PatrickThis is my version of an actual event that occurred during the short time since we moved to West Clare from the US. The narrative is presented through the eyes of my son, because it was his experience – but it is all my words and my perspective.

Ballymun

When I was a boy of 14, I carried my uncle up the stairs to his deathbed. My father and I had spent the morning traveling by train from Ennis to Dublin, followed by a bus ride to the north side neighborhood of Ballymun, to visit his brother who was recently home from the hospital. We didn’t know it then, but this was the last time my dad would see his baby brother. When we arrived my uncle was lying on the living room sofa. We learned that Patrick had been confined to the downstairs sofa since collapsing there a day or two earlier. Either there had been no one strong enough to carry him back to his bed upstairs, or else he had refused to be moved, I’m not sure which. But my uncle’s stubborn nature being legend, I think he would have been upstairs if that was where he wanted to be.

I barely knew my Uncle Patrick. Since I was 3 months old I had lived my life in a suburb of Chicago until only recently returning to live in Ireland, the place where I was born. Getting to know an uncle who lived across the Atlantic Ocean wouldn’t be easy for anyone, but was an impossibility for an introverted child of an introverted father.  However, we had managed through the years to visit him on enough occasions that I had a memory of him as the standing man he once was, before he became this bent and frail man on a sofa. I remembered him as a slightly smaller and thinner version of my father, who was his older brother by one year. A chain smoker with sharp, intelligent eyes, his head and shoulders slightly bent down, a foreshadow of what was to come. I could barely understand a word of his thick, north Dublin accent, which he acquired from living his entire adult life in Ballymun. In fact, he and his family could have been speaking French for all I understood when they were speaking fast and laughing in conversation. I was used to Irish accents alright, but my father’s different life from the time he had been my age, had left him with a softer, south Dublin accent mixed with some Mitchelstown he picked up from summers spent in Cork with his Uncle Declan’s family. What I did notice from listening to conversations, was that Patrick said a lot of funny things. He would talk and end sentences with words I rarely understood, but with a sly, humorous look that was usually followed by laughter from the people in the room. I didn’t get the impression of any silliness about the man though. I think it was more of a biting wit.

However, this day my uncle was obviously very uncomfortable and I don’t remember much, if any, banter and laughter. My dad and he were talking quietly. I was shocked to see him in such condition lying crumpled up on the sofa and I distracted myself by pushing a fork around a huge plate of stew that had been set before me as soon as we arrived, by Patrick’s long time partner Mabel, whose accent I understood even less than that of my uncle.

In the middle of their conversation, I heard Patrick say, “So Eoin, how are you getting on at school? Your dad tells me you play basketball, does your school have a basketball team?”

“It’s OK. Yeah, they started a new basketball team when I came.” At the time I just looked up from my stew and shyly answered my uncle’s questions without thinking much about it. But knowing what I know now, I realize that his questions showed me a bit of the measure of the man.  In all his pain and discomfort, and only hours from his death, he took the time to ask me about my life. He even remembered details I didn’t think he knew, or certainly didn’t think he would care about. In this small exchange I got to know him in a way that I hadn’t in all the years previous.

It was a long train ride to Dublin from our West Clare home, but the visit in the house in Ballymun lasted little more than an hour. Sensing how tired his brother was getting, my dad finally took a deep breath and said, “Well we should get going and let you have a rest, but we’ll be back soon. I hope you start feeling better Patrick.”

Next, to my surprise and not sure if I had understood him properly, Patrick asked my dad if he would mind carrying him up to his bed before we left. The idea of an adult being so sick that they needed to be carried to bed was a shock to me. But even more than this, I thought, “How is Dad going to manage it?” This I found out quick enough. As my father awkwardly maneuvered himself behind his brother’s back, hooking his arms under Patrick’s and lifting his upper body to a sitting position he said, “Eoin, take Patrick’s legs and follow as I go up the stairs.” My instinct was to freeze and say no, but the afternoon being full of surprises, I just did as I was asked without complaint or hesitation. Together, my father and I carried his brother, my uncle, up the stairs and laid him as gently as possible into his bed. The lightness of his frail body surprised me and I worried the whole way up that we were hurting him.

The next morning I awoke in my own bed. The train ride from Dublin back to Clare the night before was much longer than the visit in Ballymun had been — although the stew I had to force myself to eat (I don’t like stew), had made the time there seem longer. Sometime around mid morning that day my dad made a phone call to see how Patrick was doing. I wasn’t paying much attention to the conversation until I noticed that he was crying. He had just been told that his brother died that morning, only shortly before his call. This was the first time I ever saw my father cry. It was also the first time I had heard about someone dying, that I felt like crying too.

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