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Tuesday 6 June 2023 Dublin: 13°C
Fionn and Romy
An Irish emigrant 'I knew I wouldn't make it back home in time to say goodbye'
Technology meant I could still chat with my family every day but I was too far away when my brother suddenly got very sick, writes Romy Delaney.

WE LIVE IN a world that seems smaller than ever, but when you live abroad the distance can sometimes feel huge. What happens when you get that dreaded emergency phone call from home and your world suddenly falls apart? I can tell you, it happened to me.

Choosing to leave your home to live abroad these days isn’t as radical as it used to be. I moved to London just after graduating in 2011, leaving all of my family in Ireland. I knew I would miss birthdays, anniversaries, nights out with friends and the impromptu get-togethers but technology meant I could still chat with my family every day with a hit of a button, no matter many miles in between.

I didn’t have to wait weeks for a letter to arrive, I could read their words a split second after they’d been written.

The sense of distance between my family and me

Even with this, nothing could prepare me for the sense of separation and distance between my family and me when my brother Fionn died suddenly and unexpectedly in October 2015, just a few weeks before his 19th birthday.

I’d seen him just three weeks beforehand at a funeral service for our aunt who had passed away following her battle with stomach cancer. Saying goodbye to my family that afternoon, I noticed that Fionn was already sitting in the back seat of the car. It had been an emotional day and I was drawing it out with long goodbyes as I was flying back to London that same evening.

I peered in the window of the car and knocked to get his attention. He looked up from his phone and I mouthed “bye” through the glass. He rested his head back on the headrest and smiled, not really a smile but more of a tired showing of teeth and scrunched up eyes, then turned his attention back to the phone in his hand.

I turned to go, tired too from the day and feeling a bit drained as I was five months pregnant. Waiting to board the plane later that evening, I felt a familiar weight in the pit of my stomach that had nothing to do with a wriggling baby. I just didn’t want to leave.

Feeling overwhelming shock

Three weeks later at 4am, my phone was flashing. It was my brother Cole calling. Expecting him to be on a night out, I answered in a “what-time-do-you-call-this” sort of manner but it was my mother’s voice I heard.

As she tried to explain that Fionn had fallen ill and was in a coma having had a suspected stroke, the shock I felt was overwhelming.

My boyfriend woke up beside me and I saw the fear I felt reflected in his face. I passed him the phone and my mum repeated to him what I couldn’t comprehend. It was only later that I understood this why my sister had been brushing off a Skype call with me the night before; no one had wanted to worry me.

In the hours that followed I kept my phone in my hand, waiting for the screen to light up with a message. I wanted to fly home immediately but as Cole put it to me: “We’d all be worrying about you then too Romes, just stay there until we know more.”

We decided to write a post on Facebook to let friends and family know what was happening. I sat on a bench in Crystal Palace Park, trying to find the words.

I wouldn’t make it home in time

I clung to hope but with every phone call, it became clear that Fionn might not wake up. By the following afternoon, flights to Dublin for that day had sold out and it was then that I knew I wouldn’t make it in time to say goodbye. I told myself the Fionn I knew was already gone.

With my family around him, he passed away the next morning. I threw clothes into my barely unpacked suitcase and we flew back to Ireland again. Though I had been home only 3 weeks before, there was no sense of deja-vu. Time didn’t pass in a blur as we travelled, instead I counted every minute until I was home again.

Our little boy made his entrance to the world a couple of weeks later. We named him Arlo Fionn in the hope that one day he will know all about the uncle he was named after. The time that has passed without Fionn in our lives is constantly weighed against Arlo’s arrival and though nothing can distract you from grief, having Arlo in our lives gave us a focus, a reason to be happy every day and a reason to pick up the phone and call home.

Romy Delaney features in RTÉ One’s new series Missing You, a six part series capturing the stories of Ireland’s emigrants through their video calls home, starting on RTÉ One on June 7th at 8.30pm. You can watch the first episode on RTÉ Player now.

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