I Turned My Dad's Death Into A Comedy Novel & Didn't Warn My Family

Photo by Al Higgins.
Sarah Breen & Emer Mclysaght.
I don’t think my mother really believed that my best friend Sarah and I were writing a book until she had the finished product in her hands. "What’s it about?" she would ask, and I would fob her off with, "Ah just this character we made up years ago. We’re writing a novel about her. A funny one." And that was that. When I gave up my job to work on it full-time she asked again, a little more concerned and more than a tad dubious: "How’s that book coming along?" And in the great Irish tradition of wanting to be left alone, I said it was "grand".
I didn’t quite know how to tell her that I was writing our family’s story. The worst thing that had ever happened to us. I could barely talk to them about it but here I was putting it all in a book and I wasn’t even going to warn them.
My dad died on 25th May 2008. He was 60. He had lung cancer, which spread to his brain. He got sick, and then he got better, then he got sick again. They said it would be six weeks and, exactly six weeks later, he died, on a Sunday evening. We – me, my brothers, my mother, my aunts – were crowded around his bed in his little nursing home room. A room meant for old people. He hated it there and during his more lucid moments he would ask us to take him home. As he drew his last breaths I remember joking to break the tension. "Come on Dad, you’re having us on. Get a move on," I said. He hadn’t been conscious for days, so I doubt I hurt his feelings, but I suspected that deep down he was smiling and watching us all waiting. He was the king of truly terrible jokes and it might have just been the ultimate last laugh.
When I handed my mother a copy of my book, Oh My God, What A Complete Aisling, I knew she’d recognise Dad right away. Aisling’s dad pretends to hate the cat but is routinely found with the animal asleep on his knee. Aisling’s dad knows about the importance of "minding a house" when there’s a funeral on in the locality. If someone doesn’t sit in and mind the house then enterprising criminal gangs will be in like a flash, looking to see what they can thieve while everyone is off grieving and drinking. Aisling’s dad puts a few quid of petrol into her car when he takes it out for a spin and tells her not to tell her mother. Aisling’s dad gets sick. And then he gets better. And then he gets sick again.

I was afraid to let my family see how I had poured all my sadness out on the pages for tens of thousands of people to read.

I was afraid to tell my family I was writing our story because I was afraid to let them know how sad I still am about it. I was afraid to let them see how I had poured it all out on the pages for tens of thousands of people to read (although in my defence, I never thought that many people would read it). I was afraid that it would upset them. I was afraid that we’d have to talk about those awful feelings that come with losing a parent, a husband, a friend, and the inevitable tears would come and we’d all have to admit how sad we still are. So I said very little, and I let them have their books, and I waited, nervously.
They weren’t angry, they were proud. My mother could see him on the pages immediately. She could see herself too, in the way Aisling’s mother hides the good biscuits and is extremely suspicious of Wi-Fi. She could see herself and Dad, "fond of their walks up to the top of Reilly’s lane and back down again". Of course, the book is largely a work of fiction. It’s about a young woman who decides it’s time for a change when she doesn’t get a ring on her finger and her dream hen party with more willy straws than she can shake a stick (or a willy) at. It’s an amalgamation of our imaginations, our upbringings, our observations and our experiences. It’s a comedy with a few tragedies and heartaches thrown in, because what is life without a few tragedies and heartaches?
I’m glad I wrote our story. I’m glad because of the dozens and dozens of people who’ve contacted me to say thank you for putting into words what they went through, from those duo packets of custard creams that are so prevalent in hospitals, to the unbearable sadness when your mother loses her best friend. I’m glad we can remember him like this.
Oh My God, What A Complete Aisling by Emer Mclysaght & Sarah Breen is available in hardback from 3rd May 2018, published by Michael Joseph.

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