Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Losing a father while far from home

Recently married and settling into an exciting new life in New York in 2010, Joe Buggy got the phone call that every emigrant dreads.

Mon, Feb 6, 2012, 09:01


Recently married and settling into an exciting new life in New York in 2010, Joe Buggy got the phone call that every emigrant dreads.

Joe and his father Michael pictured a few days before Joe's wedding in April 2010

In December 2008 I decided that I wanted to marry my American girlfriend, Christina. I lived in Kilkenny with my parents and had two part time jobs that were related to what I studied in college. She lived near New York City and worked full time. We decided for a number of reasons that I would move to the U.S. instead of her moving to Ireland.

In the couple of years leading up to the recession I was quite proud of the fact that Ireland could offer as good a standard of living as the U.S. I saw a real possibility for my future wife and I to live, work and have a good life in Ireland.

As the economy went off the cliff in 2009, that notion slowly extinguished and I began to come to terms with the reality of spending the next number of years living in the U.S. It was a step into the unknown but also exciting. The recession was acute in the U.S. too but the opportunities available in a big city like New York, a post-graduate education, being Irish and the love and support of my wife would all help.

Down the years my parents had experienced emigration through various family members. They fully supported my decision and helped out any way they could but for my dad it was something he struggled with. Older Irish men are not known for showing emotion but in the days before I left in February 2010 I was equally happy to see the love my father had for me and sad as he had to come to terms with my leaving.  When I left I did briefly contemplate a range of scenarios, including the possibility of dealing with the death of a parent, but you never think it will happen to you.

In April 2010 Christina and I married and many family and friends came to the wedding. It was truly the best week of my life. The next few months were filled with new experiences almost every day and married life was good. I got my green card, we moved into Manhattan and I started a business. One Sunday morning in December 2010 I got the call no emigrant wants to get. It was mam saying dad had suffered a heart attack. I flew home. He died two days later.

Being an emigrant when a parent dies leads to the explosion of a million thoughts in your head. How will my mother and younger sisters cope? Should my wife and I move to Ireland and leave a good life we have begun to build in the U.S.? Did my leaving somehow contribute to his death? I stayed in Ireland for almost a month. I buried my dad and did as much as I could to organize his business and help my family before coming back to the U.S.

For me, living in a different country when a parent dies is healing and painful at the same time. The distance means you are not reminded by every person and by every little thing that your dad has died. However, a guilt comes with this when you talk to those who are left behind and do have to deal with every person and every little thing. The distance also means I wasn’t there when his headstone was erected and I wasn’t there for his first anniversary mass. As the eldest son, the initial instinct was to go back home and ‘mind’ everybody. However, this was gradually replaced by the realization that my mother and sisters are strong women who have a wonderful support structure of family, friends and neighbours.

A year on and the guilt, sleepless nights and worries for my family resurface unexpectedly. Sometimes it’s for a few days in a row and then nothing for a few weeks. My wife has been unbelievable. To have that bombshell in the first year of marriage could have been too much for some fledgling newlyweds.  Each day leading up to the first anniversary was hard as I recalled what happened exactly one year previously. The phone call. The flight I don’t have any recollection of. My uncle meeting me at Shannon with bad news. The race to Dublin to have a last conversation. The final efforts to save him. Saying goodbye.

Emigration has been a constant feature of Irish society for centuries. From the monks of the fifth century who wrote of emigration as a form of martyrdom through to the ‘American wake’ of the 20th century, there are few families in Ireland who have not had it visited upon their door. The dominant discourse is almost always negativity, dismay and sadness. In my home village almost every family on our road has someone in another country: Canada, England, the U.S., Australia, Portugal. The very worst is experienced when a parent dies but it must be remembered that some brilliant opportunities are to be had, that you just cannot get in Ireland.

Our family is now in three different countries as one of my sisters emigrated to London a few months ago. I cannot even contemplate what it must be like for our mother to have her husband die and two of her three children emigrate in the space of eighteen months. What I do know is that the extreme highs and lows of the first wedding and the first death have made that bond between us even tighter.