I was seven when Dad died. I thought I found him in our attic one summer

John O’Leary on the Saltee Islands in July 1977

Loss is a many-legged thing. It crawls inside you when you lose someone and there it stays. It’s somewhere to the left of your heart, I think, just waiting to move through you again.

The creature settled inside me early: I was seven when my father died. I thought I found him in our attic in the summer of 2014. It took us two months to go through all the things he left behind.

My mother was waiting for me the first time I went up there; she stood beside the wall of cardboard boxes and waited for me to say something. I could only look at the chaos.

I was numb for the first few days of the Sorting, as my mother called it. She made it sound like a pilgrimage. A sacred event

“I never got around to all of it…” she began, trailing off.

Some of it was given to his relatives in the months after his death, she said. There was just too much to get through for one person.

There were books everywhere – hundreds of them. Some were packed in the Fyffes banana boxes that were once so common in our house. He used to get them from Superquinn, my mother reminded me. I didn’t want them thrown out then.

She said there was no right time to do it. I was finished college now, I was an adult and we both thought I was ready.

I forgot about the creature inside my chest over the years. It began to stir again as I looked around now; my father was everywhere and nowhere.

There were battered suitcases, full of letters and newspaper clippings of his short stories. Scrapbooks, from his primary-school days, with crinkled leaves and wild flowers stuck on every second page. At least 100 fossils were left on a wooden tray beside his digging tools.

I was numb for the first few days of the Sorting, as my mother called it. She made it sound like a pilgrimage. A sacred event.

“Now, we have to be ruthless,” she told me, after one particularly unproductive session. “You can’t keep everything.”

I wasn’t listening. My dad was all I could talk about: John. John. John. His name made me feel a little desperate when I said it, like I was casting some sort of spell that wasn’t working.

Fionnuala O’Leary with her parents
Fionnuala O’Leary with her parents

I remembered his clothes being bagged in our sitting room back in 1998. I wouldn’t let my mother pack anything that day. Everything still smelled like him. And that mixture of paper, wool and aftershave always made me feel safe.

I held on to his chequered hat in one chubby hand and smuggled it out of harm’s way. (It’s somewhere in my wardrobe now.) But I always wondered where the contents of his study went after the funeral.

As a child I used to tiptoe around that room when he wasn’t there. I loved exploring the mahogany shelves that lined the walls, floor to ceiling. I put my sticky fingers all over his limited-edition paperbacks.

I stood in the doorway to watch him write in the evenings, his black head bent over the incessant tap-tap-tap of the typewriter.

Of course, being the only child, I inherited his pine desk and chair. I never knew that most of his books and files and photographs rested for almost 20 years above my head.

I read his dream diaries, one by one, sitting cross-legged, in the puddle of sun from the new skylight. I examined every manuscript until my neck hurt

Most of my summer was spent in that attic. I read his dream diaries, one by one, sitting cross-legged, in the puddle of sun from the new skylight. I examined every manuscript until my neck hurt. I cried when I held the drafts of his unfinished novel, Lilliput. I didn’t recognise the strange and guttural howl coming out of my own mouth.

I found his Olympia typewriter a few days later. It was hidden under a sheet near some of the bigger boxes. I ran my forefinger along the top cover and made designs in the dust. I don’t remember him using it much in the months leading up to his death. Buttons became too difficult to press.

Touching it brought everything back in Technicolor: I saw myself hiding behind the banisters the night they took him to A&E. He gave me a pink satin ribbon before the paramedics put him in a wheelchair. The gold design on it has faded to almost nothing now.

A nurse was assigned to stay with me before my parents left the house that evening. I shrugged her off when she tried to steer me into my bedroom. I watched the blue light of the ambulance blinking in the landing window instead.

Fionnuala O’Leary with her father, John, on her sixth birthday
Fionnuala O’Leary with her father, John, on her sixth birthday

My dad looked at me then – he held out his hand as they carried him down the stairs. I wish I could remember what he said.

He spent hours in emergency departments over the course of his illness. My mother says they sat beside drunks on those plastic benches. That night, the hospital decided he was ill enough to be admitted to St Francis Hospice in Raheny, in north Dublin.

