My mother kept me on the straight and narrow and me auldfella did his best to set me astray. Mam was always my moral compass. Dad was … well I’m not sure he was but his morals were often a little sketchy despite his best intentions and I don’t think even my mother would have wanted me to follow his direction at times.
My da was a bit of a rogue. He was far too clever for the mundanity of his daily work and it showed in the stuff he got up to. I never truly got to know him the way a son should and that makes me a little sad. He died way too early, much like my mother and I think it’s often only later in life that one comes to appreciate one’s parents. He’d have never said “One” so he’s probably turning in his grave.
Englebert Humperdink, Errol Flynn, polar bears and pirates.. and that’s just the half of it…
Having gone through another slice and dice interaction with my friendly local surgeon, I have spent the past week enduring the challenges that naturally follow. They joy of simply breaking wind without bursting stitches is one memory I will hold with me in particular.
Now those of you who know me, know I have had a chequered history with medical procedures and I have given plenty of blow by blow detail in the past. So, this time I thought, rather than give you all the gory details, I might take a different approach. You see, I was examining my wounds as my dressings were being changed and I saw, as I would, an opportunity to perhaps reinvent how these scars came about, with particular consideration to any grandchildren that I may someday be blessed with in the future.
With that in mind, I am going to tell you the ‘true’ story of how my fabulous body was scarred as a result of a particular adventure that I went on many years ago. This is what I will tell the grand kids when they ask about my scars. So, let’s begin with this one off to the side, the nasty raw looking one that’s killing me.
Now I can’t remember the year exactly, but it was a long time ago now and I was given the opportunity to work with the Arctic Restoration and Scientific Evaluation group (A.R.S.E.), an environmental group working to restore the Arctic to its pre-polluted state. For those unfamiliar with the organisation, one of their early technical research projects helped Inuit groups fish more efficiently, using a machine powered by the sun which drills multiple holes in the ice at once, so they could fish on a more sustainable level. The locals called them A.R.S.E. holes, or at least I think they were referring to the ice holes when they shouted this over to us.
Following on from the success of that project, Dr Herman von Tinklebaum, came up with an innovative prototype for an ice transport system using tennis balls, chewing gum and ladies tights, to haul almost anything through the roughest of ice fields. That’s where I came in. It was my job to deliver half a million tennis balls across the vast snowy north in a line of giant baskets hauled by my husky pack.
Alone in the empty wasteland, my husky companions tucked up for the night, I decided to have a tinkle behind one of the largest baskets, when a low snort alerted me to the fact that I was being observed from behind by a rather hungry looking polar bear. Before I had a chance to escape, he came thundering toward me, with only one thing on his mind. I was to be dinner. With no where to run and no weapon to protect myself, I dived headlong into the massive basket of tennis balls, a mere second ahead of the giant bear. He dived in straight after me, thrashing about desperate to eat me for dinner.
When he stood up, I was in his mouth and he shook me from side to side like a seal pup. But something was wrong and he was confused. In his eagerness to gobble me up, he had opened his mouth extra wide before snapping down on me. Fortunately for me, in addition to my cold body, his mouth collected at least 40 tennis balls – which stuck to all of his teeth but one big incisor to the front. That one pieced my side, and gave me the scar I am looking at as I type. The tennis balls saved me and in his moment of confusion, I had to act fast. I don’t know what made me try it, but I was desperate. I grabbed a tennis ball and waved it in front of his face. He was mesmerized and couldn’t take his eyes off it. Like a puppy, he wanted the ball so I threw it over his head. He dropped me like a hot stone and went chasing after the bouncing yellow ball, his new fixation.
Now I know what you’re thinking… lucky escape. But no. His attack had loosened the pack ice beneath me and as I sat there feeling my bloody side and thinking how lucky I had indeed been, the Ice broke away, and drifted southwards off to sea. I spent many months drifting along, surviving on water from the ever-melting mini-iceberg and catching dog fish with my tennis balls to eat. Just when I thought I was never going to be able to eat another dog fish, I awoke one morning to find myself stranded on a beach on a tropical island where I later learned, the MmmBalaWala tribe ruled. The largest scar on my belly comes from my first encounter with a man called Umfeffibollongo (meaning – smart arse), the tribal leader. They found me on the beach with no visible means of transport because my Iceberg had melted in the tropical sun and to them, it was as though I had appeared from space. Umfeffibollongo poked me hard in the belly, driving the spear into my belly button and shouting “MMMBALAWALA.” I later discovered that this tribal name actually meant “MMM, man food.” They were a very literal people.
Sinking to my knees, convinced I had met my end, I looked up to see what looked like a crude tribal tattoo of a face on his calf, that looked very much like Englebert Humperdink. It couldn’t be I thought, but desperate once more to stay alive I would try anything. Facing certain death, I started to sing.
“Please release me, let me go.” I began “For I don’t love you anymore.”
Astoundingly and to a man, the warriors dropped to their knees in praise.
“To waste our lives would be a sin…” and so on to the end of the song, at which point they carried me triumphantly on their shoulders back to the village and not just fixed up my wounds, but bestowed me with many gifts from their collection of things washed up on shore. This included a toilet brush which I still use and treasure to this day, a kettle, a magnifying glass and three packets of pop rock. Now in the interest of keeping it brief, it transpired that a missionary had landed on the island 20 years before. He was promptly eaten but left behind a windup gramophone and an album of Engelbert Humperdinck’s greatest hits. Having never heard music before, the tribe fell in love with the album and treasured it ever since, playing it once a year but only on their annual feast day as it was so special.
