Effigies (from Bicycle Review #22)

I

The rooms of our house are guarded by effigies of the saints. Anthony of Padua and the Virgin Mary greet any visitors I try to sneak in under cover of darkness. For added security, St. Francis of Assisi perches on the dresser with a kestrel on his wrist. Under the covers we sail free, fueled by alcohol and desperation, the pair of us anticipating the whistling call of the hunting bird. Her name is Gemma, blond, with prominent teeth and an overeager way about her. She plays the piano with skill, she tells me. In the taxi from Annabel’s Nightclub we neck in the cloud of cigarette smoke created by the driver, who listens to Big Tom and the Mainliners and casts a backward eye in the rear-view mirror every now and then, to see if he can catch a glimpse of her bare legs, or more. At two in the morning the house is quiet, the ma and da fast asleep, but their ears attuned to the unfamiliar tread of feet on the stairs. They could wake at any moment and I’ll be caught red-handed.

Soft-shoed on carpet so well worn by the years you can almost see your reflection in its fibers, we creep up to my bedroom. I make her wait by the door as I pull dirty socks over the watchful saints. What if she sneezes, or cries out from delight? Neither option is something I consider after asking her if she wants to come home with me. We could have gone to Gemma’s place, but her mother has a new baby and will be awake every hour for to stick its mouth to her tit, she said. From the cottages behind the Irishtown gasworks, she is. A working-class girl, her old man works in Guinness’s unloading hops and malt day after day. We kiss and fumble in the dark, in front of the blindfolded saints, every now and then uttering whispered prayers of blasphemy: Oh, God! Oh, my Jesus! God Almighty!

In the early morning light I trace the tracks of her bra, whiter than the rest of her skin. Next door the mother stirs to make the old man’s breakfast, and her footsteps on the landing have the pair of us in fits of giggles. She taps on the door and sticks a head in. “What in the name of God are your socks doing on the sacred statues?”

Beneath the eiderdown I can feel Gemma tremble, ready to burst into laughter.

“Sorry, Mam, I wasn’t thinking.” She shakes a head, sniffs the musty air, and says, “We’ll be off to ten o’clock Mass if you’ve a mind to go.”

Nod of the head, and I say, “I think I’ll sleep in and go to twelve o’clock.” Down she goes to stoke the embers in the Aga, the wool pulled over her eyes, at least for the moment.

“I have to get home,” Gemma says, her hair wild, her mouth crusted with sleep. “Wait until they head off to Mass,” I say. A taxi, she tells me, her hand reaching beneath my underpants. “I can’t walk the miles to Irishtown in those shoes,” she says pointing to the white stiletto poking out from under the wardrobe. I don’t know how the mother missed it, what with her beady eyes noticing the shrouded saints immediately. I kiss sourness, her teeth rimed with cigarettes and rum and cokes, and we disappear under the billowing sails again.

Whilst the ma makes breakfast and the da uses the toilet, I fish a tenner from his trousers, the Sacred Heart of Jesus imploring me to reconsider my thieving ways. Whistling from the bathroom, then the slapping of the belly, means I have to leg it back to the young one hiding in my bedroom. At 9:45 footfalls echo on the pavement as the Sunday faithful walk to prayer. Our front door-knocker rattles as the ma and da join the procession. Curtains shut, she dresses in dimness, her plump behind a reminder of mortal sin. From under their hoods the saints scream indignant, and I go downstairs and phone her a taxi. “Pick her up at the Protestant School on Rathgar Avenue,” I tell the man. And at quarter after ten the unnamed girl does the walk of shame, out the front door, down the avenue to the corner, and right for the waiting taxi. When she’s gone I remove the socks from the prisoners’eyes and in the soft light of my bedroom say a decade of the Rosary for the salvation of my soul.

 

II

Friday night at the Old Wesley dance, and “Stand By Me,” plays as we move slow circles in the cigarette smoke. As we turn in narrower and narrower spirals I try for a kiss and her warm mouth locks on mine. She tastes of Juicy Fruit gum, all sweet and sugary, and I hope she doesn’t notice my excitement.

Next thing I know, I’m on the flat of my back in the center of the dance-floor, my nose tingling, and someone laying the boot into me. Bouncers appear from the smoke and pull the guy off me, dragging him by the legs off towards the exit. “You bastard,” he yells at me. “You’re a dead man. I don’t know what Gemma’s doing with you.”

