arm on my wedding morning years before, we walked behind his coffin to the church in all our finery, in beautiful homage to the father we had loved so well.
Four years and five stages later
I have trouble remembering ...
not good, not good at all.
Cut from my father’s cloth
Freed at last from my mother’s shadow
Who am I
I remember hot summer sand and
snowdrops on a white garden carpet
Freud’s mnemic traces
at every moment
of my existence
punctuating my being
like silent angels