My son was 4 weeks old when my dad died. He was upstairs sleeping in a bassinette at my parents' house, while Dad was directly below in one of those hospital-style beds. The kind they bring in when you're on your way out. It was my son Rafferty who woke me that night, like most nights, hungry and crying. So I sat and fed him in the dark.
When I put him back down I could hear noises downstairs and went to investigate. My dad was awake, upset, distressed; not quite sure what he was doing or how he was feeling. It didn't take a doctor to see he wasn't feeling well. My mum and I cajoled him back to bed, put some Irish music on to calm him and sat.
Neither of us knew the exact moment it happened. Or maybe we didn't want to believe it. But suddenly it was morning, and he'd gone.
It had been a lengthy battle with cancer that in the end resembled a too-often-told tale: diagnosis, operation, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, hospice, home, morphine, and then, well, death. It was expected, and yet grief came in unexpected ways. In the beginning it physically made my back teeth ache, with this gnawing sadness that was ready to spill over at any mention of my dad's name. And the physical exhaustion flattened me — but then I was doing three-hourly feeds overnight.
In true Irish form the wake descended on my parents' house, where we'd been staying. It was relentless. Day after day more friends and family arrived — toasting my dad, boasting about his achievements. They would sing sad Irish songs, and clink glasses of Jameson whiskey while I was rushing between midwife and lactation consultant appointments for a particularly windy baby.
While they remembered, I would sit in my old childhood room and struggle with feeding or settling or wind. Always wind. I wrote the eulogy with one arm cradling Rafferty, who was attached to my breast, the other hand tapping away on my laptop. It felt rushed, forced, strained. I was afraid I wasn't doing a great man justice. When I'd emerge Rafferty would be passed around from person to person — as if in a time of death everyone was desperate to cling to something so alive.
When the fanfare subsided we moved back to our house. I stayed away from friends and my coffee group because talking about sleep schedules and spilling seemed worlds away from what I was dealing with. At his six-week appointment my midwife casually asked, "Has he started smiling yet?" With a crushing sadness I realised he hadn't. How could he? The face he was supposed to take his cues from, my face, was grief-stricken and although I was trying, most days I'd burst into tears.
I realised that day I had to change how I behaved around him.
So I cried when he couldn't see me. In bed at night, in the shower. I would openly sob for a good hour when I'd walk him around our neighbourhood, feverishly trying to get him to sleep.
In the end it wasn't the grief that got me, but the guilt. The sheer exhaustion of having a newborn baby and mourning the loss of my dad made so many emotions of my son's early life muddled and mixed with the end of my dad's. I hated the two of them colliding because I felt like I couldn't give either of them 100 per cent, and ended up failing one, or both in some way. And I hated myself for being so torn between spending time with my dad in his last month, and being utterly, exhaustedly distracted with a newborn in his first month alive. And yet, as it turns out one of my biggest sources of support during this last year and a half has been Rafferty, who, through sheer necessity, has barely left my side. He would actually cry when I cried. And on the days when I was at my lowest, he would do something so stupidly ridiculous that allowed me to temporarily forget. Somehow that healed.
When Rafferty was 9 months old I took him to my dad's hometown in Ireland. I sat him in yellowed-barley fields, which towered over him. I wanted him to feel the ground beneath him. I wanted him to be connected. Rafferty met Dad only a handful of times and, of course, will not remember him. But one day I will tell him about the time my dad doggedly built the white picket fence outside our house, even though he was sick; about the way he was always first on the dance floor at the Irish Club and how people would call him Twinkle Toes; about how hardworking he was but how he never wore his watch on the weekend and, even as an adult when I'd ask the time he'd look down and say, "It's a freckle past a hair." How he sent my sister and me a Valentine's Day card every year. And how often he told us he loved us.
I like to think that when my dad passed away that night, part of his soul stayed with Rafferty before it left this Earth. I certainly hope so. I hope he's as generous, gregarious, and clever as my dad. I hope people will gravitate towards him because he can light up a room just by being in it.
Mostly I hope Rafferty will know how much Dad held on to meet him. Just hours after he was born we took him to see my dad. Although his frail bones could barely carry his wasting body, my dad stood up and walked a couple of steps towards the front door. He said, "I want to be standing the first time I meet my grandson." He shook his hand. I will tell my son that.