“Hear, O Israel, for you are my servant. I, the Lord, made you, and I will not forget you.” Isaiah 44:21
My father, Seán, died on 30th December 2007 after a five-year struggle with cancer. I wanted to write about him to preserve his memory, to affirm that his seventy-six years on this earth were not in vain. I’m also implying that if his life was worthwhile then my life is worthwhile and by extension every human life, as with reference to his life and increasingly my own, I presently question if my life has any value at all.
As a Christian believer, I believe my life has value. God created me and put me on this planet to glorify him as Our Creator and to use my gifts in a constructive way to build His kingdom on earth in preparation for the kingdom to come. It’s hard for me to imagine what the heavenly kingdom will be like. It’s hard to imagine life any differently to this one. Like most people I find life difficult at times, but my faith consoles me.
To be in Christ is to be in a radically different relationship with the world; to see things in a different way. I will die and live again in a different world and sooner or later this world will end and God’s kingdom come. This is my basis for living and puts me on a different footing in life.
God-incidently, (I no longer believe in co-incidence), it was my father’s death which made me question what type of Higher Power, or ‘God of my understanding’, I believed in, after seven years of sobriety from alcoholism, opening up new horizons on my earthly and spiritual journey.
My father’s death was not the end for him or for me. My father sits at the foot of the heavenly throne where angels choir constant praise to the mystical Lamb. My life also began again. I was rebooted in Christ, further propelled along the road of happy destiny in recovery from addiction and mental illness. My spiritual growth was the silver lining of the clouds of my father’s illness and death from cancer in 2007.
In this excerpt, I describe the last occasion I spent time alone with him before he died, on a day-trip to Lough Dan, County Wicklow in Spring 2007.
We left the motorway and climbed to the Wicklow plateau. The gorse was in full bloom on every side. We drove out of Roundwood, my father directing me on which turns to take. Eventually we travelled down a lane, which became narrower and narrower, with a ridge of uncut grass running along the middle, until we came to the parking place.
We followed the path to the lakeshore past the plantation of newly planted trees, deciduous on one side, coniferous, the other. I walked ahead and my father fell behind. I looked back and saw him veer down the slope through the ferns to the rocky outcrop where the lake curves towards the southern end. I was shocked to see how much he’d declined.
“Be careful,” I called, “you’re heading towards the cliff.”
He barely had enough strength to resist the force of gravity dragging him towards the edge.
He was on his second course of chemo in four years after the cancer had returned in his liver earlier that year. I waited for him and we walked to the granite memorial bench overlooking the lake where we sat side-by-side looking out at the big house adrift in a patchwork sea of green below us.
This writing is the memorial bench I’m crafting in your honour, father.
A beautiful Spring day, the farmers burned bracken off the hillsides which were dotted with pinpricks of yellow-orange flame, smoke drifting across the clear blue sky.
“You go ahead if you want to,” he said, “I’ll wait.”
So I had to go down to the lake by myself after all my scheming to get him away from my mother to spend time alone with him. I opened the gate and followed a group of hikers down the hill.
Tears formed in my eyes and ran down my face as the reality of my father’s condition struck me for the first time. Wiping them away, I followed the schist-glistening path, past the cottage in the woods, to the bottom of the hill, crossing the boggy delta to reach the lake-head where the river flowed down from the mountains.
It was the same place my father had taken us for a family picnic when I was thirteen.
I’d caught the fishing bug on holidays in Spanish Point watching the fishermen cast directly from the shore into the sandy tumult of the waves.
As my mother tidied up after the picnic, I lounged on the river bank. I trapped a cricket in the long grass and attached it to the hook. I dropped the struggling insect onto the water’s surface. Instantly, a fish rose and took the bait.
I hoisted jangling line and fish onto the bank. I was amazed. We gathered around the trout to watch it panting on the grass.
“Look at the beautiful colours,” my mother said, “shame. You can’t leave it like that, Seán,” she continued, “it’s cruel.”
“Danny, get a stick,” my father said.
I retrieved a fallen branch from the nearby copse and gave it to him. He took it and killed the trout after a few awkward blows. I grabbed the fish and chased after my screaming sisters, waving it wildly.
“I’ll have that for my tea,” Seán said to his wife, winking.
“You can cook it yourself,” she said.
He grilled it in the oven when we got home.
“Would you like a taste, son?” he asked.
Leaving the river bank, I wandered around the patch of land at the lake-head. The fire burned relentlessly underground, silently devouring the brittle grass beneath my feet, turning the earth to ashes in its wake. Reaching the lakeshore, I removed my shoes and socks and waded into the water following the sandy spur of land to its farthest point, where the river waters flowed down from the mountain and merged with the lake.
The cold pierced me to the bone. I pottered about in the shallows, looking down at the inky signature of bog wreathing my toes in amber and across at the low horizon of choppy waves to the verdant outcrop where the lake bent southwards.
I wondered what my father was thinking about sitting up there looking out at the landscape.
What have I done with my life? Was it worth it? What about my wife? Who’ll look after her?
It was time to re-join him, I thought, that’s what I’d come here for after all, wresting him from my mother’s grip to spend time alone with him. To get to know him better before the giant doors of death slammed shut on us forever, not to spend time alone with myself. I’d done too much of that already.
Returning to the beach, I dropped onto the luminous sand, rubbed the grains from my toes and pulled on my boots. I bundled my socks into my jacket pocket and scrambled up the hillside through the ferns to re-join the track.
As I approached the gate, I had the feeling my father might not be there when I got back. I felt relieved he’d be out of his suffering and at the same time, sad, he’d be gone. I felt guilty thinking this, as if actually wishing him dead. When I reached the gate and looked over, to my relief, he was still sitting on the bench looking out at the landscape.
We walked back to the car and I let him drive us to Glendalough.