Burning in water, drowning in flame

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I almost drowned when I was eight. It was at Inchydoney beach, near where my dad is from; I was in the water, close to the shore. I took a step back and fell into a channel and disappeared under the water. I can still remember it – the blue haze of the water down there, the burning as seawater filled my throat and lungs, the silence. After a minute my mum dragged me out. The next year the exact same thing happened in the exact same spot. After that we swam on the main beach, away from the channels.

Trips to my mum’s family home were less eventful. I can remember my grandmother sending me out to the shed at the back to load up a steel bucket with turf for the range as she made massive pots of marmalade. Those two memories always come back to me when I taste Laphroaig Quarter Cask – burning seawater, citrus, sugar and peat smoke. Known colloquially as the medicinal malt, one of the best comparisons proffered on the Islay icon is that it ‘tastes like a burning hospital’. As someone who works in a hospital that has yet to go on fire, I couldn’t possibly confirm or deny – but I do know of one part of the building that always reminds me of Laphroaig. There is a day-unit where cancer patients attend to get their infusion of chemotherapy. It is, like much of the hospital, a place of joy and hope, sickness and sadness. Within the unit, there is a storeroom for medicines, records, medical equipment: Whatever the combination of items in there, it smells like Laphroaig QC. I always feel guilty for thinking this when I’m in there – this is a place where people come to desperately try to continue their lives, and picking up a whisky note is glib, if not ghoulish. But it is what it is – I can’t consciously control my memory, if I could I would probably erase much of the Nineties. So being reminded of drowning, peat fires or the smell of chemotherapy is not something I can summon or dismiss.  

Working in a hospital, even shuffling paperwork, isn’t an easy job. You see a lot of amazing things, but you also see a lot of loss. I can feel it since I lost my dad. I’m working in the outpatients department, around the corner from the radiotherapy department where he was treated. Sometimes I walk through there and it just pops back into my head – he is gone. During the week I was walking through one of the wards on the fifth floor, chasing down a chart for a clinic. I got a sudden hit of deja vu and stopped in my tracks, realising I was in the ward dad was in when he was first diagnosed. In the four beds in the ward were another four elderly men, possibly facing the same fate as him. And this is it – an endless rolling mill of short lives on an old planet. During the week I met the cancer nurse who cared for my dad (and my mum). She told me it was early days, that every first will bring it all back. Last week was the first Halloween. I remember when I was a kid at Halloween, my dad cutting a slice of barmbrack and I spotted the ring in it, so he gave the slice to me. For such devout Catholics, my parents always embraced the pagan feasts with enthusiasm. It’s not hard to see why our forefathers celebrated Samhain. The end of the harvest, and the start of a winter that may or may not kill you – why not have a bit of craic before you go into hibernation? Just like Christmas – the midpoint in the bleakest time of the year – it is a functional celebration, rooted in nature.

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The photo above (by DMoon1) is of the Mound Of The Hostages in Meath. Similar in layout to Newgrange, it is a neolithic tomb that contains between 200 and 500 bodies. Two days of the year the light of the sun illuminates the central corridor – Samhain, what we now know as Halloween, and Imbolc, the day in February marking the end of winter (which the Christians rebranded as St Brigid’s Day). Samhain is the day when the walls between worlds are at their weakest, allowing the dead to walk the earth. Tombs like the Mound Of The Hostages were seen as portals to the other side. Throughout history we have always wanted to believe there is somewhere else. We call the dead ‘the departed’, and talk of them being gone, as though they have left on a journey, or crossed over to another plane. I’d love to think that was the case, but to me there is nothing else, only this. We live and die, and some stuff, good and bad, happens in between. Even my dad, who came from a generation where faith was bred into them, couldn’t talk about another world at the end. He occasionally mentioned how his faith was helping him, but I could see he didn’t fully believe that he was heading on some journey. He knew there was nothing else, no great reunion in the sky for him, my mum and my sister. There was only goodbye to all this.

I can feel the grief gnawing away at me, but I know that with time it will ease off. One of the hardest aspects of it is the message that comes with losing someone – someday I will be over too. And not just that, so too will everyone I know and love. My wife will die, my kids will die, their kids will die. We stop, and they put us in the ground, and that is it. I try to look on the bright side – I am probably only 50% of my way through my time. My lifespan is either half empty or half full, depending on how glum I feel. 

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What I love about Laphroaig is how it polarises people, lays bare our personal tastes and bias. You will see a review that will say ‘this is disgusting, it tastes like band-aids and peroxide’. Another review will say ‘this is amazing, it tastes like band-aids and peroxide’. We are all different, but deep down we are essentially the same. Yesterday I met a man who had just lost his wife. I didn’t know this until I asked if his next of kin was the person listed, and he started to cry. I apologised, on the verge of tears myself. We choked it down, and moved on. I came home and hammered down several generous measures of Laphroaig and contemplated the dumb luck of working in the hospital that treated my mum, dad and sister before they died, and smells like a whisky I particularly like. I’m glad I didn’t drown in Inchydoney. It would have been a pretty shit turn of events for me. I would have missed a lot of stuff – good and bad – and I never would have learned to enjoy something that tastes like band aids and peroxide. 

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