Friday 19 January 2018

My father had it all, but now he wants nothing

On Father's Day, best-selling writer Liz Nugent salutes her 82-year-old father John's grit and spirit during a life which has been filled with highs and lows, but never short of love and fun

Liz Nugent at her home in Blackrock, Dublin. Photo: Colin O'Riordan.
Liz Nugent at her home in Blackrock, Dublin. Photo: Colin O'Riordan.
Liz’s father, back left, and his three brothers, and a photograph of their mother.

My Dad's life has been so extraordinary that it probably warrants a book of its own, but I write fiction and my characters are rarely based on anybody specific. There was, however, one aspect of Dad's life that I used in telling the story of my first novel. In Unravelling Oliver, Oliver is sent away to boarding school aged six, even though his home is so close that he can see it from the top floor of the school.

In real life, my father was the oldest of four boys. When he was ten years old, his mother, to whom he was very close, died suddenly of appendicitis. Dad and my Uncle Peter were sent to Blackrock College as boarders, away from their home and their little brothers. The family home was in Stillorgan Grove, a stone's throw from the school. Within two years, his father (my grandfather) had remarried. During holidays, Dad was sent to his mother's family in Roscommon.

I cannot imagine the pain that upheaval might inflict on a ten-year-old grief-stricken boy, and indeed, to this day, I think that trauma was probably to blame for the depression and alcoholism that plagued my Dad John years later. When he had to have a serious operation for an aneurism some years ago, my sister had to ask him the awful question about where he would like to be buried. He responded that he would like to be buried beside his mother. It breaks my heart that 70 plus years since he saw her, she is still the person with whom he feels the closest bond.

I am happy to say that he is now over 35 years sober. With the help of medication and, he believes, the help of God, his depression has all but disappeared. But during the height of it, his life veered out of control. One summer, driving recklessly, he crashed his car into a wall in Wicklow and had to have his jaw wired. My mother had to liquidise all his food and he ingested through a straw for six weeks. He admits that he never saw the second act of a play because once he hit the bar during the interval, nothing could tempt him to return to the auditorium.

My parents' marriage ended when I was about six years old, but the memories I have of him living at home are good ones. One Halloween night, he put a white sheet over his head and drove my brother's bicycle around our estate to the glee of the neighbouring children and the mortification of my mother. Another time, he put my feet on his feet and danced me around the house while Bad Bad Leroy Brown played at top volume.

Even after he and my mother split, Dad would write fantastic, funny letters to explain that our missing bunny rabbit (mauled by a local cat) had gone down the country to visit his girlfriend and was settling in quite well. Any writing talent I have comes directly from him. He writes extremely well. In the 1980s, he had a hit with his novel The Fat Cat Fiddler at the Vatican Ball (by John D. Nugent, and now sadly out of print) - a farce about a drunken PR agent hired by the Vatican to improve the image of Catholicism in Ireland by staging an apparition of the Virgin Mary.

Dad has always been impulsive, and while there were often lows in his life, there were also highs. He was a successful solicitor. He was well known in the best restaurants, he always had the latest sports car, an E Type Jaguar at one stage; he got a pilot's licence and flew a Cessna, he and a friend sailed an old torpedo boat to Penzance where he had to be persuaded not to buy a monkey for my brother. Once, when I was a child, he took me for breakfast in Jury's hotel and had me paged through the intercom system to see my delight. I turned up at the reception desk full of excitement to be handed a note that said 'You snore.'

I was probably 11 when I first heard the word 'alcoholic' and it was Dad who explained it to me. With the help of the Fellowship, he gave up drinking. A new, more thoughtful, introspective Dad began to emerge, still full of divilment, but sober.

