When I first arrived, Canada didn’t feel real and it certainly wasn’t home because only Belfast could be home just as only mum could be mum, so every two years, I’d come home to lick my wounds and spend a few weeks in a reality that made sense to me.
The trek home wasn’t simple; Christmas is high season so tickets weren’t cheap and with no direct flights to Belfast I’d fly out of Montreal, transit through New York, or Chicago, and land in Dublin or London for a stopover before the final leg of the journey. If all went well, I’d be home after eighteen hours but a snowstorm could push the travel time up to 24 hours.
Although I arrived exhausted, mum immediately launched into her litany of two years of accumulated bad news, never thinking to ask me about my life because to her I was Lucky Jim, living in a Promised Land where jobs grow on trees, everyone is a millionaire and no one has any problems.
If only she knew...
Back then, there was no central heating, and no electric blankets, the bedroom and bed were freezing, the bathroom Siberian and I needed mum’s permission to switch on the electric immersion heater so that I could have – just about - enough hot water for a shower.
The fatigue of the journey, the jet lag that played havoc with my sleep, the adaptation to the cold and to household arrangements had me wondering why I’d come here but on my third or fourth day everything clicked into place and suddenly I knew I was where I truly belonged. - no answering questions about who I was and where I was from and why I’d come to Canada and no need to translate myself, or explain my jokes and stories.
For the remainder of my vacation, I was one of the family, spending time with mum and dad, my siblings, and then on subsequent visits, when my brothers and sisters were married and in the throes of full-blown parenthood with no time for me, their children, my nephews, and nieces did.
Strolling around Belfast I saw that, despite the British soldiers, police and security barriers, the city itself, with its signature buildings, stores and broad avenues, was every bit as beautiful, perhaps more so, than Montreal.
The street where my parents live is by no means wealthy but its neat, red brick, semi-detached houses, and their tidy, well-kept gardens with their rhododendrons and rose bushes were prettier than the homes in my neighborhood.
There was nothing special about my time here: three meals, many cups of tea, the newspapers, a word or two with the neighbors, a morning walk to Tesco’s or Lidl’s to buy groceries, and after the evening meal, I’d wash the dishes, tidy up the kitchen and living room.
At about 8 pm I always brought a mug of hot tea to mum and dad in the living room and then I’d sit at the dining room table until dad, on the pretext of wanting more tea came and sat with me to tell me stories of the old days in Belfast.
When my trip coincided with dad’s birthdays, I’d always ask him how he felt on his big day. On his 75th he replied, “I never thought I’d make it this far”; on his 85th, referring to his growing blindness, “Well, at least it doesn't hurt” and on his 94th he told me “When I was younger I used to worry. Now I don’t.”
Mum, in her late 80s, would tell me, good-humouredly, “Sure, you can live too long” - mum always was the more direct of the two. Their deaths occurred about two years apart. They went so suddenly that none of my siblings, even those living close by, made it to the hospital on time so even if I’d been there I’d have missed their passing. Then and now, I am thankful I visited while they were alive. I let them know I loved them while that was still possible.
Some people say that they really only settled after their parents died but for me, that happened when my career disappeared unexpectedly, a few months before my 60th, booting me into a sudden and nasty retirement without a penny of works pension coming to me from my years of employment in Canada.
Of course, I could’ve cursed my reversal of fortune and then cursed emigration to Canada but I didn’t because suddenly I felt free, freer than I had since or before I emigrated. Three months after my career disappeared so did my back home connection: it just faded away.
It seemed to me that the career that I’d left home for was what had always prevented me from making Montreal the place I called home. As soon as I shook that pebble out of my shoe, my life in Montreal became a lot more liveable a lot more real and a lot more like home.
I don’t go home so often now and when I leave at the end of my 2-3 weeks my heart doesn't break the way it once did. As the flight lifts of and banks over Belfast, when I look down on that town I knew so well, I no longer feel a lump of emotion in my throat.
In Montreal’s Trudeau International, once I clear passport control and customs I hop in a taxi that drops me at my high rise and as I step onto the pavement and as I look around me, I feel good to be back home again.
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