The U.N. Diaries: Three Years by Colin Nash

Colin Nash is a writer who fell into contract work with the United Nations in Africa and Afghanistan. This post is the first in a series about his time overseas.

I find the hardest thing these days is to put anything to the page. I used to write with a determined ferocity, so convinced that my words on paper would be an outlet for whatever frustration or passion that leaked out of myself and lay on the page as a testament to my thoughts.

I have to say that changed three years ago, give or take a few days. December 7, 2009. I was filled with a new hope, a new adventure. I was staying up in North Bay, preparing for my role with Voyageur overseas in Sudan. I had found out my posting, and was bursting with naive pride at my new situation. I immediately phoned my father.

My father was a man of extreme emotion, of unbridled wonder mixed with the burden of regret. He had been a merchant seaman in his youth, and had traveled the world twice over. He had docked in Caribbean ports and bought bananas from African longboats off the coast of Cote D’Ivoire. He had drifted through the harbours of Hong Kong and Mumbai, and told these stories in passing through my childhood. I grew up with a sense of excitement and danger at the unknown, and secretly harboured my own ambitions at seeing the dark corners of the world, or what was left of them.

His response was unexpected at the time. I understand it now, but the anger from me was still there.

“It’s a bum job and you’ll get yourself killed. You’re an idiot.”

I hung up after a few charged words, and left it alone. Here was a man who was both tempered and sensitive, but the only face I got from him was a condescending dismissal. We spoke few words until the day I left. I was convinced that this was out of some fatherly protection, and that I would come back, hardened and battle scarred from the third world, and we would sit down for a pint and discuss things on an even keel after my first tour.

Life never works out how you plan it. If you have a hard time with death, I don’t suggest reading any further.

The night before I left, I sat downstairs, everything packed up and ready to leave. I heard the yell of my mother, a hysterical sound not usually heard from such a stoic woman. I came, and saw my father hunched over, his arm slung around her in the kitchen. Seconds passed before I realized he had a heart attack. We sat him in the chair in our living room, and I grabbed his hand, his skin pallid, his hand colder than an icebox.

His eyes seemed fearful, like a man being pushed over a tall ledge into a raging river.

“I don’t want to die.”

Laboured breathing. I gripped his hand as his breathing lessened. His big hand stayed calm. Then a final look.

“I love you all,” he said.

The eyes emptied out, and he rolled back. It had been two minutes since I had come up the stairs.

I got him on the ground, his stomach already emptying out, and went to work on my father. I remember rolling him on his side and trying to remove the fluid from his airways. Then I checked his pulse, rolled him onto his back, opened his airway and started compressions. I later remembered my mother screaming for me to help him, to do something, but at the time it was only “30 and 2″ “30 and 2″.

It was somewhere around the 4th round of compressions that I felt his ribs break, feeling horrified but remembering that this was the way it worked. I kept breathing into his mouth, and the smell of onion, something I guessed he had eaten earlier in the day, kept coming up. I remember looking into his eyes, hoping for some sign of life, a flicker or a view into the man who thirty minutes before I could hear laughing from the basement. Nothing. I knew he was dead just before the paramedics arrived.

I sat in the kitchen, my arms folded out onto the linoleum, hearing my mother bargaining with the paramedics, who were taking their time. Why not? It had been ten minutes since the call was made, and no signs of life could be seen.

“He’s a strong man, a survivor,” she said.

I remember the first police officer on the scene was a friend from high school. She looked stern in her uniform, from a family of police, and I hugged her awkwardly, as if it was some sort of thing I needed to do.

After that it goes a bit dark. The official death called at the hospital. The cigarettes outside. The quiet drive home. I remember thinking that I could still catch that plane to Africa tomorrow, somehow shake all of this off as a bad dream. Maybe it was the flight attendant coming back to me. Back to the shouted commands.


Three weeks later I was in Africa, glad to be away but knowing that I was like a wounded animal, limping along, my actions routine, my conversation small and distant. I was a sound reel out of sync. All I cared about was that I was away.

I haven’t written about my father’s death until now. I haven’t put down any of the feelings I had because I had put up a wall the moment I felt I had failed. I’m beginning to only come to grips with the fact that this came from me stepping up to life, challenging my father to see me as a peer. This involves pushing him away. Ill timing complicated the situation. He died, and I was left feeling responsible for a family who, in truth, didn’t need anyone to look after them.

It’s been three years now, and I see the changes and the full circle I had to make. I had dark times and some enlightening moments, but still with a iron cast over myself. Time heals all wounds, and I’ve had to take the long route just to get here. I’m finally comfortable talking about it, and it’s a step.

At night, especially in the hum of a dispatch office, waiting for the day to start, I’m left alone with thoughts; left with ideas of what that beer might have been like, what our stories might have been. On most days, however, I’m left with a sense of pride of my father, with both his failures and his humanity. I miss him, I remember him, and I smile. I remember his enthusiasm for words, and I’d think he’d like me to write again, even the dark and unsettling parts.

I love you dad. Thanks for helping me get this out.


Colin Nash is a writer and former actor who fell into contract work with the United Nations. He has worked in different parts of Africa and spent a six month stint in Afghanistan. He currently resides in Toronto. This post originally appeared on his personal blog, which you can visit here.

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