I spend three months there, playing every Friday and Saturday at the big Tikki hut or as it later became known the Tikki club, until they agreed (with great sadness) to set me free in their finest canoe with an old pirate cutlass to cut open the coconuts, a supply of coconuts, mangoes, water and dried fish for my journey. In return I promised to get them some other albums.
The cutlass it transpired turned out to be a life saver, as after only a week at sea, I was attacked from below by a very feisty swordfish who I promptly christened Errol Flynn. He sneak-attacked my canoe, driving his sword into my side through the bottom of the boat, (that’s another scar) whereupon I leapt to my feet, grabbed my cutlass and dueled him all through the night. It was a swordfight like no other, me frantically fending off a 400pound swordfish with a cutlass in one hand, while bailing out the boat with the other and at the end we were both exhausted, neither willing to give up until we simply had no fight left in either of us.
My little canoe finally sunk beneath the waves and I was sure I was doomed. However, such was the respect that had built up between Errol and I, he decided to help me and allowed me to cling to his fin as we bobbled along on the waves. It was with great relief that a passing old sailing ship spotted me in the water and hauled me aboard.
Relieved to be out of the water, it was too late when I noticed the Jolly Roger flying high above me. When the captain stood above me and offered me his hook to help me to my feet, I knew I was in trouble. His name was Greenbeard, a name given to him due to a peroxide hair-dying accident with his once ginger beard, and he wore a patch over his left eye. He explained that he had been diagnosed with lazy eye and was trying to get his bad eye to work better in accordance with doctor’s advice. Besides, he liked the look and he was after all, a pirate.
Seeing my toilet brush tucked into my belt, Greenbeard immediately took a shine to it and demanded I hand it over. Apparently, it was just the thing they needed. Life on board a pirate ship filled with an all-male crew eating biscuits, fish and beans, and drinking way too much rum, had apparently left their portaloo in a terrible state.
When I refused, he immediately challenged me to a duel, but being a pirate, he cheated. Before we started he told me, we had to shake hands. I reached out and took his hand, only to find he gut-hooked me with his rusty hook while we shook….
Now there is more, or I should say, there will be for my grand chiddlers to enjoy some day, and that very toilet brush will be in the bathroom with its own tales to tell, along with the coasters I took from the captain’s cabin later in that same day, oh… and a pencil that went to the moon with Neil Armstrong, – but that’s another story.
And thanks for stopping by… I’m on the mend thankfully, hoping to do something meaningful with my life one of these days, now talk to you later, I have to take my meds and get some much needed rest…
While you are here, please check out the links to my writing below:
Be grateful for the struggle – in there we find our strength.
They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but ‘they’ don’t speak for everyone. In my own case, I have gained much from the worst that life has thrown at me but I don’t believe everyone has the same experience. Often what doesn’t kill you, leaves you mortally wounded.
While I say that I have gained much from that which should have crushed my spirit, there have been times in my life where I have indeed felt broken. Grief was something I struggled with and if I am honest, I handled it badly for many years. In some ways I was lucky to come out the other side.
What that difference is, that thing that makes you or breaks you, is not something I can put my finger on with any fact-based analysis, I can only speculate based on observation. Who you have in your life, that person or people that you can depend on and lean on, is without doubt a key factor? But it’s never just that. One’s own personality is a big element. It certainly was in my case but I won’t call it inner strength, for in those few bad times in my life where things were running away from me, I know I was running on empty. There was nothing strong in my survival. Circumstance and timing, experience and mental muscle memory, there are so many things that are needed to push people through a crisis. What may be minor can turn to tragedy with little more than a nudge. At some point in our lives, we all stand on the edge of a precipice, a step away from disaster.
I believe myself to be fortunate. The many trials I have encountered in life are no more than others, far less I know to be the truth, yet I have indeed encountered challenges that could have broken me irreparably, were it not for that thing I cannot pin down. We each are gifted with a personality at birth, one that gets something spilled on it every now and then, leaving a fresh stain to taint the innocence behind the eyes that first opened to the world as babies. I came with a dark streak of melancholy and I often wonder if on the day I first opened my eyes and looked out upon the world, if through the haze and confusion of birth, my first thought was perhaps a sad one.
That my journey through life is good now, is almost an irrelevance when sadness comes to join me on my walk. Fortunately, I am calmer now than in my youth and having melancholy as my companion is something I have learned to get used to, not something to fear. For many, some of the challenges that come along can be overwhelming. It might be financial burdens, family worries or deeply personal emotional challenges that can overwhelm the strongest of people. We cannot always rely on what we perceive to be strength, when overpowered by grief or other stronger forces.
In the heat of despair there is nothing to drink sometimes and a parched soul can wither. It is all to easy to offer platitudes in such circumstances. Even the most empathetic can feel like they don’t understand you, for it is had to reveal whatever your full secret of despair might be, to even the closest of friends and as such impossible for them to understand. It’s not their fault, nor is it ours. Such is the human condition.
Sometimes we simply break. That feeling, is not a thing to speak lightly of, nor to diminish by saying everything will be fine. We cannot always imagine the light when all we see is darkness. Blundering around unable to see anything in the abyss, light can be unimaginable for some.
These days I think it may be even harder for younger generations. Whenever I have struggled in life, I had a scaffold built through my experiences as a child, to help keep me up. That I had to find toughness even though I had such a soft heart as a little boy, is my own very personal tragedy, but in my own way I was empowered by anguish for much that was to follow, by all that had preceded my transformation from boy to man. What I lost as a boy bolstered me as a man. While I hardly recommend such a training, for such a troubled early life is in of itself a contributory factor to much of my failings in later life, I do know I was at least in some way prepared.
