I got the call to come home urgently.
How hard that was for my brother to do?
In auto-pilot I started to stuff a bag.
I had no credit on my phone so I walked,
A pavement I’ve walked hundreds of times,
Growing scared of what was to come.
Pretending to to the world,
That it was the same world.
Not the tilting, sliding unknown ahead of me.
Oh fuck this is going to be horrible.
My brothers across the planet.
My mum at home.
As the world tilted.
I called home and your brother answered
“What‘s happened, what actually happened?”
“It was an accident on the site….. Its bad”
I knew but I had to ask.
“He‘s dead, isn‘t he?”
At that instant I felt for all you loved and who loved you.
Your brothers and sisters, you are always their baby brother.
My brothers and myself, you are a coordinate by which all things relate.
Your wife, our mum, you are her everything, always and forever.
And I steeled myself again.
I walked to a friends house with a ball in my stomach,
The preparation for ritual already in my head.
I needed to say this to someone out loud.
To make real what I wanted to be unreal.
Everything solid melts into air they say.
I paused before knocking his door.
I feared bringing him into this tilting world.
How do you wrap an immense darkness,
That opens up in front of you,
With simple words?
Tell the truth.
“My dad’s been killed”
Words fell out from my mouth.
Clumsy, empty, stupid stones.
And I watched my friend struggle and fall into this tilting world,
Where there is no right or wrong things to say or do.
He held me as I said I didn’t know the details.
No one knows the details
When the world tilts.
The last time I saw my dad was Sunday 7th Oct 2012. Himself and my mum called round for dinner after watching the Ladies All-Ireland final in Croke Park. I was pretty excited about having them over as it wasn’t a super regular occurrence. Many moons ago when I first flew the nest and lived in Belfast, I used to leave the family home the day after Christmas and maybe not darken the door again until Easter Sunday. All part of carving out a life and identity for yourself, but in more recent years family was more of a priority. Time was less luxurious and sweeter for it.
This wasn’t merely a sense of mutual mortalities. My cooking was also lot more nuanced and rounded as was my relationship with my dad after years of working alongside him on the sites and I looked forward to catching up with my folks when they made the trips to Dublin on match days. I was also keen for them to meet someone I’d been seeing. I think I roasted a ham and some autumn vegetables. My memory is pretty hazy in some respects and I cant remember lots of our conversation. Over the last year that has saddened and angered me. How can you not remember the last conversation you ever had with your dad? What does that say?
But really when hanging out with the people closest to you, the people you love, its not always the content of conversation that’s meaningful. Lots of times conversations of catch up, of work or of whatever it is, are merely tracing the contours of a deep knowing. Words facilitate care and affection rather than being important in themselves. Maybe that’s why all our conversations with those closest don’t make it into our memory. Or at least I draw comfort from the idea but maybe I’m not as great a listener as I like to think I am.
A part of that afternoon will stay with me. My dad was a great man for mobile phones, and he was always taking photos and bits of video on them. He wanted to show me a video he taken. When he pulled the phone out of his pocket I was thinking “ah jaysus, whats this?” and was more interested in keeping the chats going with the friend I’d introduced. But I sensed he was quietly insistent I watch it and I was happy to indulge. It was a video of twenty or thirty butterflies on some plants he’d purposefully grown because they were attracted to them. It was an impressive sight, a really lovely capturing of a once-a-year phenomenon he himself had arranged by directing the butterflies migration to his garden. I’d watched maybe 30 seconds. He was standing to my left leaning over my shoulder holding the phone in front of me and I looked at him about to say it was really cool but I’d seen enough. I didn’t cos I saw that he had his head cocked to the side and was fighting to hold back the beginnings of a cheeky smirk that told me I was missing something.
So I watched a with more curiosity to see what it was. I could hear music that sounded familiar as butterflies sucking nectar in lazy flutters danced across the phones’ screen. I couldn’t get why he wanted me to keep watching. At the same I didn’t let on that I knew I was supposed to get anything, the pleasure of play having its own delicate rules. As the butterflies moved around the plants I could see the opened door of his car parked alongside the garden.
It was then that I realised the music from the car was a song I’d written, recorded and since forgotten years ago. He had one of the few cd’s of it. The penny dropped at what he was at, and when I said it to him he just beamed back smiling proud as punch, reflecting my own reaction. He put the phone back in his pocket and sat back down and started chatting again as if it was nothing. A simple gesture laden with so much care that right then I knew that it was a keeper, not knowing it would become such a signifier. I spend weeks and sometimes months making videos that try to say something meaningful. He made his own, setting up the scene and picking the soundtrack with a clear idea of who his audience would be. Just to put a smile on my face.
When I think back on that, I feel its OK to not remember every word or sentence that passed between us that Sunday. Neither of us could imagine it would be the last time we would see each other. We last spoke when he called me later that night after getting home to thank me for dinner and say how much he enjoyed the company and craic round the table. I don’t know if I thanked him for the nice touch earlier, but I told him I loved him as I hung up.
