The phone call came late in the afternoon, my brother’s name popped up on the screen.
“Either you’ve been drinking or something happened!” I joked.
Pause. “Both. Mum, she’s in ICU. She fell. Brain injury. We don’t know how bad.”
In the local pub where I sat clutching a beer and huddled in front of the open fire, a friend came up. Sharon worked in the ER in Santa Fe, NM where I live. I told her the news. “How long was she unconscious?”
“She still is.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” She patted my shoulder and said nothing else. I knew then.
Nine months later, I strode across the cliffs along the Gower Coast in Wales. Behind me, my extended family stretched out in the twilight, chatting, laughing, and telling each other stories of my mum. Rhossilli Bay is a mile long, a broad wide and sandy beach with low rising hills to the east. My brother, Pete, came to check on me. At that moment, my cousins and their families released all those sky lanterns. Dozens of white balloons floated over the ocean and out towards Ireland to the west, the dark sky was calm and they drifted slowly out to sea. Silhouettes against a waning moon. Peaceful.
It would have been Mum’s 70th birthday. Sallie had planned for us all to get together to celebrate her birthday; she’d made us all promise the summer before, but then she died of a brain injury in January. We came here for her. Four cottages were rented, and the fridges filled with her favorite foods and not forgetting plenty of white wine in her honor. Sallie loved family gatherings more than anything. And for this, I am heartbroken because I didn’t understand. I kept my distance, even moving to the States in my twenties and yet there I was in my early forties suddenly appreciating the depth and expanse of family and her magic of bringing us together. My mum taught me, finally, the worth of family.
In the seventies, our old Land Rover was packed with a tall orange and green canvas tent, a folding table, cooking gear, and the clothes and toys needed for two young kids. After four hours driving along winding back roads, Mum called out, “I can see the sea! I can see the sea! I win!” She’d squeal in delight. The Welsh coast opened up in front us as Dad drove down the small highway heading out to Rhossilli. We’d stop at the store for ice, sodas and those last-minute odds and ends, like a plastic shovel and bucket for me, and a kite for Pete. Then off to Middleton, a small village before the peninsula, where we’d set up camp. Well, Mum and Dad would. I’d be off wandering around the campground, meeting other kids and their parents, inviting them back to meet my mum and dad. In the middle of trying to settle in, I’d show up with a small group behind me. Dad would stop what he was doing and pour out drinks and begin to chat. Mum and I’d pass out some snacks. The tent finally got put up with the help of my new friends. It worked out each time.
That night in August though, Pete and I took time alone, time to watch those lanterns float westward. Memories and Memorials.
“Are you okay? Do you really want to go?”
“Yep, I need time alone. You know how I am; this is too much for me. It’s okay, I’ll be back in a week or so.”
He hugged me and let me go. We walked back to the family and then we all wandered in the dark back to the cottages in Middleton. Cousins Tony, Paul and Nanette cooked up a feast and my brother’s kids made a campfire. We sat around late into the night, all of us full of stories and steaks.
Aunty Viv talked of growing up there in Wales. “During the summers after the Second World War, our dad would bring Sallie and I here for a week’s camping. Your gran would bring Les and Andy a week later. They couldn’t leave the farm alone so we split it between us. They chose this place in part because of the name; their own farm was Middleton, but far away in Worcester. The two farming families became close, and Old Mrs. Button still remembers your grandparents. You should ask her sometime. But don’t believe what she says about me and Sallie!”
The next morning, Viv hugged me tightly. The Honda motorbike was packed with gear, and it was time to leave her. My sweet aunt. Sallie and Viv spoke every day on the phone, saw each other often, they were incredibly close. I’d come across Viv down the alley that night before, sobbing her heart out, devastated at losing her big sister. I’d grabbed her to me and let her cry. “But I should be helping you,” she insisted.
Time to leave then, with most of my cousins and families all gone, I’d already said bye to Pete. Saying bye to Viv was the hardest. I didn’t know that it would be the last time. Cancer got her before the year was out.
“Four hours, Miss. The ferry takes four hours; it could be longer if the wind builds up like yesterday. But in good time, there’s no rush is there? We’ll be there by mid-day. Ireland’s only a hundred miles from Fishguard.” He took my ticket and showed me where to tie up the motorcycle on the left side of the ferry’s underbelly.
“Take everything with you, just for safety’s sake. Enjoy the trip!”
The ferry left for Rosslare at the crack of dawn, the sun barely visible on a cloudy overcast day. We’d been lucky in Wales, the sun shone plenty enough for hikes along the hills, and down to the beaches for the kids to play in the waves. Now though, the weather was turning and how appropriate it felt. I hugged Mum’s sweater to me and stood at the railings with the wind slashing slamming and fighting me for my every choked breath.
The Blarney Castle in County Cork was my first destination. The ride across N5 took me through Dungarvan and Youghal, cleansing me inside and out as rain belted down briefly, soaking deep into my boots. The highways were pretty empty and in no time I pulled up outside the Muskerry Arms on the town square. The pub and restaurant downstairs were packed on that Sunday afternoon yet the rooms upstairs were calm and peaceful. I couldn’t face people yet. I couldn’t face the inevitable question about where in the States did I come from. With twenty years in New Mexico, I’d lost much of my English accent. My wet clothes hung on the radiators and I’d emptied out the backpack, looking for John, my teddy bear, who now sat on the pillow of the king-sized bed under the windows. I stared out on the busy village below before falling asleep. With both parents gone, and a mixture of nightmares, grief, and simply being an adult kid alone in the world, no, I didn’t sleep well.