It’s funny how one person can engrave themselves inside you. I felt like that angry seven-year-old again as I trawled through the remnants of his life. I dug him up from a mound of paper instead of a grave.

My father worked for St Patrick’s College in Drumcondra until he was too ill to teach. He died on March 26th, 1998.

It was wrapped in a crumpled newspaper like it was nothing. His name was inscribed at the side: J O’Leary 1977, Hennessy Literary Award

I noticed a change in his writing towards the end of his life that echoed the frustration I felt. There was a measured rage in the way he packed up his life into neat little piles.

My mother says he went out into our garden when he realised the pancreatic cancer was terminal. She recalls him standing there, looking at nothing. That was the day he went into the attic, she told me. The day his Hennessy Literary Award went missing.

“But where did you last see it?” I asked her, over and over again. I was convinced he buried it. I walked around the garden in circles trying to imagine where it was.

We found it that summer. My mother waited for me to get home from work so we could take it out of the box together. It was wrapped in a crumpled newspaper like it was nothing. His name was inscribed at the side: J O’Leary 1977, Hennessy Literary Award.

John O’Leary posing for the Hennessy Literary Award in 1977
John O’Leary posing for the Hennessy Literary Award in 1977

It is difficult to describe the feeling of finding the thing that has dictated your entire life. I wrote to resurrect him. I excelled in English at the expense of maths, in case I became less like him.

“Yeah, he won a Hennessy award,” I told people smugly, as if that somehow made up for the fact he was dead.

I chased his legacy all the way to Galway, to do a BA in creative writing at NUIG. My mentor in third year was the short-story writer Geraldine Mills. She stared at me when I told her about my dad and why I wanted to write. “John O’Leary?” she said, when I showed her his picture in my purse. “I knew him.”

They were in a Listowel writing workshop together in the late 1980s. I wanted to interpret this as as a sign. That’s proof he’s still here, I thought, I never really lost him. “Ireland is very small, so it’s not that unusual,” one friend remarked when I told her. I wanted to hit her for confirming what I already knew. He was never coming back.

Some days, when my hands were dry and caked in dust, I almost hated him for leaving us with nothing but an echo on a page. The grief came back as a monster

It didn’t stop me from looking, though. I don’t think I will ever call off the search for him completely, because this was the man who labelled and dated every picture I ever drew. The man who filed away my childish paragraphs in folders marked “Fionnuala”.

We kept most of his things. I just transferred all his files and childhood copybooks into some newer cardboard boxes in the end.

Some days, when my hands were dry and caked in dust, I almost hated him for it. For leaving us with nothing but an echo on a page. The grief came back as a monster.

One Dublin summer evening I walked from South William Street to the Brazen Head pub after work. My mother told me that was where his writing group used to meet. I stood across the road for almost an hour and waited for something to happen, but I knew there was no ghost to meet there.

I still cried into my sleeve on the bus home. The loss of him reinfected me like a disease. He was all I could think about. At seven, you believe your dying father when he tells you he will be “the keeper of the star gardens”. You think you can look up and there he is – it’s a reassurance you carry around.

In your 20s it’s a little different: now you want proof.

Fionnuala O’Leary: I chased my father’s legacy all the way to a BA in creative writing
Fionnuala O’Leary: I chased my father’s legacy all the way to a BA in creative writing

I went up to the attic a few months after the clear-out, drunk. I don’t know how I made it up that ladder. Thankfully, my mother and stepdad were away.

I called his name again and again in the dark. There was no answer, though. There never is. I lay down on the floor and cried for what seemed like hours.

I cried for the novel he never finished. For the graduations he missed. For the legacy he never fully established. I cried for the man who stood in our garden and realised that this was the end of his story.

I came down from that attic a different person, a more vulnerable person, but I like to think I am a more empathetic person because of it. My father kept teaching me, even in death.

People always seem to say time is a healer, and it is when you’ve dealt with your grief. That creature is always in the hollow of your heart, though. It’s just waiting for something to shake it out. Because loss never really leaves you. Loss alters you.

I’ve buried my demons in a cardboard box, for now.