I reached across and kissed him on the forehead. His skin was cold to the touch. I could feel his brow but he was beyond sensing my lips. Fear Dorcha had died the previous evening just after ten o’clock. Now he lay in his coffin, his body draped in the Irish tricolour, IRA beret and gloves on top.
It was a trying week. Eight days earlier I had taken a call from a close friend in Belfast. He tersely explained that the news was bad: Brendan Hughes had just eight hours to live. It was not the first time I had received bad news about his health. Walking through London a number of years ago I was advised to return quickly as Brendan had taken a heart attack. I flew into Belfast the following morning. Brendan pulled through.
On hearing of his latest condition I dropped everything and quickly made arrangements to travel to Belfast. A former prisoner and D company comrade of Brendan, Shando, and a friend of his picked me up and we made the journey north. It was heavy on the heart. Each mile was covered to the sound of my phone ringing with people alerting me that Brendan’s time was running out.
Shando dropped me at the Grosvenor Road where I made my way to the home of Brendan’s sister, Moya. There was no answer to the door. Moya was over at the hospital. As I turned away a young woman introduced herself as Brendan’s niece. She explained that he was in a bad state but might have a chance if the medical team at the City Hospital could drain the fluid from his vital organs. Her eyes conveyed a sparkle as she told me he was a cat with nine lives. I refrained from telling her that he had already used up 17 of them. Although Brendan had been through so many challenging experiences from the time he joined the IRA, and the frailty of his physical persona disguised a deeper mental stamina which kept him going against all the odds, even for him there was a vortex that would eventually pull him in.
Leaving his niece, I arranged to meet the friend who had first phoned me. Together we made our way to the hospital. On the numerous other occasions when I had visited Brendan in hospital it had always been at the Royal. Once he had lay on a trolley in a hallway as no bed was available, while a Sinn Fein member was the minister of health. It didn’t seem right. On one such visit my wife burst into tears as we sat beside his bed gazing at the wires and tubes that snaked across his body. Less than a week later he was in his flat laughing and joking as if none of it had happened. ‘Such is life’ his unvarying response to concerns for his health.
Just as we approached the Lisburn Road, I received a call telling me that Brendan had died. My heart sank but I held out hope. After all I had spoken to his niece an hour earlier and she felt he was not at the point of death. On entering the foyer a couple of people we knew were standing there, expressions taut. It seemed they were keeping a vigil for a dear friend. They eased our fears, telling us that the family had just left his bedside and would be briefed later in the day by the medical team. Although we hovered on the edge of the Intensive Care Unit there was no way we could get in. As we stood around a brother of Brendan’s arrived and explained that he had a 50-50 chance. Our spirits lifted in proportion to our bodies relaxing. For now, the crisis had passed. We left the hospital and had a couple of pints in a city centre pub where on occasion Brendan had downed a few with us.
The following Friday my friend rang to tell me that there were signs of decreased brain activity. It did not augur well. He kept me updated over the next 24 hours. The next afternoon as I sat in the local cinema with my daughter I got a message from my wife that the machine supporting Brendan’s tenuous grasp on life was to be turned off. I returned home and rang Dolours Price. She arrived in our home. The rest of the evening saw me sit with three phones constantly ringing Belfast and taking calls. Dolours had been a long standing operational comrade of Brendan and it was in her company that my wife and I received the devastating news that our dear friend had slipped away. He had been with us at the best and worst of times, family bereavements, illnesses, and the birth of our children. It was he who was chosen to give my wife away on the day of our marriage.
We fought a losing battle to suppress the tears. My wife put his framed photo on the mantelpiece and sat a lighted candle either side of it. In our living room The Dark shone through.
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