The girl I was dancing with has fled to the safety of her friends and I’m left to wipe my bloody nose and worry about Gemma’s friend jumping me on the way home. I don’t know what his problem is, I mean, We’re not even boyfriend and girlfriend, really. In the toilet I check my nose to make sure it’s not broken. The blood is all over my white cotton shirt and if my ma sees it she’ll throw a wobbler. I try to sponge the blood out with warm water and tissue paper, but all that does is create a giant pink circle on the shirt. Some lads taking a slash at the urinal are laughing at me, and shout at me, “Was she on the rag, then?” I don’t say anything, the last thing I need is another punch in the snot.

All the way home I look over my shoulder every few minutes. When I get to our road I go around the back and climb over the wall, shin up the drainpipe onto the roof of the shed, crack my bedroom window open and slip inside, praying the parents won’t hear me.

 

III

The fruit of thy womb, the shrapnel embedded in her belly, the damage done, the Lord have mercy. Seagulls throw themselves against the North wind, again and again, a perpetual motion of disappointment. We are on Sandymount Strand, the tide so far out it looks as if the water is gone forever. Dog owners walk the ribbed sand as their pets sniff kelp and cock legs to answer the call of nature. “I might be pregnant.” Her hands blue in the cold, her cheeks acne-scarred, the look in her eyes as faraway as the distant waves.

“Jaysus. Are you sure? Is your period late?” My questions are as useless as the soft drizzle falling on the wet sand.

In tears, she bites a lip, blinks mascara-ed eyes, and says, “Yeah. Two weeks. What’ll I do if I am? Me ma and da will kill me, and they’ll murder you.”

“Maybe you’re only late, and you’ll get it at the weekend?” I offer. “Are you sure it’s mine?”

She gives me a look that answers my question. “I can’t believe you’d even ask me that.” Her eyes are filled, ready to pour. I mumble an apology and rub her shoulder.

“I want to go and light a candle in the church across the road,” she says. “Will you come with me?”

“’Course I will,” I say, shitting bricks. I lead her by the hand to the steps that go up to the road. We cross Beach Road and walk up Leahy’s Terrace to the church grounds.

In flickering light we kneel on hard wood and endure the stare of the blue-cloaked Blessed Virgin and the baby Jesus. she feeds pennies through the narrow slot, the coins dully clinking on the prayers of others in dire circumstances.

Outside, the gray sky muted can barely match our mood as we take the narrow footpath back to her neighborhood. The squat red-bricked houses of Irishtown are like our own house in Rathgar, but smaller, only one-story, and tighter, and the curtains in the windows more yellowed and threadbare. We stop at the corner of Philomena Terrace and Rosary Terrace, and she kisses my cheek and says, “Will you call me tonight?” I nod, and head off towards the bus stop for town. I don’t want to call her tonight, nor any other night, not if she’s up the pole, not if she’s going to have our baby. I don’t even know her, really. The night out at Annabel’s was our second time out together, and the sex, the first time. Beginner’s luck.

 

IMG_1007

Numerology

I don’t know what matters any more. Thirty-three minutes left on the calling card. A Dr. Hook song spins through my head, “as the operator says, ‘Forty cents more for the next three minutes…'”

      • Five thousand: miles from home.
      • Forty minutes: the drive from my mother’s house to the nursing home she’s moved into.
      • Ten weeks: the time left to edit a novel and write half a novella.

Numbers. Order from chaos. Four paintings unhung line our mantel. The washing machine is thrumming along as the toddler cries out for “Mommy,” unable to nap, overheated and agitated. Doors open and close in the house. Wind. A paper white butterfly flits by the window and a red-tail hawk whistles in the next orchard over. These are the quiet moments in this busy life. Across the continents in a large room with an orthopedic bed my mother is perhaps falling to sleep, dreaming of her own childhood in a watery town where the river flows still and the memories she holds onto are dissolving by the day. Fear. No. More. At least she recognizes my voice when I call through to her room. This gives me comfort. My cup of Barry’s tea stews on the counter and the house quietens, the cries of the toddler simmer to a low snore, and the dog twitches in her sleep, chasing imaginary squirrels in a wide meadow. A woman told me she bumped into an old friend at the market today and how she’d been avoiding calling him because he had cancer. “I didn’t know what to say” she told me. She spoke of her own cancer, not deadly, at least not yet, she went on. “I’m sorry I didn’t call him. What could I say?” She seemed lost. “All you can do is be present,” I said. “There’s no need to say a word. Bear witness. Be present.” I might do well to take my own advice.

