Goodbye father, goodbye childhood


Karen Kissane

Karen Kissane remembers the death of her father.

BACK THEN, death was more taboo than sex. It made it hard for children. You can hide sex but you can’t hide death. They tried for a long time, when my father got sick. And we made it easy for them; we didn’t want to know. When my little sister came to me crying, whispering that she had heard Mummy on the phone talking about a coffin, I told her with all the assurance of the nine-year-old not to be silly. Daddy was getting better, they all said so. She must have heard wrong, or it must have been to do with something else. But we didn’t ask. Somehow, we knew not to ask. Children can feel the forcefield around a family’s secrets.

And then, of course, they had to tell us. They woke us on a bright summer’s morning, just before Christmas. Mum had on her dark blue velvet dress with the queenly folds. But her face wasn’t queenly, it was wet and crumpled. Her old friend, who’d been helping nurse him, leaned over us, a tear slanting across her nose. Mum gulped out that Daddy had gone to heaven. I began crying, not for him but for me, even then shocked by the selfishness of my first thoughts: What will we do without Daddy? Who will look after us? It was not until I was adult that I forgave the child for thinking first of herself. And I’ve never really forgiven her for not being kind enough to her father in his last days, for being impatient with his frailty, his tiredness, his neediness. But I didn’t know, I didn’t know.

Neither did he, until near the end. The family priest was called to break the news to him, and he didn’t believe it. He died largely disbelieving, although he did ask one or two to help look after his little girls. The stages of mourning _ denial, anger, grief, acceptance _ were not so known about then. Perhaps it was thought a mercy that he died without having felt the full pain of his loss. It was certainly thought a mercy that he died before the tumor could take his sight, or his speech, or his dignity. You should be happy for him, grownups kept telling us; what fictions adults create about the world of children, and how they add to its burdens. You must look after your mother now, they said. You’re all she has now. So much kindness, so little understanding.

He had green eyes, my Dad, and thick grey hair that stood up proud from his forehead. He was a bit of a charmer, by all accounts. He was a storybook Irishman, with a quick temper and a dry wit, an admiration for Ireland’s rebel heroes and a helpless, aching affection for the land he’d left behind. He worked long hours, seven days a week, in the corner shop he ran with Mum. The place was like the village well; he knew everyone. He had terrific business sense, a customer told me many years later; he could have done anything. What he’d wanted to do was law, but life got in the way. He’d also wanted a nice house and time with his family, but death got in the way of that.

He was laid out in the nice house. Mum had been determined that he would be nursed at home, where he was loved. Dad had bought and renovated a few months before he died, and we moved out of the rooms behind the shop and into what seemed to us the world’s most elegant home. He was so proud; there were endless tours with visitors, and parties with friends. I have marvellous memories of singing and dancing and nuns with their skirts flying to the jigs of their girlhood. It was a happy home, and we had time together at last after all the years he had been preoccupied with work. It’s strange, the prescience of childhood; one night early on, as we sat contentedly reading and knitting and playing, I took a mental snapshot and thought, “I’ll always remember us the way we are now”. That was the picture that opened that phase of my life. The one that closed it was my father lying still, strangely neat under the bedclothes, while I wailed at his side.

The great anguish began in earnest then, with the sight of him, with the full realisation of it. The neighbors who had gathered muttered through a rosary while my sister and I, held upright in the grip of determined old women, sobbed uncontrollably. They forced us into a last kiss before letting us flee, out of the room and into the long, dark tunnel of grief.

Heaven was a comfort. I had no doubt that Daddy was up there somewhere, looking down on us and, so everybody promised, looking after us. Somewhere around the edges of the blackness, I noticed the fumbling kindness of other children; the class wrote me stilted little letters when they heard the news, formed an honor guard at the funeral and made a great fuss when I returned to school. I knew I would not be quizzed. When another girl’s mum had been electrocuted while defrosting the fridge, we were told that any child who asked the girl questions about it would be strapped. There were some blessed certainties in that less sophisticated time.

But the darkness had a long shadow. We lost the house. Mum had to work full-time at an exhausting job. And always there was this emptiness at the heart of things; we are closer now than we would have been if my father had not died, and more protective of each other, but for several years, we limped along like a dog with three legs. The family had to find a new balance without him. It was Mum who kept us going.

My father left me no money, but other legacies that I am only now beginning to recognise. Busy as he was, he taught me to read before I even started school, and if he had time for nothing else he had time to take me to the library. He expected the best from me; if I came home from school with less than 100 per cent, he demanded to know why.

He told me over and over that I would be an achiever, a doctor maybe, or an architect; that I would fight for what was right, like Bernadette Devlin, the young Ulster MP who battled for Irish Catholics in the ’60s. I have never had the chance to share his jokes or argue with his politics; he did not walk me down the aisle, or welcome my children. But I do carry some of the gifts that a father makes to his daughter.

First published in The Age.