My father always had beautiful skin, smooth and pink as a baby’s bum. I didn’t want to believe he was leaving me, even as I watched him fade and vanish, bit by reluctant bit. First to go were his feet. Ankles swollen until they resembled oven ready dough, soles covered in blisters like snow domes. Soon, his legs withered until they were thin and dry as sticks, toenails a corrupt shade of oyster mixed with ink. Life slipped away from his toes, ankles, shins and knees. Only when it began to exit from his liver and kidneys did he really begin to suffer the knowledge of his own leaving. I watched the blue haze of fear in his remaining good eye as pain rose from a tremor to an earthquake. He cried out, one hand shaking, while the rest of his limbs remained eerily still.
As the days slid by, my father’s skin took on the yellowed hue and waxen sheen of church candles. His immobility frightened me. His rigid shoulder, propped up on a mound of white pillows, stirred wistful longings in me for the cheerful shaking of those same shoulders when he’d belly-laughed only a few months earlier. Unable to turn, he had to wait until I reached the foot of his bed to greet me. I wore eye-catching dresses, knowing that he appreciated a well-turned-out woman. I brought him fine chocolates, potted sunflowers, miniature bottles of Hock and cans of Guinness. He sipped and tasted with the gratitude of a sickly child, lips faintly purple, eyes fading from the sparkling blue-green of the ocean on a summer’s day to the murky grey of deep winter. Towards the end, my offerings littered his room untouched. Swallowing became hit and miss. On a good day, he gratefully sucked the juice from grapes I held to his lips and spat the skins into a tissue.
Having claimed his feet, legs, and chest death stole across his shoulders and down his arms. One set of fingers still flickered with life, as did his good eye. On the rare occasions he struggled to the surface through morphine-induced stupor, I wiped his crusted lips with dampened cotton wool and held a tiny sponge soaked in water for him to suck on, like a newborn fumbling blindly for the teat. Only his hair defied the slide towards oblivion, springing silver-white and vigorous from his brow – “hair like a poet”, as my stepmother used to say. When he was younger it had shone with the ferocity of a crow’s wing.
During his last week, Mo, my good friend and a retired nurse, bustled in bearing red roses and a breath of fresh air. She held his hand and called him “Chrissie”, reminding me of the magnetic pull he had always exerted on women. He slumbered on, lips pouting in a surprised ‘O’. Briefly, he half-opened his good eye. We held our breath, grateful for the faintest whisper of contact. A few years earlier, he met Mo for the first time at my MA graduation ceremony. One minute he was beaming with pride at my achievements and chinking glasses with Mo and I, the next, they were gone. I found them outside, grinning like truant schoolchildren, on their way to a pub for a cosy drink á deux.
Playing truant coloured every phase of my father’s life. As a feckless youth in Limerick City he impregnated my mother with their first son, and then, having done the decent thing and married her, he provided her with a second baby boy before disappearing to England “seeking work”. Later, she joined him in Birmingham and swiftly fell pregnant for the third time – with me. By the time my mother went into labour he had abandoned her again, into lodgings with an Italian family while he caroused up in the ‘big smoke’, London, with his scallywag brother, Sean, on a bender of drinking, singing and womanising.
Shortly afterwards, he began a much longer stretch of absence, in Winson Green prison, for his part in an armed robbery as the getaway driver. Sending him down for eight years, the judge cautioned him to seek an alternative career, as he clearly wasn’t cut out for his chosen one. He was saved from becoming embedded in the criminal world by an enlightened prison governor who discovered Dad’s talent for making radios in matchboxes and packed him off an open prison to do a degree in electrical engineering. My mother decided while she knew for certain where he would be residing to serve him with divorce papers, although later, she claimed it was not because of the crime or the women, but because of his unfailing love of alcohol.
Depending on which story you believe, Dad had his first drink, courtesy of his own father, around the age of eleven. He may not have been faithful to women but remained a steadfast devotee of Mistress Alcohol until the day he died. During the end stage of his illness, he begged and cajoled until I got his doctor at the hospice to overturn her veto and allow him to have a drink. He was so weak all he could quaff was the equivalent of an eggcup of stout in a lipped beaker. In his quiet side-room he had the glint of a caged bird in his eye, which I couldn’t bear, so although it had never been done before, the staff finally agreed to help me wheel his bed out into the conservatory. Throwing the doors open wide so that he could enjoy the pungent scent of roses, the afternoon sunlight cast the illusion of a healthy glow on his upturned face. We held hands, shared a few sips of Guinness and sang snatches of Irish songs, revelling in these small victories. It was our last ‘good’ day together, before he slipped into the twilight world of semi-consciousness, from which he would never return.
Singing was as important to my father as breathing. His sister, Mary, a lively, bird-like woman in her eighties, told me that as a boy Dad had excelled in choirs and won national singing competitions throughout Ireland. But my father wasn’t cut out to be either a choirboy or a professional performer, preferring to captivate fellow drinkers in pubs and clubs for no more than a few free pints and the enjoyment of seeing old ladies weep into their gin. “How did I create you?” he’d cry, squeezing the breath out of me and singing, “when you were sweet sixteen”, even though he’d been nowhere to be seen when I was sweet sixteen. Dad may have turned his life around after prison, working on contracts all over the world, but money fell through the holes in his pockets and into the tills of drinking establishments faster than he could count it. He never met any of his financial obligations, yet somehow, even as a grown woman, a great, big bear hug from my old Dad was the true currency of love.
The thing I loved most about my father was that he was so vibrantly alive; he pulsed with life, sucking every last drop out of each and every day. Everyone knew he was a deeply flawed man, yet still they loved him for his charm and his warmth. The only two pieces of advice he ever gave me were, “too much progressive thinking is bad for you”, which I think meant don’t over-think things, and, “cry later!”, meaning dive in head first and suffer the consequences, rather than regret an action not taken. As I sang Amazing Grace at his funeral, I heard the proud voices of his surviving brothers and sisters rise up to join me – a heart-rending chorus of Kellys. Even as the tears fell, I made myself – and my father – a promise: to do a lot more living, to make a lot more mistakes, and, yes, to cry later. Farewell chameleon Christy Kelly, you green-eyed chancer, you silver-tongued songsmith. You were my rainbow, Dad, my great-hearted pot of gold.