2014-06-28 08.07.35 HDR

The Next Line Carved

 

The road never changes, the green fields, the rolls of hay covered for the winter in black wraps of insulation, the steeples, the abandoned cottages and houses with their dismembered windows and doors, the Tullamore Dew distillery in Kilbeggan, the water sluicing through the wheel, the castle ramparts close-by. Nor does my father’s grave change, at least not in any meaningful manner. The stone cross remains lichen-stained, the weeds poke from between the graveled ground, the carved names, unchanged since my father died in 2000,  felled by a stroke.

The headstone tells its own story, of my grandfather, dead before I was born—Feb. 12, 1943. Of my grandmother, who I vaguely recall, a wisp-like ghost from childhood—died May 12, 1967. Of my aunt, Bridie—died July 10, 1918, aged 3. Of my other aunt, Angela—died Jan. 13, 1925, aged 14. Perhaps Bridie died of the great influenza epidemic that swept Europe back then? I do not know. Angela died from an embolism in her leg. She came home from school and collapsed on the floor, dead. She was, according to my two aunts who lived to old age, an angel, too good for this world, a beautiful girl, by all accounts. Not on the headstone, buried elsewhere, an uncle and two aunts. They are another story.

In January 2013, I drove my mother to visit the grave site. She’d not been in two years, probably the last time I was home. The graveyard is in Horseleap, aptly named, as a horse could traverse the entire town in one leap. The stones rupture the ground of the entire hillside, polished marble, dull granite, crosses and angels abound. We pick our way through the wet grass to his grave, my mother stooped, white-haired, receding now, my brother at her side. My wife says she’s leaving us, but this is not what I want to happen. At the side of the grave she bends her head, rests one hand on the cold stone, and sobs. For a moment I see the stone sucking her down, into the earth, to rejoin her lost husband.

We drive off, towards Athlone, my mother’s old home, and have lunch in the old Prince of Wales Hotel, adjacent to a middle-aged priest holding court over six older women, perhaps nuns in street-clothes, or something more sinister, members of some sodality determined to keep Catholic Ireland from going to the dogs. And as I drive farther westward, my mother having been driven back by my brother, I cannot stop the sorrow from catching in my throat, knowing full well that all our lives are spent in common avoidance of that dubious honor of being the next carved name on the headstone.

tombstone

Images from the Isolation Ward on the Avocado Ranch

Into the corner, trapped, small and alone. The burnished barometer nailed to the wall, tapped by fingers each morning to see which way the day might go. Loneliness is a solemn occasion attended by few, witnessed by many, avoided if you know the toll it takes. These long nights are blessings, the soft wind in the avocado trees, the hidden owls calling to each other across the dusk, friends at table drinking cheap beer and talking of times past. Under the soil the burrowers turn pirouettes, furred nocturnal dancers inhabiting an subterranean city where loneliness is played out in a sprung trap, the spinal cord severed, the teeth yellowed, the whiskey glass by the bedside table untouched and alone. Through thumb and forefinger the beads pass; the Hail Mary and the Our Father given rein. All the praying and all the genuflecting have led to a place of light, a square of companionship in the middle of a complicated endgame. The queen sits in the white space unsure of which way to flee the onslaught. A pressed switch closes the day and in the dark the nightmares sit suspended in the corners, tattered cobwebs too far away to dispatch.

20130925-154752.jpg

reposted from The Manifest Station:: on my birthday

A year older today. I repost this essay, Waiting for the Grassy Drop, from Jennifer Pastiloff’s site, The Manifest Station, where she was gracious enough to print it originally. My mother goes into a nursing home next Wednesday, and I am working through some heavy stuff right now::

2014-03-28 14.29.51 HDR

“Oh, he loved his mother / Above all others” (“The Great Hunger” by Patrick Kavanagh)

We drive the seventy-five miles to my father’s grave and my mother barely says a word. Through towns and farmland once so familiar she’d list each one and its inhabitants, the names dropping like musical notes. No more. Today, all she says is, “Ah, I don’t remember any of this. I must be addled.” My heart cracks a little more.

