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It happens. It just does. It has to. Somebody gets sick and they stay that way for some time and then they’re gone early one morning. And you are confused and sad, but you have to stay here and keep living afterwards. For a while death sticks to you, its resin thick on your skin, its name on your tongue. You’re caught in a moody amber until you make your way out by and by.

 When my father was sick, he and my mom made plans to travel to Ireland in the spring. They wanted to travel together one more time. When it became apparent that he wasn’t going to make the trip, I was his stand-in, flying away from this continent with my newly widowed mom. She had cared patiently for my dad at home through the two years it took for cancer to diminish him. She had been determined that the forty-plus-year marriage of two imperfect people was to end as close to perfection as possible. There had been a few storms over the years, but still, he was her “lovely” man. Now the violent waves of her grief had given way to a quiet acquiescence to the fact of its presence at her table. My father’s death was the first “big one” for our family. He was my mom’s companion and such a sweet dad to my siblings and I. When I was little, he was my hero. Now each of us had to figure out who we would be without him.

 There is great comfort in travel when you’re still covered in a cloak of loss. For one thing, there is anonymity, you don’t have to talk to anyone and nobody knows your business. Then there is the possibility of adventure. We spent several hours on the tarmac in Tennessee while en route to Atlanta from San Francisco. Naturally, we missed our connection to Shannon and ended up eating peanuts out of a hotel vending machine at midnight for dinner. But once we were on our way in the care of those cheery Aer Lingus attendants, there was startling beauty out that little plastic window, first of the sunrise over the Atlantic, and then the impossible deep green as the plane finally penetrated through the luminescent white of the cloud cover. I could have danced through the airport at Shannon but was stopped by the sight of a custodian leaning over his broom. He saw me staring and pointed out the window, “There’s a wee hare just there.” We were in Ireland very early on a spring morning and we had the world to ourselves.

 I got to meet my cousins in Galway. My favorite was John Joe Tuohy with his wild white hair, his deep, dark eyes, and his crazy stories. And yes, we did get to go to one of those castles where they serve heady mead and course after course of savory food and you sleep like you haven’t slept in months. Don’t let them tell you the Irish diet consists of stringy corned beef and boiled cabbage. That’s what the Irish had in New York back in the old days when everybody in the neighborhood was just as poor as everybody else. The food is insanely good. What we call soda bread, they call Spotted Dick. (Yep.) We ate and ate beautiful, dark brown breads with butter you wouldn’t believe, strong coffee with cream the angels would drink, subtle soups, roasts, stews. And that was just the food.

 Here was the funny part of the trip though. For a week after we landed my mom stayed in Galway with family and I went off to Germany to be with friends. When I met up with mom again it was to board a tour bus. Yes, a tour bus. For old people. Originally the thought was that a nice bus tour through burrens and towns would be the perfect thing for my parents to do together since my dad had been pretty ill at the time reservations were made. Now, however, here sat my mom with her unbelievably small carry-on, her little green sweater, and her Reeboks with a twenty-eight-year-old, single, confused youngest daughter. To get to go to Ireland was a dream come true. To get to go on a tour bus with a bunch of other Americans, not so much. But you know, after a death, you have to start fresh. You have to do something you couldn’t have otherwise seen yourself doing. So it came to pass.

 At first, I was polite. If the other passengers were slow getting on and off when we made stops, I could wait. After a couple of days I bolted to the door and almost ran whenever I had the chance. I could get a café seat for my mom and order for both of us before the others made their bumping, groaning progress through the entrance and started asking if these lovely village businesses had Diet Pepsi. (“Are we really here?” “Are we really with them?”) The guide behind the wheel was a trove of information. We started sitting close to him so we could ask questions. We learned so many fascinating things about the history, the flora, the geology, and the art of each area we passed through. We visited the ancient ruins at Newgrange. We saw The Book of Kells and St. Kevin’s Cross. We got to kiss the Blarney Stone (which is way up in a tower of Blarney Castle – a stout man with a cigarette in his mouth holds you around the torso while you lean way back. “He does that all day!”) But I’m getting lost in the scattered details of memory. I mean to get back to the subject of our collective rebirthing, my mother’s and mine.

