bicontinental families, Bob Seger, Breaking Bad News, Castledawson, Celebrity Theater Phoenix, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Facebook, Fat Man in the Bathtub, global, Graceland, International Herald Tribune, Irish DIASPORA, Late Late Show, Lowell George, Northern Ireland, Ode to MIx Tapes, Rendezvous, Sherman Alexie, Thomas Wolfe, virtual communities, Willin'
Yesterday, I discovered Rendezvous, “a digital meeting place for the globally engaged, hosted by the International Herald Tribune.” As such, Rendezvous is a global tribe seeking “to inspire international discussion and intelligent debate that enlivens the global conversation.” Sounds like the perfect place for members of the Irish diaspora, scattered far and wide across the globe. People like me. While my circumstances were different from my grandparents and so many irish before me, who were obliged to leave home because of famine or poverty, or diminished possibilities and broken promises, I can barely remember a time when I did not harbor a desire to come to America, eager to take what Doris Kearns Goodwin calls that “spectacular risk.” And, although I have now spent almost half my life in these United States, there are still unguarded moments of dislocation that bring a crushing loneliness and a cry for “home.”
Before Skype, it was by telephone that bi-continental families like mine delivered and received the most important news of our lives, from tidings that could not be shared soon enough: “I got the job!” “I’m going to have a baby!” “It’s a girl!” to the shrill ring that will startle a slumbering household too early in the morning or too late at night to be anything good. I distinctly recall such a moment, one September morning before dawn broke in Phoenix. Barely awake, I answered the phone to hear the anguish of a lifelong friend calling out from a village in Wales, “My darling is gone! My darling Kev is gone! Gone!” her husband killed outright in a car accident. Then the phone ringing in the hall of my parent’s Castledawson home, so far away, on a Friday night in November, after The Late Late Show. I can imagine my mother glancing at my father, the two of them held momentarily in a kind of dread, fearing the news that might come about my brother or me.
Like me, my mother can tell by the exhalation of the first syllable of “hello,” if something is wrong, so I had avoided her for a week. Taking advantage of the eight hour time difference, I had made myself unavailable ever since I found the lump. Away from our home phone, I could shop or run for miles or do anything other than talk to my mother about the lumpish thing in my right breast, the MRI, the three-then-four tumors, the core needle biopsies, and the pathology report. Across distance and time, avoidance and denial cleverly converged, with me convincing myself that when it all turned out to be nothing, it would unfold as the kind of melodrama that so effortlessly fills up a long distance phone call with my mother on a Saturday morning.
Waiting for the results of those biopsies was excruciating, and it was lonely. More than anything, I wanted to talk to my mother, my best friend; to drive to Sky Harbor airport and hop on a plane; to go “back home” where it was probably raining or about to rain. Home to endless cups of tea or something a wee bit stronger and well-meaning people who love me and don’t want me to die, all of them waxing poetic about how things could be worse. For the uninitiated, a hallmark of growing up in Northern Ireland is that no matter what befalls you, someone is bound to remind you – and it will be strangely comforting – that there is always some poor soul worse off than yourself. That, and you’re not half thankful enough. But I could not bring myself to call my mother without having something definite to tell her. My mother and I don’t care much for loose ends. We like a tidy ending. Of course, I could tell her about the tumors. But what kind? Benign? Malignant? Wait and see. Treatment? Surgery? Chemotherapy? Radiation? All possible. Wait and see. The Breast Patient Navigator had taken over and was beginning to help me navigate a trek through “wait and see” with a team of people that would also wait and see. Being far away from home made the waiting even worse.
If the news was bad, how would it be broken? How would I break it to my mother, and she so far away? My seventy three year old mother who thought her work was done, the real worrying over, her two children well-raised with children of their own, making their way in the world and causing relatively little trouble. I even found the Regional Guidelines for Breaking Bad News published by the Northern Ireland Department of Health, Social Services, and Public Safety. I confess it had never occurred to me that there were so many steps in breaking bad news. The day before my diagnosis, I finally gave in and told someone from home, because someone from home would know what to say, soft albeit shocked and colloquial, funny even. But not my mother. Not yet.
