'We had a few lost years but we've made up for them now'

By Joanne Carroll

Joanne Carroll with her dad, John, before he died. Photo / Herald on Sunday
Joanne Carroll with her dad, John, before he died. Photo / Herald on Sunday

I pick up the phone and dial. My heart is thumping in my chest and my mouth has gone very dry. I have been thinking of doing this for a very long time. And now maybe it's the Dutch courage from last night's party but I'm finally making this phone call, the hardest phone call I've ever made.

The phone is ringing and my aunt's voice is saying hello. It's only 7am, here in New Zealand, and my head is thumping but I have to say something.

"Hello, it's Joanne here," I say.

"Joanne who?"

"Joanne Carroll."

Understandably, my aunt is very surprised to hear from me after 25 years, but I'm using her to get in touch with the man who is my father, a man I'd like to meet.

I can't remember the last time I saw him and have only a vague memory of him. I remember seeing him in the doorway of my grandmother's house, wearing a green woollen jumper, a mop of black hair on his head. I remember him laughing after I guzzled down orange concentrate before he had a chance to put the water in.

My mum and dad split up when I was very young. My sister Catherine and I used to visit him on Sundays but, after the age of 5 or 6, the visits stopped and the contact stopped.

I grew up in a seaside town in North County Dublin, Ireland. I had a happy childhood being raised by my mother and being part of a large, extended family of cousins, aunts and uncles. But I never knew the paternal side of the family.

I knew where they lived, about 15km away in another town, but I wouldn't have known if I'd passed them in the streets of Dublin.

For years, I didn't think I needed a father. My mother was everything I needed, and my uncles were my male role models.

My mother never spoke ill of him but I always thought it was up to him to make contact if he wanted to. Because he didn't, I believed he didn't want to.

It was only after I moved to New Zealand six years ago that I became more curious about my father. I began to wonder what he looked like, what he was doing.

I also wondered about this whole other family that I didn't know. I wondered why he had not been in touch. My father was like a ghost hiding in the shadows of my life and I wanted to make him a real person.

It came to a head four years ago when I was very unhappy with my job and my relationship, and began to experience anxiety attacks in which I would fear that food and drink would go down the wrong way and choke me.

It's very hard to explain and I know it sounds crazy.

I began to talk to a counsellor about this anxiety and many feelings began to surface as I tried to figure out what was wrong.

I spoke about my childhood and my father and, finally, I acknowledged I wanted to meet my father - a feeling I had been suppressing for a long time.

I can explain it only as an overwhelming curiosity. I kept thinking he wasn't getting any younger and I wanted to meet him before he died.

So I found the courage, with the help of a hefty hangover, to pick up the phone to my aunt.

A week later I was dialling my father. It was a lot easier than making the first phone call. We chatted easily about New Zealand. I told him he was a grandfather to my sister's daughter, Katelyn.

He told me he was delighted I'd made contact and we arranged to meet a month later when I was on holiday in Ireland.

Iwalked into my father's house and it was nothing like the crying and hugging scenes you see on television. The first thing he said was, "Ah, Joanne, I'd know you."

I laughed and said I hadn't changed a bit.

It was easy and natural. We sat down and talked about the family. He has a big family and he was very interested to know about my mother's family, one that he had been a part of for 12 years while he was married to my mum.

He showed me photographs I had never seen before of my early childhood and it was only then that a lump came in my throat.

I asked: "Did you never think of getting in touch?"

"I didn't have the guts," he replied.

That was all the explanation I needed. He had wanted to and for his own reasons he didn't. I didn't want to know any more. I wasn't interested in getting into a he said-she said debate. As my uncle always says, there are three sides to every story. His side, her side and the truth.

He did tell me how he had managed to stop drinking 10 years ago, although beating a nicotine addiction had taken longer.

I began to understand how strong my father was. He was a complex man but I did admire the willpower he must have had to beat a lifetime of drinking and smoking. I began to get to know him. I decided there and then to leave the past behind and start a new chapter.

It was to be a short chapter.

We kept in touch over the next two years by phone and internet, and I visited once more, two years after our first meeting.

A year ago, I got an email from him which sent my world into a spin. It wasn't the best way of finding out your father has cancer but reading back his email now makes me laugh as well as cry.

