When you stay away from Ireland always at home. As a native of Carrigaline, I have spent half of my 36 years moving and going home. Arriving back usually involves settling back with my father in Douglas, Co. Cork. He and I will chase KC fish and chips, and drink at the Tinny Warehouse next door. With my close grandmother in Blackrock, and friends around her, going home was always a whirlwind.
Throughout my life, my father kept calling and visiting overseas often, whether I was studying in Glasgow, working in Ontario in Canada, or most recently, while running my own business in New Zealand.
My father was born and raised in Glasgow in Scotland, he moved to Ireland in 1980. He and his brother worked in Ireland on Haulbowline Island for most of their careers, as did my brother. He is scheduled to retire at the age of 64 in September.
It’s hard to be a modern grandfather, with nieces in Australia, Canada and New Zealand, but we share so many opportunities with him via Skype. Gifts always come from him in the mail, are well thought out and wrapped in expert packaging tape, and filled with Cadbury Roses as a substitute for polystyrene packing nuggets.
Video calling is the lifeline for expatriates everywhere. Last December, Father’s Skype “didn’t seem to work”, reducing video calls to phone calls. This was frustrating over Christmas, but little did we know that the visit from this video call was strategic; My father experienced rapid weight loss, and took test after test at Cork University Hospital. The results are very devastating; he started 2020 with a cancer diagnosis.
When arranging my visit to coincide with the results, I returned to Cork in January to meet my father, and had a heart-wrenching conversation about medication and a sudden and short time schedule and future. He assured me that they were in their hands, they could operate and that there might be chemotherapy. I hope.
Leaving Ireland there is a faint whisper of the virus, in Asia, which can grow to the scale and size of SARS. I have a business meeting in Dublin, a global event in Toronto and a New Zealand company will be launched in March, but I’m not too worried. Like many people, if I could go back in time I would change my plans in an instant.
In a very short time, the doctors found an infection and put my father in the hospital. A few days later it was locked because the first case of Covid-19 appeared at CUH. We were told no visitors were allowed. Can we go and wave from the parking lot?
When the word pandemic began to circulate throughout the world, my father remained isolated with infection, but fortunately free of the virus. They will still be operating and will still be doing chemo, just watching and waiting and not coming, because no visitors are allowed. My brothers in Bantry, my sisters in Perth, Australia, and I in Canada all watched the news with increasing horror, when the world became a paradigm of plague and epicenter.
We talked almost every day, he was from his bed in the hospital which he called the ghost town. He urged me not to come, to insist that we not waste our lives in the hope of catching a glimpse of the sixth floor window. Going to the top in Canada, he urged. We talk three times a day. A day later we boarded a plane to New Zealand, for the launch event still taking place in a country that was very underdeveloped.
From the airport in Toronto, I talked to him. “I can still fly to Dublin,” I said. We argued and he won. I go to New Zealand. I am still here, isolated with my two sons. For Mike Aitken, my father, was finally fast and painless and heartbreaking, and very far away. He died at the age of 64 on Friday, April 3.
I am 18,000 km away with my two sons Donnacha and Fiachra. We will wake up at 1am for an online funeral with close family. Less than 10 people will be at the funeral home. We are arranging Zoom calls for those who cannot be there to listen to short services. The hearse will continue along the route surrounded by many friends who live not far from the main road to the crematorium. People will scatter to their homes for another Zoom meeting with close relatives in Ireland, Canada, Australia, Scotland and New Zealand – hundreds of people who cannot pay their respects directly. How do you celebrate the lives of a great man, an extraordinary father, a loving grandfather, and a dear friend to so many people in the world, when we cannot meet directly? We are still trying to find that out.
Rest in peace Michael Aitken (13.09.1955 to 03.04.2020)