My Dad and I never had much of a relationship when I was growing up. We were the dysfunctional version of the Irish father-son dynamic and by the time I graduated from university, Dublin wasn’t a big enough town and Ireland wasn’t a big enough country for the two of us. At 22, I left—flying to the USA in search of freedom.
Years passed and we slowly adopted an awkward truce, seeing each other on major holidays. He reached out to me several times and I to him, but like ships in the night, we never seemed to be on the same wavelength at the same time. And the years rolled on.
In May 2007, a frantic call from him changed everything: Mum was immobile in hospital after a very serious brain hemorrhage. This woman was the lynchpin of our family and it was a huge shock to all of us. In a strange way, our common love for this remarkable woman united Dad and me for the first time. Dad adopted a new role as primary caregiver, tending to her every need.
During the coming years, when not at home visiting, or back at work in New York, I spent my time pursuing a dream of climbing the seven summits—the tallest mountain on each continent. Dad—quite a world traveler in his own right, now housebound tending to Mum—seemed to live vicariously through my assorted attempts on these various mountains. The old ghosts of my childhood relationship remained; it sometimes annoyed me that he would track my every move. Over this time, Mum made some progress but slowly regressed as a series of lesser strokes hit her, reducing her mobility and speech. We always figured Mum would be the first to go.
Then in March 2015, I received another frantic phone call—this time from my sister Isabel, about my father… who was in hospital back in Dublin, fighting for his life. His kidneys had failed completely. How was this possible? How could there be no warning signs? I rushed home to be with him—and what I saw was a shell of a man. Little did we realize that while he was caring for our mother, a silent disease was spreading inside him and when it finally did choose to announce its presence, it roared. We reeled, punch-drunk, knowing nothing of kidney disease or dialysis before this moment, and struggled to find out every bit of information that might help him in his fight. He was too old to take a kidney from me and he would need dialysis for the rest of his life.
I never realized just how tough dialysis is on the body… chemo without the hair loss. It devastated him. It was a struggle just getting to and from the driveway to the taxicab each day he got treatment. When home, all he could do was lie down and rest. When he finally stabilized, I returned to the USA and later that year made an attempt to climb Alaska’s Denali, the tallest mountain in North America. Just before flying on to the glacier, Dad and I shared a tear-filled long-distance call. I wanted to fly home, but he assured me I should continue on the climb and that he would be alive when I got back down. True to his word, he was—and we celebrated with a call upon my return from the summit. He seemed to be reacting positively to the dialysis and making some progress, even if small.
The final scene came in November 2015, when on my daily call with my sister we concluded that I should again return home. Dad was back in hospital once again, and weaker than ever. I spent his last three weeks by his bedside. During that time, he stoically bore his grim fate, and the only time he spent fretting was over our mother and to make sure it was clear that we needed to take care of her. I couldn’t but love the man for his determination and concern for his wife in the face of such adversity. Then, on November 26, 2015—Thanksgiving night, the eve of his 75th birthday—our father passed away.
A friend once told me that I am a fixer by nature: When I see a problem, I like to think I can do something to fix it. Dad’s illness was a problem which I could only stand by helpless, unable to fix anything. I was hurt and angry. In preparing his eulogy, I grew to see Dad in a way that I never could have before, being so close to ground zero of the battle that was our relationship. I saw that he was just a man who tried to care for his family the best way he could. An average guy dealt a rough hand, first our mother’s illness and then his own, but who bore the consequences without complaint. His quick and untimely death seemed so senseless to me. I wished I had only known him in life as I now knew him in death.
To honor his memory, later this month, I embark to Nepal on what I proudly have dubbed the Gerry Condon Memorial Expedition, attempting to climb to the summit of Mt. Everest—at 29,029, feet the tallest mountain on earth—raising awareness of kidney disease and funds for the American Kidney Fund. Dad never really had a chance, but perhaps this effort may help someone else who does. The one time I’d love to speak with Dad, I cannot—but maybe this can help make sense of his death and give it meaning. This will also honor the many heroes I have since met, climbing their own mountain each day living with kidney disease. Their strength gives me strength.
And hopefully, somewhere, an Irish father is smiling.
Justin Condon departs for the Gerry Condon Memorial Expedition to climb Mt. Everest on March 28, with his summit attempt expected in late May or early June. Learn more about Justin’s expedition and follow his progress on his KIDNEYNATION fundraising page, KidneyFund.org/Everest, and on Twitter @JCEverest2017.