I have never considered myself an emigrant. Yes, I have left Ireland at least three times in my life – spending months working in London and the South of France – but I always left with the intention of returning to Ireland within a few years.
Throughout the economic crisis I threw myself into building my house hunting business in Ireland, but I eventually recognized that foreign shores were calling and a holiday was never going to be enough. That is how I found myself living in Spain with my daughter. She enjoyed her transition year in a local school that lurched precariously over the sea, learning Philosophy and Latin through French and Spanish, while I continued my work as a property writer and market commentator in Ireland and the UK remotely.
But the truth of the matter I hadn’t fully considered is that travel changes people. A new setting alters the mindset. Past goals become irrelevant and, little by little, our new home becomes us. Perhaps that it why so-called emigrants seek out the hidden Irish taverns down the side streets of foreign lands, to keep us from becoming a part of our current landscape for as long as possible, to ensure that we are wearing our Irish identity. Still, I did not consider myself or my daughter to be emigrants. Largely thanks to technology, Ireland still felt very close. Or at least it did until all of a sudden it didn’t anymore.
One balmy Saturday evening, in our little corner of Spain where the desert meets the sea, I sat on the terrace, refilled my wine glass and relaxed into the view.
"Jamie sent me a message, you have to contact John urgently," my daughter said.
It took me a moment to process what she was saying – “Jamie,” “John,” “urgently.” Something was wrong at home. Within that moment I just knew. Of course it was bad, nothing good is talked about “urgently.”
I phoned my brother John, and he only had to say a few words "It's Dad. I'm sorry."
I cannot remember the rest of the conversation, but it’s also possible that we didn't have one. It wasn’t needed. Dad was gone, and in a single moment, everything changed.
I could not believe I had seen him only two days earlier. He and my mother had spent 10 days with us in our adopted home of Spain, I had driven them both to the airport on Thursday evening. It didn't feel like it could possibly be true.
I have always believed that every day brings with it moments that have the potential to change our lives, but in my naivety, I did not understand what that meant until I received that message.
Spain is a three hour plane ride away from Ireland, but at moments when your life is falling apart, that distance – or any distance – feels immeasurable. At 9pm on a Saturday night, I was in Spain when the place I needed to be was Ireland. Home.
Flights were arranged for the following day at 3pm, which felt like an eternity away. How could I not be in Ireland right now? How could my dad not be there? How could everything be just gone? I cannot even remember that night. My teenage daughter, who was very close to my dad, was distraught.
I have been a single parent for most of my daughter's life, but that night was the most alone I have ever felt. I could not bring myself to contact friends, locally or in Ireland. I could not find the words to explain how life had changed, how this wonderful, strong, interesting man was just gone. There was no warning, no deteriorating health, no accident. He was gone. It was as simple and as confusing as that.
There was no way home that night, and somehow I felt that when the world woke tomorrow, if this was real, home would no longer be home. This sense made me not want to sleep, as if by staying awake I could stop the sun rising and we would remain in this day, a day in which my Dad had woken, and gardened and drank coffee and existed.
But morning came, reality remained, and a wave of numbness kicked in, which was something of a relief. It softened the feeling of being isolated. Not just emotionally, but geographically.
We got to the small, regional airport hours early. As we entered the abandoned terminal, where not even the security personnel had taken up their posts for the day, the only other traveler was a man, who we presumed to be Irish due to his Tipperary GAA jersey. And a realization came crashing down that I was standing in the place where I had last seen my father. Where we had hugged our farewells and made plans for our next trip to Ireland and my parents' next visit to Spain. If I had known that was going to be the last time I ever saw him alive, would I have said something different?
While at the airport I received a message from a cousin I had not seen for many years. The message was a short one but one that was loaded with understanding about the "journey back." She knew. Several years ago her mother had died suddenly. She too had received that sickening phone call, she too had to concern herself with comforting her children while organizing clothes and packing for home, for a funeral. She knew the effort it takes just to get to the airport, to wait for the plane. She knew the feelings of urgency to be home and perhaps she too felt the descent into the Irish airport as marking the end of a huge part of her life.
I have often read that we only mature into full adulthood following the loss of a parent, and perhaps this is true. Or, more likely, we do not stop to think about what stage of life we are at because, up until this point, the lucky ones among us have the unquestioned cushion of unconditional love and support.
I wonder, do emigrants leaving their country and their family understand that if they stay away for a long period of time, it is very likely that they will be making this journey of sadness? Or worse, when that dreaded phone call comes, will they be able to make that journey home at all? The irrational guilt of having left hides somewhere in the back of the mind.
If I had known the last time I ever saw my Dad that it was going to be the last time I saw him, would I have said something different? Of course I would have said something different, or at least something more. I would have said everything. I would have held on so tight and never let go.
But life is not like that, and death is not like that. Facts remain. For as long as I live, that little airport in the middle of the Spanish nowhere will always be the last place I saw him. It is now a part of my life story. This gives Spain a much bigger part to play within that story. And as more of my life evolves outside of Ireland, and less remains in Ireland, the word "Home" loses some of its power.
My home is now where I am with my daughter; but it is also where my mother is; and it where my friends and family are – right now, that is not any one country. Perhaps as the years roll on, nostalgia will exaggerate my Irishness and tug on my heartstrings.
But today, this gap in my heart will not be filled by any place, but rather by rebuilding family relationships and redefining what "Home" means to me.
Have you been through the experience of losing a family member or loved one while living abroad? How did the experience alter your perspective? Share your story in the comment section, below.
Carol Tallon is an international house-hunter and author of the Irish Property Buyers Handbook annuals (2011-2015). See CarolTallon.com for more information.
* Originally published August 2015.