The water slide was steep, crafted with vertical drops that were bound to make my 50-year-old bones ache afterward. What was I doing here? I was clearly the old geezer in the lot. A local radio station, frequency 98.7, had chosen 98 listeners to compete for 98 prizes in a contest that involved going down a water slide. Once in the small pool at the bottom, contestants would grab a numbered ping-pong ball that would match a prize.
When the DJ said we could start the climb to the top of the slide, I wound up in the last group. As I slid my rear onto the inner tube, I said a quick prayer that I would not tumble out of it and embarrass myself. But when I splashed into the wading pool, I hit the water hard and flipped over. When I finally got back to the surface, I saw seven or eight ping-pong balls at the other end of the wading pool and just one near to me. So I figured that’s the one I should take—#27. And that proved to be the number matched to the grand prize, a trip for two to Ireland.
When they told me I had won, I stood there, unmoving. I had never considered that I might actually win the grand prize. Years earlier, I had taken an early retirement from the U.S. Foreign Service because of severe health problems. I had lived in Asia and Africa and been around the world a couple of times. I had retired because I was sick, and the doctors were giving me a grim prognosis. But I was still alive, and now I had won a trip to Ireland. I took this as a sign that I should find the energy to go, one more adventure while I was still somewhat healthy.
I asked my sister to accompany me, but she was scheduled for knee replacement surgery. I have two brothers, but something kept telling me to ask the older, Paul, to go with me. He had not been abroad since the early 1970s when he returned from his Army stint in Vietnam. While I had been traveling much of my life outside the United States, Paul had been busy working here and raising four children with his wife. It would be so special for him to get away from his workaday life and spend a week with me abroad.
On All Saint’s Day, November 1, 2003, we flew into Shannon. During our free week, we drove to Galway, marveled at the Cliffs of Moher, froze as we climbed over the Dingle peninsula, wandered around Killarney and Cork and ended up on our last night dining in Limerick at an Italian restaurant that reminded Paul of a place our parents took us to when we were children. We got our waitress to take our picture in front of a beautiful blue mural.
Paul snapped hundreds of pictures as we navigated the narrow roadways of southwestern Ireland. We talked about life and God and happiness, and he seemed more relaxed than I had seen him in a long time. When I had first retired, I had told my siblings about the severity of my health problems. It seemed out of whack—me, the youngest, retiring first and planning for my burial. But that’s the essence of life; things always have a way of upsetting expectations. Yet, amazingly, here Paul and I were in Ireland, enjoying that famous Irish hospitality and spending quality time together as brothers that few adult siblings get to enjoy.
When we got back to the United States, I knew Paul would get his film developed immediately. And I put together an Ireland Journal that I imagined us reading years in the future and laughing about—particularly over the story of how the owner of the bed-and-breakfast in Dingle had greeted us with tea and cookies then revealed that the heater was out and wondered: Could we sleep in our coats?
But Paul never got to see his photos or read my journal entries. At only 58 years old, he collapsed four days after we got home. He lingered for a few days in the hospital but never regained consciousness. It was a priest—visiting from Ireland—who gave him the last rites before he finally took a last breath.
Now, more than a year later, I can’t explain why Paul is gone and I am still here, why his funeral fell on my birthday. There are too many mysteries. But I do know that sometimes we are led in ways that become clear only after the fact. Given Paul’s sudden death, it looks so obvious now why I was being whispered at in my meditations to take Paul with me. Or even, with all those other younger folks sliding into that wading pool before me, how the #27 ball was still bobbing there, waiting for me to pluck it out of the water.
It hurts so much that Paul is gone, but it also gives me so much satisfaction to know that his last week on the earth was spent in such a fun tour with me. That’s the great gift we had given each other—we shared a deep fellowship that resealed our bond as brothers.
Everywhere we went in Ireland people would ask what we were planning. Paul would say he was just along for the ride, nodding at me to explain our itinerary. But here’s something else I know: No one is just along for the ride. We each are following a destiny that leads to places we never expect to go but wind up there anyway. Sometimes that means you have to sleep with your coat on.
Michael Varga retired from the U.S. Foreign Service and has recently completed a novel.