Wednesday 16 October 2019

Miriam O'Callaghan: 'A Christmas Candle burns at the heart of our family, past, present and future'

Memories keep our loved ones close, and a flame of remembrance warms Miriam O'Callaghan as she thinks of her beloved Dad

A touching scene from the 2013 film ‘The Christmas Candle’, which stars Lesley Manville and Sylvester McCoy
A touching scene from the 2013 film ‘The Christmas Candle’, which stars Lesley Manville and Sylvester McCoy

Miriam O'Callaghan

Monday was the anniversary of my father's death. When I think about him, which is a probably enough time to qualify as complicated grief, he might have died a second or a century ago. In fact, it's now 1,831 days or five years and the guts of a week.

The Speaking Clock, defunct itself, would have the time of death at 11.42. Precisely.

My kitchen clock doesn't so much speak as bellow: hurry up or you'll miss the bus, tram, train, plane, bell, gate, exam, lecture, supermarket, theatre, cinema, copy deadline, dentist, vet. Perpetual motion is us. But when I got home from the business of burying my father - and anyone who has engaged in the father-burying business knows what a queer, carrion business it is - the shouty clock, a mock Victorian article with black-painted numerals and a half-spilled bowl of oranges, was shtum.

According to the hands, the Grand Silence fell over the kitchen at 11.42. Precisely.

In the five years since, that tide of grief and silence has never fully receded, though now it is more like the last of the Lourdes water lapping the crowned plastic Virgin's shins, than the Stephen's Day tsunami crushing our lungs, sweeping us off with the inhabitants of Indonesia, Sumatra and Sri Lanka, their trees, trucks and civic statuary whooshing past our heads.

For a long time after my father died, I was on first-name terms with the damned of the Indian Ocean; even now and without warning I revisit them. On a bus recently, we're stopped on Ball's Bridge when from the Dodder, rises up the sudden, suffocating thought, "Christ, my Dad is dead". Jumping back from the window, there it is: some random Andaman island canoe torpedoing down the Dublin Bus aisle, skimming my ear.

Just last week, I awoke with the lunatic thought that my father didn't deserve what happened to him. To die, that is. He was too permanent, too necessary, too busy, too loved and too superior - way too superior - for mere Death to be looking at, never mind interfering with. But on the long nights of low lights and green beeps, the nurses creeping in to check, their voices full of Deterioration, we saw them look past him and us for someone, something else.

It was Death, or signs of Her, they were seeking. We could have told them Death had already arrived, settled in, rustling the striped curtain around my sister one night, and me another. When he made his nick-of-time escape from the ward to a guard of honour from the nurses - Best of luck Patrick... God bless you… It was a privilege to look after you… Safe home now… - she slipped into the ambulance, the reprobate, following him home.

Three times she announced herself. Each time just after 3am, chilling his over-warm room in her cold, cosmic exhalation. This week my sister and I were listening to Carols from Kings on CD in the car. The carol Past Three O'Clock came on. We stopped chatting, looked at each other. In all the years we sang it ourselves, could we have imagined it as prophecy?

At night, he'd tell the nurses to go to the other patients and give themselves a chance. Didn't he have one of his Girls with him, to read the monitors, press the bell.

Girls? More middle-aged imposters. But in the small hours, along with the advice and coffee and toast, the nurses gave us something we value even more now in retrospect: privacy. Twenty-one bonus nights of one father and interchangeable daughter. Do you remember when... and what about... and how does that poem go… and who was he again, Dad?

The stories of our childhood, threadbare from all the telling, re-upholstered now in honour of their last sharing, with silk and velvet worthy of the Magi: the Christmas tree cut down on Mangerton Mountain in the snow on the way home from a job, roped onto the roof of Pat Browne's Beetle; the famous pantomimes at Sundays Well, the madness of the dress rehearsals; the barley field we could see from our house and walked to every August; the boys from Blarney Street who went off to fight in Korea; he and his brothers on their bicycles, legs in the air, freewheeling down Faggot Hill; taking his dog out the country where he'd lie down in a field to read a book and the sky, enjoy his bottle of tea. How it took him 10 years to get our mother to marry him and how their wedding day was the best day of his life.

Then the stories of our own children, their anticipated arrival, toddling, walking, running, reading books, clouds, feeding birds, digging for dinosaur teeth and finding them, arriving always at his door with cake and shouts of Up Cork!

And what is your story, reader? Are you reading this, taking a few minutes' R&R behind the lines of the battle that Living and Dying are fighting over your beloved? If so, you know that even in the most palliative of care, the war between the elixir of life and the pharmacology of death can be one of atrocity and attrition on you who have not yet received your Final Orders and have Leave to Remain.

In a corridor, you see on a chart outside a door a date of birth, the recorded beginning of a physical life that any day, hour, minute will end leaving it replete, complete in itself, confined to the past, excluded from your present, your future.

In this week before Christmas, we Remainers will see each other everywhere - the supermarket, Christmas market, pub, shopping centre, carol service, petrol station, coffee station, water station, the queue for the panto, on the beach or the pier or in the outside lane, all of us inmates, primates of the monkey-house of grief, loss.

Shortly, we will reach the longest, darkest night of the year, the winter solstice. A good time to remember that though frequently we tend to live as though we will never die, no-one is immune: on a random day, in a random year, Death will come to and for us, everyone. At Christmas and other set occasions, my parents used to get us to think of the dead who have nobody to remember them, on the iterated basis that one day it would be us. It stayed with me through my adult life and I initiated my own children in the practice, though they opt for the thought bit over the prayer bit, on the basis it is just as effective.

On Christmas Eve, as the dusk falls, we will light the Christmas Candle, the youngest and the oldest in the house holding the match, like thousands of families all over Ireland. For many it will be a secular "sacrament". For us, we light the candle in honour of the Christ Child, Mary and Joseph. In fact, Joseph was always big in our house since he gave my father his second name and was a master craftsman like him and his father and grandfather. But we light it too - as we lit it always - to invite a Christmas blessing on our family, the living and the dead, and those yet to be born.

In our parents' home, for a few seconds of every lighting ceremony, we would see our father become a small boy burying his own father on Christmas Eve, the funeral horses slipping, panicking on the icy hill to the cemetery at Templecurraheen; the lemonade or the Rasa, and as we got older the sherry, port or brandy - the first of the Christmas - in honour of the grandfather we never knew.

His great grand-daughter, whom we suspect he knows well, arrived home from Vienna earlier this year full of the news of the 54 Habsburgs and their 54 hearts unbeating in reliquaries in the Herzgruft - Heart Room - of the dark Augustinerkirche. Though intrigued, true to blood and form, it seems she prefers a more metaphysical preserving and remembrance. Therefore, when our hearts cease to beat, let there be no darkness or silver or stasis. Instead, may those who love us now pass us on, into light of those who loved us before.

Happy Christmas.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss