Skip to content

A Death in Ireland

By Christopher Burke

27 January 2011, Bogotá , Colombia.

Loss is as loss is.  As often as not, loss comes by telephone, lonely, illusive, ready to communicate its devastation entirely and suddenly; this time this telephone call of loss comes to tell me that my brother has died.  This loss is unconfined.

My parents are gone.  I almost added ‘on me’.  Of course, ‘on me’ doesn’t complete the sentence.  My mother died of a stroke, my father from what was ultimately diagnosed as leukemia.  My parents are gone for whoever knew them, my siblings, their siblings, their family, their friends, their acquaintances, their neighbors.  And yes, they are gone for me too.  My Sunday night conversations with my mother, those are gone.  My mother’s reportings on the family are no longer part of my file.  My father’s silence is his forever.

Many years ago now, a former partner of mine died from AIDS.  I read about his AIDS diagnosis in the New York Times magazine (he was a writer) and I stood as shocked as anyone might have been (or more probably paced through my compact New York apartment distraught as anyone might have been) full of the questions of whether I was or was not HIV positive.  I survived.  I think of this now, survival.

Painting of the Burren in the West of Ireland. Rob Adams,

Much later, one starlit night, I prayed for my cat, Tubeck, who had an inoperable tumor.  I prayed for him more than I had prayed for anything or anyone in my life.  I went out into our field in the upstate New York night, and faced in the direction of where I thought my cat was in the vet’s clinic in the darkness, and I prayed.  I sent my energy as best I could to my soulmate and I wept.  I connected with my cat, I am sure of that.  We communed and he left this life forever.

Now, I am on Continental Fight 880 from Bogotá, Colombia to Newark. This is the all-is-well-as-much-as-it-can-be humming sound across the invisible space of contemporary jet travel on my way to my brother’s funeral in Ireland.  Aloft, hovering in the sky, removed, plugged in, awash in entertainment, I try to sleep.

At Newark, I buy toothpaste and eat, and check my US cell phone messages until I am still the same sibling in crisis, ready to board my flight for Ireland.  Looking around, life is something like this, I imagine, or used to be something like this.  I watch passengers pick up their duty free and talk full spirited on their Blackberries and iPhones.

I arrive in Shannon in the dark of morning, and sit in the cafe of the terminal building.  I look out over the snow covered cars in the parking lot as I wait for my surviving brother to come and get me.  This is where my now dead brother picked me up so many times, and dropped me off, or let me down.  One of us was wrong in those many arguments that always left us here in this building.  We argued over power, over difference?  Over how to frame life?  Over wanting to accept the other view but perhaps not wanting to.  It is hard to speak for both sides of an argument.

My bother had stopped coming to pick me up when I arrived in Ireland.  He had stopped doing many things, which now link together in understanding the snow covered landscape outside this airport window.  I think about happiness and how we define it and how we achieve it.  And I wonder if I have been successful in any way in my life, seeing as now for sure there is a time limitation at work here.  Have I left any mark?  Obviously, my bother touched me in an extraordinary bond.  His mark is clear on me, argument of no argument between us.

Painting of the Burren in the West of Ireland. Rob Adams,

When he arrives, my surviving brother presses me close in an unknown embrace.  Survivors, we drive through snow to Kinvara to change clothes, to be late to the small country church where a color photograph of our bother holding his dog sits atop his coffin.  The photograph breaks my heart.

The grave site is quiet, covered in holly, in a churchyard lost in hills that are dusted in snow.  Surrounded by family and friends, the hearse pulls up to an icy field.  People mention what a beautiful site it is, and the site is beautiful, quintessentially beautiful.  And this is a pure Irish moment, rich in human warmth, in earth and air, in history, in compassion.  My brother has come home, when in truth he was never far from here.

My niece and I cook dinner together.  And later in the evening, in the rawness of Salthill, my surviving brother wants to have a drink in his local pub.  We go there and try to squeeze meaning into our ultimate mystery, our lives.  We are in loss.

I drive back to Shannon, and I know that for whoever knew him, his parents, his brothers, his wife, his daughters, his in-laws, his friends, his acquaintances, his business partners, my brother is gone forever.  For all of us, he is gone.  His kindness, his generosity, his richness in being, these things are gone.

On my flight back to Bogotá, I am not numb.  But I am not exactly effervescent either.  I am normal, commonplace.  Loss outsmarts you.  It invites itself into your life.  It folds you in on yourself.  It becomes part of you.  This loss is vast.  My brother has been part of my life since the day I was born, my eternity.  One day when I am young, I am meeting my brother in the shadow of the Citicorp Building in New York.  And he tells me to pay attention to my life because it is short.  One night in Paris, he is drunk and informed and rich in detail and observant and full of life knowledge.  Our meetings repeat in New York, in San Francisco, in London, in Ireland.  And they continue in Tampa last year when his hand shook and he came to visit me last.  Now, I leave him in a country church in Ireland.  This man, this great man, is gone.

Christopher Burke is a freelance writer based in Bogotá, Colombia.

Images reproduced with permission from painter Rob Adams,

Be Sociable, Share!

Posted on: January 31, 2011, 10:41 am Category: The View From Here Tagged with: , , ,

0 Responses

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

You must be logged in to post a comment. Otherwise, feel free to register for free and post a comment.