Now it’s high watermark….


Memorial Gardens Dublin (c) Carole Craig

Now it’s high watermark and floodtide in the heart and time to go.― Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes

Somewhere in the complicated canon of Irish mythology there are stories in which the island of Ireland can hide itself at will, fading into the sea like a Tir na Og or a Hy Brasil.  Present, but unseen.

The week I leave Dublin, the poet Seamus Heaney dies.  He was my lecturer the first year, a humble bear of a man, a dear friend of friends; we went to the same parties then; heard the same gossip, shared tea in the university cafeteria. His death, too soon as death is, wounds.   Ireland is not more distant, merely less visible, its weight is felt.

The first week back with my mother: her face is round, her skin pink, her smile cherubic. It seems the flow of reports that she thrived, even somewhat recovered, are true.  Except it is rare now for her to leave her bed and sleep pulls at her constantly.  Behind the closed door she cries because it is so difficult to stand.

A hospice nurse telephones me.  He wants to discuss medication. She wheezes when she breathes.  Are these decisions about life or death?  ‘No. She’s fading,’ he says, ‘but not quickly.  Maybe she hasn’t decided it’s okay to let go.

We’re going to need more money.  My two dogs, my one cat and I are living in the spare basement room; it keeps us out of other people’s way.  I will have to rent my mother’s room.  I want, gently, to talk to her about her things: what is precious? what is dear? what goes to whom?

‘Why are you asking her?’  someone says.  It is heartfelt,  concern for her is profound.  ‘She’s at peace, leave her alone. ‘

If I don’t ask, it will feel like revenge.

I start with her clothes because they have never mattered much to her, I haven’t liked many of them,  I think that will be easy.  Almost at once I come across her things for stage: the Palestinian dress we bought in Jerusalem, the Guatemalan one we bought in Mexico, the one that came from our friend whose husband died in this house and who died herself soon after.  There are shorts and shirts my mother embroidered and the ones that people embroidered for her.  I feel like a ghoul and only gather enough for a small bag.

Another visit with my mother:  Three people have died in the hospice.  They bring the bodies along the side of the building and she can see them pass.  She is not upset.

Do you think about dying yourself?

‘I prefer not to   She stares at a corner of her room for a long time, one hand holding the other.  I’m afraid of turning it off…

What off?

An uncomfortable smile.  ‘I don’t know, I’ll think of it.‘

I wait.  Silence.

Again. ‘I’m afraid of turning it off…‘

I wait.

She closes her eyes and sleeps.

“Now it’s high watermark

and floodtide in the heart

and time to go.

The sea-nymphs in the spray

will be the chorus now.

What’s left to say?―

Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes

Perhaps home is not a place


In the Night Morris Graves

Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition — James Baldwin

I always thought I ended up in Ireland by accident, a small mistake somewhere, a wrong turn perhaps when heading West from Japan after three glorious months as a go-go dancing bar girl.

I am forever dissonant, a daw in peacock feathers, a waterless fish, a kicker against the pricks. Ireland, where you could shock people by eating a hamburger on Friday, was a mysterious choice.

In the beginning I was entranced, as so many are. I slept in a beehive hut water tight since the Middle Ages and at the base of the Rock of Cashel guarded by a Millennium of broken churches. There was music; the green; stone walls clambering over bogy hills; the passage grave at New Grange which you could visit unaccompanied and which, in those circumstances, was as ravishing and as spiritual as Haga Sofia and the Temples of Japan.

But none of these is enough to keep anyone occupied for four decades. I have considered the hypothesis that I stayed precisely because I didn’t fit — embracing my internal otherness as it were.

An example:

I share dog walks with a woman for several years. One day she mentions grandmother. “My grandmother’s family was Protestant. She married a Catholic and she had nine children. Whenever my grandmother’s mother came to visit, she’d throw some of the children over the wall.” Meaning, it turned out, her grandmother sent them to the neighbours’ to hide until her mother left. Hiding your children from you mother because their number offends her religion is not another country to me, it is another, an exotic universe.

My grandmother went to visit my mother shortly after she graduated from college. My mother was living in Seattle where she shared an apartment with the painter Morris Graves — it was a Platonic tryst, Morris being gay. My grandmother gave their address to a taxi driver who refused to take her because it was in the heart of the Red Light district. My grandmother, worthy progenitress of my mother and myself, got there anyway. She knocked and was greeted by Morris, who was stark naked with a tea towel over his arm. He bowed and she went in. When my mother returned from work some hours later my grandmother, daughter of a Methodist minister and the wife of a Methodist minister, was sitting at the kitchen table having an amicable cup of tea with the still naked Morris.

However, now when I am leaving Ireland again — my dogs and a cat almost packed, my flight booked, my friends visited, my garden prepared for a long winter of neglect –– I am abandoning the exotic hypothesis.

It is raining, a thanks-to-global-warming un-Irish deluge. I am walking home, no raincoat, no umbrella. My hair is dripping, my shoes squish. I pass the plumbing supply shop, the only business in our row of Victorian red brick houses. Michael, one of the men who works in the shop, hails me. “Just a minute,” he says and whips out an umbrella from behind the door. I reach out my hand thinking he is going to hand it to me, but he unfurls it and holds it over me all the rest of the way home.

A friend, another American ex-patriot, understands in a way that Irish never do why I am heartbroken about leaving even if it’s only months. “The Irish,” he says, “don’t understand what they have.”