Saturday, January 15, 2005

At the Time of Saying Goodbye

I heard a radio programme about writer Jennifer Johnston this morning. It marked her seventy-fifth birthday, and her voice from the archives brought back to me a seminal memory from a bit over nineteen years ago.

I was a participant in a creative writing workshop at the Listowel Writers Week festival in Kerry. Jennifer was conducting it, and at the end of the first day she'd asked us to write something short for a group discussion the following morning.

Well, there hadn't been much time that first evening to do anything except take part in the myriad social elements that are part and parcel of the week. Poetry readings and drink. Singing and drink. A chat with old acquaintances. And drink. Making new acquaintances. Oh yes, and drink ...

It was now morning at my guesthouse breakfast table. At least it was early. But I had nothing written. And no particular ideas.

Still, by then I'd been a journalist for seven years, and I've always found that physically typing results in both ideas development and actual writing. So when I'd finished eating and poured my second cup of coffee, I unzipped the cover of my Olivetti portable typewriter and began tapping.

Words came, slowly at first and soon more quickly, and then the piece became a flow that didn't stop until the end. And finally I knew what I'd wanted to say for some time.

I pulled the paper out of the machine. Then I zipped my typewriter closed and left for the Listowel Arms Hotel, the centreplace of the festival.

When the workshop day began, we all handed up our pieces to Jennifer. She spent the first hour in discussion on dialogue, then there was a coffee break, after which we did another written exercise on what we'd been talking about.

That gave Jennifer the chance to go through the pieces we'd written overnight. Or, as in my case, early in the morning.

Then it was time for the final session of the morning. Jennifer stood up from behind her table. She lifted a sheet of paper from the pile she'd been studying, looked at it, then out across the room.

"You all had interesting pieces."

She had a very good speaking voice, the result of a mother in the acting profession and her own early infatuation with the theatre. As well as good diction and strength, it had a definite emotional quality.

"Lets read and discuss." She lifted the paper in her hand and turned her eyes to me. "Brian? Would you like to start?"

I was a national radio journalist, sometimes a communications lecturer, well used to speaking, and not afraid of reading in front of a group of people. But this was different.

Jennifer walked down the room to my seat, and handed me the paper.

"Please, Brian? It IS special."

I looked at the words I'd typed that morning, but they were swimming on the page. I blinked and they became momentarily more clear. But when I tried to read, they refused to pass the constriction in my throat.

I shook my head, and handed back the page. "I'm sorry, I can't just now."

She knew, and she understood. "May I ...?"

I nodded. She walked back and sat on the edge of her table. She looked briefly around the room, then dropped her eyes and spoke the words that I couldn't, and that I hadn't even been able to express until that morning.


"All right — I'll be over in a few minutes."

I put the phone down slowly and felt a touch on my arm. "He's gone," I said simply. "During the night ... about two hours ago."

Viv wisely said nothing, and just held onto my arm.

Death wasn't new to me, so the pallor was no surprise. His face was peaceful now, but just for a moment I wanted to see again the life of the night before, however hard it had been for him to hold onto the spark in the last hours.

The body — no, the MAN — on the bed was small now. The soul must be something large, I thought, that its leaving took so much from a person. The neatness of the sheet covering him to his chest added to the smallness. Even his carefully folded fingers seemed slimmer, those of a poet rather than of a man who could wield a hammer or a power saw with such satisfactory results. Nobody had entwined a rosary beads ... I was glad of that — he'd always hated hypocrisy.

His teeth showed slightly because his jaw had dropped a little. His left eye wasn't completely closed — my mother once told me he even slept that way, a muscle problem in an eyelid or something like that. He seemed to be winking at death, or perhaps making a goodbye salute to life.

Now I realised for the first time that he was gone. I wanted to cry, for the first time in a long time. But I didn't ... not yet. I knelt and covered his fingers with my hand, and leaned over and kissed his forehead. I suppose I hadn't kissed him since I was a small child.

I knew I could say now what I'd been trying to for the last weeks of his life — and I damned myself for not having had the courage to do so.

"I love you, Dad ..."


There was silence when Jennifer finished. She looked down the room at me.

"Thank you," she said. Then she stood up. "I don't think we'll read any more this morning."

The clapping began then. I couldn't speak, so I just nodded, then I stood up and left the room. I walked out through the lobby of the hotel and down the steps into the town square. And for the first time since Dad had died just about a year before, I cried for him.

And after that it got a bit better every day. Not the loss, of course. Just the acceptance.

Happy birthday, Jennifer.

James J Byrne Jr (1916-1984)


Chet said...

Thank you, Brian, for sharing this.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for sharing your personal story. I think it is very true we find it difficult to show our affections. It is only when they have left this world that we want to say so many things to them? Why? It is only 3 little words and for me its purely out of embarrassment and I also think my parents would feel quite uncomfortable.

I have a little boy who I tell every day that I love him. I hope the day will never come that he will feel awkward about telling me how he feels and I wont get embarrassed!

Your story is so true. Thank you again. I hope one day I will have the courage to tell my parents how much I love them.... before its too late.