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Saying goodbye to Dad: 'I grappled with how I could fully express how much he means to me'

In the final week of my stay, my mind turned to how I would leave my father on what would definitely be the most heavy hearted of all our farewells, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

ONE OF THE THINGS that unites emigrants the world over is a shared dread of receiving “the call” to indicate that a relative or loved one has died or is very seriously ill.

Having been through the process about ten years ago with my mother and cognisant that my father’s health has been in decline for the past twelve months, I was not altogether surprised to hear from my brother last month.

In advance of a scheduled family holiday, then, I changed my own flight and boarded a plane to Boston, the city of my birth, in order to try and assist with all that comes with the territory when you have an 84-year-old parent who is in a really bad way.

A million precious memories

On that dreary flight, a million and more precious memories came flooding back as I anticipated the worst. The words of Phil Coulter’s “The Old Man,” a poignant ballad written by the Derry man in tribute to his own father on the occasion of his death, reverberated in my mind: “I thought he’d live forever; He seemed so big and strong; But the minutes fly; And the years roll by; For a father and his son.”

These lines will resonate with anyone who has left and gone somewhere far from home for novel opportunities and a different life.

I met several Irish people while in my beloved Boston who empathised completely, albeit in transatlantic reverse. In taking a path less travelled – although we are typically supported incredibly, if ruefully, well by our families – we miss seeing our parents get older.

The wonders of modern technology notwithstanding, in some part of us, they remain forever the person we said goodbye to a long time ago.

Fears and tears

It strikes us on visits in the intervening years that they are ageing.  In our emotional self, this prompts fears and tears, especially when we have to leave: “Will this be the last time I see him?”

Another voice within, however, speaks persuasively, somehow averts our attention, and brings us back to our new homes and families and friends. We still worry, of course, but other realities of life inevitably distract us.

I spent 23 days over there – shuttling between the house I grew up in, which my brother and sister-in-law now own in East Milton on Boston’s southern fringes, a hospital in the city’s Longwood medical area and a rehabilitation centre in neighbouring Quincy, Massachusetts.

In that time, because of the sameness of my daily routine, I have been joking that I became nearly as institutionalised as my father.  Yet it was a tremendous, unforgettable privilege.

Diagnoses and prognoses

In all seriousness, it was difficult for me to process all of the myriad health issues, and related diagnoses and prognoses that my father was informed of by a broad range of doctors and therapists.

For him, it was largely a mystery and, under the circumstances, that is actually fortunate. In short, and in plain language rather than esoteric medical terminology, when one reaches a certain age, organs stop working as well as they once did and the body begins to break down.

Frankly, 84 is a fair age for this to happen at. Some people get even luckier. Others, sadly, do not.

The one constant during these 23 up and down days was the exceptional quality of the nursing care my father received at every facility where he was a patient. From a Donegal-born young woman, to men and women whose origins are much further afield, to those who speak with the hard Boston accent which he finds so familiar and comforting, he could not have been better looked after.

A vocation, a calling

Nurses do a very difficult job which most of us would not be able for. It is a vocation, a calling, and this recent experience only served to bolster my view. Some may deem it trite, but no matter what nurses are paid, it will always be insufficient, given the awe-inspiring caring they provide to all sorts of people who require their help for all sorts of reasons.

In the midst of this, there were lots of desperately needed moments of levity, too. My father is extremely hard of hearing and often repeats back wildly inaccurate guesstimates of what has been said to him. His consternation grows in direct proportion to our uproarious laughter.

My father is a Korean War era veteran of the United States Army and is presently surrounded by elderly Asian patients. Their gazes and usually futile attempts at communication alternatively feature disbelief, kinship, suspicion and friendship in equal measure.

His latterly discovered grá for Pepsi-Cola, gummy bears and ice cream – shared with similar zeal by his 4 and 5-year-old grandchildren – is confirmation that there absolutely is a circle of life.

What lies ahead

We don’t know what lies ahead for Dad.  Suffice it to say that our hopes and prayers and our decisions on his behalf will focus on the quality, not the quantity, of life in accordance with his wishes.

In the final week of my stay, my mind turned to how I would leave my father on what would definitely be the most heavy hearted of all our farewells since I left Boston behind in 2001. I grappled with what I might say to him and how I could fully express how much he means to me and how extraordinary a person and father he is. I had a few sentences composed.

But in the end, leaning over his hospital bed in an intensive care unit, all I could manage was “I love you, Dad.” He understood.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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