My mother’s partner died in June. He crashed his car coming back from a point-to-point race meet. A great man for the horses, a terrible man for the cars. I was on the first flight home to Ireland. John and I were close: allies, you might say, in the complicated game of family. And I was beyond worried for Mum. I cried alone in the airport, writing to my best friend Deirdre in London just so that it would feel less like I was crying alone in an airport.
A Galway funeral, huge and generous. John’s devastated children – a little older than my brothers and I – were kindly conscious of including us. I learned to sing The Parting Glass, a graveside keen of a song, which felt like it had been written especially for John:
Of all the money that e’er I spent,
I spent it in good company,
And all the harm that e’er I done,
Alas it was to none but me,
And all I’ve done for want of wit,
To memory now I can’t recall,
Come, fill to me the parting glass,
Goodnight and joy be with you all.
Back in Montréal with my partner Jess and our cat, feeling very far away from Ireland, I’d sit in the kitchen and play it, thinking of how much I’d miss John’s inventory of everything that was wrong with my newspaper columns, how I’d miss his “Emer, baby!” when I came through the door, his adoring clucking around my bemused Mother. Grieving, I suppose you’d call it.
A few weeks after I returned, I sat with Jess for one of our relationship check-ins. I’d been trying to pin them down for a proper chat for weeks, as I was thinking of buying a flat and needed their input. They’d been strangely evasive. I sat down with a list of notes about locations and mortgages. They were finding it hard to meet my eyes. Eventually they turned to look at me. “I am having doubts,” they said.
I didn’t know what to do. Everything had felt so solid: I hadn’t seen the cracks. I tried to fix the things they said were wrong. But I also pulled back, involuntarily, a reflex – a protective retraction of the gentlest, easiest parts of myself. Come, coax me out, I whispered. Perhaps they didn’t hear me. Perhaps they didn’t want to.
Trump. 100 years of progress for women, people of colour, queers, and people with disabilities savaged by those who have forgotten what fascism looks like. A heartbreaking change in the context of everything. Shares in green energy falling; stocks in arms and oil climbing, up up up, casting a terrifying shadow over us all. Desperate people fleeing war continued to arrive on the shores of a dangerously radicalizing Europe. Donald Trump Junior called the refugees skittles – if you knew one skittle in a bag of ten thousand was poisoned, you wouldn’t take a handful, he said. Human lives were sweet nothings.
Jess broke up with me. They just knew it wasn’t the right relationship. They moved to the spare room until we figured out what to do with the apartment. It was late November and we were both going home for Christmas. It seemed sensible to wait ‘til January to move. It wasn’t.
Suddenly I hated them. I drank too much. I started smoking again. And I was horrible: What you need is some girl who intellectually worships you. Your Dad got you that job. Stop calling me bug: you don’t get to call me that. I don’t want your Christmas presents. You never cut me any fucking slack: you expect me to be perfect. I cut you so much slack! You’re not perfect. You’re far from fucking perfect.
I booked my Christmas flights to leave as soon as semester ended. I wanted to spend time with Dee in London. I’d take my grading with me electronically and get it done there. I needed out of our increasingly unbearable apartment. I couldn’t stop lashing out. I was hurting Jess. I was making everything worse.
On my first day in London, Dee and I had a fight because I drunkenly said something cruel and stupid about someone she loves. I left for a few hours. When I came back, I brought her chocolates and said: “I’m sorry. I love you. Please don’t be angry with me. My heart can’t take it.” She hugged me. She wasn’t angry.
The next day I opened up my laptop, planning to get the bulk of my grading done before flying home to Ireland. The files wouldn’t open. I called Apple Support. “Don’t worry! We’ll get it fixed!” But everything we tried made things worse. “We’re going to have to wipe the hard drive,” they said, “do you have everything backed up?”
Attempts to reinstall the operating system did not work. “My, my, I have to say this one is testing my professional skills,” said the kind senior technician on the phone, “okay – tell me what you see now.” “It’s like a stop sign,” I said. “Ah,” she replied, “the prohibitory symbol.”
In the end, I had to take the computer to a repair shop, where the technician told me that if we hadn’t wiped the hard drive he’d probably have been able to save my files. Later, I sat on Dee’s couch and said, “I don’t think I can take one more bad thing.”
I flew to Dublin, where I was staying with my brother Ronan, his partner Clarisse and their hedgehog Billy (my hog-child). In the evening, I walked along the quays of the Liffey into the city centre, where a friend of mine was performing in a comedy show. Someone brushed against me in the bustle of Temple Bar. When I got to the venue, my jacket pocket was open and all my money was gone. I found an ATM and tried to take out more – but my card wouldn’t work. A prohibitory symbol. At the gig, I apologetically explained the situation to my friends. “What is this year?” I asked myself, “What is this fucking year?”
I did not know that at that moment, a Tunisian asylum seeker was driving a truck into a Berlin Christmas market, ending 12 precious lives. I did not know that soon everyone would be calling refugees skittles.