Blarney Castle is famous for the Stone Of Eloquence. The story isn’t clear, some say the stone came from Scotland and that it was a Coronation Stone, others that it dates back to the Crusades, but these days it’s the gift of the gab that it bestows upon the smoochers that is important. As a writer, it seemed like a good idea, right? I walked through the park that is set around the castle, one full of wilderness, gardens and winding paths. On average, some 300,000 visitors come here but in September I was one of a dozen if that. Admittedly, it was early in the morning as I’d had a simple hotel breakfast and walked over to explore more. I climbed the 127 steps in a narrow stone tower and came up onto an empty parapet. The Blarney Stone is set in the wall below the battlements. To get to it, I had to lean backwards, hold onto the railings, and trusting the guide, who grabbed my hips, fall backwards off the wall. The grass was some ninety feet below and I tried not to faint but to make a wish and kiss the stone. A click of a camera above me caught the moment.
Was this a mid-life crisis? To hit the road alone in my forties? To strap my belongings onto the back of an orange 650 cc motorcycle and ride into an unknown country? Yes, apparently, it is. The Huffington Post described it with an image of a grey-haired woman on a motorbike heading into the horizon. That sounds about right although at the time my hair was still brown and the horizon here was tree-lined while driving south through County Cork. With a map from Viv in the tank bag, I followed the R600 from Kinsale and then onto the smallest most winding roads along the coast. I rode through southern Ireland noting town names, Courtmacsherry, Rosscarberry, Donegal, the Beacon, but talked to no one. My mind was firmly focused on my mum and dad. The roads blurred into a list of numbers, R591, the R592, and back onto R600. Open desolate meadows dropped into the North Sea. The wind slashed across us, the bike and I, as we rode for an hour or so each morning before setting up next to a beach or a stonewall. I’d grab sandwiches and a flask of tea before wandering along rocky shorelines that reminded me of Wales. There I would sit and remember my parents.
After my dad died, Mum and I’d become closer, with my renting a car to take us back to Worms Head Hotel in Rhossilli whenever I was back in the country. We’d stay in the hotel on the peninsula, in a shared room, walking along the beaches, sitting in the hotel pub and staring across the shore towards Ireland. We didn’t talk much, it didn’t come easily, but we relaxed into each other’s company, sharing soft jokes over a coffee in the mornings or a wine in the evenings. We’d neither of us been to Ireland, I don’t know why. Dad and Mum took us in that old Land Rover to France, Spain, and Holland instead. I’d been in Guatemala when Dad died suddenly, and it had taken my brother a few days to locate me and another week for me to get back to the UK. Mum had grabbed me close and held onto me. I’d stayed longer than I’d done for over a decade. Mum and I learnt the rhythms of living together as adults but didn’t talk, not really. We didn’t know how.
Mizen Head, the signal station, the various lighthouses, all those places, as far along the many small narrow peninsulas, that’s where you could find me, alone on a cliff edge. No suicidal urges but an absence of people, of demands, or pity, I needed to surround myself with water. With memories.
As Mum lay in the hospital, in the ICU, plugged into too many machines to count, I held her hand for weeks and talked to her. I reminded her of times we’d been camping in Wales and how we’d leave Dad to carry nearly everything because we couldn’t wait to run to the beaches and how she was just as bad as us kids. Of the beach in Santander, Spain and all those hundreds of steps down to reach it. Of the days on the canal at Gran’s farm learning the names of all the flowers and trees. Running in the fields until the gong called us cousins to dinner. I described my home in Madrid, New Mexico, and the plans for making it into a cottage, a home to be proud of. I’d just finished my first novel and a publisher had written to me about taking me on and so I told Mum. I talked all afternoon long until Pete came after work and took me away. Every day for weeks I sat with Mum. Christmas Day. Boxing Day. New Year’s Day. I emptied myself of all the words I’d held back. Too late? No, she heard me. In that coma, Mum heard me and forgave me. “I know, Sarah, I know you. It’s all right. I know you.”
In Kenmare, I settled in for a few days. Time had been dragging in the sense that each day was full of silence, huge ocean vistas, and quiet evenings alone watching locals chatting in the pubs I’d stay at. I had no words for strangers. On Henry Street though, the main street in Kenmare, I parked the orange bike outside an orange building and wandered off one afternoon. The sun shone, it was a glorious September week and striding downhill towards a church, my heart softened. A one-way narrow road leads the eye to the spire, the grassy hill behind, and a craggier forest beyond that. The buildings were white, yellow, orange, burgundy, the wooden trim all colors and baskets of flowering bright annuals hung from the balconies above. The locals talked to me about the weather, asking about my trip so far, and suggesting that I stay at Foley’s Pub with the rooms above. I responded, chatting happily and easily with them. Along the main street, the Pantry sold organic foods and I stocked up on some quality cheeses, tomatoes, and good picnic food. A bottle of red wine to finish up. (Sorry, Mum, I still don’t like white wine)
After exploring the area on the bike in the mornings, and wandering in and out of the bookstores and galleries in Kenmare, I found a beachside park for a picnic. I spread out the cheeses; the Brie was for my dad and the Gorgonzola for Mum. Toms, cukes, French bread and a glass of wine. The sun shone on us, the photos of my family were held in place with pebbles, and I toasted them. I thanked them for all that they had given me. The love of travel. The courage to explore. The stories. And the love of a good picnic.
Riding back across N5 towards Rosslare a few days later, a heavy incessant rain didn’t deter me. I’d found peace in my grief. A hotel above the ferry terminal offered a room with a television, a bath and not much else but it didn’t matter. I’d spent a week emptying myself of the painful nightmares and found the memories to refill me, to reassure me. I hadn’t been such a terrible daughter after all. I’m very much the child of my parents. The wanderings, the pubs, and telling the stories later on. Yes, thank you both. You would’ve like Ireland. Now though, it was time to go back to my brother’s home. Family matters after all.
Photos via Sarah Leamy