Des Bishop: The China Crisis
Des Bishop talks about his mother Eileen's serious illness in New York, how he has been brooding for a baby since he was 25 and his big dilemma over his girlfriend in China
It's not even remotely funny. One of the nation's most celebrated comedians, Des Bishop, has become practically a full-time carer. His 74-year-old mother, Eileen, is seriously ill. Out of necessity, he has spent a lot of time recently minding her in New York - where he was raised until he was 14 when he was despatched to boarding school in Ireland. He's just off the plane as he walks into The Shelbourne for coffee and an hour-long chat about death, life, love and his new show, Grey Matters.
Des's father, Mike, died in February 2011. Later that year, Des published a memoir, My Dad Was Nearly James Bond (in 1969, Mike auditioned for the part in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, only to lose out to gormless George Lazenby). Des also produced a documentary for RTE about his father and his life and slow death from lung cancer.
"Both my parents had smoking-related illnesses," he says. "They had me late. My dad was 39. My mother was 35. So they were late starters. So I guess I'm a little bit young to be dealing with this, but they are also a little bit young to be in the trouble zone."
That zone has been a place of good and bad for the Irish-American iconoclast.
"Looking after my dad was like a joy," he reflects. "Every day he was just happy that his kids were around him. Looking after my mother is tough because every day she just wants to let you know how much better she would be if she looked after herself if she could. She's a tough cookie. She wants her independence, which I respect, but unfortunately she's not independent. She can't accept it. Her quality of life has really fallen a lot in the last year." He half-laughs. "In a couple of days it will be the anniversary of this shit starting."
The months of care Des has devoted to his beloved mother is a testament to the strength of their relationship. On November 6 last year, Eileen had a lung tumour removed. The operation was successful, but, he adds: "My mother had a lot of complications."
Every time Eileen gets a bit better, he says, something happens. In March, she fell down the stairs and broke her neck. In the summer, she was getting better then she "got a load of infections and she was in the hospital again. And then this time she fell and broke her hip".
She always gets better, but it is not as good as the time before. This time was by far the toughest experience for his mother and, indeed, for him.
"We were battling for two weeks. I was like, 'Ma, you have to slow down. You have to listen to me'. She was shouting at me. It was a real battle. I said, 'Ma, I'm not fucking shouting at you because I want to fucking shout at you. I'm trying to stop you from getting in the fucking hospital again because you hate it'.
"Then last week she bloody fell again. She didn't call me. I had gigs in Boston and Maine - two big gigs too - and then I get a call from my brother, Aidan, that my mother fell. She didn't call me for a day-and-a-half. So I called her up."
Des: "Hey, you didn't call me."
Eileen: "Well, I didn't want to call you."
Eileen: ''Because you were right!"
Des laughs at his mother's seeming final acceptance of her lack of physical independence. "So, there is humour in it," he says. But is there a documentary in it?
"No," he says. "I told my mother, 'You're not getting a documentary!' I loved everything that went down with my dad. He was a performer. He loved the fact that RTE ran a show about him and the Irish newspapers wrote about him. But later on, I was thinking, 'Maybe there is a little bit too much in it'. So this time I'm trying to be a little bit more. . ."
I ask him if his big fear is that one day he will get a call saying his mother is dead.
"Honestly, after all we've been through in the family, I'm completely zen about the whole thing. My mother's health is out of my hands. I just try to make her life comfortable," he says.
That Zen comes from having already been through a terminal illness with his father and realising from that experience that there is nothing you can do.
"And also, to be honest - I don't want to be too dour - but her quality of life is not great. So, as I always say to her, 'Ma, when we are together, we can push it. We won't push it too far, but at the end of the day the worst-case scenario and the best-case scenario are actually fine results for you.
"She's not afraid to die. She's not 100pc wild about her current situation, but she's not at a point where she prefers to die. But death is not the worst-case scenario for her. I think a worst-case scenario for her would be being bed-ridden and being a burden to everybody and not being totally with it and still being around. She's adamant that she doesn't want to go to a home."
Eileen sent Des to boarding school at St Peter's College, Wexford, in 1990, from New York. He effectively never went home. He has lived in Dublin all his adult life. He lives in Rialto, a suburb on Dublin's southside. (He actually says he lives between Dublin and China where he spends a lot of time with his 25-year-old Chinese girlfriend, Shauna.)
"I asked her years later why [they let me go to Ireland], because I asked to come when I was 14. She said, 'I just looked at your behaviour and the drinking and just who you were and I just thought this guy is going to go through some stuff. It's probably better that he does it in Ireland than here'. She actually thought I would be safer to let the demons run their course over here."
Are the demons totally gone? "Well, no! C'mon! I would hate to be demon-less! When I say demons, I'm thinking more of the shit inside that drives you."
And what is that? "Who knows, man? I wish I didn't have as much of it, because I'd probably be more relaxed and contented, but that's just not who I am. I travel all over the world doing shows. I'm coming back here, writing. But I'm only 40. So it's okay for now."
And later? "I'll settle down and have a kid and be the best fucking dad of all time! I'm just kidding. My middle brother is the only one with kids - he has two boys - and he's an incredible dad. So I guess it's in us.
"My dad was 39 when he had me, and I always said to myself, 'Don't wait till you're 39'. Because I'm actually super-broody. I've been broody since my mid 20s. I didn't put it off because of my career."
What is the reason for his current state of childlessness then? "I don't have a vessel!" he says. "It's a two person job. But I live in Rialto. It's pretty easy to find someone that would be willing to have a kid. It just hasn't happened."
I ask him about Shauna in China. They are together a year-and-a-half. He describes it as something of a China crisis.
"I got to be honest, man," he begins. "The stars really have to align for this to work out, especially with my mother being sick and everything. She's an actress. She's got really busy. She also loves her career. She's only 25. So I don't want to put her under major pressure. That's a big decision - to leave your whole life to come for some guy. I think she's thinking if we can make it through another year-and-a-half to two years she'll be all set, but I don't know if we'll make it through that."
I ask if he has had this conversation with her before she reads it here. "The Chinese are great like that," he says. "They're super-abrupt. The Chinese don't fuck about. She's real matter-of-fact about it. She knows the drill. She's a little bit too young to be just walking away from her whole life for a guy. It may not work out. But it may. I haven't give up on it, because there's a chance that it may. Some people will read this and go, 'That's so unromantic', but it is just really practical. I can't move to China and she's not ready to move west. So, right now, we're just hanging on.
"Look, we met in China. We fell in love in China. We were living together for the last six months of my time in China. We were tight. Her dog came first. The dog is called Jigi, which means Luck in Chinese. I'll call my next documentary that - The Dog Came First: Relationships With Asian Women."
Des releases his new DVD, Made in China, on Friday. He also starts a five-month tour of his new show, Grey Matters, at the Hawk's Well Theatre in Sligo on November 27. He plays Dublin's Vicar Street on January 22 and 23 and the Town Hall Theatre in Galway on March 19.
Sunday Indo Living