‘The phone rang. It was my brother. I knew before he said anything’
Philip Lynch recalls the day he and his family reunited to bury their father in Mullingar
The smell of the dashboard ashtray took me right back to his smoking days when I thought he could do anything. Back when he’d get through a packet of 20 Major most days until he quit in an angry protest when Ireland joined the EEC. He used to be so headstrong and impatient and was never one to compromise. It was one of the reasons why I left. Sometimes his determination paid off, but often it didn’t; though today wasn’t the day to think ill of him. I’d come half-way around the world because I’d wanted to be here.
Driving the hearse was a young lad from Longford, who’d worked on construction sites in London but missed his girlfriend, so he’d returned and then this job had come up. It was busy, he said, most of the time, and he was happy just to be working.
We “waked” him for two days and nights in the low-lit parlour where he’d spent so many nights by the open fire. The curtains were now drawn; and amidst all my mother’s framed photographs, Mass cards were piling up and the candles were giving off their distinctive smell of burning wax. There were comings and goings of people paying their respects, quiet conversations, steady flow of sandwiches and cups of tea, and of course, drink. But now it was at an end, and everyone was gone again, save for my siblings and myself. The lid was affixed to his coffin and we’d slid it smoothly in the back with the wreaths.
By the time I’d arrived with my light woollen black suit, he was well gone, a silent shadow of his former self. Of course he’d been on his way for a long time, maybe for the best part of a decade. The last time I’d seen him – three months earlier, after my mother’s funeral – was when my brother and I had taken him into respite. He’d sat silently and uncomprehending in the car all the way to Mullingar. I remember how he used to comment on what was happening in the fields but those days were now well and truly consigned to yesteryear. We’d lingered with him for a while that evening and then we’d left him alone in that silent room old fellas go to at the end of their days.
I’d turned and looked back at him as I walked out that January evening, knowing, and even hoping that I wouldn’t see him alive again. But it cut me to the quick to go and Melbourne suddenly seemed too far away. I can still see him hunched forward in his wheelchair, vacant of look, in that unfamiliar place. He was without purpose, as if he was awaiting his fate – which of course he was.
When the phone rang late one night in Melbourne, and it was my brother, I knew, even before he said anything.
“The weather’s a terror for the time of year,” said the lad from Longford, not directing the comment at me. He wasn’t expecting a reply so I didn’t offer one.
We drove past Brady’s. I thought about their mother inside, one of the family always with her round the clock. No way could they put her into a nursing home. Outside, the house seemed normal enough; with red hens foraging on the steaming dunghill in the haggard, and a barking black-and-white collie leaping at the gate. There was no end in sight to their grim vigil. Old age is an arbitrary, cruel lottery for so many, I thought as the barking faded in our wake.
On we continued down through the crossroads and past a cluster of new, but as yet unoccupied bungalows. Even though recently constructed they were rapidly taking on an abandoned appearance. Farther along, just before Finea, I glanced out over towards Lough Sheelin. It was his old stomping ground. Most of the lake was shrouded in fog this morning as if it was off limits to human activity. Many an evening the old man and I had caught trout there; often we fished until well after dark. Even though we never said much, I treasured those hours together. The old man would row steadily through the silence and the boat would shoot forward with each stroke.
Frost was still blanketing the hedges and fields. Paddocks we call them here in Australia. And here frost is a rare sight. The frost that April morning seemed to have everything in its grip and it wasn’t about to let go any time soon.
The church doors were wide open in anticipation of our arrival. But there was no sign of the priest or any of the altar boys. Cars and FWDs, and the odd tractor lined both sides of the road, all the way up to the cemetery. Standing near the gates, waiting and watching, were all the mourners. We drove in past the presbytery and parked beside the belfry.
My brothers and I lined up behind of the hearse in a kind of final filial ring of honour, to hoist him onto our shoulders and to take him inside. As we worked out our positions, I could almost swear I heard him beseeching us to get a bloody move on, that he hadn’t got all day. Impatient as ever, I told myself as we reached for his casket.
“Are yis right now lads?” asked the undertaker. We were.
Philip is a regular contributor to Generation Emigration. Read previous pieces by him about his thoughts on how different his life would be if he hadn’t emigrated,visiting Belfast after a long time away, his relationship with his ageing parents, about his dwindling connection to Ireland, his memory of the day he left Ireland in 1983, and more.