Thus would begin the trail of over 3,000 Facebook messages with my brother whom I adore. My wee brother, now a man. A husband, a father of three, in the middle of his life on the other side of the ocean and on the opposite end of Ireland from my mother. I knew he would make me laugh, and I knew he would keep a secret. As he has always done.
When Rendezvous asks how we expatriates cope with a death or a health crisis on the other side of the ocean, my response is that it is always with a sense of un-reality, with guilt over things that should never have been said, and with promises that it won’t be too long before a visit home, because you’re a long time dead, and then a rush of communication, words tumbling over words, such as this between my brother and me.
Ostensibly out of the blue, but the day before my diagnosis, I sent a message to him:
November 10, 2011
Not sure when we’ll be in the house exactly; we might take the lads out if the weather is fine, because it gets awfully claustrophobic if we’re cooped up inside all day, but I’ll drop you a line on FB and let you know. Is all okay?
OK … here goes … I found a lump last week. Went to doctor for mammogram. Found two tumors in right breast. Then on Wednesday they found another. Did three biopsies. Find out the results today. Do not tell ma. If you tell her, I will NEVER EVER tell you another thing. EVER.
AND …. I’m pissed off because I’ve been so good at doing the Couch to 5K thing. I was beginning to think I would run in the Belfast Marathon.
Oops. Sorry. i forgot you were at work. I’ll let you go. will keep you posted. Please, please do not breathe a word. Oh God. Now I have visions of you trapped in a cubicle with a demon boss and our Facebook chat minimized on the screen.
“America — it is a fabulous country, the only fabulous country; it is the only place where miracles not only happen, but where they happen all the time.”
Just got up … can’t find specs so don’t know what I’m writing!! Oh … it ranges from being wildly indignant to feeling just plain sorry for myself. Sophie and I have been making irreverent jokes about it, but then Ken got mad at us. So we have to watch what we say, otherwise there will be a sharp outburst of ‘Goddammit-your- mom’s-sick-it’s-not-funny.’ I need to look for my glasses … will chat later
. Oh Jesus — even with your vision fettered by the lack of spectacles, that’s a pretty clear picture of what’s going on!!! I’m sure you’re on a rollercoaster. Mam said you were going to go to work today. Maybe that’s for the best. Hope Sophie is okay too. Drop me a line later if you’re in work and want to skive. Hope that the work environment is not too stressful. That would be the last thing you need … Talk to you later xxxx
Hey you … I am waiting for Sophie to get out of school. Work was a fabulous distraction. I keep thinking I must be making it all up, so I can’t help being very irreverent about it when I am around people who seem to care about me. Ken is scared and doesn’t understand that I’m not really making a joke about it. I am just coping. Seriously, he might explode with a “Give my daughter the shot!!” a la Shirley McClaine in “Terms of Endearment.” Sophie, on the other hand, is darkly funny. Just today, she raised a haughty eyebrow and gave me a knowing look when the lady at the drugstore asked if we would be at all interested in donating a dollar to cancer research. BTW Where the hell did all those pink ribbons come from? Seems I have seen more pink ribbons since last Friday than in my entire life.
Accosted by a nun!?! Oh God, that is so funny – I have a great mental image of you being attacked by a little nun. I never see nuns. Where are they kept in Phoenix, I wonder? As for the pink ribbons. Did I tell you about what Sophie calls “the cancer goodie bag?” After the kindly but somewhat annoying nurse (breast care navigation specialist) gives you the worst news of your life along with just a touch of how prayer might help, she sends you off with the kind of tote bag you get at conferences, filled with brochures, a 10 yr planner, books with pithy titles like ‘Finding the Can in Cancer’
I wonder should I start a blog … with a clever title along the lines of staying abreast of a life that used to be scheduled by me.
In other news, well, it’s not really news, but just to let you know I was thinking of you in a much more positive context earlier on. On the bus. I was looking out at the pissing rain streaming down the window, pleasantly surprised when ‘Main Street’ came up on a shuffled playlist on my iPod. God bless Bob Seger. Do you know what I love about that song? The way he manages to take a multi-syllabic line like “I remember standing on the corner at midnight trying to get my courage up”, and render it thusly: ‘Imema’stannin’thecawnnat’midnite (death-defying pause)T
ryn’ta get mah courage up.’
