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…’
An uncomfortable smile. ‘I don’t know, I’ll think of it.‘
I wait. Silence.
Again. ‘I’m afraid of turning it off…‘
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