We stood in the car park of the nursing home while my father-in-law breathed his last
Pandemic robs us of the power to gather and grieve
Born in the shadow of the Rock of Cashel, Tom lived his childhood during another Emergency in the second World War. Photograph : Fergal Shanahan
Distancing. Flattening curves. Cocooning. Isolation. The new, everyday language of our harsh, pandemic experience. It robs us of so much, most especially the power to gather and hold each other in grief.
We stood in the car park of the nursing home, metres apart; no entry allowed, as it must be, while my father-in-law Tom Maher breathed his last.
A coffin had to be chosen immediately; the removal of the body an urgency even as the two grief-stricken offspring living abroad, trapped in their foreign lockdowns, were processing their loss and their enforced absence.
And just two months ago I had written here of that Irish ability to manage death so well, quoting the author Kevin Toolis, in his 2017 book My Father’s Wake. Although his father Sonny’s heart had stopped “his death had only just begun. Sonny’s body would be with us amidst his children, his clan, his people, till the grave. . . to be truly human is to bear the burden of our own mortality and to strive, in grace, to help others carry theirs; sometimes lightly, sometimes courageously.
True, grieving families and communities are doing their best to adapt through virtual gatherings, moving videos, photo collages and well-spaced guards of honour. But the current restrictions are compromising even those efforts as the shrinkage of togetherness takes its toll
“In communally accepting death into our lives through the Irish wake we are all able to relearn the first and oldest lessons of humanity . . . How to reach out to the dying, the dead, the bereaved. How to go on living no matter how great the rupture or loss. How to face your own. And how, like Sonny, to teach your children to face their death too.”
Contrast that with the current instructions from the coroner’s office to the funeral directors that not a single mourner, family or otherwise, can be inside the crematorium when the death is in any way Covid-19 related.
His final journey
Tom, as a result, made his final journey as we stood outside Mount Jerome, his coffin blessed before it went through the door. True, grieving families and communities are doing their best to adapt through virtual gatherings, moving videos, photo collages and well-spaced guards of honour. But the current restrictions are compromising even those efforts as the shrinkage of togetherness takes its toll.
Born in the shadow of the Rock of Cashel, Tom lived his childhood during another Emergency in the second World War.
Those formative years gave him ample perspective and made him a living witness for his grandchildren’s’ school history projects as he recalled the shortages of tea and flour, reliance on candlelight and the marvel of the scarce radios.
No doubt Tom’s parents also had perspective as participants in the War of Independence and the Civil War, which, as one veteran pointed out “could count for 10 years in the lives of most of us”.
Frugality, stoicism and a sense of duty permeated Tom’s generation with the shadow of the Emergency no doubt looming large, what historian Clair Wills characterised as an era when there was “near complete consensus on the prudence of the policy.
“Neutrality was above all a practical stance dictated by military and political necessities, not an ideological declaration, or the expression of a moral choice. It did not imply hostility to Britain, but expressed the Irish government’s responsibility for the survival of the State and the welfare of its citizens . . . but beyond this lay a fear of a return to the internal conflicts of the past.”
Many, like Tom, moved to Dublin to work as public servants and taught their children self-reliance and both gently and occasionally firmly passed on their wisdom born of harder times.
Everything revolved around the family, as he buried himself in DIY excellence as the cacophony of teenage hormones and raucous family life enveloped the house.
There was little he could not make or build and at rest he would gently puff on his pipe and absorb himself in Irish history books or The Irish Times crossword. And always in the background was the Rock of Cashel; drawings and photographs of its splendour; a reminder of what forged him, giving meaning to the centuries old words of the poet Aubrey de Vere
“Royal and saintly Cashel! I would gaze
Upon the wreck of thy departed powers,
Not in the dewy light of matin hours,
Nor the meridian pomp of summer’s blaze,
But at the close of dim autumnal days,
When the sun’s parting glance, through slanting showers,
Sheds o’er thy rock-throned battlements and towers
Such awful gleams as brighten o’er Decay’s
Prophetic cheek. At such a time, methinks,
There breathes from thy lone courts and voiceless aisles
A melancholy moral”
And now that son of Cashel is laid to rest, like far too many others, with his family unable to hold each other physically, but finding their own path through grief in fraught times, grateful to those who cared for him and for the decency and integrity that emanated from his core, yearning for summer’s blaze –whenever that might come – so they can embrace.