“It doesn’t look good, you’ll have to come home…”

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I don’t often post personal things here, but I’m going to make an exception this week.

This morning the Irish Times carried a piece I wrote about my brother Alan, who fell seriously ill before Christmas and almost died.

I’m very grateful to the IT for publishing it, and whatever payment I receive for it will be doubled and spent on a gift for the staff at Beaumont Hospital who saved Alan’s life.

In particular I’m grateful to Ciara Kenny, the editor of the Generation Emigration section of the Times, who has built a superb platform for those of us abroad to share our experiences.

Unfortunately on this occasion, the original article had to be cut down due to pressure of space, so I’m publishing it here in its entirety.

This is the only time I have ever asked permission of a subject – my brother – to write about them, and in truth if he said no I probably would have done it anyway, but maybe differently.

Some stories have to be told, and anyone living far from their family leads a fragile existence.


“It doesn’t look good, you’ll have to come home.”

The O’Connor “children” at the family home, 2012. From left – Alan, Philip, Robert and Suzanne.

“It doesn’t look good, you’ll have to come home.”

For thirteen years it never came, but somewhere deep down I knew that it couldn’t last forever – in the end, it’s the call that come to all of us that live abroad.

A family member was close to death, and as usual I was a thousand miles away. My race against the clock had begun.

I was in the newsroom of a media organization at the time, a place where bad news often galvanizes people into instant action. Abruptly, tearfully, I told the people I was talking to that I had to go. I didn’t know when I’d be back.

My brother, 42 years old, had been admitted to hospital with a serious complaint the week before. In intensive care, things improved slightly before getting suddenly worse.

Weakened by the original illness, he was battered by infections.

Then he caught pneumonia, and out of the blue I was called to come home in that offhand, yet thoughtful way that doctors have when they’re breaking bad news to you.

As I started looking at the various ways to get from Stockholm to Dublin at short notice, the loneliness struck.

I doubt I could have been more upset even if I had received the news on O’Connell Street, but the knowledge of the journey weighed heavy.

This was not a time to be with a planeload of strangers, or sour-faced passport and customs officials. This was a time to shrink the distance between us as fast as possible, and be among family again.

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I got a ticket to Gatwick, and then on to Dublin for that night. There was plenty of time to get to the airport – airline timetables seldom take note of my urgent need to get anywhere.

It would take me eleven hours from the initial phone call to the hospital bedside.

But first, I would turn off my phone for the 150-minute journey to London.

For the want of something better to do, my wife tearfully ironed a white shirt for a funeral both of us hoped wouldn’t happen. When I arrived in London after a period of radio silence, I wouldn’t know whether my brother would still be alive or not.

Running full tilt through Gatwick to make the Dublin connection, the messages pinged into my switched-on phone, one after the other. I ignored them all.

Instead, I called my younger brother to find out the latest – stable, but still critical and on a ventilator. The next flight was only minutes away. The sense of dread returned.

“The ‘fasten seat-belts’ sign is now switched on, so please turn off all mobile phones.” Into the darkness again.

An hour later I landed in Dublin; remarkably things had gotten better, in so much as they hadn’t gotten any worse.

Having left Stockholm in -15 and snowdrifts, I clumped into Beaumont hospital in my heavy jacket and winter boots, dizzied by the  blast of warm air as I entered intensive care.

I made it in time. He lay there, sedated and serene to the naked eye, but fighting a raging battle for his life inside as he sought to quell the infections.

For someone who had been thorough so much, he still looked strong. A tiny glimmer of hope.

I went home, exhausted, to my parents’ house not far from the hospital. That night I slept in the bedroom he and I shared as kids.

I don’t pray. Instead, I just hoped that he would get better, and that even if he didn’t we would all be strong enough to give him the send-off he deserved.

But it didn’t come to that – for once, hope was enough.

The next morning, his lungs picked up, and soon the ventilator was gone. Bombarded with antibiotics, the infections capitulated, gradually petering out.

Doctors told us that any one of the three ailments that afflicted him could have feasibly killed him, but even when combined, he saw them off. The long road to recovery had begun.

A few days later, I returned to Stockholm, relieved and a little elated.

But for any emigrant, every time we leave Ireland with the same amount of family members as when we got there, is a bonus. We are only postponing the inevitable.

It took thirteen years for the call to come, and I know it will come again.

For those of us abroad, the distant death of a family member is a sad fact of life, magnified by the distance between us.

This time both he and I survived it, but at some point that call will come again, and there will be no happy ending.

For now, I’m just glad he’s still alive. Even if we are once more a thousand miles apart.

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