The challenges that young men and women today face, come on the back of a lie in many cases. The lie that you are special, that you are great, that you are a prince or princess without compare is the lie that grows like a giant if not tempered with the truth. We should all be empowered as children to believe in ourselves, but not to believe in ourselves as entitled nor through intuition, righteous.
Humility over hubris, generosity before greed, strength through tenderness, there are things that only experience can teach and then there are things we need to teach our children. The notion that it takes a village to raise a child is very true but can sometimes manifest as our human desire to fit in, to be like everyone else. Being yourself can be hard in such circumstances. Making mistakes can seem like the worst thing you can do and it can crush the spirit of those who feel they can never do right. But failing is nothing more than learning and we need to be thought this and reminded of it constantly, for the human spirit is fragile at times.
Fundamental to surviving the worst of ourselves, is an ability to find a way to avoid the abyss, when it lies before us. We should teach our children well through considered, meaningful dialogue. Without the arsenal of thought and a desire to understand, we as a species are little more than a herd of animals, destined to follow each other off the nearest cliff. Nothing we do is pointless unless we choose to believe that we cannot succeed. Learning to fail with aplomb teaches us to understand the joy of success, the happiness beyond the sorrow, the true meaning of life.
When we throw an imagined blanket of invincibility over our children, we delay their ability to build character and grow through real learning. We are challenged, we are error strewn and we are limited. The challenges we face need to be worked through to gain strength, the mistakes we make teach us lessons, and our limitations show us how we can get better, improve and grow.
Children need love and guidance. We can be there when they fall, but fall they must. We must all walk our own path through life. We all fall at some point, but sometimes; we must get up alone. We save ourselves. My boy-self became a man not through someone holding my hand, but not without it either. It is good to feel the security of another holding you up, but sometimes we must let go and this most important lesson should begin early in life.
I guess I am grateful all too late in life. Being blind when you’ve never seen, means that you don’t truly know what you’ve missed. The older I get, the more I depend on glasses, but the easier I find it to see. Maybe wisdom really does come with age or maybe I’m a slow learner. Whatever comes my way, what the next trial may be, I hope I have learned if not completely, but at least enough, to face it with sufficient strength to get through it and carry on. May it be the same for you. Let me finish with a quote from a far more eloquent Irish writer…
“A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.” – G.B. Shaw.
While you are here, please check out the links to my writing below:
The day got off to a bad start, only to get worse. To be fair my Doctor gave me no solace and his vagueness of diagnosis, left me wondering what the point of him was. Eventually he referred me to A & E, where I went and will continue the events of that first day in hospital, with a story about a South African doctor with the weirdest bedside manner ever. Trust me, while it was no fun for me, if you are of a fan of the unpleasant, you’ll enjoy this I’m sure.
In triage, a very positive nurse from the Philippines told me a bit about himself, before engaging me with intelligent, useful questions, the type my Doctor should have asked, while he took my blood pressure, did an E.C.G., took my temperature etc.. He then handed me over to a rather large, young, junior Doctor from South Africa. He had the look of a man that played at Number 8 for some pain-hungry, all blonde, all enormous, rugby team in the Transvaal. The type of guy you’d be weary of taking a lift from on a dusty African back road, for fear your remains would never be found. On the one hand, he was probably handsome beneath his PPE, all blue eyed, tanned with a quiff of blonde hair, but on the other hand there was an air of serial killer about him. Maybe I was reading into it way too much for a first meeting. I am a people watcher, but I do tend to over analyse. It’s the writer in me.
He was the first Doctor I encountered in the hospital, tasked with unravelling what turned out to be a complicated mystery with a twist or two along the way. But that’s the medical stuff. That’s the boring stuff. At that moment I was in excruciating pain, I was there, hoping for a resolution. and there he was, a man with the eyes of a serial killer, examining me. He said little but stared at me intently. He poked and prodded me, asking the occasional question. Just when I thought he was done he said something which at first seemed odd, perhaps because of his Springbok bluntness, but more by his insistence on repeating the strangely phrased statement.
Quite simply he said “next I’m going to send you for an X Ray … and then I’m going to stick my finger up your bum.” An Irish doctor would never put it like that surely and I wasn’t having any actual problems in that department specifically. But then he repeated it, still holding me in the same intense blue-eyed, I’m going to tackle you into touch and try to break a bone while I do it type of stare.
“An X ray … and I’m going to stick my finger – up – your bum.” Now what made this worse was, he showed me the aforementioned, offending, rather large and bony, standard South African back-rower’s middle finger. As if that wasn’t enough, he actually raised it up in a literal ‘up’ movement in time to what he said. And then he left the examination room for a minute. It was only when he returned, that I noticed there was a rack of disposable gloves on the wall which had four separate dispensers; small, medium, large and extra large. You guessing? Yep- extra large.
Now for the sake of not corrupting my readers, I shall draw a curtain around what happened next, much like he did before performing the procedure. He sent me on my way, telling me to follow the footsteps on the floor to find X-Ray. I didn’t see him again and you know, looking back, I really hope he actually works there now. But that wasn’t the half of it. I was poked, prodded, pinched, injected, had lots of bodily fluids tested and then the fun started.
There was a problem you see. Apparently they discovered multiple issues. They were pulmonary and gastric in nature and their exact locations were so close to each other, that it was giving double positives for every test. Team after team had a go. They said my body was a magical mystery. I told them that’s how I managed to marry such a beautiful woman. No one laughed. I normally laugh at my own jokes, but frankly even I was too sick to be bothered.