Some Notes On Grief and the Wider World.
I hope what I usually write about on this blog, when I’m not just ranting about craven assholes masquerading as our betters, foregrounds the possibility of ending inequalities and organised hurt within our communities/society. But no matter how many words I write about my dads death, there is no possibility of changing the fact of his life being cut short, of the conversations that wont be had, or the dancing that wont happen. Such remedies don’t exist.
His death was sudden. He was a pretty healthy 63 year old man and was struck by a teleporter on a building site he was working on on Friday 12th Oct 2012. I’ve been very reluctant to write about his death and the accompanying loss and grieving. Primarily because it is so immense, still very fresh to me and my family. At times I’ve had much I want to say about death, loss and grief. Other times the fear of writing the wrong thing or feeling I’ll regret writing something because I’ll change my mind has stopped me. Change though is perhaps the most inevitable of things.
Death, loss and grief have always been part of every human existence, yet it’s only when it collides with your own world as an adult you realise how little we talk publicly about it. Even as so much of this is private and will remain so, I’ve been struck dumb at times by my own lack of literacy around grief, an inability at times to find words to describe even to myself my own feelings. So this may be rambling or fragmented as I don’t expect to make total sense from something that there simply is no sense to. Yet trying to make sense of events, our surroundings and where we fit into it all is part of what we are as healthy human beings. I also haven’t written on this before now as writing publicly held no real appeal. I have felt that it would be disingenuous to start writing and publishing regularly again about radical/sensible politics without making reference to the most significant event/loss in my adult life, but its only now I feel able to do that. Up until now I’ve kinda just yearned to find firm ground beneath my feet, stability in chaos. My priorities were elsewhere than this blog. From that perspective writing about aspects of my own experiences and thoughts of grief so far, and that’s all they are, is an attempt to learn and heal at the same time as hoping public honesty, even in the broken fragmented form it’s written in here might be of some use to others……
Over the last 13 months I’ve bounced between feeling responsible for those closest to me to feeling completely incapable of talking to anyone around me. Often I’ve felt both these things at the same time which really melted my head. I’ve had days on end were I hated my own company, and more lately a more settled realisation what the term “don’t be so hard on yourself” actually means. At times over the last year the simple every day tasks like cooking and eating have seemed like massive chores. On those days I haven’t been able to tell if my core is sore from lack of food or the sense of loss and robbed futures and I didn’t care. There’s times when I can feel tearful at the slightest thing, like my sensitivity to the world, to sounds, colours and people is overwhelming and ramped up to full. Other times I feel really angry but have no real focus for it. The ability to try and stay stoic and strong – whatever than means – is very much a part of socialised Irish male identity, and while there’s aspects of that I genuinely value, it also can be a bit of a burden itself. For a while I spoke to just one person about how I was feeling, but it took me 6 months to realise that I wasn’t aware how genuinely confused, angry and deeply sad I really felt inside.
None of this is linear but rather is like waves and circles that come back around. Some might say recursive. There is no fixing the death of someone you love. Nor can you avoid the unknown that comes with it. It is what it is. Sometimes there’s a seeping paralysis, were simple day to day functioning was just that and I found its best to roll with that but keeping it in check. My desire to get off the planet, or at least press pause it until some sense of ‘normality’ came back, was partially overcome through a sense of responsibility to other people and projects. Keeping myself super busy was part of the first four or five months after dad died. I worked with The Live Register with a crazy schedule at the end of 2012, and tried to do things you normally do in a relationship and with friends, but upon reflection I was isolating my emotional self from everyone around me including myself. I still wrote and posted a bit on here but as more weeks and months passed I found writing about specific social policies, generalised capitalist stupidity or saying once more that we don’t live in a functioning democracy seemed completely pointless. The world continued to turn but I felt it burn friction marks into me as I tried to stand still.
And yet it’s not all been singularly horrible. I’ve rediscovered many friendships and learnt a lot about personal resilience and how both are interlinked. I’ve realised how lucky I am to be surrounded by so many caring friends and comrades, and just how much I took all this for granted. I found it useful to go to a few bereavement counselling sessions, but found it far more useful and enriching to be able to call on friends who were happy to let me talk through tears or share memories, fears and hopes or simply hang out in their company. A striking realisation for me is that so much of what I work for and struggle along side people for – communities of care, economies of support and mutual aid and people acting like people actually matter – already exist in many places I inhabit. Perhaps I took it so much of this for granted I didn’t see that we already have around us strong social structures of love, care and ethical action, in direct contradiction to the common sense that competition and market values is what runs society
Nowhere has this been more evident that within the communities of Whitecross and Newtown . For so much of my life I felt, with an anarchist and activist hat on me, that its people who make communities. At dad’s funeral I spoke about how involved with the community he was over his life with decades in GAA, golf, community organisations and neighbourliness. It was the response from people after dad’s death and the ongoing support and care shown to my mum and family in a multitude of ways, made me think that yeah people do make communities, but that communities also make people too. Through this time my dad remains a guide and source of inspiration and hopefulness. I feel lucky knowing his love and care as a parent, and as friends in adult life. Like I say I had the luxury of working alongside him over many many years. It’s not everyone’s experience and I know its not to be taken for granted either.
