This week, five writers share the moments that changed their lives, here, Emily Hourican remembers the devastating bereavement that shaped the course of her life
I have an obsession with the road not taken.
It’s what drives me to write novels: ‘What if…?’ ‘What if the ‘if’ was just as real as the ‘what’? What then?’ It’s the heart of each novel I’ve written; possibly the heart of every novel.
Once upon a time I was Irish in name only. I had one Irish parent — my father — from Roscommon. My mother was a complicated mix: born in Jerusalem, brought up all over East Africa, came to Dublin for university. I was born in Belfast, lived in Dublin for a couple of years, then did all my schooling in Brussels, coming to Dublin and UCD when I was 18.
Irish was what I claimed to be. It went down fine in Brussels, but not well at all in UCD. “Where are you from?” was a question I got asked a lot, one for which I had no answer. Or rather, a very long and boring answer... “Well, I’m Irish because my passport says so but I’ve never actually lived here…” One my contemporaries at UCD greeted with great suspicion: “You’re not Irish,” they said, with authority conferred by a lifetime of GAA and Brennan’s bread.
After finishing my degree, I went home to Brussels — it was still home then. I got a summer job filing papers in the European Commission, and then applied for a proper job as a sub-editor on the city’s English-language magazine, The Bulletin.
It was perfect. Journalism was definitely what I wanted to do, and Brussels was where I wanted to be. I loved the city, I had friends there, as well as my parents and younger siblings.
I saw myself living a life I liked — the me of my imagination got the job, had a flat on the second or third floor of a townhouse, close to where my parents lived but far enough to be independent. I caught the Metro to work every day, and did a job I enjoyed in an environment that felt familiar enough to be comforting, new enough to be dynamic.
After work, I went for drinks with friends with whom I spoke English, French, Italian, switching effortlessly between the three (that last is a bit of lie, but still...). Eventually, this story went, I changed jobs, moving into one of the European institutions, and bought a tall, thin house with high ceilings and a narrow back garden. I had some children, a husband whom I called cheri. I spoke French as often as I spoke English so that the two languages blurred in my mind and I couldn’t quite tell any more which was my mother tongue. It looked like a nice life. I was happy with it.
Instead, fate dealt me a shocking blow. At the end of that summer, my father died in an unheralded instant, of a heart attack — and the world, both the real one and the one I had invented, wobbled so horribly that I made a different choice entirely.
I was 21, heartbroken, and too scared to be the girl in my imagination, to pursue the life I had dreamed up, so I took the safest route I could find. I said yes to a master’s in UCD that I had previously applied for in a moment of relative indifference. There, I could hide, among books, among lecture rooms I knew. I could duck low and stay out of sight.
At first, it felt like a stopgap. A hiatus, before I resumed looking for the other life. It had been a passive decision — the choice of least resistance. But it became an active one. Somewhere during that two-year master’s, I decided to be Irish. To commit. To invest. To put down roots. I fell in love, married, had children. Now, my children go to local schools, play for the local football team and have made their First Holy Communions in the local church. Wherever they walk around the neighbourhood, they are likely to bump into someone who has known them from the time they were babies. They belong, without having to think about it. They won’t need to choose where they are ‘from’. They are from here.
It’s a brave, and an unhappy, person who entertains the idea that the road not taken was a better one. Who thinks, “If I had said yes to that job in the law firm/marriage proposal/affair/university course, I’d be happier now; life would be better...” We are all invested in our choices, in making them the ‘right choice’. We have to be. And so we praise what we have, at the expense of what we don’t.
The reality is probably otherwise: if not this country, another country. Another relationship. Other kids. Another way of life. Probably an equivalently happy and fulfilled one. Is there really just one path? One love? One life? Reason tells us there can’t be, but the heart says no to reason. The heart says: ‘This — this! — is mine. Intended for me. This is what I always wanted.’ It’s better that way.
Sometimes, back in Brussels for a visit, walking along the streets of the neighborhood where I grew up, I can almost see that other me.
She’s unloading groceries from a car and carrying them up the steps of a tall, narrow house just like the one I imagined. She has a neater haircut and her car is newer than the one I drive. Her children — yes, they’re there, too — wear khaki knee-length shorts and pale-blue T-shirts with collars. They are asking, “Est-ce que Papa est a la maison?” She answers them in French, and in English, switching casually between the two.
As I watch her, she takes a moment after unloading the last bag to look down the empty street, warm in the evening sun. She stares into the distance, squinting slightly, as if trying to see something that isn’t quite there. Then she slams the boot and runs up the steps and shuts the front door behind her.
I wish her well. I hope she’s as happy as I am.