Eventually it all became a little more serious, when they discovered a surprise package in the collection of problems I had brought to them that day, and this one was life threatening. Everything changed at that point and they immediately began my treatment in the emergency department while they set about looking for a bed for me. Oh my Lord what a kerfuffle. It was one crazy ER day and beds were like hens teeth. Eventually at 11 pm, I found myself sitting in a ward with what looked like the cast of Thriller. I know I’m no spring chicken but holy God! By the time I was hooked up to IV’s and tucked up in bed, it was midnight and the old man snoring and farting fest began. It was like living at the edge of a swamp in toad mating season. One guy actually started barking in his sleep. I was like “seriously, you put me here!”
But then, the piece de resistance. At 4 am and forgive the language but I shit you not, auld Johnny, a deaf old coot with dementia, broke out into song, but not just any song. Oh no! He sang a collection of familiar, Irish, miserapauling ballads, to make you feel worse than you already might have felt, when you were transported to Van Diemen’s Land or wherever you were sent back in 1798. One after the other, an 82 year old, deaf, dementia sufferer, giving it socks in the night. There was ‘Where only the rivers run free’ and ‘Peggy Gordon’ and the hits kept coming. He only stopped to pick a fight with the nurses. A part of me smiled, but the sick, in pain me, wondered if I’d have the strength to hold a pillow down over his face long enough to shut the fecker up if not actually put him and the rest of us out of our misery.!
The morning was a long, sleepless time coming but with morning came the hope of clarity. I did manage to nod off between 5 and 5.30 but I must have bent my elbow because it set off an alarm on my IV monitor. The nurse had briefly mentioned that it happens and if it did I just needed to press the green button to restart. What she didn’t consider was how wrecked I’d be, and startled in my exhaustion, I pressed everything until it stopped. But then there was the problem of how to start it again. Me being me, I switched it off and on again until it asked me for dosage and time. There was what looked a default option or two and I rolled the dice. It started, I’m not dead so whatever I did worked – piece of cake. Any normal person would have called the nurse.
In another bout of engineering (with a very small e) genius ( with a very big head) a coupe of days later I fixed my bed whose electronic control were only partially working. So bored I was at that stage, that rather than wait for some hospital repair guy to appear ‘eventually’ I used the power of google to find the technical manual on line and troubleshoot the issue. It took me half an hour sitting in a chair with my iPhone, to eventually reset the bed’s controls. if only they knew what I was up to.
Early on the second morning the real fun started. Three of my neighbours were definitely not firing on all cylinders and at least two of them were stone deaf. Now adding to the mix is the fact that we have a lot of very fine Indian nurses working in Ireland. The challenge this presented was their use of vocabulary and their slightly different pronunciation, which while excellent for your average patient like me, caused mayhem with the bunch of old, deaf, bewildered Dubliners around me. To add to the confusion, old men with thick Dublin accents using slang with every second word, can be a challenge for someone from outside of Dublin, let alone from somewhere like India where they use much more correct form English wording. Perhaps a demonstration might help.
The ward sister who happened to be from India, came in and said :Good morning John” to one guy. A different man answered and said “God I forgot where I was, I thought you were my daughter.” The nurse said “Good morning” to him and a totally different man who thought she was speaking to him but didn’t hear her correctly said .. “sorry?” Caught off guard she replied “What?” and he came back with .. “you said you got something for me?” Confused she clarified “No, I said good morning.” And then the original guy answered her “Morning”. FFS! The whole day was like that. There was always some misunderstanding or other, so that there always appeared to be two people having two totally separate conversations at all times. It kept me entertained at least.
Before the next morning had a chance to find itself, the same ward sister was challenged with, “ What’s wrong with my tongue?” as she checked on one of her patients. She gently explained that the doctor would talk to him in the morning when it was time for their rounds. It was My singing friend Johnnie, no doubt a bit of a bully at home, a man brimming with the chauvinism of his time, and not happy being dependent on this strange woman. He didn’t like what he heard one little bit. He had mis-heard her. “In their own time!” I thought to myself ‘Oh God here we go’ and I wasn’t wrong. That little battle lasted a good fifteen minutes as Johnnie was demanding to get an answer to a question, he decided he could win on. ” Is it right that they should see me when it suits them and I cant see them when it suits me…is it?” Trying to explain that the doctors would visit him on their rounds as they did every morning at 7.30, just an hour away, didn’t placate him. She had the patience of a saint.
The catering staff come around every day and took meal orders for the next day, They asked Johnnie if he would like Lamb or Gamon? Again the hearing issue kicked in. “Salmon?” he queried. “No – Gamon, Lamb or GAMON,” It was repeated slow and loud so he could hear. Johnnie again goes, “Salmon?” Patiently the rather experienced woman slowed it down and toned it up even more. “Not Salmon John, it’s GAMON.” She spelled it out for him literally. “G.A.M.O.N. GAMON. you have a choice of LAMB OR GAMON.” John looked at her. He had the look of a man thinking hard and then decided. ” Grand so, I’ll have the salad.”
When she came to me I told her I’d have the salad too and she told me I’d get a salad over the head if I wasn’t careful. Aaah Dublin wit, you can’t beat it. Speaking of which, Dublin hospital porters are a breed onto their own. They never shut up. One lady took me to get an ultrasound and on the way I got her life story, She managed to squeeze in her family structure, she had three sisters and one brother, her father was dead and her mother was in a home with Alzheimer’s – the home didn’t have Alzheimer’s – just the mother ( her words not mine). I got the full run down on how that effected them during the lockdown and discovered which sister was the ‘awkward one’ which one was the emotional one etc. I got to learn where she drank, how many pints she managed to get in during the period where the pubs were open for a while but where, due to restrictions, you could only stay for a set time. I know what she had to eat and where she lived. I wouldn’t mind but it isn’t a big hospital, it was only a short walk! On the way back up to the ward, she stopped my wheelchair and had a gossip not once, but twice, with other members of staff, She cracked me up.
