After disappearing 60 years ago, my uncle returned from Canada
His visits became annual, but we never found out why he left all that time ago
Patsy Keegan - the uncle who got away
The morning after my parents stepped off a plane from Ireland on their first visit to me in Canada, I found my father in my kitchen with the Toronto telephone directory in his hands. “Perhaps Patsy’s in here.”
The disappearance of his older brother from their Co Antrim village almost six decades earlier created a mystery in our family that has never been resolved. The bare bones of the story came not from my father, nor grandparents I barely remember, but from my mother.
Around other kitchen tables she heard from my grandmother and the family housekeeper of fierce quarrels between the strong-willed Patsy and John a harsh father who drove his son away from Ireland.
A year later a letter arrived with a Canadian postmark. After that his silence stretched across the decades
A year later a letter arrived for his mother with a Canadian postmark but no return address, and after that his silence stretched across the decades of family marriages, deaths and births.
A year after my parents’ visit, my mother called me from Derry, her voice helium filled. “You will never believe this but Patsy’s here.” My father took the phone. “I didn’t recognise him at all,” he said, more surprised by that than by his brother’s tenacity in tracking him down. Since none of family remained in the village, Patsy had made his way to an old cousin in Kilrea, and from there they phoned the two brothers still alive in Derry.
You can summarise a 79-year-old’s life in a sentence as my taciturn father did on the phone that evening. His brother travelled the earth in ships as a wireless operator, and then moved to hunt and mine in the remote regions of northern Canada. My mother offered a closer reading. “He never married and he lives in Edmonton.”
“But what’s he like?” I asked.
“Well he’s very friendly and easy to get on with and I think he has money.”
Finally I had the chance to check out the truth behind the family narrative when my next visit home coincided with one of Patsy’s then annual trips.
One afternoon in my parents’ house, I sat with Patsy as he relaxed in an old armchair, now at ease with himself and with us. I wanted to ask about his father and the reason for leaving, while we watched my youngest child at play with toys on the floor.
In the silence Patsy spoke softly as he watched my son, "I wish I could teach him how to hunt bear".
He began a story about a hunting expedition in northern Canada, when he and a partner stumbled on a native burial site in the wilderness that had been desecrated by other hunters. He noticed a child’s small wooden box intricately carved. Patsy looked at me, “Imagine the love of that Indian father for his child to make something that beautiful.”
In that moment a new question emerged. Why did he come back after so many, many years? True to family tradition, I did not ask.
On what would be his last trip, Patsy called me out of the blue from Toronto. He was seated alone in an airport lounge.
In a way, his return was a rebirth for him and his family. He had learned in his solitary travels across the earth a practical acceptance of each day that erased any trace of self-pity or sentimentality. We developed a deep affection for him over the six years of trips home before and after the death of my father, and the decline of his other brother’s health.
On what would be his last trip, Patsy called me out of the blue from Toronto airport on a two-hour wait for connections between Edmonton and Dublin, and I drove there to meet him. He was seated alone in an airport lounge, Zen-like in his composure. He was going home for good to live with a nephew in Donegal.
From the oxygen tank and his shallow breath, it was obvious he was very ill, but neither of us mentioned that. Months later I was on holiday in Derry when the news arrived. Two days later his nieces and nephews and three elderly women from the neighbourhood witnessed Patsy’s burial, beside his parents behind the old deserted church outside the village where he was born.
My mother kept a photo of the three brothers when Patsy first returned home. They stood side by side and faced the camera, each with a look of mellow contentment that comes when hope of family longed for and delayed is fulfilled at last.