Sunday 22 September 2019

This Man's Life


Stock photo
Stock photo
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

We went to see Santa in his grotto in Arnotts last weekend. Emilia, who is four in February, having already burst into tears, jumped into my arms and clung to me like she was entering a lion's den as we were ushered in to meet the man himself.

Eleven months old, Daniel happily sat on Santa's knee. Emilia, having straightened herself out, told Santa what she wanted from him for Christmas. Santa asked her had she been a good girl for mummy and daddy. Emilia replied that she had. And all was good with the world after that.

Walking down Moore Street holding my hand, Emilia beamed that Santa was a very nice man and he was going to leave her something special on Christmas morning. All we needed to make last Saturday evening even more perfect was for it to snow heavily on the way home on the Luas, blocking the tracks, and for Mr Claus and a dozen reindeer to appear out of the snow storm before flying us home himself.

Emilia was asleep before her head landed on the pillow at 7pm; ushered to a blissful slumber with warm thoughts of Santa's imminent arrival from the North Pole. Baby Daniel had no such intentions. It is his first Christmas and he is clearly determined to stay up as late as possible and make the most of it. Daniel is a great one for creating these little epiphanies, these sudden realisations delivered straight from our subconscious.

At around 9pm, Daniel crawled along the couch (with me holding on to his tiny toes), pulled himself up and knocked a picture of my father Peter off the table on to the ground. I immediately thought it was a sign. I am weird like that. I said to myself how sad it is that Daniel never met his grandfather. I thought that it was just as sad that Daniel's children - if indeed he ever has children - will probably never ever get to meet their grandfather, primarily because I am 51 and Daniel is still a baby; and the universe might need to provide a miracle for that to happen. Stop me before I ruin Christmas.

I remember one Christmas with my dad. It was Christmas Eve, maybe 45 years ago. My mother Maureen was in the kitchen cooking the turkey and ham and the Christmas pudding and the like with my three sisters, Marina, Karen and Jackie (our house was never a bastion of feminism), while my dad and I were in the living room watching The Odd Couple on the telly; my dad and I shared a love of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. My big brother Paul was out on the town, as was his wont, with his girlfriend Polly. But that's another story.

My dad was imparting his wisdom on life to me as the lights on the Christmas tree twinkled. And I wondered was Santa going to bring me an Action Man and an Elvis record despite the fact that I had been more naughty than nice that year. (I chopped down a small tree in a neighbour's garden and frantically confessed to a priest in confession after I convinced myself I was going to jail for life, at six years of age). The really surreal thing was that Christmas Eve I half woke up and saw my dad putting the Santa presents at the end of my bed. I kept that secret and never once told him. When he was dying of cancer in the hospice in Harold's Cross in 2000 I felt like telling him that I knew he was Santa all along.

Like a lot of people who lose love ones, I feel my father's loss most painfully at Christmas. It is an odd kind of pain. I see him in places we used to go to together. I see my dad in the mirror. I see my mortality looking back, too. Martin Amis said something to the effect that your youth evaporates in your 40s when you look in the mirror.

"And then", he continued, "it becomes a full-time job pretending you're not going to die, and you accept that you'll die. Then in your 50s everything is very thin. And then suddenly you've got this huge new territory inside you, which is the past, which wasn't there before."

I talk to dad when I go to visit him at the cemetery Mount Jerome in Harold's Cross. (I always think it was slightly crazy that he could almost see the grave he would end up in from his poor bed in Our Lady's Hospice.) We are all going to the panto next Wednesday at the Tivoli and he and my mother, also gone, would have been in their element at that. He and my mother, both fine dancers, would probably have got up to dance with Alan Hughes and the cast on stage at Snow White. They were old-school characters, full of joy, but never full of themselves. My dad was a gent, a gem.

I remember the last conversation I had with him before he died. I don't think he was really taking it in after all the treatment he had undergone at that stage - and it was insufferably selfish and self-seeking of me to be having this conversation with him at all; a man who was dying with dignity in a hospice. I think it was more for my benefit than his what I was saying. I told him that I was the age he was when he had me - 41. He was 82.

I told him I had another 40 years to go and I was determined in those next four decades not to make the same mistakes I'd made in the previous four decades.

It was all wishful thinking in the end, of course. He was a great man; I am just not. It devastated me when he died. In a real but unexplainable way, the man who made me unmade me again by his going away forever. He taught me how to laugh at life and how to see the important things too. I can never watch The Odd Couple again without getting upset. I wish I had got to know him better. I feel guilty for not trying harder with him.

Sons are useless at talking to their fathers. And vice versa. I don't think we ever told each other we loved each other. It would have sounded very odd saying those words to him, or hearing those words from him. My dad and I just didn't have that kind of relationship. I am determined not to have that kind of relationship with Daniel. I will tell him I love him until I am in my own grave.

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