We pick our way back from the grave, treading carefully to avoid someone else’s resting place. Clouds scud by over the mossy, bird-shit stained gravestones and my mother stumbles as she navigates the grassy drop to the path. I catch her fall and bear her weight, realizing the next time I visit this blasted patch of earth might be to bury her beside my father. “God bless you, Son. You’re very good,” she says.

No. Not really. I’m not very good at all. Far from it, if I am honest with her. I left home and twenty-one years later return to witness my mother’s descent into a childlike state of bewilderment and uncertainty. The signs were there eighteen months ago when she tripped over a trouser press in her bedroom and gashed her hand. It was three days before she had it looked at by a doctor. An accident, she said. No, she didn’t lose consciousness, she said. No, she didn’t lose consciousness, she insisted when the doctor pressed her on the matter.

You’d have to have known my mother to know her strength. Raised four boys and a husband who was, for all intents and purposes, a fifth boy. He couldn’t boil an egg. Mow the grass? No problem. Domestic duties? You must be joking. After raising us, she took care of him in the aftermath of a terrible car wreck. Started a small business selling apple tarts and cakes to local shops, until some jealous neighbor shopped her to the health department. She marshaled our father through his medical appointments, his drinking, and his flailing nightmares.

Since my father died of a stroke fourteen years ago she has lived alone, independent, taking care of herself on her own terms. I call her every Sunday. The conversation rarely wavers from a well-oiled script—the weather, “How are the family? How is work? The words turn in on themselves, repetitive patters of paisley print. She asks, “Are you happy to be back teaching?” And three minutes later, “Are you happy to be back teaching?” And again, “Are you happy to be back teaching?” The repetitiveness is ominous. Her short-term memory is in tatters.

She no longer cooks: this, the woman whose baking and cooking was the talk of our friends and relatives for most of her lifetime. The cousins and aunts and uncles who’d show up every year just before Christmas to collect their cakes and puddings and couldn’t stay for tea because of a million excuses are long gone and never visit. The fridge is a museum of hard-caked milk in jugs, of meat gone off, of bread with mold, of decay and ageing.

There is evidence she no longer bathes, either. The week I’m home, the shower in her room never gets used, nor the bath in the landing bathroom. I sneak into her bedroom and check her washcloth for dampness and use. Best I can figure is she’s dabbing her body with the wet cloth every few days. Her clothes, too, are dirty, unwashed, recycled. I do three loads of laundry for her, making sure to dry them on the rickety clotheshorse in the spare bedroom. The fastidious woman who took so much pride in her appearance has been shut inside another version of my mother, a living Babushka doll.

For as far back as I can remember, mother solved with alacrity the Sunday Observer Crossword for forty years. Every time I arrive home we pass the paper back-and-forth, solving the last few clues together. This time the grid is a blank slate. I fill in a few clues to get her started and pass the paper her way. Two days later only my handwriting is on the checkered grid.

I can’t say I didn’t see it coming. The phone calls from my brothers warned me, “You’ll be shocked at what you see.” Not really, as my weekly phone calls, or Skype time with her tip me off to the changes afoot. I ask her what she had for dinner at my brother’s house. “Chicken,” she says. He interrupts and corrects her. Not chicken. Chorizo. Her once-strong mind, her sharp-witted remarks, her caustic comments on various topics are now faded tapestries in a room no longer accessible to her.

I see myself in my mother; the genetic code of her side of the family is strong in me. I have her family’s famous ears, as do my son and daughter. I put my daughter to bed each night, reading her a bedtime story, giving her the “double cuddles,” she asks my wife and I to bestow. My toddler cried her eyes out when I got on the bus for LAX and my heart gave way. “You go see your momma?” she asked me before I left. “Yes, my love, I go see my momma…” I didn’t finish the sentence. I wanted to say, “Yes, I go see my momma, and it might be the last time I get to see her alive.”

