Let me tell you a story about my dad.
It is 2009 and I am 21 years old. I am blissfully ignorant about everything, (except this fact). Life still sparkles with stupid, youthful hope. This is about to change.
Sometime during the early half of the year my friends and I decide to go to America for the summer. This is a tradition amongst Irish students in college. You convince your parents that you’ll be working for these three months abroad, but your true intentions have a more debaucherous bent.
It is nearing the end of June. We have been in America for almost two weeks.
I walk with my girlfriend, Alannah. The setting Chicago sun paints our surroundings a hazy ochre orange. I feel the warmth still emanating from the grey concrete slabs beneath my flip-flopped feet. Alannah is just ahead of me, patiently shuffling, aimlessly, from foot-to-foot. She looks back at me and smiles.
My mum asks me how we’ll be getting to Las Vegas at the end of summer. I tell her we’ll be driving along Route 66 in a rented car. She gets nervous. Dad comes to the phone, (by way of some unseen visual cue from mum). His voice is more alarmed than I’ve heard in a while, which isn’t very alarmed, but still, a son notices.
I am speaking to my father for the last time.
My dad, I gather, realises that this is the furthest I’ve ever been away from him. He is not overprotective by any stretch of the imagination. But something cosmic grasps him and he becomes very aware of the fact that I am his only son and I am very far away. I am a stranger in strangely similar land; I am a foreigner in a plastic Europe. I am in the Wild West. And here, anything is possible.
Dad asks me a few questions relating to my travel arrangements. He asks me about the drive. Back home, I had just gotten my driving licence and this is undoubtedly still fresh in his mind. We chat for a bit longer and he wishes me the best and tells me to be careful. My dad trusts me. My dad tells me he loves me. I tell him I love him. This is not something we often say to each other. It is not as though we didn’t feel it, but it is just not something we said.
I say my goodbyes to the family. The phone goes dead. I stand for a moment, soaking in the conversation. I’m 22. I’m invincible. I take Alannah’s hand and we meander towards home.
One week later. Late in the evening. The sun has long since set and the thunder storms have passed. Twenty of us fill the sitting room. We have just witnessed the Chicago skyline lit up with veins of electric white light and drenched with monsoon showers. They have passed too.
The air outside is sweet and hot. We are playing a drinking game, Shit Head. We are laughing. This is the first time that so many of us are going out together.
Tomorrow I will fly back to Dublin, weeping intermittently, as 300 million Americans celebrate their independence from the British.
My phone rings. I pick it up. Amanda, my sister, is on the other end. She is distressed and crying. She asks me to get to a quiet place so she can talk to me. I am tipsy. I am oblivious.
We are staying in an apartment on the top story of a four story building. I step through the front door onto the landing. I close it behind me to shut out the noise. I sit down on the ancient orange carpet of the first step and ask my sister what is happening.
Amanda tells me that dad has been taken to the hospital and is currently undergoing an operation to save his life. She tells me that the doctors are doing the best they can, but she doesn’t know much else. They think it is an aneurysm. I don’t know what this is.
After some time, we end the phone call. Amanda is the levelled voice of reason. Pained. Tearful. Strong. The only person that could possibly hope to pass this information on to me. This doesn’t change the fact that what is happening to my dad is beyond serious. I thought I had felt pain before this moment. This is something new. This is a jagged icepick in the heart.
I walk back into the apartment, very much separate from the festivities. I am somewhere else. Alannah is the first to spot that something is wrong. My close friends begin to notice too, and then the others.
I have become the ghost at the feast. Everyone asks what has happened, so I tell them. The tonal shift in the room is palpable. It is all too much. I just want to be left alone.
The next two hours are awash with calls back home. Amanda gives me sporadic updates. The apartment is still full of people drinking, but lacking in merriment. Everyone is considerate of my situation, and yet, I somehow feel as though my pain is intruding on their fun. Why is that?
At around midnight, out on the landing stairs, Amanda and I speak for one final time that night. As considerately as she can, choosing her words very carefully, she tells me that my dad -that our dad- that our larger-than-life dad, is dead.
“Dad is dead”, I think, abstractly. Understanding the words she uses but not the content of her speech.
I am told that he died on the operating table and that he was a “real fighter”. He “lasted” eight hours where most don’t last four. Hurray. I am numb. I don’t know what I feel. I need to be alone. My dad is dead.
I go back inside and, without saying a word, they know. Everyone knows. Tears are shed by some of the girls. Unspoken gestures of consolation are made by the guys. My close friend, Ian, hands me a large bottle of rum.
Shit Head has ended. Everyone goes in peace.
A few hours pass. I am looking out of that same window at that same Chicago skyline. The night air is still hot and alien to me. I imagine Dublin is cold. A handful of close friends stay with me in the sitting room that night. I wax and wane about the choices my dad made in his life, scattered with shoulds and shouldn’ts. I have the floor, uncontested. My friends listen. Rarely saying a word.
I cry and I rage.
The night is angry.
I punch a concrete wall.
I vomit in a toilet.
My friends put me to bed.
I pass out in the dark, alone.
I wake up in the light.
For a moment,
everything is bliss,
and then I remember.
My dad is dead.