The Places He Brought Us

After the nurses removed Dad’s life support and feeding tube, he was transferred from the ICU to a small single room in AB Cleary ward, allowing us privacy and 24/7 access. Think ABC I told my brothers and sisters, on the fourth floor. While staff transferred Dad, I walked outside, exhausted and melting in the record Irish temperatures but glad of the fresh air and the reminder there was world beyond the hospital. Inside the dim and cool cover of the pub, I inspected the corridor of carvery and ordered the grilled salmon with roast and mash potatoes and a mound of cabbage and also julienne carrots and turnips heaped like fingers. I paid with my credit card, thinking how this trip was costing me thousands. Seated at a table next to a window and away from everybody else, I ate the entire meal, all those colors, even though the vegetables tasted burnt. I drank a glass of cold, tart white wine. After, I sat out back of the pub and ate a large whipped ice cream cone with a fat stick of chocolate pushed through, all while listening to the water fountain make its music. I’d read once that people lose weight with grief, without fail.

Dad worked as a barman in Dublin for over fifty years. Mam said to never marry a barman, they are never home. Throughout most of my childhood, Dad’s two days off work each week were Tuesdays and Fridays. Fridays, he cooked fish and chips for dinner. He peeled and handcut the potatoes, then placed the salted chunks into the fryer of rolling fat. The secret to his delicious chips, he maintained, was lifting the almost fried potatoes from the fat and letting them breathe for a few seconds before returning them to the fryer for another minute to bring them to golden. The eight pieces of cod, he’d coat those in flour and salt and ease the school onto the frying pan, into inches of melted butter. Tuesdays, Dad cooked burgers and chips. He fed the sirloin steaks into this large silver mincing machine that took center-stage in the kitchen while he prepped. As he turned the handle, came ribbons of meat. That mincer was to him what a Rolls Royce would be to most. “This way you know exactly what you’re eating.” Dad had a paranoia about food hygiene, about being conned. During the recent horse meat scandal in Europe and in America, Dad said down the phone to me, “Didn’t I always say.” Dad added salt, pepper, and chopped onions from his garden to the eight burgers and sealed the lot with egg and a fine dusting of flour before placing the rounds of meat inside the frying pan and its bubbling butter. That salad, too, that he made from his garden–the scallions, butter lettuce, boiled beets, sweet tomatoes, and hard-boiled eggs–all mixed with Hellmann’s Salad Cream. Sometimes, Dad also made us goulash, a spicy Hungarian beef stew I actually liked. I liked even more that no one else I knew had ever heard of goulash, let alone how to cook it well.

I finished my ice cream cone, feeling too full and a little sick. Just as I was about to leave the pub and return to Dad, a plane roared overhead, drowning out the fountain. When we were kids, Dad drove us the few miles from our house and to the road behind Dublin airport, to eat ice cream and watch the planes land and takeoff. I remember feeling very small and worrying the planes would make me deaf, would drop on us. Other times, Dad often drove us to Donabate beach where we’d enjoy more ice cream, and also sandwiches and warm red lemonade. Dad had a dread of sand in his food, taught us to hold our sandwiches up high and never to eat on the beach when there’s a breeze. Unable to swim, Dad would crouch inside the ocean with bent knees and straight back and teach us how to pretend the breaststroke. Regular trips also to his home county of Wicklow and his beloved village of Lacken where he grew up, and where many years later my husband and I would obtain special permission to marry in its by then disused church–cause I was always pulling stunts to show Dad how much I loved him. “Look, Dad, see me. I love you.” Throughout our childhood, Dad drove us city kids to lots of remote and tiny country churches and to holy wells and shrines. We’d light candles and say prayers and buy holy water and watch the sun set the stained glass windows alive.

When I returned to the hospital, I found Dad alone inside Room 3 of AB Cleary ward. The stink from his bowel bag stopped me still. I pushed myself deeper into the room, seeing Dad had an oxygen monitor clipped hard to his first finger, but not attached to any machine, and a blood pressure cuff wrapped around his arm tight. His urine bag looked about to explode. I removed the cuff and finger clip, made more furious by the red marks on Dad’s puckered skin and the beginnings of a purple bruise below his fingernail. I stood in the corridor with evil eyes, searching out an available nurse amidst so many patients, visitors, and staff. I waited to get someone’s attention, a sense of panic rising. Trapped I felt inside the back and forth swell of rushing and shuffling, of wheelchairs, stretchers, medicine carts, food trolleys, and portable stands attached by tubes to the sick. The tall, thin, young nurse said she was sorry, there was nothing to be done about the stink. An electric fan, I demanded, and more air fresheners. I didn’t mention the cuff, finger clip, or brown-yellow urine bag about to go off like a bomb. Too coward.

The stink and record summer temperatures shrunk Dad’s room, made its air thick, choking. The hospital windows wouldn’t open beyond a few inches. So people can’t jump. I rubbed lavender lotion into my palms and held my hand to Dad’s nose, told him to smell the flowers. Told him about the white orchid I’d brought him. Dizzy, feeling I might vomit everything from the pub, I told him I was sorry it had come to this. The nurse appeared with the electric fan and I asked if I could please remove the anti-clot stockings that bound Dad’s feet and calves. I didn’t tell her that my last trip home, less than three months earlier and just days after Mam had died, I’d thrown out a little hill of Dad’s socks. Socks with jagged tears in the cuffs. Dad, dismayed, explained that he liked his socks split at the tops, cut with scissors so the cuffs wouldn’t cling to his legs. I should have known, I realized. Dad had always cut off the sleeves of his shirts and cardigans, wanting his arms out. Always drove with his driver’s window cracked open. Always paced the floors of the house at night before bed, enough times to cross the city and back, enough times to rid himself of his restlessness. These were the things my brothers and sisters and I thought of when we decided to turn off Dad’s life support. We could have let him live, but he was paralyzed from the chest down, had suffered several small brain strokes, had a bowel that couldn’t be turned off, and he would never ever leave the hospital care system. That, that would be like dropping Dad inside an enormous sock and cinching its cuff above his head.

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