Flying home for my father-in-law’s funeral
Airport queues, delayed flights, a missed connection and the feeling no one cared made an already difficult journey from Zambia to Ireland worse, writes Ceire Sadlier
The room looks odd now without the coffin in it, without him there in his navy suit, his pipe tucked under his strong, knobbly hands. I was so nervous when I was invited to go in and see him. I had never been with a body. A body, a body. That was what scared me. My husband Maurice had told me about spending hours and hours with his grandfather’s body. I couldn’t imagine a child being left with a dead person.
I kept my hand on the glass of the door and my eyes on the busy carpet, slowly letting them climb up the wheels, the steel legs, the dark wood, the white cloth, until I saw Pat there, tucked into his coffin in the middle of the front room. His huge, cupping hands were much softer than they looked, the skin on his tapering fingers was silky and his thick, flat fingernails were smooth. It wasn’t a body at all. It was as though he was asleep there, like a baby in a cot. It almost seemed normal, the way people came in and out to see him, to hold his hands and touch his chest and chat over him. Where’s Pat? He’s in the front room.
It was 36 hours earlier, 10 o’clock at night in Lusaka, when the phone rang. Maurice took the crackly call from his mother. Just minutes after the phone went down, there was a city-wide black out, which we had never experienced before, nor since. We sat at the long, oval dining room table and drank a bottle of Jameson between us by the white light of a fluorescent rechargeable lamp.
At dawn, with just under an hour of whiskey induced sleep, we arrived at the airport. The system was down because of the electricity cut and they were booking people in manually. It was like bobbing in and out of water, noise, silence, noise, silence. We were so worried that we weren’t going to make it home that night. With fifty people in front of us and no movement in the queue, I wanted to find a way to make it easier for Maurice. Not to have to stand in this queue for three hours. Not to have to nudge the bags with his feet. Not to have to do anything. Can you help us? I asked again and again, but no one cared. It’s because death is so common here, someone speculated later when I marveled at the immovable faces. It is so matter of fact, no sympathies, no sorries, no help.
The flight was almost four hours late when we got on board. Can you help us, I asked the air hostess with an Irish name at the door. She dismissively told me to take a seat. It had been twelve hours since we had heard the news and not a tear had been spilt between us. We sat in our small, flood lit seats and as the doors were about to close, my tears started to fall. I didn’t realise I had been wailing until an air hostess ushered me towards her and despite the space and privacy of First Class I wanted to ask the crew member if he was taking the piss when he offered us champagne.
We missed the Dublin flight by a few minutes and stayed in a dingy airport hotel in Heathrow. Maurice was limp and red and too tired to be angry about being in this room instead of kissing his father’s head, holding his father’s hand, taking in a last few hours of his father’s quiet face.
I can remember going into the house. I can remember tea. I can remember drink. I can remember tears. Soft tears, hard tears, single tears, soaking tears. Faces in hands, faces in chests. Hands on backs, hands in hair. Knuckles in teeth, knuckles on coffin, knuckles on cups, knuckles on knuckles. I can remember unspeakable sadness and frightening darkness.
And I can remember laughter. That very Irish, unseemly, liberating laughter that saves us during the worst times in life. Exhausted, weepy laughter. Laughing about Pat, laughing with Pat, laughing for Pat. Laughing at the good times. Laughing at the bad times. Laughing at the relief when the smell was found to be coming from the reheated pot of stew. Laughing when someone had to be woken from their stupor under the casket. He was there for it all, laughing from his unusual spot in the coffin in the front room.
“Who was at the front door?”
“The TV Licence man wanting to know where Pat Sadlier is. I told him – he’s in the front room.”
As Ceire and her family enter their last few weeks in Zambia, she is highlighting some of her most memorable days over the last five years, which we will share on Generation Emigration. Read some of her previous articles for this blog about being ignorant of the property tax as an emigrant, making a life in a place that isn’t ‘home‘, Christmas in Lusaka, and the very Irish way of being kind. Her articles also appear on her own blog, theirishexzaminer.com.
To read more about the experience of getting ‘that call’ while living abroad and some advice on how to cope, see Death at a distance: the worst phone call an emigrant can get.