My dad was in his early seventies when he lamented to me that he was forced to quit smoking at 50, quit drinking at 60, and quit enjoying good food at 70, implying that all of the fun had gone out of his life. He might have been looking for a pat on the back for giving up these excesses, but I knew the damage to his health had already been done. It was hard for me to congratulate him on his newfound self control when I worried deeply about the risk that he might die too young.
He had been overweight his entire life and had very little willpower when it came to making food choices. His forty years of smoking two packs a day (yes, he started at just ten years old) had already ravaged his lungs and contributed to two heart attacks. Add to that his long history of drinking too many gin martinis after work and anyone would understand my concern.
When he was 77, my dad told me the only place in the world he hadn’t been that he wished he could visit was Ireland. My dad had been to Brazil and China for business, and my parents had traveled plenty during their lifetime – sailing trips in the Caribbean, driving trips across the United States, a cruise to Alaska, and a few trips through France and Italy. But neither had been to Ireland.
My mom was already in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and my dad’s health was failing, making the prospect of an international trip daunting. Even if they had been healthier, people over 70 can’t rent a car in Ireland. There was simply no way they could take a trip to Ireland on their own. Without thinking it through, I volunteered to take them on a tour of Ireland and scheduled our flights for two months later. As their primary caregiver, I knew I could lose either of my parents at any moment and I worried if I waited any longer the opportunity would be lost.
When I picked up my parents for the flight to Dublin, they were dressed in bright leprechaun green clothes, almost childlike in their excitement. I loved seeing their enthusiasm, but as their travel guide, driver, and sole chaperone, I knew this was going to be a challenging adventure. Would my mom understand what was happening so far from home? Would my dad be okay at sea level without oxygen? Would their physical limitations inhibit them from really experiencing Ireland as they anticipated?
I knew I would be dealing with challenges like these once we got to Ireland, but I didn’t expect them to start before we’d even boarded the plane. My dad was winded without his traditional oxygen as we walked into the airport, immediately making me question the wisdom of attempting this trip. My mom needed to use the restroom, and although I was uncomfortable splitting them up, I knew she was suffering from incontinence and wouldn’t be able to wait. I sat my dad on the chairs near the check-in counters, walked my mom to the ladies’ room that was within sight, and returned to my dad to wait for her, keeping my eyes firmly planted on the exit of the ladies’ room.
After some time passed, I began to worry. Had I somehow missed her exiting the restroom? Was she wandering aimlessly around the airport? I asked my dad to stay put and went to search for her, but the ladies’ room was empty. I felt panic rising in my chest. I was moving so quickly as I exited the ladies’ room that I ran right into her, nearly knocking her over, as she exited, of all places, the mens’ room. Lots of women use the mens’ room when they don’t want to wait, I rationalized, still unwilling to accept the extent to which Alzheimer’s was ravaging her brain.
I sat between them on the flight so that I could easily help each of them without disturbing the other. I tried to sleep, knowing I was going to be driving for four hours to Kinsale as soon as we landed. Even though I had opted for the more expensive automatic transmission, I knew driving on the left side of the road, a first for me, was going to require my full attention. I downed two espresso shots while waiting for our luggage. I hadn’t consumed caffeine since I was first pregnant twenty-three years earlier, and the jolt hit me quickly.
My dad sat in the front seat so he could navigate, and I helped my mom get settled into the back seat. While I had all of the directions I needed on my phone, I humored my dad who wanted to pull out his old-school paper maps to direct me. Our two-week trip would take us to Kinsale in County Cork, Kilarney in County Kerry, Ballinalacken Castle in County Clare, and through the Burren. We would spend three days in Dublin on the back end of our trip before flying home.
For the entire two weeks, my dad studied his maps and suggested the route we should take as I made my way around the roundabouts – sometimes three and four times around until we were confident which road to take. I carefully navigated the narrow country roads of Ireland, trying not to hit the ubiquitous stone walls. My mom mostly slept, often confused as to where we were. I wanted her to be as excited as my dad was, but I knew that was asking too much. I had recently had my second cookbook published and she was unable to grasp what I had accomplished and therefore unable to share in my pride. This trip would be no different, I fully understood, and I tried to make peace with that reality.
We stopped a lot, because she often needed a bathroom, and because my dad wanted to take photos, including pictures of every sheep, pig, cow, goat or chicken we passed on the country roads. Without him noticing, I took pictures of him taking these pictures, tickled he was enjoying the trip so much. I could see how much he was able to relax having me take charge in caring for my mom. While I felt proud to be doing something this special for them, it also made me sad to think I might not have much time left with them.
Our first stop was Kinsale, on the southeastern coast of Ireland, where the bay is filled with sailboats. That scenery must have reminded my mom of their home on the Chesapeake Bay, before they had moved to Colorado to live out their senior years, because she kept talking about being in Virginia. I would gently remind her we were in Ireland, but I’m not sure she understood and I could feel her slipping further away from us.