On another trip (I want say to which test for fear of identifying the persons concerned.) The porter told me that the person running that department was an arsehole, To be fair I agreed as I had the privilege of listening to her as I sat invisible In my wheelchair outside, while she single handled, treated everyone like sh*t (staff that is) and even as a patient I could see how things were falling apart around her through lack of management skill. But anyway the chatty porter told me she had reported him for being insubordinate and not having enough respect for her. I asked him what happened and he told me that he told the disciplinary committee that she needed a good ride. ” That actually got me in even more trouble” he said, and I wasn’t surprised he had been reprimanded. He was camp as Christmas and very funny, but clearly need to reign his mouth in.
I escaped the clutches of whatever was after me and was released from hospital late on Wednesday evening thank God, but I took a lot away with me. Again, I was reminded of the preciousness and precariousness of life, the importance of living while we can. I recognised how calm I had become in old age in the face of adversity, and how I took even the darkest situation to be something that having survived it, I should be grateful for, more than anything else. I was also reminded that I watch people and I think that helps me with characterisation for my books. There is always something to take away from every experience in life.
Being a melancholy man at the best of times, the solitude of hospital never sits well with me. In COVID times, there is the added Burdon of not having visitors to shape our day. But my visit to hospital this time was thankfully short. Recuperating at home now, I have time to get my strength back and look forward to how best use whatever extra time my most recent narrow escape has given me. So now if you’ll excuse me, I have another book to finish…
Haven’t read a Max Power Book yet? I think it’s time to pick one up. Max Power’s books include ; Darkly Wood II The woman who never wore shoes, Larry Flynn, Bad Blood and Little Big Boy. Here are the universal booklinks and associated sites where you can find out more about Max Power’s writing and his current and planned releases Books;
When we consider our own mortality, many are drawn off the path of reality by romanticism, history, pathos, self-indulgence, vanity or hubris. Death is not something we see for what it is. It’s not hard to see why. We fail to take cognisance of some of the harsher aspects to our demise, and for good reason. No one wants to look such a creature in the eye. Yet I doubt we will ever be closer to ourselves than in those final moments. To quote a line from my Darkly Wood, “death is such an intimate thing”.
Loss is a troublesome weight. It knocks you over with the force of a double decker bus and lingers as grief while you struggle to recover. No one person feels the same. I know I struggled with grieving in my younger days and it left scars that were unexpected. The consequences were significant and it was only in hindsight that I can see how it laid waste to my spirit for such a long time.
Although I came through it, I was oblivious to the havoc caused until I had learned to cope, but by then of course the damage was done. Through those experiences, I still chose to avoid the subject of death, or at least I chose not to analyse the prospect of my own demise with any honest introspection. But then of course death came to my door, and surprised me with its kiss. I have felt its caress and though it seems like an age gone now, it has had an impact on me, left its mark indelible and true, and it has undoubtedly changed me.
There is discomfort, disquiet and dilemma when it comes to the very darkest of words. As a student I was drawn to John Donne’s Death Be Not Proud, and to this day I can recite it by heart. It was perhaps my youth that drew me to it, my belief, that special thing of youth that can make us feel invincible, untouchable almost.
It is that very word that is maligned, avoided, diluted where possible, as if in admitting its existence we will fall to its graces. We do it without noticing. He passed away – the departed – the priest on the pulpit who says we lost a good woman – the condolence of, I am sorry for your loss. The language around death, fails to adequately prepare those closest to those at its doorstep, for the moment when it will come.
When someone is terminally ill, we hear people talk of the illness and not the result. When asked, a person is more likely to explain that the person in question has cancer rather than say, he’s dying. I have heard it so many times, people avoiding the D word in all sorts of ways. She is in intensive care, sure he has not long to go, it won’t be long now, the doctor’s don’t hold out much hope.
To say he or she is dying is almost impossible, yet it is a term that we should perhaps be thought to understand, respect and bring back to life. Maybe it is the fear of getting it wrong, for it is such a final word. But you know, there are times when it is such an inevitable thing that it is quite simply the whole truth.
I died. It was a brief and fleeting thing I know and had someone referred to me afterwards in CCU as dying, it would of course have been inaccurate for I came through it in the end. But there are circumstances when there is no getting away from it.
Where am I going with this? I guess I am trying to square that circle of death and grief. My grief was extended through a failure to come to terms with what had happened to my mother for example. Her passing – her death- was sudden, sharp and devastating. It was literally life changing for a young man like me. I had lost my father- he died – just 2 short years before my Mam but he went through a prolonged and in truth more difficult slow march to his end, suffering as he did with lung cancer. Dying because of it. By the time my brother passed ( you see how easy it is to avoid the word) way too young at 53, I had at least begun to understand some of how loss was impacting my spirit. But it was the avoidance, the conflict of knowing the truth and trying to dodge the sharpest edge of the pain, that perhaps meant I inflicted unnecessary suffering on my soul.
Death, dying dead. They are words to embrace before they fall in our lap. People die. It is the harshest truth of all. I think we handle it quite well in Ireland and still we fall short. We celebrate the life of our dear departed, and I have been to many a fine wake in my lifetime, but still we miss the moment sometimes.
How hard it must be for a doctor to pass the news that a loved one had died – to use the word. I remember when my mother died, that a young policeman and woman had to be present for me to identify her as she lay still and unfamiliar in her hospital bed. I doubt I will see such discomfort again and still neither of them used the dreaded D word.
Perhaps I am wrong. It is avoided for good reason maybe, but by avoiding it through many years of grief, long since passed I am pleased to say, I became an expert at such deceit and I did myself a disservice.
