Bittersweet Birthday

June 9th, 2018

It’s been a very bittersweet birthday.

It’s the first birthday I’ve spent away from home, which is actually quite impressive considering I’ve had 22 of them and I’m very rarely home anymore. Even last year, when I thought would be the first time away, I ended up taking my 3 final exams in the first two days of the month-long exam period because I had to get back to the U.S. to start my internship, so I arrived home 6 hours before my 21st birthday. The amusing part was that after 10 months of being over the legal drinking age, I was underage again for a mere 6 hours.

This year I left for Bolivia about 48 hours after getting home from graduation. We left on May 31st and arrived back home on June 7th, so I spent my birthday (June 4th) in the Andes mountains in a little village called Calcha. We had a private meeting with the Mayor of Vitichi, met with several community members to gather information about the effects and use of the bridge, and played a rousing game of Bolivian UNO. The team even made me a little birthday card at breakfast and surprised me with a chocolate cake at lunch, brought all the way from La Paz without my knowing, and sang happy birthday.

 

On the day we were to fly from La Paz to Santa Cruz to Miami (and then to Orlando for me), we got stuck in Santa Cruz for several hours due to something malfunctioning on the plane. Knowing I probably wasn’t going to make my connection, and possibly not any connection that night, I called my dad using whatsapp and the unpredictable airport wifi to ask if someone could come pick me up in Miami and just make the long drive home. The answer was “no” because, as I wasn’t supposed to find out until I got home, my dad had to drive my mom to the Orlando airport that night so she could fly to Ireland to be with my grandad. I knew that he had come down with pneumonia the previous week and had been doing fairly well initially but apparently a few days prior, on my birthday, everything started going downhill really fast.

He passed away early this morning; my mom and her three older brothers next to him.

He was kind but firm, quick-witted, had a great sense of humor, and was incredibly humble. I never knew about most of his interesting stories until I visited him several times while studying in Spain and whenever we had a cup of tea or dinner together I started simply asking questions. I learned that he had visited and experienced the strangeness of East Berlin during the cold war, was allergic to whiskey, and couldn’t understand some of the really thick Irish accents (I think from Kerry?) despite being a native.

One of my favorite memories was when I visited in March 2017. I flew up from Santander for the weekend, just because. On Friday we were planning what to make for dinner and I explained to him that I wasn’t supposed to eat meat because it was a Friday during Lent. (He was the stereotypical friendly “yer grand” tea-drinking-five-times-a-day elderly Irishman in pretty much every way except in that he was not Catholic). Of course, the traditional Irish diet does not cater well to eating vegetarian, so every option he had contained meat. We ended up ordering pizza (and by “we” I mean “I” because he had never done it before, and I had to ask the guy to repeat everything because I couldn’t understand his accent over the phone) with onions, peppers, mushrooms, oregano, and who knows what else on a thin crust. He ended up liking it much more than he expected. Several months later my uncle messaged me asking what it was I had ordered on the pizza that one time because my grandad wanted to order it again, exactly the same way. So apparently I inadvertently got him hooked on pizza.

Here are a few excerpts from the eulogy that my uncle wrote, of things that I didn’t really know (or at least the details were very fuzzy) until now:

“At the end of his time in school he wanted to study medicine at TCD and sat the matriculation exam which he passed, unfortunately the family circumstances were such that he could not take up the place, so he set his sights on becoming and Accountant and joined the Great Northern Railway.”

“Growing up in Dundalk [he] attended Dundalk Grammar School in the 1930s playing both hockey and badminton for the School. He used to reminisce about cycling 15 miles to Carrickmacross after school to play a match and then cycle back afterwards.”

“He was elected to the Olympic Council where he was Vice president for 8 years, and to the Sports Council. He was at 3 Olympic games, firstly as a swimming judge in Montreal, and as the team manager for the entire Irish team in Los Angeles in 1984 and Seoul in 1988…Dad retired from all his sports positions in 1988, but in 2015 when he was 91, Swim Ireland presented him with a Hall of Fame Award…”

But I do know that he loved apple pie and American bacon, that even at 94 he played sudoku every day, and that despite living in times of great religious and political tensions in Ireland, when all four of his children married Catholics and countless other parents would’ve been furious and unaccepting, he disregarded judgement from others and without hesitation welcomed his childrens’ spouses as family.

 

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When I returned home from Bolivia, the plan had been to properly celebrate my birthday. We ordered a Publix cake and planned to go out to dinner; the usual for birthdays in my family. But now my mom isn’t here. She was boarding her plane as my plane landed. The task of combing through all the messages and emails that have piled up over the last week, including all the ones wishing me happy birthday and asking about Bolivia now just seems daunting.

My grandad was supposed to have his hip replaced at the end of June so he could walk farther and more easily like he used to, which feels like not very long ago. I was going to move in with him in August before starting my job in Dublin in September. I was going to be there to cook for him, help him with daily tasks, and keep him company. My uncle who lives nearby has always come over four days a week to take him out to Howth Harbor, go grocery shopping, and simply spend time with him, but it was going to be a huge help and great comfort also having someone there every day. I was going to live with him at least for the first several months, and then find a place of my own at some undetermined point. My granddad, uncle, and I were going to go to England for a weekend in August to attend my cousin’s Memorial Golf Tournament. My parents were going to come visit in November to surprise him for his 95th birthday, something they were planning even before I got the job and planned to move there. I found it amusing that he would be living at my house in Florida for a couple months a year, while I’d still be living in his house, trading places practically. After having the opportunity to visit several times during my time abroad, I was excited to hear more of his interesting stories from his life, drink tea together, eat sweet potato fries (excuse me, chips), go for walks in Howth and pick up some fresh fish, make rhubarb jam, rhubarb compote, rhubarb everything, etc.

But now it’s going to be an empty house. It’ll just be my uncle and I going to the golf tournament. My parents won’t be visiting in November. I’ll have to find my own place to live sooner than I thought. I’ll still move into the house for a bit, because selling it takes time and I’ll be helping sort things out and maintain it. It’s just that the house will be much quieter and lonelier. I’m still ecstatic to move there, but Dublin has lost a truly amazing Irishman.

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