On the road to Lafayette, LA, my mentor and friend, Jeanne Leiby lost her life five years ago today. Sadness, pain, loss and a complete failure to comprehend the gaping hole she left in this world are some of the thoughts churning about my head on this spring morning in Carpinteria, the sun rising red in the eastern sky behind the foothills. I’ll never know her final thoughts, nor her plans for her writing, or life going forward as she drove the two-lane highway in her convertible. We are not privy to the thoughts of others, given only the sometimes difficult charge of marshaling our own ideas and contemplations. Her book is on the shelf and I’ll read from it again today, as I always do on this dark day. “Viking Burial.” No more perfect a piece of flash fiction is more appropriate. Later, I’ll raise a glass of Writer’s Tears to her memory and get on with the living of life and the mourning of those gone too soon.
I read this to my students today in my classes, as this is my father’s birthday and he’s been on my mind a great deal lately::
spreading from the false fly
I sleep on my back and the light fixture showers my face with petals from the dried flowers we brought back from my father’s grave. The day he died, a light freeze covered the neglected lawn outside the ward window; the blades curved with the weight of the frozen water, as if they were the discarded ribs from Sunday’s roast. A bowl of fresh fruit sat beside his steel-framed hospital bed, despite his three weeks of unconsciousness. He unpeeled a greenish banana, looked at me with his good eye, and said I wasn’t to feel guilty for not being there when he died.
“Fear no more the heat of the sun,” my teacher said in our literature seminar. I recall a summer’s day when my father stood ankle-deep in the coldAtlantic water, trunks speckled with salt residue, his cheeks puffed out, body intact and goosebumps all over his bare skin. I chose to ignore his attempts to communicate with me, the subtly-put advice he tried to give me falling into the waves. After the class ended, I checked my phone messages and learned how a series of mini-strokes had left him without color and with one foot in Charon’s ferry.
After a long flight from LAX to Heathrow the payphone’s tiny screen flashed as I dropped the coins into the slot. Three rings. My mother’s voice. “Ah, he died this morning at six, as the sun was coming up.” I sat among the haphazard travelers and their carry-on bags waiting for the connecting flight to Dublin. Three cups of strongly-brewed Costa coffee; and in the cup, the spiraling sand dunes and sharp-edged marram grass, summer holidays in thatched cottages, the memory of his laugh.
What I remember of the drive to the funeral home was the dead bugs embedded in the car’s radiator grille—moths, an early wasp, and a mayfly. My father tied his own flies for fishing—a real knack. By the banks of the Boyne he wristed the bamboo rod back-and-forth, the soft ripples spreading from the false fly, ever outward, to where he stood in his waders in the river water, dead at eighty-three, but still unknowing.
A postcard sent from West Cork last summer sits on my desk. The months between have flown and El Niño hasn’t brought the rain we need, though the patterns indicate more storms ahead. Life like weather, change and surprise, ebb and flow, the waning/waxing moon. The desk is too cluttered again; student rosters and IEP reports for my son, various cards for different occasions, and a hollowed-out seal’s tooth I need to drill and thread onto a necklace. Two books wait to be sent in the mail, which can’t happen until at least tomorrow.
A week in Cambria working on equity in education brought me up against my own prejudices and practices, well-instilled and reinforced by an Irish Catholic childhood. I cried daily as we discussed and unpacked ideas and fishbowled topics, as we participated in uncomfortable exercises, as we played music late at night and talked of equity and school climate and bodhrán playing, and slowly eroded the barricades of history. Back in the classroom I found myself looking around and realizing my shortcomings were displayed all over the room. The week after the retreat I instituted change and brought a reawakened sense of the task ahead to my conversations with my students.
This is a messy life, a challenging life, a good life. There are writing projects under way, and stories to be published, and conversations to be had about the tough topics that we sometimes shear away from, yet they float out there like the hundreds of islands in Clew Bay on the West Coast of Ireland, always present, often ignored, but necessary. 2016: the Centenary of the Easter Rising. I had grand plans for a collection of stories based on that historical timeframe, but the messiness of life and the distractions of the daily grind took those plans and made flitters of them.
Onward. Ahead. Into the unclear future we plow. On the telephone pole outside the red-tailed hawk cries out, searching the neighbor’s land for prey. At night the frogs chorus long and loud, reawakened by the recent rains. In my own way, I too am reawakened. This sense of purpose, of making right past wrongs, of addressing the obstacles in the path ahead and inventing strategies to overcome those same challenges, is what ignites the engine and sets me on my way again.