I will leave you with my memory of my own dying moments and while perhaps they come from my naturally melancholy soul, they can be taken for what they are at face value, or one can read more into it, if that is one’s inclination. I recall that my strongest feeling as I realised what was happening was sadness. My life didn’t pass before my eyes but I felt sad not for myself, not at all. I was sad because I thought of my darling Joanna and my wonderful children. In that direst of moments I didn’t want to leave the burden of my passing on their sweet shoulders and perhaps that is what saved me, I don’t know. Somehow I doubt it.
I didn’t let go, I was pulled away from life and it was dramatic and harsh and surprising in my case, yet it was my melancholia that rose to the surface. That is thus for everyone I doubt. Maybe we live our last moments as we truly are, who knows. I can only speak for myself.
Coming through the other side was an entirely different matter. Frequent visitors to my site know what followed me back from the far side and I have yet to understand the nature of the beast. What I do know is that having been touched by the sword; I am more in touch with the nature of its blade. Death is nothing to fear, dying is just a word. Loss on the other hand is something we all will suffer but perhaps suffer less if we come to take back the words that frightens us most…
Haven’t read a Max Power book yet? I think it’s time to pick one up.
Max Power’s books include, Darkly Wood, Darkly Wood II The woman who never wore shoes, Larry Flynn, Bad Blood and Little Big Boy
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To begin at the beginning is often proferred as the best advice. Everything starts somewhere and New Year always offers the promise that we can reimagine ourselves once again this new year.
The slate can be wiped and we can become the thing we have yet not found a way become despite repeated New Years and God knows how many attempts.
The promise of what lies ahead is in truth no more or less than how effective we each are at setting and achieving our own personal goals. I’ve never been one for New Years resolutions except perhaps the logical promise to myself to shift the Christmas over indulgence from my waistline.
2020 has been such a terrible year, one like no other that gives us a sense of hope for 2021 maybe more than any other year. Our world has been changed by the pandemic. I have to admit it has even changed my outlook somewhat.
Getting back to doing simple things we took for granted, in itself will be a great change. But people will make all sorts of resolutions. New attitude, new excercise regime, new healthy lifestyle, cut out booze or cigarettes there are going to be so many promises made as usual.
Love is and should always be, ever present in a relationship. It should never be taken for granted, nor relied upon for one’s own salvation. It is of itself; a thing of wonder and I believe can only truly be shared in the absence of selfish indulgence. It is a hard thing to find, harder to keep and easy to diminish. Sometimes, there are those who forget, who let slip the weight of kindness and leave it all too late to remember how important our loved ones are to us. Not so me, for I wear my big old creaky heart on my sleeve and I fearlessly defend my right to tell those who matter to me, what they mean to me.
Take my darling Jo. She is indeed my sweetheart, although it may seem foolish to use such a term at my age, it is nonetheless so very true. I wake up each day blessed to have her in my life, happier for hearing her laughter, stronger for the holding of her hand. She has saved me later in life than I deserved to have been saved. I have with her help, rediscovered what a joy life can be. My darling, my love, Joanna is there always, unfalteringly brave even at the worst of times, and that I say she has saved me is truly an understatement. But she is not only a fine and wonderfully strong woman; she is also the slip of a girl that I love, the dainty flutter in my heart, my Flutterlfy.
I am by nature such a melancholy man, I cover up my darkness with smiles and laughter as best I can, but I am running on empty a little of late. Perhaps we all feel that way this year. But I have someone special in my life who always raises the corners of my mouth to find my true smile. There is no finer woman, no kinder soul than my darling Jo.
We know what love means the two of us. I am not talking just of romantic love, but of the love that cradles and nurtures, the love that carries weight and lifts burdens, the love that anticipates and always sees the importance of kindness.
Love is fine indeed when it is so gently given, freely, without condition or agenda. My beautiful Joanna is in herself truly fine and I cannot help but be grateful for the happiness she has brought to my life, for isn’t each day wonderful when you are loved.
Today is her birthday, a day she is shy to celebrate, but for me it is a day to be grateful for because my sweetheart has made my life so very special every single day. Happy Birthday to the woman I shall always love, my heart, my eye, my colour, my shine, my strength, my darling…my Flutterlfy…
I don’t often get angry, but to see the truth that we already knew laid bare in black in white, has made my blood boil. Between the foundation of our state in 1922 until 1998 when the last Mother and Baby Home was closed, 9,000 of the 57,000 children that were born in just 18 such houses of horror, died. The Mother and Baby Homes Commission report has finally outlined in frightening detail, what happened to young vulnerable women and their children at the hands of church and state in Ireland, often with the compliance of others in our society. In recent days, even more shocking than the report itself, have been the harrowing first person accounts from survivors of such institutions.
I was always angry knowing about such places, I was angry when the report came out but this morning when I read what was, in the words of the head of the Catholic church in Ireland, “unreserved apologies” I was livid.
They say when an apology comes with a ‘but’, it is an empty hand. That an apology so ‘unreserved’ is qualified in any way, makes it reserved in the extreme and he should be ashamed of himself for the language he used in offering such a hollow gesture.
To welcome the report, while mitigating the Churches role by ‘accepting’ the Church was ‘part of the culture in which people were frequently stigmatized, judged and rejected’ is offensive to all of us. It completely underplays the role of the Church in physical, mental and sexual abuse of the women in their care, their coercion, their complicity in the crimes of others, the guilt they should bear for many horrific crimes and cover ups. To make matters worse he repeats the lie that the apology is unreserved, as though he is reinforcing the apology.
“The Commission’s Report helps to further open to the light what was for many years a hidden part of our shared history and it exposes the culture of isolation, secrecy and social ostracizing which faced ‘unmarried mothers’ and their children in this country.”