 There was a softness in our experience that April. From the mist on The Cliffs at Moher to the grey ponies on the beach at Galway. We had a little hotel room right on the Connemara coast with sumptuous, woven wool quilts on the beds and a big window looking out where grass and mossy rocks went all the way down to the water. (Yes, I did sing Someone to Watch Over Me to her that first evening.) My mom and I loved the quiet we had to ourselves and would sneak away from the group whenever we had time. In Dublin we found a little second-hand bookstore after visiting some museums and the campus of Trinity. We even got to see The Playboy of the Western World at the Abbey Theatre. The April skies were usually grey, with light rain or mist and so it seemed even the weather was gentle with us and we were tender with each other. We could take off on our own or stare out the bus window at the trees and watch for those little bathtub Mary shrines. 

 The trip became a magical suspension of the rest of our lives. A little waiting area before the paint was to dry on our rebuilt psyches. After a few days we — or I– started to feel a little of that prickling strain you get when you’re with someone for hours and days at a time, away from your home and fatigued from the whole tiresome process of grief. I started to champ at the bit, you might say. One morning we stopped in a little town somewhere – I could never find it on a map. We had only half an hour before the bus would take off again so we stopped in a giftshop. It was a strange little place – with a door out the back and another at the front. After we came out on the side opposite where we’d entered, we didn’t recognize our surroundings nor quite remember which direction to go to find our bus. For once, I was not willing to give in and let my mother’s (I can admit this now) unfailing sense of direction decide who would control the situation. “Fine, you go that way. I’ll see you on the bus.” Fine. Fine, just fine. Naturally, once I finally came around to where it had been parked, the bus was gone. So I was in another country, in a very small town and my mother was sitting comfortably on a bus outa here with my luggage.

 It’s a very nice thing that Ireland is a generally friendly place for tourists. It’s a very nice thing that they understand headstrong young women. It seems they specialize in headstrong young women. So I was not out of place. Actually, I was seriously out of place. But I couldn’t stand around fuming about it for long. There were not a great number of cars in this remote village but I did find a nice farmer with a pick-up truck and there was really only one road out of town. He let me ride up in the front with him – a small goat on the seat next to me. It couldn’t have been more than a mile before we spotted the bus sitting alongside the road. I was suddenly jarred back to my life with a wave to the farmer and his goat. Naturally my mom was way in the back of the bus so I had to run a gauntlet of knowing seniors clapping and cheering for my return. My mom just smiled when I sat down next to her— “Just don’t say a word,” I told her.

 That was the first crack in my thick veneer of grief. The road ahead led to even finer wonders. I still kept a persistent itch to get off the bus as quickly as I could at any opportunity. One of the last mornings of our trip we were outside Dublin in the Midlands and stopped in a little village for breakfast. After scones and “lovely” rich coffee, I took a walk down the road a little way to a graveyard. Visiting old graves is a tantalizing fascination. How can a sad place be so comforting, so welcoming? But they sometimes are. 

I found a beautiful section with an old iron fence and went in through the creaking gate. Finally, I could be alone in a dreamy spot with nothing but a soft breeze and stillness. I could stop for a while and be alone — not have to be polite or patient– and basically feel sorry for myself. I couldn’t have been there more than a few minutes with the ghosts and their mossy, weathered headstones. The quiet was profound and absolute, without even birdsong to break its eerie spell. There was an old Mary statue with gold lichens at her feet and grass growing up high all around her. Uncannily, this was the first morning when the sun decided to really take things in hand. The statue was suddenly brilliant white in the sunlight and Mary was looking at me. And not like my mom’s big, faded picture with the soft eyes, gently pulling back her filmy veil to show her sacred heart. Compassionate Mary. This was a very different aspect! She regarded me sternly as if calling out my presence as a thoughtless intrusion. I was not welcome. I did not belong. I was alive and I was young and I had no business here. I found myself suddenly very uncomfortable. Like Dorothy in the witch’s forest – “I’d turn back if I were you!” And I did. I fumbled around (lousy with directions, see?) until I found the old gate and finally got it open and lit out at a dead run. Back to my life and my seat on the bus. Back to my mom, who, just by the way, flirted with a pilot in the Atlanta airport on our way home. It was time to move on.

©Elizabeth Levett Fortier, 2020


          Elizabeth Levett Fortier teaches little kids in San Francisco. She also writes and sings in the acoustic trio, Dreamchair Music with her husband David. More about Elizabeth can be found at elizabethlevett.home.blog or dreamchairmusic.com.

 

 

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