The next day (hungover – at this point I had been drunk most nights and hungover most mornings for about 3 weeks) I went Christmas shopping. I got clothes for my brothers, a swimsuit for my Mum, a book about Connaught Rugby for my Dad, and all manner of glittery, furniture-destroying nonsense for my god-daughter. My Christmas list was shorter than usual – no book this year for John, and nothing for Gala, my Dad’s partner, because, unusually, she stayed in Russia rather than coming to Ireland for Christmas.
Ronan met me and my shopping bags when he finished work, ostensibly for a bite to eat. We drank ourselves stupid over a bowl of chicken wings and put the world to rights. We laughed about my getting robbed on top of everything else. We talked about love – his good fortune with Clarisse, who everyone adores; my bad luck with Jess, who, Ronan lied, was never good enough for me anyway. We talked about Trump. And Berlin. And the refugees. About our fears for the planet. We talked about our family, about how strange Christmas would feel without John, about our concern for Mum, about my troubled relationship with Dad, who I thought picked on me, though Ronan didn’t see it when it was happening. We came up with a strategy: if I felt Dad was being mean, I could just say “Ronan, tell me about your drone.” We found this hilarious, because A) we were very drunk and B) Ronan never stops talking about his fecking drone. Dronan, his workmates have started to call him. I also found it immensely comforting. My brother had my back. After a terrible year, it was going to be a good Christmas.
We got home after mid-night, in high spirits, and were blathering on to Clarisse about something wonderfully important, when Ronan’s phone rang. It was our mother. There was a beeping sound in the background. Ronan’s face contorted strangely and I knew something was very wrong. “Dad’s had a heart attack. It doesn’t look good.”
We were instantly sober. People always say that, and I wouldn’t have believed it, but really we were. We called our brother Ciarán, who lives close to Mum in Galway. We called our uncle David, a doctor. We called Mum’s friend Brenda, who immediately got out of bed and drove to the hospital. We called Mum back. This time I spoke to her too. The horrible beeping sound in the background was the defibrillator trying to start Dad’s heart. She would tell us when the news was final. Finally, we called Gala in Russia. Poor Gala. Poor, lovely Gala.
“At least” is a powerful strategy. At least he was in our house in Oranmore with my Mum, rather than alone in his own place. At least he was in Ireland, where he wanted to be waked and buried, and not Russia, where he would have been cremated. At least it was quick and he didn’t suffer. At least I was in Ireland and could be home in a matter of hours. At least he had a wonderful day with his best friend – my mother – before he died. There are always things to be grateful for.
Ronan stayed in Dublin to collect Gala from the airport. I got a bus to Galway, where Ciarán and Mum met me. We went to pick out a coffin. I have never seen my Mother so shook.
Dad had felt a little tightness in his chest. She’d tried to persuade him to go to the hospital, but instead they agreed that he’d stay in Oranmore for the night, where Mum – a nurse – could monitor him. He went for a nap, and just after mid-night he got up, feeling a lot better, and was making a slice of toast when he lurched forward over the kitchen table. Mum grabbed him from behind as he lurched back again. She checked for a pulse – none. She dialed 999 with one hand and started administering compressions with the other. She shouted at the receiver as she tried to revive him. At one point, she thought she had him, but she didn’t. The ambulance arrived in 10 minutes. Our neighbours saw it and ran over in their socks. Paramedics rigged up the defibrillator, and Mum rang Ronan. At least Dad was at home.
He died on winter solstice. We waked him in Oranmore on the 22nd, hundreds of people passing through our house, shaking our hands as we stood in formation by the Christmas tree. They touched Dad’s face and hands as he lay gently smiling at the ceiling. A small army of neighbours and friends kept the engine of the kitchen running, feeding every mourner. Dad’s neighbour – who I’d never met before, because I never spent much time at Dad’s place – shook my hand and told me that Dad was proud of me, that he’d always be leaning over the wall telling him how I was getting on in Canada and with the writing. And I broke down, finally. Because it’s probably true. Dad probably was proud of me. It’s so stupid I didn’t see that before.
We buried him on the 23rd, after eulogies and incense, under a rainbow, in the middle of a storm. He’s looking out over Galway Bay, where he loved to sail.
Why didn’t I. I wish I had. I thought there was more time.
I spent last Christmas with Jess’s family in Nova Scotia and skyped Oranmore in the morning. “Emer, baby!” said John. “Hi Dad,” I shouted to my father’s waving figure in the background. I brought the computer to Jess’s room and my family made monkey noises to wake them up (monkeying is an important O’Toole family tradition). “Hello Jhe-ze. How h-are you?” Gala said, as my partner tried, unsuccessfully, to hide from the camera under a pillow. My brothers teased us and Mum sang something silly and I missed them all – my weird, messy family – so completely. Why didn’t I go home? I wish I’d gone home last year.
I am not a superstitious or religious person, but is 2016 a lesson? That it is dangerous to be certain. That life can change quickly and profoundly, leaving you grasping at straws, gasping for breath, disorientated, desperately clinging to those you love, petrified that they’ll start to run, like sand, through your fingers.
That you can always take one more bad thing.