These are some of the saddest pictures I own. They’re also probably some of my most precious. On that day at the end of December, having my picture taken was the last thing I wanted to do. I’d been crying, we were sitting in an ugly hospital room, and my Dad had just been diagnosed with lung cancer. I didn’t feel like doing any of the things you usually do when someone takes out a camera (smile, say cheese), but when Joseph gestured to take a picture, I nodded yes. We both knew that this might be our last chance to get a good picture of Dad before the cancer took over, before he lost his hair, before taking pictures of a dying man would be deemed inappropriate.
On the last Saturday in February, barely two months after these pictures were taken, I saw my Dad’s eyes and heard his voice for the last time. He was in a hospice in Cork but very often, he thought he was at home. He’d ask me to get him some paracetamol from the press “above the range,” stand at the window as though it were his bedroom window at home, the one where he smoked. He slept most of the time, waking up every third minute or so to reach down to his breast pocket or feel his way over the surface of the table, his hand cupped in anticipation of the familiar shape of a pack of twenty Silk Cut Blue. This muscle memory, a motion as ingrained in me as it was in him, was nearly all that was left.
I worried: should I have brought Boone? That evening, luckily, there was the tiniest of openings where I called home and got Boone on the phone. They talked about Boone going to the swimming pool. Dad managed to get out one of the few complete sentences of the day: “and did you go splish, splash, splosshh?” The rest turned into mumble. Joseph heard the mumbling and I heard Joseph hear it. Neither of us said it but both of us knew: this is the end.
On the train back up to Dublin that night, I made plans to go back down on Wednesday. On Monday morning, however, Mairéad rang. Things were bad. “It all depends how you want to remember Dad,” she said. I think she was trying to ease the pain but I wanted to remember him in every way—all of the good, all of the bad, and all of the dying.
When we arrived on Monday evening, he was asleep. “Did he wake up at all today?,” I asked. “No.” I said goodnight, hoping against hope that he might wake up in the morning. He never did.
The only other time I’d seen death was when our dog, Cola, a black Labrador, was put down. The vet, in the middle of dissecting the merits of black Labradors over their more hyper golden counterparts, injected the euthanasia and explained that Cola would take a few breaths and then that would be it. Once those last few breaths had been taken, the vet scooped up our childhood pet and took her away, leaving us to wonder what would happen to her next. Would she be buried? Or incinerated? “I’ll take care of it,” is all we were told. We didn’t get to grieve. We didn’t get to bury her. It was not a good frame of reference.
In preparation for Dad’s death, I had read all of the HSE cancer pamphlets. I read about the breath slowing down and getting shallow but Dad’s breathing didn’t sound shallow at all. Instead, his stomach pushed in and out like a bellows, forcing short bursts of air in and out of his body in a steady, rapid rhythm. From time to time, he’d give out a rumbling cough. It all seemed to take a lot of effort; I didn’t know that you could labour out of life, as well as into it. Joseph and I whispered to each other how much it reminded us of birth: the lack of a definite time, the waiting, the having to let go.
We kept vigil and told stories. We cried. We got cosy. Despite being full of dying, the hospice wasn’t depressing. In fact, it teemed with life. I loved going downstairs to the canteen and seeing people do normal things like drinking tea or having awkward workmate conversations. I loved walking down the hallway and catching sight of someone brushing an old woman’s hair. I loved it when one of the nurses told us about the backless dress she was going to wear for her niece’s wedding and the conundrum of her Trinny and Susannah knickers coming up too high. Before reading On Death and Dying, I’d never heard of the word “palliative” but here in this hospice, I could feel the full effects of this beautiful word. Unlike a hospital, with its frantic focus on keeping everyone alive, this was a place of calm and comfort, care and love.
Every time I left the room, I saw Dad die a little bit more. This was so painful and frightening I debated whether I really needed to be there for the end. I went so far as to convince myself that I shouldn’t be there, but when I got the call at four o’clock on Tuesday morning, there was no question. I was going to be there.
About mid-morning, his hands began to go cold. Outside, it was turning into a new season. Spring. The sun beat its warmth into the room, relentless. I was out in the playroom with Joseph and Boone when Finola came to get us. When we arrived, his last breath had just left. Oh, Dad, are you gone? Boone talked about the bulldozer he’d taken from the playroom. I put my hands on Dad’s chest. It didn’t rise and fall anymore; his tongue lolled in his mouth. The doctor just so happened to be there. I asked him if Dad was gone. “Yes.” I thought that I would panic, that I would scramble and scream no, no, no but instead I smiled because for a glimmer of a moment, I felt joy. This soon gave way to heaving grief, our uncles speaking in Irish—slán a Ghearóid—the cue for our keening.
We sat with him for an hour. Mairéad said that it seemed normal and it did; without that strange breathing, it was as though he really were just sleeping. He was still warm. We stroked his arms, shoulders, and legs. We held his hands. I wanted to tell him that it was all over—the cancer, the hard work of dying—that he could come back now.
It’s been a month but it feels more like a lifetime ago, probably because it really is a lifetime ago. From time to time, Boone will tell us he’s thinking about Grandad. He asks us, “what was in the box?,” and “where did his voice go?” Our lack of answers leaves Boone to provide his own and so he tells us “the box is closed . . . maybe he’s dreaming . . . maybe he’s dreaming about me.”