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Leaving New Zealand

I started writing these (very personal and subjective!) thoughts about Cate’s and my last year  after reading some of the excellent Irish Times ‘Abroad’ articles.

Returning to Ireland? As the old smoker says about quitting, it’s easy, I’ve done it loads of times.
I’ve emigrated for work, for love, and finally for medical care, but the addiction to ‘home’ has always managed to draw me back. Here I am a middle-aged man, returning yet again — though this time things are utterly different.

Certainly, it all started off fairly typically. After the usual Dublin college kid’s ‘emigration practice’ of J1 summers in Boston and stints in London, the decision to leave Ireland on a long-term basis was an easy one: there’s yet another recession on, you win a Green Card lottery and you’ve family in San Francisco. Off to the airport.

One Sunday afternoon, a hangover clears and you realise you’ve been in the US three years. You find you don’t want to be forever the immigrant, endlessly explaining where you’re from, always comparing with home. But now things aren’t as simple- a new girlfriend’s keen on coming along, seemingly happy to take on 1990’s Dublin. She is caring, funny, creative, with a host of great friends and a beautiful smile.

After California’s freedom, diversity, and positivity though, Cate and I find ourselves a bit aghast at what feels like a sarcastic, conformist atmosphere in Dublin. Being underpaid and unhappy makes every day a struggle, and it’s barely 18 months before we’re flying back out, this time to my partner’s homeland.
New Zealand is welcoming, sunny, efficient. Both of us gain work experience and revel in the wilderness and outdoors air. But that same ‘emigrant’s ache’ gradually settles on me, just as it did in the US. One autumn we start hearing about this Celtic Tiger thing: Jobs are promised back in Dublin, and once again the airport is calling: Our second attempt at returning.

And yes, Dublin in 1997 has been transformed. Where pessimism and mistrust seemed to pervade, now it’s delight and pride. Tall ships, foreign accents on the street and in the cafes, glass skyscrapers on the drawing boards. And the few quid. New furniture, Habitat lamps, city breaks. The savings account yields a small house deposit. A relation helps kick-start my small business.
Finally we manage the nirvana of long-distance couples— a wee house in each country. For four months in twelve Cate runs her own wee shop in her home town, lives a decade without a winter. Most years I pop over for some Christmas sunshine.

Then, six years ago, I’m just back from one of those visits when she phones me: something about a radiologist, the liver. Surely they’re wrong, when are you meeting the specialist? No, it is bad, bad news and must be faced. Head swimming with half-learnt facts on HER therapy, ascites, docetaxyl side-effects, you close the business, rent out the house, bundle the Habitat lamps away, jump on a plane. Lumps appearing in the lungs, the bones, in between, the liver overrun. Five metastases in the brain. Put your affairs in order, says the brain man.

I know that about one in three people in NZ go through this; it’s likely a similar figure in Ireland: chemotherapy; radiation; sickening steroids; scans; deliberations about wigs. Then wild odd lumps and more chemo. We seem to have been signed up for the whole box set.
But — and you may know this story too — the worst of times brings out a miraculous outpouring of friendship, love and help. Every message and card a small boost. Over time, with Cate’s strength and discipline and wonderful medical care, remission seems to hold. Months of relative health stretch to years. Longer and longer bike rides follow, camping trips, a huge party for her 50th.

Emigration for healthcare in your mid forties is an odd one; you can’t just wash your old life off your shoes at the airport. In a corner of our kitchen in NZ the Irish mobile phone sits charging; the Irish Times stays as the internet home page, run-on insurance for the old business gets paid every month.

But if life is what happens while we’re making other plans, death seems to have the same capacity. After five years the liver signs fluctuate, chemo is prescribed again, and recovery isn’t quite as quick. The drugs hurt more, recovery comes painfully slowly. Until one day she says quietly to the oncologist, I don’t think I’ll do any more treatments.
So soon, too soon, comes the hard part: everything boiled down to a room in the Hospice. Watching my beautiful Cate’s weakening, the breath changing. Crowd-managing visiting friends and family. The guilt of wishing it to end, the dread of the end, watching her beautiful face change and sink. Hushing funeral talk from round the bedside.
One morning her breath is gasping, short. Cancer comes for her one last time.
Then the busy work of death: Urns; sandwiches. Cate’s wee business to close down, this time. Online cemetery forms. Kneeling wailing alone day after day in a house full of the things you gather in 25 years of wonderful marriage. Beds; the blender for her soups; blankets. On a shelf in the garage, bits of timber that might come in handy. Sorry, cool set of curtain rings, looks like we won’t be needing you. Full box of bay leaves in the pantry, what do I do with you? Thai seven spice, make her come back. Make her come back.
Behind everything the suffocating, soft black feeling that surely there was something you could have done, something you should have said or asked her to ease those last horrendous days. A voice muttering that you just watched her go, you stood there and let her go and then you filled your big healthy lungs with air and walked outside to the sun and you know well she deserved so much more, something more.

Good mates, luck and hard work has let me make a full, fun, rewarding life abroad. But even after six years the call of ‘home’ is still there. Losing the one person that mattered most makes the usual emigrant’s inventory of irreplaceables more dear. A clatter of nieces and nephews becoming interesting adults, our wee terraced Dublin house, and strongest of all of course, the ever-erratic bonds to the Irish Mammy; they all add to an incessant, nagging, centripetal force towards where you’re born and raised.
It’s certain that, wherever you’re living, the feeling ‘home’ grows and changes inside you and does its own weird metastasis to odd parts. Trust and friendships grow and grow; you learn the little tics of how locals talk. Your favourite walk, a turn of phrase, a default radio programme— they one by one transfer to counterparts in your new place. You hear the accent in another city and feel the jolt of recognition that used to be reserved for hearing Irish voices. Hey they’re from home… no hang on…

And in the end here I am, obeying the addiction, giving Ireland one more go. Acknowledging the roots and loves and family on both shores, acknowledging the divided, undecided, double life of the emigrant. Bound to friends and loves abroad. Bound for home.

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