So I promised I’d share one of the stories (very short stories) from my memoir course. I have an idea that in time I’ll write a series of short stories covering the many different events in my life to date and put them all together into one book. Some will be challenging, others funny but all will have a tale to tell.
Some of you will already be aware of this particular story, but here it is again with a little polish applied.
I hope you enjoy it. As of yet it has no title.
This treasure chest of mine is in reality, an old zip locked, black leather writing wallet, bulging at the seams. Nothing interesting about its cover would catch the eye of an outsider, although its strong leather smell is a treat to the senses.
If I were to unzip it, its contents would spill out, each one a ticket to the past. Black and white photos telling their own stories, cards hinting at romance, and letters aplenty addressed to the girl I used to be.
Among the many memories lies a yellowing half page from a newspaper, first read thirty years ago. Sitting down on my bed I push aside the other contents and carefully unfold it. The heading is written in large bold print,
“WHAT’S LEFT IN LIFE?”
To a stranger this newspaper cutting is from Fr Brian D’Arcy’s column in The Sunday World newspaper. It features the story of a victim of Motor Neurone Disease. The story of my Dad.
But I know that piece of paper has more than one story to tell.
My Dad had a wonderful way with words and it came as no surprise to us to hear he’d agreed to share with the MND Association what it was like to live with a disease few had heard of thirty years ago. As Motor Neurone Disease took hold there were many who thought Dad became less, but reading his words in this newspaper article it is plain to see, he became more.
‘Yet in the face of such darkness let me offer some encouragement to fellow sufferers, be thankful that if anyone in your family has to suffer you are the one and not them.’
Daily for weeks Dad sat typing on an outdated typewriter, his finger shaking as it hovered above often stubborn keys. Unlike the easy keyboards of today, each letter had to be struck with force to ensure it hit the ink band hard enough to make a mark. Sometimes, I’d watch as he’d suddenly lower his finger, only to discover he’d hit the wrong key, like the claw in an amusement arcade game hovering over a cuddly toy before dropping and missing the prize. I avoided going near him, not because he’d ask for help, but because he wouldn’t.
Soon after the article was completed Dad lost the use of his hands.
Months later the MND newsletter arrived with the infamous piece in it. We cheered and clapped him on the back, before each of us scurried off to our rooms with it tucked under our arms, choosing to wallow alone as Dad’s words spoke to each of us,
‘Remember it’s far worse for those who have to deal with you on a day-to-day basis. Their problem is more long-term than your own. Their cross is heavier than yours and it takes constant patience and understanding on their part to cope with your increasing invalidity.’
How I raged the first few times I read that, angry at Dad’s acceptance of his lot and overwhelmed by his love for us despite our failings. Each word in the article had a new value, as Dad had been silenced in the intervening weeks, the disease taking his voice.
I was jolted back to the present when I heard the back door open and my daughter move about downstairs. It was time to leave my treasure. The past, hidden deep in my every day surprising me by how much it continued to hurt when poked. I wondered what my daughter had thought of Dad’s piece when she’d read it a few years before? Not having lived it could she know the story behind it? Was she aware that there was another layer to this old newspaper’s story?
Motor Neurone Disease killed Dad on October 9th 1987.
The days immediately after were a blur, the pain of grief so strong I understood how it were possible to die from a broken heart. No tablets touched it. No words eased it. No hug took it away. Days became weeks and months. We went from a family of timetables and worry, to a freedom we couldn’t remember. One we despised. As mum mourned the loss of her best friend, her children scattered, fleeing a house which, without Dad no longer felt like home. Begrudgingly we returned to reality every now and again, laundry in tow.
Some days hurt more than others. Sunday dinners at a table with an empty chair, my final nursing exam weeks after we lost him, and graduation day. Christmas came before we were ready, memories still fresh from the previous year when I’d refused to travel abroad with my boyfriend knowing it would be Dad’s last. The reality of that knowing now a haunting, as I wondered with the New Year approaching why time wasn’t healing?
Any shred of faith I had was gone. Who could believe in, or worship a God who allowed such a good man suffer? Yet, despite my lack of faith I spent an inordinate amount of time raging at the God my mother worshipped.
The months rolled by, Easter, Dad’s favourite time of year, came and went and Summer arrived bringing with it my parents wedding anniversary, the first Mum would spend alone.
I have little memory of the events of that day as it is the day after I remember. It was a Sunday. We opened the front door for Mum as she returned from Mass and the graveyard, her red eyes evidence of the mornings struggle. The kettle was boiled for the obligatory cup of tea, our go to comforter in times of trouble and we handed her the newspapers.
And there it was, mid-way through the Sunday World newspaper, Dad’s article.
None of us knew it was to be printed, nor have we any idea how Fr Brian D’Arcy came to read it, but what did that matter? Dad was here, in our kitchen, at the table, beside Mum, sharing one last cup of tea on their anniversary weekend.
As Dad laboured over each letter the year before we had no idea that he was writing to us in the future, leaving behind the best anniversary present he could have given. As we read his article over and over his Donegal lilt and gentle voice filled the room one last time,
‘Remember to be taken suddenly may be a blessing but it will leave forever a scar because no one had the chance to say goodbye.
Life takes on a different set of values when you are faced with a difficulty you cannot overcome. Life is like a game and regardless of your disappointment and often despair of your lot you must continue to play your part. Keep winding the clock that keeps you ticking, keep the fire within you burning and remember,’
“the darkness of the whole world is not enough to put out the light of even one small candle”
Was it a coincidence or some sort of miracle? Who knows? But I like to believe that fragile, yellowed newspaper cutting was all part of the magic that was my Dad reminding us to live life, be happy and never lose hope.
photo credit: The Candle via photopin (license)