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A Tribute to Tony McMahon, a Dubliner in Frisco

New America Media, News Feature, Jalal Ghazi Posted: Sep 20, 2009

Editor's Note: Tony McMahon, who told his story in a NAM "Words from the Wise" column in February, died recently. He never gave up the idea of some day returning to Dublin and spending the rest of his life there with his siblings and their families. It was as if he was physically in San Francisco while mentally he was still in Dublin, writes NAM contributor Jalal Ghazi.

SAN FRANCISCO -- His last words to me were, "This is the most difficult time of my life, I have no one. I do not know how this happened."

We were walking late that night on Irving Street in San Francisco, Tony McMahon and I. He was looking for his home in Dublin, Ireland, even though I kept telling him he was not going to find it here in San Francisco. He searched for three days.

The following morning, the police picked him up in an area of downtown near where his late wife used to work. They took him to a hospital. The next evening he was declared pulseless.

No one really knows what he died of. Was it from a broken heart, or did he overdose on his medication? I personally think Tony died from the suffocating loneliness that grips many people in this country in their twilight years.

Tony lived 73 colorful years, 46 of them with his beloved wife, May, and the last three years all by himself. He once told me he had only one regret: He couldnt provide a nice funeral for his wife. Burying her was too expensive, so he cremated her. For three years he kept her ashes in his bedroom. He was eager to lay her to rest.

He had wanted to hold a memorial service for her at the church he went to for decades. They said no, because May had been cremated before Tony had held a funeral Mass, something that the Catholic Church does not approve.

Although Tony eventually found a kind priest who agreed to go over to his house to perform the service, another problem emerged. It turned out that Tony couldnt scatter his wifes ashes in Ocean Beach from the Cliff House as he had planned. The ashes, he was told, could only be thrown into the sea at least two miles from the shore. That meant that he would have to rent a boat, something he just couldnt afford.

He was frustrated. So he decided to keep the ashes at his bedside. But just a few days after his passing, his niece, Jena, went into his bedroom and removed the urn.

In the last few years of his life, Tony was tormented by the idea that he might be forced to go into a nursing home. His social worker, Emily, had taken him to a number of them, but none of them passed muster with him. They smell so bad, and they are full of sick and miserable people, he told me after one visit. Then, he added: Im not that old, I can still walk around and take care of myself.

Besides, Tony had something else in mind. He never gave up the idea of some day returning to Dublin and spending the rest of his life there with his siblings and their families. It was as if he was physically in San Francisco while mentally he was still in Dublin.

Tony just could not resolve the internal struggle between his native land and his adopted land. Sometimes, San Francisco won. Sometimes Dublin did.

He used to say, If I were to go back to Dublin, I would probably be able to stay with my sister because she has a big house. Had he stayed on in Dublin, he would say, he would have had a family, just like she and his brothers there did.

But then, he would also sometimes say, I just cant get myself to go now after all these years. Besides, Im okay here. I have gotten used to things around here.

Tony tried to fight off his loneliness by spending long hours before his television set, or he would just sleep. He mostly watched Larry King and C-Span, even though he had access to some 80 cable channels. The rest is rubbish, he would say. He kept the television on even when he went to sleep at night so it would not be too dark.

No matter what time he went to bed, he always got up at 3:00 a.m. Usually, he would make himself a cup of tea and then try to go back to sleep. Sometimes he could, but most times he just lay in bed with his eyes closed until the cleaning lady, Ann, came in at 8:00 a.m.

She did not speak much English, but she was one of the few human contacts he had I do not care about the cleaning, I can do that. I just want someone to talk to, he once told me.

In the last couple of years, especially in the last few days before he died, he kept getting picked up by the police because he was disorientated and walked all over the sidewalk. But instead of driving him back home, they always checked him into a hospital, where he would be discharged with a load of pills for different health conditions. The hospitals answer to everything was pills, he told me -- pills for headaches, pills for sleeplessness, pills for pain, pills for constipation.

All Tony wanted was someone to talk to. His friends would never visit him, not even the taxi driver he knew for more than 30 years

Sometimes, Tony tried to strike up a conversation on the bus or Muni, but few reciprocated. Once, he remarked to a middle-aged female passenger, What a nice day. She looked at him strangely. No one wants to have anything to do with a 73-year-old man, he told me, while recalling that incident.

Tonys and Mays ashes are waiting for a funeral mass. Jena was able to persuade the priest that he should conduct it as a testiment to their undying love for each other.

His search for Dublin will finally be over. He will be reunited with his family there. Some of his ashes will be flown to Dublin. The rest will be immersed in the sea in San Francisco.

His niece, who I had never met, told me that she hoped to have at least five people at the church service. My attendance would significantly count.

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