As a child I used to be afraid of other kids who were grieving, who lost parents or siblings or grandparents, as if I could be contaminated or weakened by “it” or them. As if grief was was something like the cold you could catch. As I grew up so did my understanding of mortality, illness and accidents. I’ve probably been to more wakes that any of my friends/peers in Dublin and am pretty comfortable around coffins and sitting up with the dead and the bereaved through the night. I’d be happy not to do it for a while, but at this stage in life its an inevitability. Even with that normalising of death, I’d always felt clumsy about what to say to people. I can wax lyrical about politics, technology, social change and injustice, but in intimate places laden with real hurt, I’m more likely to stumble and fall like a drunk on a coal heap.
“Im sorry for your troubles” is a common line, but I can’t say it without feeling I’m displaying a sheer lack of effort. It taken my own experience to realise that there is no right or wrong things to say. I’ll never forget someone at my dads wake turning round to face me as they went out the door saying “Sure I don’t know what he was doing on that site anyways, I was always saying to him he should have been retired years ago.” At the time I was exhausted and in ritual auto-pilot but part of me said inside “cheers for that one” thinking it was a really cold thing to say. Now I get that what was being said, and why, was something very different than how I interpreted it. The shock was social rather than merely individual. Perhaps its impossible to escape a sense of human inadequacy in the face of other peoples immutable pain. Maybe that’s an essential part of being an empathetic human being. The solidarity of expressed care becomes its own meaning in the absence of any other meaning.
I’d never thought about the social dimensions of grief. The specific dimensions of our experiences of loss are our own even as it bleeds into the lives of others closest around us. I’ve felt lonely, isolated and afraid or angry, hurt and unjustly done unto. In reality, that is as it should be. It seems to me though there is no single ownership of loss and grief. Death itself makes the very concept of ownership questionable. When we see our own experiences ripple out, and recognise that our pain is not just singular but is shared and felt by others to a lesser degree, when we are experiencing communal support, the “I” is placed within a larger “we”.
When we know loss and grief has been experienced before by others and will be again by even more a small transformation takes place in your head. Finding an ability talk and share, to listen and learn, and in struggling to find hope in times when it seems to have disappeared, has reinforced in me the idea that the practise of empathy – love and care not simply as emotions and needs, but as orientations to people around us, is a meaningful and generative escape and remedy from the worst that can be thrown at us in life. I’m still teasing out how this moves from the personal to the political, but it seems to me the feminisation of these ideas in political thought is instrumental is the framing of our society as an amoral economy. Feminism/feminist economics can offer us a way to undo that framing.
This isn’t a new realisation in and of itself. Much of my life over the last 15 years has has involved working alongside others in campaigns, projects, mobilisations and political and social organisations with the aim of tackling and changing the structural causes of organised hurt and injustice. Many of these things have involved the poetics of love and the politics of feminism and anarchism – particularly the alter-globalisation movements of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s – and have within them an implicit understanding of the centrality of care in any healthy functioning society. The last year has given me pause to think about what we mean when we talk about solidarity and community. It might seem odd to keep jumping between talking about experiences of grieving and loss to questions of how society works, but that’s how my head works.
Dad took an active interest in the radical political and social work myself and my brother have been involved in. He was immensely curious about the world at large and people in particular, be that science, the relationship between people and land. Our most recent on going conversations before his death traced the realities and life lessons of living and raising a family in a low level war. The experience of growing over the border in the north, raising a young family in a highly militarised and violent society makes the distinction between personal and political patently false.
I’ll come back to that again sometime.
Finally my experience of losing my dad and all that is associated with that for the people who loved him leads me to this closing outlook. Life isn’t fair on its own terms. People who say that life is fair are either ignorant or liars. That is not to say that life is not beautiful, inspiring or anything else, I know it is. And even when I haven’t felt that in the last year I have a responsibility to hope. Hovering between atheism and agnostic, I see life as the only thing we have. Our friendships and loves, our kids and family, our labour, our play and creativity. We are intelligent, caring, social beings given the chance and there is no dress rehearsal. To recognise that merely existing brings its own hurt suggests that one objective of any honest humane democratic society should be to promote, secure and defend social relations that enable us to minimise and deal with that hurt. From this ethical/feminist/anarchist position comes a principle that goes to the root of my own world view. Humans have no legitimate authority to inflict unnecessary hurt onto others on top of the crap that life already throws up, regardless of/especially when it comes in the guise of organised politics and economics. The solidarity we show each other when life is cruel on its own terms offers us a template. My hope is that care will increasingly be at the foreground of not only the privatised spheres of our lives, but is a political and vocal part of our struggles for social justice, equality and freedom from organised hurt in our societies.
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