Prologue – A Death in the Family
The nurse’s aide led Conor through the deadly quiet hall to room 212, where his father lay dying, and opened the door. Conor murmured “Thank you” and entered. She whispered back and let the door shut behind him.
The air was still but not stale. His mother, Laurie, and brother, Liam, turned to see who was coming in, immediately rose, and they all embraced. Snuffling sounds rose from the trio.
Beyond them lay Sean’s wasted form. He was unconscious, breathing shallowly.
Once the three had recovered, they circled the bed.
Conor asked, “What’s his status?”
Liam replied, voice soft, “They said it won’t be long now. They checked on him, took his vitals, right before you got here. He might regain consciousness another time or two. Could be an hour or so. Maybe less.”
Laurie added, “They’ve been very kind to us.”
“Good,” Conor replied. There was not much else to say at the moment. A lifetime of family discussions, heated and humorous, energetic and low-toned, faded into the void of a terrible consciousness of impending loss.
Sean’s eyes opened. To Conor, it seemed as though his father felt obliged to join in the conversation to make his family more comfortable.
“Conor? You’re here too?”
“Of course, Dad,” and Conor covered the man’s thin, wracked hand with his own. Laurie and Liam both pressed forward.
Sean slowly swung his heavy-lidded gaze around the three. “You’re all here. I can’t see so good now, but I can see that much. Good.” He paused to catch his breath. Just talking had become an effort. When he recovered, he continued. “Damn this disease anyway. Taking me from my family.” He smiled gently. “Sorry. I’m letting it get to me.”
Liam replied, “You’re entitled to, Dad.”
Laurie bent down to cradle her husband’s head, careful to avoid the surgical site. Tears appeared at the corners of her eyes and traced their lightly shining paths down her cheeks.
Sean closed his eyes, enjoying her affection, holding his sons’ hands, as best as his weakened state allowed.
Conor spoke in low tones to his father, but loud enough for them all to hear. “I’m going for my doctorate in neurosciences, Dad. Nothing’s going to stop me, and the best that I can offer right now is that I’m going to kill this son of a bitch disease that’s killing you.”
His mother looked up at him reproachfully, but uncharacteristically refrained from correcting him. Perhaps she felt her measure of the same rage against her husband’s disease, whether or not her genteelness allowed her to express it harshly.
Sean smiled and closed his eyes. He whispered, “If anyone can, that’s you, Conor. Best and brightest.” He reopened his eyes and turned them toward Liam. “Liam, son, I don’t mean to be –”
Liam squeezed his father’s hand, smiling himself. “Don’t worry about it, Dad. We all know who the genius is in the family,” and he looked at Conor and winked before returning his eyes back to his father. “And we know your love is shared equally among us all.”
Sean whispered, “I might love your mother a bit more,” and they all laughed, however forced, however accented with sorrow the laugh was.
The room fell quiet again, but the dying man had one more thing to say. He whispered, and they bent down to listen.
“Do you remember when I used to sing ‘O Danny Boy’ to you?” He acted as though he was going to say more, but he stopped to let his breath catch up.
“Of course, Dad. One of our favorite memories.”
“Good.” And silence for another moment. “When I’ve passed, can you sing it for me? The thought of it,” another short silence, another catch of breath, “gives me peace.”
The reply was pushed through a thickening throat. “Of course.”
Sean relaxed back into unconsciousness.
Outside the room, the nurse’s aide finished with her most recent patient. It was time to check back with Mr. O’Malley. She wished she could have stayed to be with the family continuously to provide company and to report the passing, if it had happened. But she had other patients needing attention on this busy day. The family members would have their private time.
She opened the door slowly, silently. She heard in low tones two men softly crooning, voices breaking,
O Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes, are callin’
From glen to glen and down the mountainside
Overlaying their low tones was the sound of a woman sobbing.
The nurse’s aide decided she could take a few more minutes for one more room check before coming back to comfort the family, check the patient’s now-still vitals, and call the nurse to record the time of death.
Inside the room, grief pervaded, but with Conor, other emotions roiled as well. Beneath his shattering sense of loss, fury and resentment raged against the disease that had taken his beloved father far too soon.