Marian Keyes: How I brought my Dad back from the dead (sort of)

‘Dad’s still alive!’ said author’s sister when she read first draft of her new novel

In early March 2020, I sat down to write a sequel to my 1998 novel, Rachel’s Holiday. In those innocent, pre-pandemic days, my biggest concern was that I wouldn’t reconnect with my character Rachel Walsh and her fictional family … and here we pause for hollow laughter.

I hadn’t a clue of the challenging times ahead of me – ahead of us all – but an unexpected bonus of revisiting the Walsh clan was that I could (sort of) bring my Dad back from the dead.

My debut novel Watermelon was where the Walsh family had their initial outing. With a stunning lack of imagination it featured – just like my own family of origin – five children, a devout mother and a worried, taciturn father.

Four more Walsh family novels followed the first one and while the characters genuinely weren’t like my actual siblings and parents, the dynamic was familiar enough for me to be in my comfort zone.


However, as I began writing Again, Rachel, there was now one huge change: my dad had died in December 2018. Calling once more upon my stunning lack of imagination, I thought Rachel would be in the same position. I’d never fully decided Daddy Walsh’s age but I reckoned it would be around the same as my Dad’s. Dutifully, I began shaping the story around this fact. Then I thought, feck it, I make the rules. I didn’t want him to be dead – so he wasn’t dead!

(My youngest sister Rita-Anne is one of the people who reads my initial, raw attempts at any novel. She got a few pages into Again, Rachel, then declared, utterly delighted, “Dad’s still alive!”)

Admittedly the last eight or nine years of my poor dad’s time on earth weren’t optimal. He was in his late 70s when he first began making bizarre pronouncements and asking questions that had just been answered. While we waited for confirmation of what I already knew in my gut – that he had Alzheimer’s – I was irrationally angry. He was meant to be unbreakable.

Alzheimer’s is a strange, cruel condition, where the person looks like they used to, but with a new – and often unpleasant – personality. Intelligent, civilised adults can mutate into crude, aggressive strangers – or worse: I’ve a friend whose erstwhile gentle parent ended up being barred from every nursing home in Dublin because of their propensity for fisticuffs.

But in a stroke of incredible good fortune, my dad had a benign version of the illness and was actually far less stressed than when he’d been compos mentis. Not that he could have been blamed for having found life challenging. Coming from modest beginnings, he won a scholarship to a good school, eventually qualifying as an accountant, but he never stopped being afraid of returning to poverty and taking his family with him.

Like so many parents, he considered education to be the key to a good life. So whenever a child of his was doing badly at school – and between the five of us, one of us always was – he was terrified, then enraged.

At the end of a particularly bad school year, one of my brothers or sisters, I forget which, came home with a report boasting a mark of 19 per cent in French. Calmly my mother got out her biro and changed the 19 to 49. “He’d only upset himself,” was her pragmatic explanation.

As his Alzheimer’s worsened, the present day became meaningless to him until eventually, it wasn’t safe for him to leave the house. But his personality softened and sweetened. For the last couple of years of his life, I spent every Monday with him, giving my superhumanly patient mother a few well-deserved hours off. Somewhere along the line my anger at his illness mellowed to compassion, then tenderness.

By then, Dad was spending all day, every day, parked in front of the telly, watching golf, clutching the remote control, like Gollum with the ring.

I've been given a second chance at knowing the unconditional love that I'd blithely taken for granted as a little girl

And the strange thing was that my relationship with him was better than it had been since I was a child. Back then I’d felt my life was spent competing for his approval, knocking myself out getting good marks at school, but always being overlooked in favour of one of the others. I probably hadn’t been but even if I had, so what? Expecting parents to be perfect is naive, unreasonable even, I get that now.

Through my high-achieving teens and under-achieving 20s my feelings about Dad remained complicated – he scared me at the same time as I longed for his approval, while also resenting him.

Even after my books began to be published, he saw potential failure at every turn. When Rachel’s Holiday was a best-seller he rang to tell me, “You’re number one but don’t get used to it because there’s some yoke called Bridget Jones’ Diary and it’s flying out of the shops”. He was trying to protect me from disappointment, but back then I simply felt that none of my accomplishments would ever be good enough.

But all of that success-related anxiety trickled away and suddenly he was going round, telling everyone he loved them. Most days he asked my mother to marry him.

On those Mondays together, we’d found a sports channel that reran old golf tournaments. Dad had always loved golf – playing it and watching it – and would snap into lucidity whenever it was on screen. At the time he kept mistaking me for his (deceased) sister, but he was all over the golf – recognising the players, issuing judgements on their form. “That lad won’t go far, he doesn’t believe in himself,” he told me, about some golfer whose name I can’t remember (thus proving his point). “You have to believe in yourself when you’re a golfer. Well, shur, you have to believe in yourself no matter what you do!”

When Dad and I used to sit and watch the golf together, we were back at a time of innocence and purity, before misunderstandings and imagined slights

As soon as the ads came on, the magic, lucid spell broke, Dad would lapse into confusion and a hail of questions would kick off: Who was I? Was I married? When could Dad go home to his real house? Had he any money? If so, where was it? Was I married? When could he see his mother? Was I married? Had I a job? Could he go home now? Was I married? To who?

Every answer was forgotten immediately and it was a bit like being in charge of a two-year-old – the endless repetitions, the ridiculous whims, the bizarre fears – with far fewer of the obvious rewards.

With dementia, most of the focus is about how hard life is for the carers – and God, it so is. My mother’s tolerance was awe-inspiring. But I also felt deep sorrow for Dad – living in an unfamiliar house, being visited by middle-aged adults who insisted they were his children, yearning for his parents and discovering again and again that they were dead.

But when Dad and I used to sit and watch the golf together, we were back at a time of innocence and purity, before misunderstandings and imagined slights and all the rest of life had hardened layers of mistrust between us.

I’ve been given a second chance at knowing the unconditional love that I’d blithely taken for granted as a little girl.

Dad died in 2018, 10 days before Christmas. Even though for most of us, the death of a parent is one of the most inevitable things we’ll experience, it was unimaginably strange. The thing I found hardest in those first surreal days was that I didn’t know where he was; he wasn’t in a nursing home and he wasn’t in the sky and he wasn’t in the ground.

For most of 2019, I was exhausted, my joints ached and my brain was in a fog but by early 2020, the grief had become more manageable. Which was when I realised he could be brought back to life, in the guise of Rachel’s Walsh’s dad.

To paraphrase Patrick Kavanagh, I do not think of my father lying in the wet clay of a Kilternan graveyard, I think of him on the couch, watching golf, animated and happy, yelling at the telly, "Concentrate, you clown!" Alive. Very much alive.

Again, Rachel is published by Michael Joseph on February 17th