Both of them were exhausted that first night, so I helped them to their rooms right after an early dinner. Since the sun wouldn’t set until ten at night in mid-July, I wanted to explore the small town a bit and told them I was going to walk the few short blocks to the waterfront to enjoy an after-dinner drink. As I sat at a table enjoying a glass of wine, I exhaled and relaxed for the first time since I had picked them up the day before. Overlooking the sailboats in the harbor of Kinsale made me smile about the times I went sailing with my dad as a teen and young adult.
Less than an hour later as I let myself into our small boutique hotel, I was quickly accosted by the owner. “Your mom has been looking all over for you,” she told me. “She’s been frantically wandering around the hotel and thinks something happened to you. She’s really agitated.”
I felt terrible. Did bringing my mom on this trip cause such confusion that she would be miserable the entire time? Had this been a massive mistake? I rushed up the stairs to their room to assure her I was fine, then left a note on her side table telling her I was sleeping in case she got up again.
I knew the stress of guiding my parents around Ireland for two weeks was going to be too much for me unless I had a way to unwind each day, so I developed a system for the rest of our trip that worked beautifully. Each evening I took my parents to an early dinner, then escorted them back to their room to make sure they were safely tucked in for the night. I told them I was tired from the driving of the day, and was going to go to sleep early so please not to call unless it was an emergency. Then I left my cell phone number with the front desk and told them which pub I intended to visit in case of an emergency.
The Irish people were incredibly kind to me and my parents throughout our trip. They gave us directions, helped my parents cross the street, and pointed out things my parents would want to see. But of all of the things they did to help me and my parents, this was perhaps the best. They wanted me to enjoy their country, their small town, their pubs and beer and music, and so they took on the responsibility of making sure my parents were okay while I was away from the hotel. I never stayed out very late or drank very much – I just needed to unwind a little after the stress of caring for my aging parents all day. I felt like a teenager again, sneaking back into the hotel each night in so my parents wouldn’t know I had snuck out.
I had planned our trip around all of the destinations and sights my dad had requested. We watched the tall ships set sail to race in Kinsale. At the Blarney Castle, my dad insisted on climbing to the top to kiss the Blarney Stone, even though he was the last person who needed any more “gift of gab.” We drove the tiny road around the Dingle Peninsula, saw the Burren, and watched the sun set over Galway Bay where I captured a heartwarming silhouette photo of my parents watching the sunset.
We enjoyed live music in a pub. I took them to see the house where The Quiet Man was filmed, my dad’s favorite movie, and I snapped a picture of my dad in John Wayne’s hat. We toured the entire city of Dublin by sightseeing bus to make it easier on my parents, getting off the bus to see the Kilmainham Gaol, Trinity College, and St. Stephens Green. At the Guinness Storehouse, my dad really wanted to sample a Guinness beer, so I guiltily ordered him a pint, even though he had been sober for 17 years.
We ate in wonderful restaurants throughout the country, although I didn’t have much experience with Irish cuisine before this trip. My mom had been a great cook in her day and my dad, of course, was game to try anything and everything. And so we did, overindulging at every meal. Unbelievably fresh fish and seafood dripping with the briny taste of the Atlantic Ocean, including the best salmon I’d had in my entire life. Shepherd’s pie with deeply colored, rich gravy and tender chunks of lamb. Irish stew made with mutton, potatoes, and onions, swimming in a light vegetable broth. Tender lamb chops that rivaled those from Colorado. Traditional Irish soda bread, brown bread served with rich, creamy Irish butter. And the most surprising dish of the trip, Guinness ice cream served at a fancy dinner in County Clare. After we returned from Ireland, my dad asked if I could figure out how to make that ice cream for him, and I did. Watching his face as he licked his spoon clean was priceless.
On our last morning in Dublin before heading home to Colorado, my dad ordered the full Irish breakfast: two fried eggs, pan fried potatoes, thick bacon, fatty sausages, both white pudding and traditional black pudding (blood sausage), buttery sauteed button mushrooms, and broiled tomatoes. As I watched him enjoying his meal, savoring every single bite of food on his plate, I cringed with guilt. This was exactly the kind of excess that had caused his heart problems, and I could hear the lecture his cardiologist would give him if he could see this. But I didn’t have the heart to stop him, knowing how happy it made him. Instead, I smiled and passed him more bread and butter.
Perhaps predictably, my dad died two years after this trip at the age of 79, and just two years later, Alzheimer’s took my mom. My dad collapsed from a massive heart attack while playing cribbage in their retirement community. It happened so suddenly – I had just hosted a family birthday party for him a few days before – that I was in denial for that first night. Years later while attending a writers’ retreat in Ireland, I visited an oracle. Without knowing anything at all about my dad, she told me he knew it was hard for me that he died so quickly, but that he wanted me to know it was the best way for him. She stopped for a moment, as if listening to him from beyond this physical world, then told me he was proud of me.
It’s been years since my parents died, but I still miss them. I miss discussing recipes and gardening with my mom. I miss talking about my career with my dad, and arguing about politics with him. I miss his stories and jokes. I miss having both of them at our family gatherings. Most of all, I miss sharing a meal with them. When that hole in my life feels too large, I head to the kitchen, and make some Irish soda bread and slather it with too much butter. And as I savor each bite, I’m transported back to Ireland, to my final trip with my mom and dad.