Monday 23 April 2018

This Man's Life: I talk to God but the sky is empty - especially at Christmas time

Has Grafton Street at Christmas ever looked less lovely or bleak when you are walking along it and seeing your mother staring back at you in every shop window? Picture: Arthur Carron
Has Grafton Street at Christmas ever looked less lovely or bleak when you are walking along it and seeing your mother staring back at you in every shop window? Picture: Arthur Carron
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

I didn't kiss her goodbye. Then, right out of the blue, she died that night. I didn't kiss my mother goodbye in Vincent's Hospital because she had gone in for something that seemed routine. Routine compared to the seven months and endless operations she had endured in James's Hospital the year before and survived, coming out stronger seemingly than she went in.

I kissed her goodbye when I saw her again white as a ghost at home laid out in the front room. I told her I loved her (something I could never do while she was alive).

I wonder, in hindsight, was this as much her fault as mine. It is hard when someone who seemed permanently present in your whole life one night vanishes, never to return. I wanted to be like Orpheus who went down to the world of death, a world of blackness, to try to bring back his dead wife Eurydice. The gods told him he could take her back on one condition: that he not look back at her until they reached the upper world.

Just as the blackness was turning to light, he made the fatal mistake of glimpsing back to check Eurydice was still with him. It was too soon, and as he held out his hand to her, she slipped forever back into the deep blackness. He heard but one word: "Farewell."

I never got to say farewell, or goodbye, to my mother. And I miss her most at this time of year.

It is Christmas when the pain of people who are no longer with us seems more pronounced. Is there any time more rigorously unconsoling than Christmas when you are missing someone who is gone forever? And has Grafton Street at Christmas ever looked less lovely or bleak when you are walking along it and seeing your mother staring back at you in every shop window?

Everywhere you go at Christmas, you see memories on street corners, ghosts in alley ways looking back at you. I see memories as kind of ghosts. Every Christmas Eve as I pass Neary's pub on Chatham Street, I imagine Ronnie Drew, of The Dubliners, standing there. I met him by chance one Christmas Eve there years ago and we chatted outside in the cold. On the corner of Dame Street, I see, too, my late friend Conor Owens, of The Dublin Event Guide, who drowned on December 19, 1993. I would always bump into him on that corner - him going up George's Street to meet Mike Scott or Bono, me off to Temple Bar.

And when I'm in the Shelbourne at Christmas time, I always see my mother at the bar - smoking. When the smoking ban came in first, it didn't register fully with her that she couldn't smoke any more in bars. One night over the Christmas, she lit up her cigarette in the bar of the Shelbourne.

When I told her to put it out, she walked, like a bold child, through the entire bar smoking her ciggie until she got to the smoking area in the freezing cold outside on St Stephen's Green. That's the kind of woman she was.

And I still see my late father, who neither smoked nor drank, standing up at the bar of the Shelbourne telling stories about his biggest passion - trucks and cars - and tales of Ireland in the 1940s.

I got to say goodbye to him, because he was in a hospice and he knew and I knew his number was up.

He wanted to die at home. To me, that seemed as unconventional as giving birth at home. In the end, it didn't matter. My father wasn't to get his dying wish. He just got too sick to take him home and he died in the hospice. Before he went in there, he was in St James's Hospital and it seemed for a time that he would recover.

Then, just as old symptoms would appear to feck off, new ones would arrive and the cancer would spread and suddenly his eyes would become vacant and the pain would take hold of him and he would suffer, and he wasn't the man who entertained the bar of the Shelbourne with his tales of trucks and cars and Ireland in the 1940s. He was this other person in his private hell on morphine preparing for death.

He was 82. So that wasn't a bad innings and I'm sure in his morphine state he must have pondered how the God he prayed to could let him live to 82 while in the beds around him in the ward young people would die before their time.

When I'd go in to visit him, I'd notice that the young man in the adjoining bed wasn't there any more, and the nurses were changing the sheets for another invariably young person to get into and die in. I couldn't get my head around that. And I can't get my head around babies and children dying of cancer.

Probably no one can. Not even God.

And I'm sure even God, handing out another dose of cancer to a baby, must find the Serenity Prayer hard to take: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change..." Yada, yada, yada. After a while, with all this grief and pain swirling around you, you start to feel a little like Sylvia Plath when she said: "I talk to God but the sky is empty."

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