Sunday 25 September 2016

Miriam O'Callaghan: Forgive in the now, for those we've lost cannot

Christmas is a gift and an occasion to heal and love, writes Miriam O'Callaghan

Miriam O'Callaghan

Published 20/12/2015 | 02:30

FRAGILE: The festive season can be a time of grieving. (stock image)
FRAGILE: The festive season can be a time of grieving. (stock image)

Every morning I get up at 5am. And every morning my father dies at 5.01am. He has died now 740 times. I don't think he'll ever get over the novelty.

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His own father was buried on Christmas Eve. His six small children watching the horses panic on the steep, icy hill before the cemetery at Templecurraheen. Every year when we lit the Christmas Candle at dusk ­- the match held by the youngest and the oldest in the family - we remembered the grandfather we never knew.

In family photos, he was a dark, austere, handsome man. In family stories, a man with a fine voice, a big brain, a short fuse and a long reach. But for me, in the Christmas flame, he was ever the young occupant of an old hearse, his three sons and three daughters, mesmerised by sudden death and the treacherous legs of horses. "My Daddy is dead," said the youngest to the undertaker, with exquisite redundancy. Though he didn't know it at the time, he was saying it for me.

I see us everywhere in these days before Christmas. Our advanced binocular vision, our enlarged cerebral hemispheres simultaneously belying and belaying our status as inmates, primates of the monkey-house of grief.

Homo Destructus stumbling through the fairytale of New York, or Paris or Peckham, where baby it's cold outside and chestnuts are roasting on open fires, and people are asking how much is that doggie in the window and do they know it's Christmas and angels are appearing to shepherds and stars are brightly shining and Good King Wenceslas is looking out over all of it, all of us, while Caesar Augustus goes mad on the counting and Magi abandon summer palaces and silken girls bringing sherbet to gift gold and balm and anti-inflammatories to a small Jew in a stable, though it's beginning to look a lot like we can never stop the calvary.

So we call in the cavalry of smiles and lists and click and buy and wrap and non-sticky-sticky-tape and spit the bullets of Happy Christmas and Many Happy Returns and Auguri and Buon Natale and Joyeux Noel and Frohliche Weihnachten and Nollaig Shona agus go mbeirfimid beo … and what are you having and make it a double, sure 'tis the season, we'll be dead long enough.

And here we are with Mary Bradley in the nuclear fall-out zone of missing and longing. No shelter, no escape, no download, no app, no hack. We can read about the stages of grief in the same way we can read about the stages of labour. On the page, labour is hard work. In the moment, it is a particular form of savagery.

Some might deem long grieving inappropriate. In my case, it's been two years since my father died. But, if anything, for my family our grief for our father is increasing because, though I have not seen his headstone, the numbers prove, beyond doubt, that we no longer share the term within the bracket of his life. Our Holocene is over. Its life-giving, clement environment gone. And because it is, who are we? What do we do now?

Over the baking, my sister and I have been considering these questions. From the backstory of our childhood, we agree that once Gay Byrne is alive, the world is still relatively safe and possibly OK. And we remind ourselves, each other of The Cure at Troy when Seamus Heaney through Philoctetes says "life is shaky. Never, son, forget how risky and slippy things are in this world". And how, if we are uncommonly lucky and have even one who understands us, loves us unconditionally, we are safe and saved.

But now, the clocks and seasons are metronomes beating my father's absence. For him, after his death, there was no public ululation, no visitation of the great and not-so-good, no amphora, no amber beads, no honey.

Just a trip up the road to O'Connor Brothers where the liberal administration of glutaraldehyde could neither find nor expel the secrets he possessed so deeply, singularly: how to be himself and how to be happy. In his body disease dazzled, even itself. But he held himself discrete, aloof from such vulgarness.

On the worst of days, to the consultant, he was "very good Doctor, and tell me, how are you?" At the end, moving up a gear to being "outstanding".

As a strategy it's a runner. Because 'out-standing' is what we need to be. 'Out-standing' against injustice and cruelty which can be met through circumstance, brutalising systems, bad luck, or more rarely, impeccable malice. The last with the intention of Odysseus's arrows: to never miss and always kill.

With those we miss and have lost to death, there are no second chances. We can't do an Adele. Call from the other side. I would give the world to talk to my father, hear him say 'hello my darling', pour us a Christmas sherry, to be five again clinging to his knee or even 15, 25, 35, 45 being twirled around the sitting room to Dean Martin or Perry Como's Christmas.

Only for me, such extraordinary ordinariness is over. But for those we have lost through misunderstanding, or time, or too-long a silence, there is still every chance. Christmas is a gift, particularly to adult children.

If you are reading and hesitating, make the call. Better still, show up. We are, all of us, fragile. And forever is the longest time.

In these nights of Bethlehem skies, I live in hope of Darshan. "What are you on about? Darshan? What in the name of…" I hear the Holy One say. "Don't mind your Darshan. Get out the crib, polish up Mary and Joseph and the Child between them. There's your blessing, your sense, your shelter. Did I teach you nothing?"

This Christmas, my father is watching earth. But since I know his slate eyes look down, not up, it's Earth with a capital E. We miss those we love with that same capital - Exquisitely, Endlessly, Extravagantly - our grief, never defeated, but perhaps, at some time, accommodated. The grieving are not the solitary you, or me. They - we - are the common 'us'. And though, insanely, we tend to live as though we will never die, some day, if we have been good enough or lucky enough, those we love will grieve for us.

Would we spare them? Hell, yes. Should we spare them? God, no.

Mind your loss. Rejoice in your love. Happy Christmas.

Sunday Independent

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