"Now, something I have to tell you I wasn't going to, but the world is such a small place I would be afraid you'd hear it somewhere else," he wrote in his own unique style.

"I wasn't feeling well for a while and I went to the doctor. I was finding it hard to swallow."

The specialist had sent him for tests, then a scan, then chemotherapy, he continued. "I have no intentions of sitting in the house feeling sorry for myself. I have no intentions of going anywhere for a long time yet. I just want to keep going as I was and just take every day as it comes. Now sit down and have a glass of vodka, Love John."

His email never mentioned the word "cancer".

I arranged to go back to Ireland for 10 weeks. I thought he would get treatment and might be okay. It turned out to be the last 10 weeks of his life.

On arriving, I discovered he had been ruled out for treatment. He remained at home, cared for by my amazing cousin, Aisling.

He was very sick with pneumonia. He looked so frail and had lost a lot of weight but was still in good spirits.

He hugged me and seemed so happy to see me. He had a calendar on the wall and had been marking off the days until I arrived.

He told me how he wanted us to spend time together. He wanted to hire a car for me so I could take him out on drives to see his old haunts and favourite places. I knew then I had done the right thing.

And we did get to spend time on little road trips during beautiful, rare, sunny Irish summer days.

When the sun shines in Ireland, there is no better place. He had walks on the beach and visited the market garden fields where he had worked for years around North County Dublin. It was a wonderful few weeks when he was feeling better with a cocktail of steroids, antibiotics and morphine patches.

We talked about family and he told me funny stories about the past working as a motor mechanic in the good ol' days. He had a wicked dry wit that made me laugh. It was also the first Father's Day we spent together. Although not touching a drop himself, he poured me a very large measure of vodka and wanted me to toast our first Father's Day.

My sister, niece and mother came over from New Zealand, too.

On the last day of their visit we had a lunch together: my father, mother, sister and myself, all four of us, the first time we had all been in the same room in my memory. It was amazing. I got to know a huge extended family who welcomed me into the fold.

The void that was there, the one half of my past, history and genealogy, is no longer missing.

John had his ups and downs while I was in Ireland but two weeks before I was due to leave he got another bout of pneumonia. This time, he didn't come right. He asked me if I knew he was dying.

"Let's take every day as it comes," I said, trying to stay upbeat. After he asked me a second time, I said, "Yes".

He looked at me with his bright blue eyes.

"I am not afraid and I know what's in front of me. I have my faith," he said. "I want you to tell Catherine and your mother as best you can. Tell them I love them. I have always loved the three of you."

I told him we loved him and the best thing I had ever done was getting in touch three years ago.

We cried together. It was beautiful. He was strong and accepting. He was an inspiration that will stay with me. I was privileged to have got to know him and I'm proud to be his daughter.

In the end, it was his swallow and lungs that went. He had tumours in the oesophagus that had spread to his lymph nodes. He couldn't get food down and when he was drinking it was going down the wrong way. His lungs were filling up and no amount of antibiotics would clear them. I began to remember my own fears and anxiety of choking - the very fears that led me to get in touch.

I was with him at the end. About 24 hours before he died he went into a coma. I sat with him all day talking to him and told him everything I wanted to say. I held his big hand in mine.

"We had a few lost years but we've made up for them now so don't worry about it. There are no regrets. Be at peace now. You're my Daddy and I love you."

I had never called him Daddy since I was a little girl, but then I did.

I know he could hear me, I could see it in the furrows of his face and saw the furrows disappear as he went to sleep.

I felt his wrist and said, "It's me, Joanne, I'm here."

I felt one beat and then it was gone. He was gone.

Army helps rebuild families

The Salvation Army has been reconnecting families for 100 years through its family tracing service.

Last year, the service had 121 new cases and 108 were successful.

Two fulltime staff search for people through Facebook, old electoral rolls and websites such as ancestry.com.

"Often people lose contact because something has happened in their family a long time ago," says Major Pam Waugh.

"There might have been a big argument or they have addictions and lose contact with everyone while in that lifestyle, sometimes there is no reason and it's just that someone has wandered off to Australia and not kept in touch for any reason."

Skylight Counselling therapist Serena Stace suggests support from a trained professional is important when family members are re-connecting.

"Guilt and anger are common," she says.

"The family members may have a 'magical idea' of how the reunion will play out."

- Herald on Sunday

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