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It is a confession of sorts. I do not want to write about being diagnosed with cancer, living with cancer, or expecting to die from cancer.  In the beginning, cancer hung from every sentence, anchoring me down to an unfamiliar place, where one could easily get lost, were it not for the kindness of strangers. Like Rhonda, not a stranger to me, but a colleague who had never met my husband and made a point of finding him in the hospital waiting room where she waited with him for part of those eight hours I spent undergoing a mastectomy and reconstruction. Like Ken Kaminesky, a photographer I had never heard of until I needed a certain photograph. When I had finally settled on the most obvious title for my blog, I began an interminable internet search for a picture of the field of lilies which would serve as a daily reminder for me and anyone else who might stop by, to consider them.

Trees growing in a field of lillies of the valleyEventually, I landed on Ken’s breathtaking photograph of a field of unopened lilies at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, Ontario. It was perfect. I sent an email to this complete stranger, told him about the cancer and how it was forcing me to consider the lilies just like my mother had told me to so many times when I was a little girl. I asked him how much to buy the print or a license to use it. Within minutes, he had cropped the coveted photograph to the best dimensions for a WordPress blog and sent it to me with best wishes for a speedy recovery.

NG_HU_COV1Now I may never meet Ken Kaminesky, the kindly photographer who also has National Geographic cover to his credit, but I think about him every time I open up my blog and take in that expansive field of lilies that will remain forever green.

Mr. Jones, my favorite English teacher at Antrim Grammar School, would be pleased to know I finally understand what John Keats was on about when he wrote about those lovers painted on his imaginary Grecian Urn:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Then something happened. It was perhaps three months after the surgery, and a woman a little like the one I used to be showed up, the one reluctant to accept “no” as an answer when a clear-eyed “yes” made more sense. One morning, without telling anyone or looking over her shoulder, she simply deleted “since cancer came calling” from the title of the blog. The lilies remained. Nobody noticed or minded, and ever since, I have ruminated freely, randomly, nostalgically on all manner of stuff – immigration, education, the north-eastern corner of my home country and its people, their language and poetry, Van Morrison, Seamus Heaney, Edna O’Brien, America, the idea of America and, therefore, Bruce Springsteen, childhood, adulthood, middle-of-life-hood, motherhood, fatherhood, the contents of my wallet, favorite flowers, my mother’s recipes, the weather, famous people who have no idea who I am but I am convinced they would like to go for coffee with me, my daughter’s hands, my long-gone grandparents. For all the world to see, I have mused on whether or not I am woman enough, mother enough, educator enough, simply enough. The cancer is still there, and inarguably has changed the color of this life I am living, but it is not the clasp that secures the delicate chain. That is something else entirely.

Facing the half-century mark, my thoughts increasingly turn “back home,” sometimes to the very things that sent me away, the rain and the low-hanging clouds and the sheer lack of anonymity. Sometimes, I have to remind myself of the diminished possibilities and broken promises that, in fact, drove me and so many like me, into exile, a part of the Irish Diaspora. This morning, I thought of George Moore’s Home Sickness,” the tale of an Irish immigrant, James Bryden, who works in the Bowery in early twentieth century New York. When he falls ill, his doctor recommends a sea voyage, so Bryden decides to see Ireland again, an Ireland he has since romanticized. Thus, when he returns and encounters again the harsh realities facing the peasants in his village, his disillusionment with Ireland is replaced with a yearning for the America he has left behind. The slum in the Bowery now transformed in his memory, he wholly rejects the prospect of spending his life in Ireland with Margaret, a woman whose memory will return to him many years later when he is old, back in the Bowery, with a wife and family:

There is an unchanging, silent life within every man that none knows but himself and his unchanging silent life was his memory of Margaret Dirken. The bar-room was forgotten and all that concerned it and the things he saw most clearly were the green hillside, and the bog lake and the rushes about it, and the greater lake in the distance, and behind it the blue line of wandering hills.

