The first time I met Tom Enright he was a sergeant in the Irish police, had a twinkle in his eye and carried himself with all the authority that the uniform and the man wearing it could muster.
That was 42 years ago.
I met Tom again last week. There’s still that twinkle in his eye, the handshake isn’t as firm, and there’s patches of stubble now where once he was clean-shaven and ready to command those teams of police under his supervision.
He tells me he’s had a stroke and has to think carefully of his words.
Stella, his wonderful wife whom I met then so long ago, has passed away. She had a brain haemorrhage, never fully recovered, and had to walk with a walking frame.
“She said to me one day, ‘Tom, I’m tired, and have had enough’,” he tells me.
His children too are gone, and we talked of others we knew in common, our families, the way life has changed.
At 85 he is well enough to look after himself — his daughters look in on him, but he’s not driving anymore.
The house was filled with christening and holiday photos, graduation, commendations from the police for Tom’s dedication to service — the framed mementos of a life lived and a family reared.
Our families had shared weddings and wakes, fun and funerals, births and deaths.
I recall one day being summoned to Tom’s house — he wasn’t there, and Stella was. A painter who went up to the attic to do something, ended up falling through the ceiling over the hallway, and falling two floors to the ground level. He was badly hurt, I gave what first aid I knew, and waited for the ambulance to arrive.
That patch in the ceiling is still there, I noted.
Tom and my father were good friends.
There’s a tradition in Ireland that when a person dies, their remains are brought home to the house and the coffin sits in the front room. You can’t leave the coffin unattended for as long as it’s there. The old tradition is that if you do leave it unattended, the devil can steal the soul of the departed person. And when dad was brought home after he died and before he went to the church for funeral services before burial, Tom sat vigil on the coffin through that darkest night.
Tom offered tea and I did not accept — I didn’t want to put him out. In truth, it was difficult to be there. It was a reminder of how time does indeed catch up with us all. We talked about families, the years, where the relatives are now, children and grandchildren, where life’s journey has taken us.
The house looked tired now. It is missing the touch of a woman who sees things that need to be dusted and cleaned, polished and primped. I do not say that to denigrate, but instead mean it that men fail to notice the details, aren’t fussed and make do. Tom looked tired too. There was a stoop to his frame, his eyes sunken, sallow. There was a tear in my eye as we made our goodbyes.
I was struck by the thought that life isn’t about the distances travelled, the destinations, the wonderful sights. No, life is about those near and dear to you, the passing of time, how the twists and turns of fate leave us paddling in its currents, never aware of what’s around the bend, its eddies and pools, but knowing that there will indeed come a time when we are called to its headwater as everyone else voyages in the streams.