My father Michael Nugent died five years ago today, after an inspirational 89 years of life. He was the calmest man I knew. If an alien spaceship had landed in our garden, he would have invited them in for tea before asking who they were. He was nearly ninety when his body gave up. He had been playing golf several times a week, up to a year before he died.
His decline began with a minor stroke, which he told nobody about. He spent the next day playing golf, after which my brother asked him at dinner if he was was okay. ‘I’m fine,’ my dad assured him. ‘Are you sure?’ my brother probed, ‘Your face looks a bit odd?’ My dad relented a little: ‘Ah, I had a titch of a stroke yesterday.’ He said he didn’t want to bother anyone, but I suspect he knew that if he went to the doctor, he would get entangled in the hospital system.
He grew up in Ardfinnan, County Tipperary. After leaving college, at a time when Ireland was under threat of invasion, he joined the army, where his first posting was in Collins Barracks. In his typical self-deprecatory manner, he described his unit’s role as mostly providing rashers and sausages to the Eastern command. He worked on the buses before becoming a health inspector, eventually founding and running the Hygiene Education Unit of the Eastern Health Board.
He had a long and happy marriage to our mother Mary. Their free-spirited approach to married life started on their honeymoon, which was planned for Paris, but on the way to Paris they found a nice French village that they really liked, so they stayed there instead. Michael and Mary were inspirational parents and neighbours and friends. Both were very active in the local community.
He survived the death of his son Billy in an accident, and of Mary from cancer, and he and I formed an extra bond that neither of us would have chosen when my wife Anne also died of cancer. Michael was a great solace to me in coping with that.
One of the holidays he treasured most was visiting Greece and seeing the places where the ancient Greek philosophers pondered on the mysteries of life. His own philosophy was that ‘every day that you do no harm is a good day.’ He always attributed this to some unnamed friend, but I suspect he figured it out for himself. In any case, his contribution to life far exceeded that admirable target.
Before he died, dementia caused his brain to take an odd turn. He communicated in what seemed to be nonsense, often writing down the same phrase time after time. We eventually figured out that, after years of doing crossword puzzles, he was communicating in crossword clues. A psychiatrist friend told me this matched an informal saying in the profession: the older you get, the more like yourself you become.
I miss Michael, my mother Mary and my brother Billy.