Along with the grief after Mum’s death is the emigrant’s guilt for having left Ireland
I didn’t want to come home from Australia just for two weeks at the end, to sit at my mother’s hospital bed. But two weeks was exactly what I got
Down under: Barry Dunning with his mother on the Bondi to Coogee walk when she visited Sydney, in 2013
‘You need to get home now, Barry. We’ve just spoken to the specialist, and the news is not good.”
It’s the message from home that every emigrant dreads. A 20-hour scramble follows as I look for a seat on the next flight from Sydney, speak to work, and say goodbye to my Australian girlfriend. The anxiety rips through me as I switch on my phone in Dubai, hoping for no updates, because all news is bad news at this stage.
At Dublin Airport my brother and I quickly hug, exchanging bitter-sweet words about seeing each other under “these circumstances”. Then we get to the Mater hospital, on Eccles Street, and there she is. My mammy. Smiling, she asks about my flight. She is the one in the cancer ward, but that doesn’t stop her fussing. How tired I must be from the journey. How great I was to make it. I can see the effort behind her brave face.
Mum spent 10 years fighting multiple myeloma, yet she had a smile on her face every day. She fought positively and without complaint, so we just adapted to the new reality. She had regular trips to the Mater, but the news always seemed encouraging by the time she told it to us.
Mum didn’t have the same energy but did have the same selfless, caring nature. Despite her cancer and the devastation of my dad’s death, in 2000, she remained active in the community, always out visiting friends and family, and involved with the parish group.
For four of those 10 years I was out of Ireland, mainly in Sydney. Mam was sad to see me leave, but she always supported all of us. And it seemed to all of us that her cancer was chronic but not terminal.
An emigrant by choice rather than necessity, I was taking full advantage of the opportunities, craic and sunshine offered by Australia. Mum and her sister got out to visit me in 2013. It’s a blissfully happy memory. But with every year her cancer grew more resistant, and in the end she ran out of treatment options.
As Mum began to go downhill this year I made plans to come home for a couple of months, to make up for some of the time I had missed by being out of the country. I told my girlfriend that I didn’t want to just come home for two weeks at the end to sit at her hospital bed.
But two weeks was exactly what I got with Mam. Two weeks of sleeping on hospital chairs, becoming attuned to her every movement, amazed by the care and kindness of the nurses, catering staff and doctors. I’m deeply grateful for each moment of that fortnight.
The days after were a blur. The conga line of condolences as people came to pay their respect; the “generation emigration” funeral, where hometown friends now living in Melbourne, Gibraltar or Dusseldorf sent parents in their stead; the burial by Dad’s side in a sunny cemetery in Prosperous, in Co Kildare; the sharing of memories, stories and photographs; the sheer unreality of it all. And then silence.
I know that as an emigrant I’m blessed to have had those precious last two weeks. Many who leave Ireland don’t get to say goodbye. The weddings of both my brother and my sister this year meant two extra trips home, which I cherish even more now. I was there at the end, and for the big family events.
But it’s the little things, the mundane ties that bind, that you miss as an emigrant. The sausages she’d serve on a Sunday morning after I’d had one too many the night before. Helping her feed her menagerie of cats. Or sitting down with the family to watch her beloved Kilkenny Cats dominate in the hurling.
Beyond the grief I share with my siblings is my emigrant’s guilt for having left Ireland at all, and the emigrant’s dilemma of what to do next. For years my life has been in Sydney, but home remained in Naas. Your parents are your anchors, rooting you to the motherland. Without them I’m forced to confront the question of where, exactly, is home.