Margaret Mulvihill September 6, 2016
A dear friend has shared the news that he is terminally ill. Emotions are swirling, tormented thoughts about his pain and his suffering, and his family and friends’ collective loss, looming over every syllable expressed.
So typical of this friend, he is questioning not life, and not death, but the afterlife. He has generously invited his family and friends to discuss and share our feelings and experiences while he is still with us.
Some of these friends have shared experiences at a much higher level than anything I have yet experienced. This looming passing, this reintegration into the universe, is causing all of us to grow our awareness of death and life and the afterlife, all the while lamenting that the cost of learning, in this instance, was not so damned high.
All of this introspection on death, life, the hereafter and the now, has brought memories of death in my own family to the forefront of my mind. My first conscious, or aware, brush with death came on May 9, 1963, when the much loved patriarch of our family died very suddenly of a heart attack. Willie Guerin, my grand-uncle.
I was a month shy of my fifth birthday, ‘Dada’ was seventy one. He had worked hard on the family farm all of his life, and he enjoyed playing cards with his wife Hanna and their friends, the Bridgemans, the O’Malleys, and the O’Briens. He never drank alcohol, and I don’t ever remember him smoking, although packs of Sweet Aftons, Woodbines, Players and Carrolls were always in the house.
His kindness, his big smile, and his generosity of spirit were memorable. In the short time I shared his life, I enjoyed weekly trips to Shanagolden Creamery with him. There was always a visit to Reidy’s for a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate before heading home down the Old Road past George Madigan’s abandoned mansion and Jamesie FitzSimons’s home place, a lovely thatched farmhouse.
There was the Christmas Eve he went out to the field and cut down a fir tree because “the child should have a tree”. There was the day I got all my baby teeth removed under ether, and was brought to the toy store first for a china tea-set for my dolls. Mam liked to point out that he used her cologne before going out. A man ahead of his time!
His death was devastating to all who knew him, its shocking suddenness, leaving no goodbye for any of us. He drove me to school that Thursday morning in May promising to pick me up at 2:00 o’clock.
Mid-morning, Fr. John Connors came in to our classroom at the old National School. Miss Clifford told me he was there to take me home. I didn’t want to go, telling them both that my Dada was picking me up at 2:00. The priest insisted that Dada had asked him to pick me up instead. He said Dada was sick, and I was needed at home.
When we were settled in his car, Fr.Connors asked me if I knew what Heaven was. I had some idea. He told me that Dada, my Uncle Willie, was gone to heaven. I told him he was lying, Dada would never go somewhere like that without me, and besides, he was picking me up at 2. I started to get out of the car, told the priest I didn’t like him and wouldn’t go anywhere with him. No, the priest was crying, he pulled me back into the car and locked the door. He said my mother was waiting for me. I had no choice now, had to stay put. All the way home he talked about God and Heaven, and how I had to be a big girl now and help everyone at home. I hated him.
The scene at the house that morning is burned into my memory. Cars everywhere, a tractor or two. Bicycles leaning up against the wall. Grown-ups crying, wailing loudly. Dada’s wellingtons outside the back door, his straw hat on the hook inside. Mam, an unwilling widow, distraught. Mary, my mother, standing guard at the hall door leading to the bedrooms, crying. A lot of women in the kitchen, making tea and sandwiches. Very frightened now, I wanted to see Dada, to talk to him, but I wasn’t allowed in. She moved to let neighbor Nora Kenneally past, and I was around her legs and in.
The bedroom door was open. White faces stared at me, rosaries and headscarves moving in the candlelight. Dada was asleep in bed with his hands joined in prayer, a rosary draped over them. I called out to him, but they caught me and carried me out to the kitchen. Someone was there minding the baby in her pram, she – Maura- was just two days shy of her first birthday, and slept through it all.
Friends and neighbors filled the house. Jimmy, now the last man standing in the Guerin family, accepting condolences and twisting his hat into nothingness. Family arrived. Auntie Bridie, Mam’s sister, came from Dungarvan in County Waterford. Her sisters Maureen and Ita came from Newcastle West. Her brothers Ned, and Rick, and Carol. The tears, the sadness, and the confusion were terrible to see and terrible to feel.
This death served as a coda to a frightening time in the Guerin family, a seven-year stretch of suffering and death.
There were five Guerin siblings, all born between 1892 and 1896, in the old whitewashed farmhouse in the yard. Willie, John, Jimmy, Mary Anne and Bridget. Bridget had married Michael O’Connor, and was my maternal grandmother. She died suddenly in 1945.
John died in New York in November 1957. Bridget’s eldest son James died of cancer in December 1957. Michael himself died in January 1958. His granddaughter, my sister Brenda, died of cancer in November 1959. Mary Anne died in 1961.
Dada and his bride, Hanna Cregan, had one daughter, Mary, born and died on the same day in 1929. Due to complications, there were to be no more babies for them. Instead, they moved my mother, Mary O’Connor, into their home in 1945, after her mother Bridget Guerin, died. Dada’s other sister Mary Anne, moved down to Ardineer to help raise her sister’s sons, James, Daniel, and Michael John.
What emotional turmoil Dada must have endured. He lost his infant daughter, his sister, and later, in the space of two years, his brother, his brother-in-law, his nephew, and his beloved grandniece. Within two years his last remaining sister would be gone.
There would be no more death in the family until Jimmy passed away in the summer of 1976. Mam followed in January 1978.
Someday I will write about Mam, and Jimmy, but this is Willie Guerin’s story. A kind man, a hard-working farmer, who bore more than his share of sorrow and heartache with a smile on his face and a kind word for all.
William Guerin born on Thursday May 9, 1892 to James Guerin of Corgrigg and Mary Sheahan of Foynes Island. Died on Thursday May 9, 1963.