On the surface, it is the simple story of a malcontent for whom the grass is invariably and always greener on the other side. But I suspect a similar tension lurks in the heart of every Irish immigrant, and with age, grows a desire to hold on to home or some pleasant version of it, yet from a distance.

This blog was never supposed to be about my identity. Fueled by good intentions and my personal experience, it was supposed to be singularly about breast cancer, a place to advocate for others affected by the disease, where I would stay on top of the topic of cancer. I had presumed I might be instrumental in forcing a change in the national conversation about it by chronicling the injustices and indignities that simmer in its culture, if only half as well as so many women who have pulled me up more times than they will ever know. How they write! Boldly, audaciously, and tenaciously, some daily, they stay on point even when they claim to have run out of words – the Accidental Amazon, Nancy and her Point, the Pink Underbelly, Marie and the global cast of women whose blogs she rounds up every Friday at Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer, and the women and men who show up every Monday at 9pm ET at the #BCSM, Tweetchat, “ the intersection of breast cancer and all things social media,” where truths are conveyed at lightning speed in 140 characters or less.

I had hoped to catch the right words about breast cancer and save them in a jam-jar with holes poked in the lid, ready to release them whenever they were needed. But I am not up for the task that requires a commitment as mammoth as the hulking oppressor that is breast cancer itself.

I used to write that it was breast cancer that had banished me to a strange land, thereby demanding a new level of boldness and bravery; that it had forced me into a kind of exile. That was true, but so too – and more important to me now – is this matter of my self as a voluntary exile in a global community that is smaller and more accessible to those who left Ireland as well as those who stayed. I understand the duality Joseph O’Connor describes in the introduction to Ireland in Exile: Irish writers abroad.

In the end, I suppose it is just a blog about being home.

You might be coming home for Christmas, or a family celebration, or a funeral, or to see a friend. Or you might just be coming back to Ireland because you’re so lonely and freaked-out where you are that you can’t stick it any more, and you need a break, and you’d sell your Granny to be back in the pub at home by nine o’clock on a Friday night, having fun and telling stories.

And there it is, this IDA poster, illuminated at the end of the corridoor that leads from the airbridge gates to the arrivals terminal; the ghostly faces of those beautiful Young Europeans. It always seems poignant as any ancient Ulster saga to me, this pantheon of departed heroes, so hopeful and innocent, frozen in their brief moment of optimism.

And you meet your friends the night you get home, the people who stayed behind. You talk to them of what’s happening and there’s loads of news. Some of them are getting married to people you haven’t even met, because you don’t live in Ireland anymore. Some have broken up with long-time lovers, others are still trying to get decent work. Some of them have kids you’ ve never seen. You don’t really know what these scandals and gobbets of gossip are, about which people are laughing so knowledgeably as they sip their pints, but you laugh too, because you don’t want to be left out. You pretend you know what your friends are talking about, because you still want to belong, And sometimes there are rows, as the night wears on, because you don’t keep in touch as much as you should, and they resent you a bit for going anyway, and you resent them a bit for staying, although you can’t put your finger on why. But the conversation flows, as much as it can, with a couple of awkward moments. When you use the words “home” or “at home”, for instance, your friends don’t really know what you mean. Sometimes you don’t know yourself.

…  Then, about half an hour before closing time, you find yourself looking around the pub and becoming frantically uptight. You’re feeling completely out of place, you don’t know why. It’s weird. You don’t get it. But somehow, despite the ceol and the caint and the craic, something is wrong. You’re home in Ireland, but you’re not home really. London is still in your head, on New York, or Paris. But you’re in IrelandHow did this happen? It’s not that you’re unhappy exactly. But it’s just not right. You take a swig of your drink, and the music seems louder. You close your eyes and try to fight back the almost overwhelming urge to be somewhere – anywhere – else. And you realize in that moment that you really are an emigrant now. And that being an emigrant isn’t just an address. You realise that it’s actually a way of thinking about Ireland.


DIASPORA from Barbara on Vimeo.