Fantastic. That’s like a cross between Sinatra and Ernest Hemingway. Genius delivery. Sorry for the diversion. Just reminded me of your old turntable on the floor of your bedroom on the Dublin Road (and our Penny the poodle growing dizzy as she watched the LP revolve to its conclusion). Anyway, “laters”, as ‘the youth’ would say these days. Love xxx
Oh, the forms are laughable …. today I had to fill out one which asked if I’d ever had cancer (other than present) on the same page as “What is your chief complaint/reason for coming to our office today?”
Anyway …. have you ever read anything by Sherman Alexie?? I met him at a book-signing recently after he gave a very funny talk during which he read from War Dances. Anyway, he talks about how cool it was to watch the screening of his Smoke Signals, a very cool little indie film, sitting next to Bruce Springsteen. Can you imagine sitting at the screening of a film based on a book you wrote with The Boss beside you?? Anyway, he wrote a poem about how, like me, he used to make a great mix tape, the way we have done so many times. Here it is:
Ode to Mix Tapes By Sherman Alexie
These days, it’s too easy to make mix tapes.
CD burners, iPods, and iTunes
Have taken the place
Of vinyl and cassette. And, soon
Enough, clever introverts will create
Quicker point-and-click ways to declare
One’s love, lust, friendship, and favor.
But I miss the labor
Of making old school mix tapes– the mid air
Acrobatics of recording one song
At a time. It sometimes took days
To play, choose, pause,
Ponder, record, replay, erase,
And replace. But there was no magic wand.
It was blue-collar work. A great mix tape
Was sculpture designed to seduce
And let the hounds loose.
A great mix tape was a three-chord parade
Led by the first song, something bold and brave,
A heat-seeker like Prince with “Cream,”
Or “Let’s Get It on,” by Marvin Gaye.
The next song was always Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams,”
or something by Hank. But O, the last track
Was the vessel that contained
The most devotion and pain
And made promises that you couldn’t take back.
November 18, 2011
In retrospect and in response to the question posed by Rendezvous, it was this Facebook chat with my brother over the course of ten days that kept much of the fear at bay. During the scariest time of my life, I was fed by these tiny snippets of humor and nostalgia and sorrow and fear traveling at lightening speed from one continent to another. Connected in an ephemeral, electric silence but with nothing to hold on to, grown children far away from their mother, vulnerable once more, seeking shelter from the storm and long distance love.
. . which takes me back to the summer of 1988 when my
brother came to see me in Phoenix.
That visit coincided with one of the many reunions of my favorite band, Little Feat, then riding a comeback wave, unimaginably without the growl of the late Lowell George and his mean slide guitar, but still with the inimitable Bill Payne on keyboard.
At the time, I had all Little Feat’s albums. I loved the cover art which was as funky as their music.
In the same way that it was important for me to stand on the actual corner of Winslow, Arizona – not necessarily a fine sight to see – I have also driven from Tucson to Tucumcare and Tehachape to Tonopah – because Little Feat sang about these places in Willin’. While they turned out not to be dream holiday destinations, nor did I see Dallas Alice in every headlight, I heard Billy Payne’s grace notes on the piano and Lowell George singing about her every mile that we covered. In this vein, what was I thinking when I visited Memphis? Inexplicably, I visited Graceland and was down in the jungle room, but I forgot to make it to the lobby of the Commodore Hotel where I like to think I would indeed have asked the bartender for a light, even though I don’t smoke, immediately cueing everyone at the bar to start humming, “If you’ll be my Dixie Chicken.”
Anyway, that summer night in Phoenix, twenty-five years ago, t
he lead singer of the Pure Prairie League, Craig Fuller, would take the place of Lowell George. I remember sitting in the Celebrity Theater with my brother, wondering if Fuller could possibly pull it off, and when the band opened with “Fat Man in the Bathtub,” the crowd rose to its feet, and we knew we were in for a funky musical feast that I think would have made Lowell George happy.
From a long distance.