This time last year, we were keeping a vigil in the hospital as Daddy was nearing his end. My sister, who with her family, took care of him for the last four years in their home, and before that, with increasing worry as he tried to live safely alone, phoned me to say he was in the ambulance. There was something different about this call. I packed a small bag, told the children I would be back but was unsure when and drove the hour to the hospital.
He was in a room in A & E and we waited for 2 of our 4 brothers to arrive. He was moved to a ward and the 4 of us waited that night til his breathing got easier. The next day, Friday 18th October, he was moved to a single room and the Celtic spiral “end of life” signs were hung discreetly on doors.
It had been some time since I’d heard his voice. He suffered with fluid on his brain (a form of hydrocephalus) and the surgery had given him very little improvement. He was bed-bound from 19 months previously and fed through a tube in his stomach for the preceding 15 months.
When I visited him in April, 6 months earlier, he had said “Not too bad” when I asked how he was and I’m pretty sure that was the last time I heard him speak.
Daddy had a lovely singing voice. He liked “The Galway Shawl”, “The Rose of Tralee”, “The Boys of Wexford” and “Boolavogue”. He loved funny recitations: “Nell Flaherty’s Drake“ and Pam Ayres’ “Oh I wished I’d looked after me teeth”, John O‘Brien‘s “We‘ll all be Rooned said Hanrahan“ and “The Trimmings on the Rosary“.
It was funny how in later years I always referred to him as Dad, but as he was dying over 4 days in hospital, I called him Daddy or even the more childish “Dada”.
Losing a parent is never easy, whether you’re 4 or 14 or 46. On a very selfish level, there’s no longer a generation standing between oneself and one’s own death. Particularly, if you have a difficult relationship, the death of a parent brings back all those conflicting memories, the good and bad times, the way you imagine they’d like to be remembered, listening, supporting and the ways you’d both rather forget, serious disagreements and interferences and lack of respect for autonomy.
So I sat and held his hand.
I sang hymns he loved, like “Faith of our Fathers” and “Sweet Heart of Jesus” and “Salve Regina”.
After hymns, I went through what I remembered of “Boolavogue” and “Cavan girl” and “Follow me up to Carlow” and even “How much is that doggie in the window?”
My abiding memory is the early mornings, when the kitchen staff decided I needed to be fed porridge. The times the nurse would say “we need to settle up your Dad” which was code for “please leave as we are cleaning him” and required the help of an orderly to lift and move him. I’d go to the hospital chapel at those times and light a candle and plead “Take him! He’s suffered enough.”
You know he’s living longer than medical staff expected when the nurse who says good-bye on Friday comes back for her shift on Sunday and says “Are you STILL here?” in the tone usually reserved for women about to give birth whose babies are too snug (or just not quite fully cooked) and reserving the right to choose their own birthday if allowed.
Daddy was waiting for his own time and I wondered if it was my fault? His 2 youngest sons lived in Australia. They believed our brother when he passed on the code from nursing staff “tell anyone who needs to say good-bye to do so”. For one brother this involved late night faxes and diplomatic courtesies as he was issued an emergency passport. The Doctor wrote “we have advised the family to gather” which was a lovely piece of gentle code for the inevitable. But I had doubted that he could hold on. On Saturday, I said to one brother in Australia “ I’ll put the phone to his ear. Not on speaker. Say whatever you need to.”
He told me later he said “We love you Daddy. We’re on the way.”
So Daddy waited for them, despite the lovely nurse saying, “you know he can’t hold on” and we said “we didn’t ask him to”.
The lads from Australia arrived on Monday October 21st at 3.20pm and Daddy breathed his last an hour later.
A minor miracle in itself, a bit like life.
In loving memory of Michael O’Connor,
born 22nd January 1933,
died 21st October 2013.