The key for those who missed it, is the inclusion of the word “shared” and the audacity to apply the word ‘culture’. This careful use of language is the ‘but’ in the conceited words of a man representing the sins of his organisation. He had drawn others into the blame game, to dilute, redirect and divert. I used the term careful use of language and it very much is a deliberate act of misdirection. This is not an unreserved apology. It is far from it. He is like an illusionist pointing to one thing to distract from the other. It is akin to a shady lawyer looking to get a serial killer off on a technicality.
There are others that need to answer questions for sure, like the parents who in some cases abandoned their children to these places, because of the shame their young pregnant children brought to their families. Children as young as 12 in some cases. There were families who hid the evidence of incest and rape, by abandoning their daughters to the nuns and priests who only added to their pain. There were the Gardaí, policemen sworn to protect them, who aided and abetted in the process and of course the Governments of the time, who were happy to let the church take the responsibility and cost from their hands.
But let’s not forget, that all of the groups listed in the preceding paragraphs, while complicit, do not ‘share’ the responsibility in the way the Archbishop would like us to believe. They were complicit and guilty of many things, of that there is no doubt. However, in the first instance, excusing it as that’s the way things were back then and that we all were part of a society that does such things, is a poor excuse for an apology and it demands a better one. What we know to be wrong now and what we knew to be fundamentally wrong back then has not changed.
The fear that drove people to feel such shame and to act on it, had a name. It was the Catholic Church. The fear that politicians had of going against the Church, came from the pulpit at weekly mass. The control and power the Church had in Ireland when it came to matters of the state, should not be forgotten. Having read though the report, one startling fact is that there is no evidence that unmarried mothers were ever discussed at cabinet in the first 50 years of this state’s existence. That’s until 1972 in old money. They wouldn’t have dared.
I grew up in an Ireland where the parish priest had more power than anyone in my community. I bear witness to the abuse many of my friends suffered at the hand of men and women of the cloth. I know many truths, like the girl I know who was raped by her family and asked the priest for help, only to be berated for her shamefulness and told to stay quiet. But we were not all complicit. Those who the Archbishop implies were complicit in the ‘shared history’ were not complicit, only controlled.
The report and the statements of survivors, outline countless abuses of young girls, branded as shameful because they were pregnant out of wedlock. Girls who were forced to work daily, going to bed afraid, waking up afraid. Babies being taken away and sold overseas for profit, not long after birth. What were in many cases, pregnant children being forced to do degrading labour, unblocking toilets with their bare hands, seeing babies being buried secretly in shoe boxes. Young girls giving birth while being verbally abused for their sins, being stitched afterwards without anaesthetic, having symphysiotomies performed without their knowledge. Girls who after giving birth, were only allowed to see their babies once a day when a bell would ring and being forced to stand facing a wall to breastfeed their new-born babies.
It is truly our nations shame but that doesn’t excuse the pathetic, offensive and unfeeling excuse for an apology from the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland that I read today. How unholy the attempt to spread the responsibility to a community that was at the time, under the thumb of a Church who had their fingers in every orifice of state control. This is part of the ‘apology’ offered
“Mindful of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which calls us to protect life and dignity and to treat everyone – especially little children and all who are vulnerable – with love, compassion and mercy, I believe the Church must continue to acknowledge before the Lord and before others its part in sustaining what the Report describes as a ‘harsh … cold and uncaring atmosphere.’
That in all of this reference to dignity, respect, love and compassion, the closest he gets to an apology is ‘acknowledging its part in sustaining a harsh, cold and uncaring atmosphere.” Seriously! He further accepts that that “the Church was clearly part of that culture in which people were frequently stigmatized, judged and rejected.”
In case you missed the ‘but’ in his apology here, it is the words ‘its part’ and ‘part of that culture’. They were the draughtsmen of that culture, the puppeteers, the writers of this story. Acknowledging that the Church played some part, is the world’s greatest understatement. None of this was accidental. The Church held all the cards and made all the rules. The deaths were recorded. They knew what was going on.
But the Archbishop somehow thinks he has it all covered in the so-called apology, when having made countless reservations and excuses, passing the blame across society as though it was an even thing, the biggest ‘but’ of all, comes in his words when he says;
“For that, and for the long-lasting hurt and emotional distress that has resulted, I unreservedly apologise to the survivors and to all those who are personally impacted by the realities it uncovers.”
For that? For your diluted part in what you actually created and what you are independently , wholly responsible for? For being part of a shared inhumanity that we basically are all guilty of? That is what the Archbishop is trying to do here, make no mistake. Sure weren’t all guilty? These things didn’t happen under the broad Irish sky, in full view of society. These things, these crimes, these abuses and immoral acts of degradation and violence towards innocent girls and babies, happened behind closed doors in institutions of the Church with full approval of all of those in authority in the Church. There was the added disgrace that many of these young mothers, many still children themselves, were then placed into the Magdalene laundries, equally appalling Church run institutions, that were a second assault on the lives of many young girls.
Archbishop Eamonn Martin, should be ashamed of himself and needs to look at his words. Yes, I am angry. That the inequality that left the door open for such abuse of women was systemic and widespread, is not in question. That our state bears a huge burden of responsibility in this regard is certainly not in dispute. That we as a community facilitated the abusers by our silent complicity and in many cases by direct action or inaction, is also something undeniable. All of this deserves our attention, all of this deserves to be questioned.
