Making sense of a son's death
THE STORY of Egan Welch was always going to end badly as the compulsion to drink alcohol sabotaged his attempts to make his own way in life.
“Dear Mum and Dad,” he wrote in a note before attempting to take his life, for the third time, at the age of 26 in November 2006, “what I have I have deemed incurable; worse, chronic.” Sober for four days at the time, he said: “If I die it is not alcohol that killed me, it’s something else?” adding: “I love all of you. I hate hurting you.”
On that occasion Egan’s girlfriend found him at home in Coleraine, Co Derry, in time for the medics to bring him back from the edge of the abyss.
And by Christmas those he loved were grasping at the hope of a new beginning for him. He got engaged and managed to stay off the drink over the festivities – only to break out on New Year’s Day.
When death came four weeks later, it was by accident. He fell into the River Bann outside Coleraine, after a heavy bout of drinking on top of Antabuse, a drug prescribed to create a physical revulsion to alcohol; his body was recovered 11 days later.
His heartbroken father, Prof Robert Anthony Welch, a prominent Cork-born writer, poet and professor at the University of Ulster, has tried to make sense of the death of his son in the only way he knows – through “an arrangement of thought and language” in a book published this week.
Kicking the Mamba – Life, Alcohol Death is not, as its author stresses, a misery memoir. Instead it is a search, he says, for meaning in somebody’s life, “which looks like a complete waste”, while laying bare some of Egan’s suffering and that of his loved ones watching him.
The focus may be on the son but it is revealing about the father too. Towards the end of the book, where Welch is recounting the period between Egan’s disappearance and confirmation of what his family feared, he talks about having a long-standing invitation to deliver one of the Edith Devlin extramural lectures on literature at Queen’s University in Belfast.
At this point, I have to admit I found myself imploring: “Please don’t tell me he is going to stand up in front of an audience of 200 people and give this lecture, while police divers are searching the Bann for his son’s body . . . ”
But yes he does – and then is surprised that he stumbles at the opening of Wordsworth’s There was a Boy, about a nameless child lost in Lake Windemere. After asking his friend and fellow poet, Tess McGuinness, to read those lines, he regains his composure to finish his talk.
The bare image that I take from the pages of a slightly cantankerous and aloof academic, who perhaps developed his intellect at the expense of emotional engagement in real life, is coloured and softened when we meet in person. He told me he would be wearing a hat, so it is easy to pick him out in the concourse of Belfast Central station.
Approaching his 65th birthday, there is an air of vulnerability about him; he has, after all, endured the worst human experience possible – burying a child. And, although I had given his dark brown trilby little thought, beyond being a usefully distinctive sartorial choice, it turns out he has just finished chemotherapy treatment. He has it every six months for cancer that was diagnosed three and a half years ago as having started in his bowel and spread to his liver.
On his feelings about the impending publication of his book, he admits he is apprehensive about the questions he will be asked, like was the writing of it therapeutic?
“It was more of an ordeal, one I felt I had to go through,” he explains.
For himself or Egan? “For him,” he says firmly, which is why he regards it, “in ways”, as the most important book he has written, standing alongside his works of literary criticism, collections of poetry and two novels.
In his search for “core meaning” in Egan’s life, he draws on various other writers’ thoughts, such as St Paul and poets Wordsworth and Gerald Manley Hopkins, as they too wrestled with the enduring mysteries of life and death – and the concept of the resurrection.
“As the writing progressed, the hope deepened that this story is not finished . . . and that I will see him again,” says Welch, his voice cracking with emotion. A practising Catholic, he returned to the church in his 30s when he realised, “to my eye anyway, the triviality of life lived without some kind of level of commitment to that ‘thing’ was not worth going about”.