Monday 14 October 2019

'Two sons, too many'

Author Aidan McNally tells Ken Phelan about the tragic loss of his two sons in very different circumstances and the book the boys have inspired

Aidan's son, Darra.
Aidan's son, Darra.
Aidan and his son, Patrick.

They say a parent should not outlive their children. Here, a Skerries fisherman from Loughshinny tells the harrowing tale of when he lost both young sons under tragic circumstances, how he has struggled to deal with his grief, and how he has found a measure of solace in writing.

Aidan McNally left for the United States when his first son was three years old, having separated from his ex-partner. Having fished first in Alaska, then in California on the Pacific ocean, Aidan was living the life only a fisherman could dream of. He had regular contact with his son, whom he would chat to by text and by phone, and would visit him in Ireland at any available opportunity.

Aidan travelled widely in the United States, living in San Francisco for a number of years, then in Costa Rica in 2011. It was when he was living in Costa Rica, twelve years after leaving Ireland, that Aidan got the phone call every parent dreads.

Darra, who was living with his mum in Limerick, and had not woken up for school that Monday morning. His mum said she had tried to wake him three times, and when she didn't hear the shower going, went into his room and found him lying lifeless in bed.

As Aidan soon found out, Darra had fallen to Sudden Adult Death Syndrome (SADS), at the tender age of 15. For a father thousands of miles away, Aidan was thrown into despair, anguish and disbelief. It was simply inconceivable to him that his son had died, a healthy, athletic teenager. The next few hours were chaos, a blur of emotion and grief.

Speaking on the circumstances of that first tragic incident, Aidan explains the sheer panic he felt, and his despair at learning that his first child had passed away: 'I got the phone call from my brother begging me to please call mam.

'I found out what had happened, and within minutes I was jumping on planes. It was fifteen hours flying, then landing in Dublin Airport, then four and a half hours' drive to Newcastle West in Co. Limerick, and there was Darra lying in the coffin.

'It was just devastating, as a father who wasn't with the mother anymore, you stay in touch and you fly back and forth to Ireland to see him, and he was too young to come with me, so I spent my years waiting.

'Anyone I ever spoke to when Darra was growing up had said to me, just hang in there and you'll get to spend more time with him, and when he's old enough you're going to reap the reward. I spent years waiting, thinking when he's a bit older he can come over and I can show him a great time, and it's going to be wonderful.

What made it harder for Aidan to comprehend what had happened was that Darra had been a healthy teenager, heavily involved in sport. In fact, says Aidan, he himself had been told by Darra's hurling coach that Darra's team would be shaped around him, that in fact, there were hopes he would bring home the all-Ireland trophy for Limerick. It was this, said Aidan, that left him further in a state of disbelief, as he explains:

'Darra was such an athletic teenager, too. He was selected to play for the Limerick underage hurling team when he played for the county, and that August, 2011, they had a friendly with Dublin. They knew I had come from the States, so they gave a little extra time before they put him on.

'His friend was playing, and Darra kind of whispered to me on the sidelines that his friend's sister had died a few months previously, and she was only nineteen. She came from a little parish outside Newcastle West, and she collapsed going to school one morning. He had explained to me that they call it sudden death, and that was the first time I had heard of it.'

Very few people at Darra's funeral knew Aidan, he had been away for so long, but he was heartened to hear stories of how Darra talked about his dad, telling stories of how great his dad was, and what he was getting up to in the United States. People were putting Aidan at ease, and it rang through to him how much his son actually listened to him, and cared. Their relationship had been restricted to a few visits a year, phone calls and texts, but still it was obvious his son loved him very much.

Aidan says: 'I went back to Costa Rica and tried to pick up where I'd left off. I was there a few years, but I was finding it so hard and left my girlfriend to come home.

'She contacted me and said "where are you gone? I'm pregnant." I said "Oh my God", and told her I needed some time, that I didn't know how long, but that I just wasn't okay with this right now. The wonderful beauty that nine months of pregnancy had was that it allowed me to try and build myself back up to be a father.

'Patrick was born, and it took me a little while get over the nerves to have a son again. Darra was very much the image and likeness of me, and Patrick was looking the same. The grief messes with you, so that you feel guilty about loving your new son, because the love of your life is gone.

'So it's a really complicated time, what grief can do to you. And so life was wonderful, and I got to a stage where I fully recognized how precious and important Patrick was and that it was my second chance.'

Aidan and his partner went away for a weekend to stay with friends, who had just bought a new house. For some reason, Patrick woke up at 5am, and found his way onto the patio. Patrick made his way outside and walked over to the swimming pool, falling in, all of this unknown to his parents inside.

Aidan woke to the screams of Patrick's mam, who had discovered Patrick, and ran, half asleep to the patio to find she was pulling him from the pool. Aidan gave mouth to mouth, rapidly losing hope, sitting by the side of the pool in sheer panic. Patrick was rushed to hospital by ambulance, but by the time they got there, it was too late.

Aidan says: 'There are two very hard things I've had to do in life. One was holding the straps of Darra's coffin as I lowered him down to a grave in 2011, and the other in the summer of 2014 when I had to carry Patrick and lie him down in the morgue. So I was back there in the graveyard with the coffin of my second son.

'The feelings that go with this grief, these tragedies. I wanted to come home to Ireland, and you want to give up on life and let life happen outside so you to be somewhere safe. But then I didn't want to come home to Ireland, because Ireland represented Darra's grave.

'I had another grave to visit in Costa Rica, so I had to live these things, and deal with these things, which was very much unbelievable to myself, even though I'd been through it.'

Through Aidan's reflections on both tragedies, and in an effort to deal with the grief, he began writing. He went back as far as he could, to when he was a child, and started to piece together all the things that had happened in his life. He would, he says, cry uncontrollably for hours when writing some chapters, so that he felt there might be. More than that, he says, it was to gather together all these overwhelming emotions and 'lock them in a drawer', to get it outside of himself, and when reading back, to realise that these events had actually happened.

He has, he says, channelled his thoughts and feelings through his poems, books and blogs, and has managed, at some level, not to overcome his grief, but simply make some peace with it.

Aidan has released two books, 'TWO sons TOO many', published in 2016, which is a tribute to both Darra and Patrick, and '17 & Life', published last week, which traces his own personal story of growing up in Ireland.

He also has connections with SADS, to which he has offered 50% of the commission for his new book, and CRY, a clinic in Tallaght Hospital which carries out the screening of genetic connections to heart disorder.

Aidan continues to struggle to come to terms with the death of Darra and Patrick. He has found some comfort through writing, though, one can only guess it is small comfort. It is a testament to Adrian, however, that he has carried on, in the face of such unfathomable loss.

Fingal Independent