I think I have what is commonly described in literature as a ‘heavy heart’ today. I feel that it is an altogether wrong description as I suspect I have no heart at all right now as there is just a pain where that organ normally beats. No, I am not the victim of some calamity of romantic love, but, like thousands of others I am experiencing the awfulness of having said goodbye to loved ones who were home for Christmas.

My brother left this morning for the trip back to Australia, all thirteen and a half thousand miles of it. Fortunately he is returning to a life that he loves; a good career, friends, a much warmer climate and, by all accounts, a healthier lifestyle. He is also travelling by comfortable jet! Taking all those factors into account one can only marvel at the resilience of our grandparents who waved goodbye to children as they were forced to leave due to hardships. I can’t help but think of mothers who knew their offspring were boarding cold boats to England or America and would then face into weeks of waiting for the first letter home of safe arrival.

My brother has texted or phoned one of us at the completion of every leg and the bush telegraph rapidly relays the messages to us all. Perhaps such immediacy brings even more torture as you are aware of the progression and the distance as the hours tick by. Knowing he had arrived in Cork safely was good given the current road conditions and there was some comfort knowing he was still on Irish soil. Heathrow airport is also familiar and felt relatively close, but the text that announced “Just boarding plane to Bangkok, c ya Nick. X” cut deep and brought back that goodbye moment all over again. The message beeped, caught me unawares and despite standing in a queue in a public place, a big fat tear came without warning and plopped onto the screen of my phone. I felt very silly.

Strange feelings

I have no doubt that thousands of families all over the city, county and country are currently going through the same thing. It is a strange feeling. You are glad that someone is returning to a life they love and you are also somewhat glad to be returning to your own routine as you know that order can be restorative, but yet you don’t have the will to do anything towards reaching that normality. You are trapped in a feckless limbo, emotionally spent and exhausted from it all wondering what to do with yourself. You consider a quick trip to the sales for diversion, but you know that all the twinkling lights and shiny festive packages will just look tired, tacky and cheap post Christmas and those large ugly red stickers slapped on everything will just remind you that it’s all over. The sad state of untidy shelves, rails, racks and torn packages just reflect your inner self; unattractive to say the least. So you dismiss the idea of shopping and with a heavy sigh flick the switch on the kettle again. I ponder if it is better to be the one going or the one left behind. I decide the former is the best as modern day travel requires focus. Security checks, tickets, passports, luggage, returning hire cars; all require proper attention. The people that are left standing waving in driveways have nothing but their breaking hearts and steaming mugs of tea and coffee for company. We are a remarkable nation in that in the face of all sadness the universal response is “Put the kettle on”. Does the tea act as a salve or is it just the action of doing something that distracts us for a moment?

A ‘complete set’ is now rare

For all the difficulty though, having everyone together over the holidays was great. I certainly don’t come from the perfect fairy tale family; we are as dysfunctional as the next. We bicker like the best of them and we’re not perhaps as demonstrative or expressive as modern psychology would have us believe is healthy. As siblings there are also sufficient age gaps that dictate very different social scenes, friends and preferences, yet despite the disparity when we are together there is an easiness that requires no effort. Quite late on Christmas Eve my sister, brother and I found ourselves alone at the table. Parents, partners and children already in bed, it was suddenly just the three of us again for the first time in years; a complete set. Our shared common background created a space where, for that short moment in time, all defences and pretences were gone. With no one else around we weren’t even subconsciously vying for attention; we just ‘were’ and it was lovely. Obviously such moments are heightened and more precious because they are so rare. Plenty of families live in the same town or city and yet don’t get together. We take the proximity for granted, always meaning to get together and, if we do, often involving partners, spouses and children. As adults it is often the case that only funerals provide those shared sibling moments. 

World is smaller now

I left for several years in the late Eighties. I remember all those homecomings and subsequent goodbyes. It was before Ryanair and so trips home were expensive and rare. Back then Aer Lingus saw Christmas and Easter as a particularly good time to fleece the Diaspora. The world is different now thank God. Telephones, E-mail, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, webcams and all the other fantastic tools of communication have truly made the world a village and although we forget that in the emotional fog of the goodbye hug, at the flick of a switch we can be close again within a short time. Those of course are rational thoughts and ‘goodbyes’ obliterate all rational thinking. Outside of anaesthesia, there is no way around the pain; you just have to go through it. So while you wait for your heart to return just stick the kettle on and make a mental note to buy shares in Kleenex! Happy New Year.