But nine thousand children died in these institutions run by the church, 200 women also died there in childbirth. At least 1600 babies sent for adoption and likely a lot more, many sold to families in America, with no hope of ever being reunited with their mothers. At least 7 vaccine trials were carried out without the consent of the mothers under the supervision of the Church, no doubt it came with funding and Lord knows what else. The head of the Catholic Church in Ireland responded in the most disingenuous manner. How dare he tarnish the truth of those that suffered with such a shameful attempt to apologize, without taking full responsibility. How dare he add the lie that the apology is unreserved for it most certainly is not, without showing the people who suffered at the hands of the Church the respect to say sorry properly, without trying to dilute their guilt by adding other parties, to share in their crimes as they are held to account. You have offered an empty hand Archbishop. May your God forgive you for your moral cowardice.
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Last Friday at 4.30 in the afternoon, we received the sad news that my darling Jo’s sister Lauren, had passed away. I know what losing a sibling feels like and I while I know what lies ahead for my love, all I can do is watch as the earthquake unfolds and topples one emotion after the other, while the aftershocks pass through our lives.
Her only son will have to go through the loss of his Mam and nothing can prepare him for the enormity of the impact that follows. The first time you experience the loss of a parent, especially your mother, is the worst kind of shock to the system. There are no comforting words to reduce the terrible pain of such a loss.
I haven’t been sleeping properly. Knowing we would be deprived of a proper wake due to COVID-19 restrictions, a funeral restricted to just 25 people and all that goes with how this unfolded, has made me uneasy. We need each other in times like his. We need to mourn properly and only now that this loss has visited our family, do I see the awful impact of this pandemic, on all the people who have lost loved ones this year.
Each culture has traditions and customs around death, but the Irish wake is a vital piece of our jigsaw of mourning. It is so engrained in our psyche, that I am not sure what to expect without it. For 6 nights now, Jo’s 95-year-old mother Joan has sat beside me on the couch, trying to make sense of it all. Two of her other daughters and their daughters, had called by on Friday to help us break the news to her that her daughter had died. All the while Joan sat quietly as they talked about the loss of their sister and aunt. Our three dogs tipped about the place but one of them, one empathic little boy sat beneath Joan’s chair throughout. He has been watching over her since.
After they had gone, this loyal little canine who normally spends all his energy looking after me, leapt onto the couch beside Joan and nuzzled into her. It was only after everyone had gone that she began to question the events of the day. Her hearing is poor. It is best to have one on one conversations at a fairly loud pitch, but more significantly, her short-term memory is patchy, requiring a lot of repetition to drive new events home.
She began to try and understand by asking me question after question. She told me that a child shouldn’t die before their mother. Each time this thought crossed her mind, Joan broke down and cried, but only for a little while as she pulled herself back in from the edge of grief. Born in 1925, her parents instilled a near Victorian attitude in Joan that means she finds it hard to be emotionally demonstrative. But I know that not showing does not equate to not feeling.
Due to her difficulty hearing, I had to simplify anything technical, so when she asked how her daughter had died, I reminded her that she had died from a form of cancer. She asked how old was she and when would the funeral would take place. Joan then reminded me that she was 95, as if this was news and also reminded me, that it was a good age. She wanted to know how Lauren’s son was, told me he had 3 children and that Lauren was 8 pounds, a big baby, when she was born. Joan said Lauren was always very clever and very talented with her hands, a funny girl, and wondered about practical things like what would happen to her house. She asked me if she had felt any pain and I reassured her that she hadn’t.
She asked me if I knew how one got cancer. I told her there were many ways and again she told us that a child shouldn’t die before a mother. She told us it should have been her. Again, she teared up before pulling herself quickly back together gain. There is nothing I can do to ease her pain and I feel helpless.
As each question from Joan or Jomammy as many call her landed, I replied in my clearest voice to avoid the need for repetition as my darling Joanna, sat quietly in the chair on the other side of me, struggling with the loss of her sister. My dear Jo is broken and I know that I can’t fix her. Joan finished round one and then, as she does, went back on a loop, beginning at the beginning and asking all the same questions for the second time, and so it went on, over and over, an unrelenting reminder of the terrible loss and all the while I answered each question as though asked for the first time, patient and calm, trying to help her process this new tragedy, so she might be better prepared for the new day.
I could feel Joanna’s pain beside me. She was trying to process her own grief and I am sure listening to the strange, repeated conversation beside her, going through the same details over and over again, was very difficult for her. We are both used to how Joan processes new information, but being used to something doesn’t make it easier. Trying to cope with the loss of her sister must have made it impossible, but she remained calm and patient as always. She was heroic in her silence and composure, I think.
I rose early this morning. The dogs greeted me as though nothing was different but of course it is. The earthquake has passed, but when I look around, I have yet to assess the damage. We will be finding broken things each day for some time I fear now that the funeral is behind us.
Each day is new, each chapter begins with the dawn, but each dawn will carry a cloud for some time. Like all families who experience loss, Lauren’s family will feel her absence daily. Hardest hit are the 2 people at both ends of the spectrum. Her only son, a grown man with a family of his own, is left with the truth that he will never see his Mam again. I remember how that hit me when it was my turn and even after 26 years, the loss has never left me. These days ahead are just the beginning and I hold him in my thoughts daily.
In our house, Lauren’s mother is trying to manage the reality that she has outlived her daughter. When the time came, because it came quite quickly, because of COVID restrictions and also because Joan is 95, there was no time to say goodbye.
On Tuesday we brought Joan to the funeral home to say goodbye to her daughter. Yesterday we attended her funeral. It was a small, deeply pained gathering, a family struggling to comfort each other fully in a time of social distancing and masks. It struck me that these difficult times mean that there is another meaning to that expression, for really, this is no time to have to say goodbye.
I normally stay clear of poetry but this week, thinking of her immediate family, and knowing what family means, I thought I would make a rare exception. This one, is in memory of Lauren and for her family that mourn her now and into the future;