What I see when the door to her house opens is not my mother. Is my mother? My mother is not my mother. Not the mother I want. Where has she gone? She has been replaced by this diminished, bird-like imposter. I try to draw her into conversation about her life, my brothers and their families. She sits in her armchair, smoking cigarette after cigarette. A distant look on her face. She is there, but not there. I am bereft; witnessing her withdrawal from this world, seeing this woman who used be the rock our family clung to, reduced to shards.

The truth is unknown. Over coffee with my brothers we speculate. Willful decision to withdraw? A series of mini-strokes? Dementia? We don’t know. Tests on Thursday: brain scans, angiograms, EKG, MRI, the lot. Maybe there’ll be answers. She has an inhaler for the emphysema and smokes like a fucking chimney. Did the doctor tell you to cut down on the cigarettes, I ask. “Ah, no, he didn’t.” Of course, the doctor said cutting back would be a good idea, but that cutting them out at her stage of life might be depriving her of one of her few pleasures in life. Irish doctors, I suppose they know what they’re doing…

She tells the doctor at the Royal Victoria Eye & Ear Hospital when we go in to have her eyes checked that she’s addled, too. She also tells the Romanian receptionist we make her six-month check-up with: “I’m addled.” Code for bewildered, confused, unsure, and unable to remember. All I want to do is go home to my wife and daughter and cry. I’m addled, too.

Her pills are displayed on the kitchen counter. Seven boxes, and three bottles of eye drops in the fridge. The names and the directions confuse me, so I can only imagine what they do to her. “I don’t know whether I’m coming or going,” she says. Several times a day I ask if she’s all right and she answers the same each time, “I don’t know if I’m coming or going.” She sits in her chair, smoking. Silk Cut Blue, the long ones. The cushion and the carpet around her feet bear the burn marks that have us so worried she’ll burn the place to the ground one of these nights. Grandchildren refuse to enter the house because of the smoke, and one tells my brother to shower immediately he returns from her house.

We meet again, my brothers and I, at a local coffee shop, to have a conversation we never imagined having. Talk of living power of attorneys, of long-term care, of nursing homes, of unimaginable scenarios we surely only thought happened to other people. Amazingly enough, for a quartet that rarely agrees on anything, we are in consensus about how to move forward with my mother’s care. We all agree that maintaining her independence for as long as she is able, and of reasonable sound mind, is what is best. If, or when, she becomes a danger to herself, well, that’s another conversation to be had.

My mother and I sit in front of the television; her breathing a shallow wheeze of short, swift inhales and exhales. I picture her lungs, 80-90% useless, blackened from seventy years of smoking. The specialist spotted her breathing issues straight away, declared her to have “emphysema.” Strange, how her regular GP never said a word about her breathing. Bloody nationalized medicine and its inept purveyors.

At night, her bedside alarm clock beeps incessantly, the snooze button malignant and disruptive. I try to fix it for her, but she shepherds me out of her bedroom. The alarm keeps going off every ten minutes, and after two nights of this fiasco, I take the batteries out and hide the clock in the spare bedroom.

Two weeks later, back in the smoke-free house on the avocado ranch in Southern California, I realize it’s as if the alarm clock was displaying the same repetitive pattern as my mother does when I speak with her on the telephone. If only the answer to her problems were as simple as replacing the batteries inside the clock. There’s no replacing her batteries. All that remains is to tell her I love her, ignore the repeated questions and answer them as if each instance is the first time of asking. If we’re lucky we’ll travel home at the end of the summer so her grandkids can have a few memories of their Irish grandmother before she deteriorates further.

I see my mother in my children, I hear her voice on Sunday phone calls, and I write my stories and novels with the love for words and literature she gave me when I was a young boy. She is in all my stories, standing over the actions of my characters, a witness in a manner of speaking. And I too am a witness, to the playing out of her dénouement. All I can do at the end of the day is bear witness, say, “I showed up.” All else is beyond my control.

on thinking of Wright Morris

a stoic, i still remember a desperate feeling by riversides

the november putting on of heavy garments

beside the cemetery walls, the leaning elms of dublin

breathing in the frigid air of morning

the refusal to wear wool due to allergies

consider the elevation and terrain of our home

the point of no return reached on a sunday

sewing a button on a shirt before mass

whilst patent leather catches the rays of sunshine

as elderly neighbors smell of lavender water