As the world mourns the passing of Sinéad O’Connor—especially those of us who were in our formative college years when “Nothing Compares 2 U” topped the UK charts for four weeks in a row in 1990—I still mourn the loss of my dad who would have turned 84 this week.
And I’ll echo the lyrics of the song that propelled Sinéad to fame all those years ago, nothing, and no one, comes close to comparing to my dad. As I wrote at the time of his passing, he was a rare bird. A man who broke the mold, in more ways than one, he was an imperfect father, an impatient surgeon—who apparently blew the minds of his orthopedic surgeon colleagues by the number of surgeries he performed in a day, and overall, an impressive character in a diminutive package.
I’ve been traveling for fun this week with a short trip down to Baja, Mexico, and I’ve been reminded of him on many occasions. We traveled extensively with our parents as children – in fact, I’d go so far as to say they taught us how to travel. At a very young age I visited Hong Kong for the first time of many, and we lived there for six months when I was three, before returning for many extended summer trips as school kids.
As the family grew to four kids, we’d regularly get squeezed into the back of our Mercedes estate car (station wagon) and make the long trip by road and ferry across the English Channel, and then back on the road through Europe: France, Italy, Switzerland, the Alps, the Pyrenees. Let me tell you, those road trips were often miserable. We’d fight over who had to sit in the middle and I got terribly car sick as we wound our way up and down mountain passes.
Inevitably, one of us would have no legroom because the ice box (as I recall, it was fluorescent green, and somehow a light bulb had burned one corner of it, exposing the white insulation stuffing) was stashed behind the driver’s seat so my mum could reach it from the passenger seat. This spot became yet one more seat that none of us wanted to sit in. Added to which my baby sister’s car seat, which thankfully wasn’t the size and heft of the over-engineered ones of today, took up a ton of room leaving those on either side with one arm pinned down. Anyway. You get the picture. This was two to three days of travel each way that was, to all intents and purposes, pure hell.
My dad’s idea of a fun day during a holiday in France, was to visit as many wine chateaus (Chateau Margaux is one that springs to mind) as he could. We’d get packed up in the AC-free car on a stifling hot summer’s day, and then spend much of it sitting in the car park of some grand old French castle as he tasted wine and decided what to have shipped home. My mum would plead with him, occasionally successfully, to let us go swimming at some point.
But of course, we also had a lot of fun. I recall lively evenings eating outside at trattorias and restaurants, swimming in rivers—and if we were really lucky, the local ‘piscine’ or ‘piscina’. My dad would wear the skimpiest bright blue Speedos, and spend far too much time staring at the beauties sunbathing around us.
I remember walking up to the top of a lot of medieval towers, visiting art museums, and in the late seventies in France, we toured a lot of dank, dark, underground caves where we saw some really famous cave paintings. I soon learned the difference between a stalactite and a stalagmite. Sadly, I believe most of these caves are now closed to the public in an attempt to preserve the treasures within, although replicas have been created.
On one particularly memorable occasion, we got into a small rowing boat in an underground lake—it was pitch black save for the guide’s flashlight—and my little brother, Ben, who had just been woken up from his car nap, didn’t stop crying the whole time. Ah, family holidays.
My dad absolutely loved to try local delicacies, almost as much as he liked to drink the local wine, and as I grew up, I came to really appreciate the gastronomical aspects of our travels. He taught us how to appreciate the food culture of where we were visiting. Today, as I travel and eat my way around a region, I always think about what his commentary would have been on the meal.
“Ooh,” he’d say, pointing a forefinger at some platter, “this is really, really good you know.”
Or, with fingers smeared with sauce from shelling a large prawn, he’d offer it up: “These are so fresh, do you want to try one?”
He didn’t have a big appetite, and was infamous for only eating one meal a day, which my mother said made him hypoglycemic and contributed to his famous temper. He was invariably full long before the rest of us, pushing his plate away and waving his hand while shaking his head when offered more. Although we never saw that particular combination of sign language when the waiter proffered to fill his glass with the local vino.
It’s hard to believe that we lost him over four years ago. I still miss him every day, and wish I could share a special meal and a few glasses (or bottles) of wine. He’d be telling us some long-ago yarn about his days sleeping under the stars in the ruins of Knossos, or laughing uproariously with his beloved, brother-in-law, Ed, on a combined family holiday.
Nothing compares 2 u, Dad. Always and forever.