Around this time, I was introduced to his new wife Maria, and my first half-sibling, two-year-old Jennifer. Maria was pregnant with their second child Elaine. Maria was so warm and welcoming that it was impossible to have any issue with her. It never entered my head that she would try and take my mother's place - a trope so beloved by Hollywood. There were six children from my parents' marriage and Maria welcomed every single one of us, made room for us when we were visiting (they moved to Roscommon in the early 1980s), fed us, collected us from the train or the bus station, and knitted us mohair jumpers. In retrospect, it must have been exhausting for her, to have six teenagers regularly visiting with our various woes, broken hearts and bad school reports (me) but she took it all in her stride, even after my third little sister Joanne came along. The three little girls were delightful, beautiful like their mum, and mischievous like their Dad.

They lived in the middle of nowhere in a remote area on the banks of the Shannon, and it was exotic to a city kid like me. Dad sometimes drove us up to Knockrockery and with our sketchpads and pencils, we would try to capture the tranquility of a lazy afternoon or we might be taken to The Prince of Wales Hotel in Athlone for Harvey Wall Bangers (Club Orange) and crisps.

While alcoholism lost its grip on my father, it soon became clear that depression was taking its place. The black dog stalked my Dad, and on some visits, he was unable to get out of bed to greet us and poor Maria was left to entertain us on her own. The great strain this had on their relationship inevitably led to its end, and Dad moved on again. It speaks volumes for Maria and my mother that their relationships with my Dad ended as amicably as possible, given the circumstances. They made sure that all nine of us kept in touch with our father and each other to the extent that when I had to write 'half-sibling' earlier in this piece to explain the relationship, it felt like a betrayal because I love these young women as much as I do my four brothers and other sister. We are all the one family now and when Maria passed away from cancer tragically young last year, I think we became even closer. My mother shows as much concern for my younger sisters as she does for the rest of us.

Sometime in the late 1990s, my father's depression lifted. He strongly believes it was divine intervention. He is not a mass-goer but he has an unshakeable faith and to this day (he is nearly 82), he gets down on his knees to thank God for his sobriety and sanity every night. He despairs at my atheism, but does not try to inflict his religiosity upon me. He takes a low dose of medication for stability and there has been no deterioration in his mental well-being over the last 25 years. I cannot explain it. If there is a God, sorry, and thank you very much.

In recent times, he had a few health scares when a routine scan showed an irregularity which led to hospital visits, unmentionable scopes, barium meals and endless soulless hours in waiting rooms while doctors tried to discover what was wrong. In the end, he declared he was going to no more hospitals until he actually felt sick, regardless of what the scans said. 'If they keep looking' he said 'they'll find something'. I fully agree.

Dad discovered internet dating in his 70s. At the time, my younger and extremely eligible single brother sighed 'Jesus, even Dad can get a date and I can't.' Dad had several dates but I think wrote to one rather eager lady using a pseudonym to tell her that he had died. On another occasion, he abandoned the date one minute after it started because the woman in question looked nothing like her profile photo and he felt cheated.

Now he lives a very quiet life. He has given away most of his belongings. He has given up on dating and is happy in his own company. He can be found in Athlone library or at a meeting or strolling through town looking dapper with sharply polished shoes and a freshly ironed shirt, the familiar glint undimmed in his eye.

I went to see him recently and offered to take him to lunch anywhere he wanted to go. Would he like to go to The Wineport, or out to the Hudson Bay Hotel? 'Lovey,' he said 'there's a great restaurant in Athlone Shopping Centre where they know me.' And so, he led me to O'Brien's Sandwich Bar where he had a slap-up sausage roll and a cup of coffee. Delighted with himself.

He was a man who had it all, but no longer wants anything and I love him to bits.

Liz Nugent will read from her work at the Hay Festival in Kells on Saturday June 25 at 5pm. Nugent's debut novel Unravelling Oliver is already published in eight languages, and was selected as Best Crime Novel at the BordGais Energy Irish Book Awards, Her second novel Lying in Wait, is released this month. The Hay Festival, now in its fourth year, runs from June 23-26 in Kells, Co Meath, and features an exciting line-up of writers, poets, musicians, illustrators and politicians.

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