February 10, 2018

connecting flight

I'd only been out of the hospital for two weeks, but I traveled to Ireland anyway.  There were two people waiting to host me, friends - no, sisters - who saw me through my brush with death and return to life.  A mother, Maggie, and her college-age daughter, Maria.  Maggie had been by my side - and P.J.'s - through that entire hypomanic episode, when I all but lost my mind and wandered away.  Visiting was the epilogue I needed, and there was an apology I was required to make in person.

I'd never met my sisters before.

P.J. and I have a chosen family, spread across the planet.  We both play an online game and participate in its associated forum and chat room.  Through those media, eight of us quickened a few years ago into a game-based clan, all of us different or croggled in some way, all of us in need of this window to the outside of another world.  Four of us in the United States; two in Ireland; one in France; one in Australia.  A dog and horse whisperer.  A loyal, thoughtful man.  An artist.  A genius.  A fierce mother.  A creative young woman.  And P.J. and me, whose love they said made their screens glow a little brighter.

Many players formed clans for strategic gain in the game.  Our clan began sending birthday cards and gifts, taking shifts when one of us was in the hospital so there was always someone available, laughing together, getting into disagreements, familiar with the minutiae of each other's lives and stories.  See?  A family.  It's amazing what you can do with video chat and e-mail and Amazon, but it's downright astonishing what can happen through mere words on a screen.  Some say these bonds aren't "real" and those people are ignorant and the poorer for it.

But when someone spent three hours texting, trying to talk you out of killing yourself, using every tactic imaginable, and then heard you tried to do it anyway, you don't make amends by sending messages through electrons inside wires.  You travel 3,200 miles and show up penitent on the doorstep.  So I boarded the plane.

Dublin.  Black Rock.  It showed in the coastal crags as we circled back from over western England and the plane began its descent to land at Aerfort Bhaile Átha Cliath.  I stared at the grass, somewhere-else-grass, and the signs everywhere posted in both English and Gaelic by government mandate.  As I walked through the airport, I tried to wrap my mind around being in a foreign country for the first time in my life, being in not-America.  That was too big.  I went for the impact of the incredible distance we'd traveled.  Nothing.  I had simply sat still for six hours and moved on the map.  So I let go of trying to seize a slippery sense of wonder, which then changed its mind and pounced on me when I saw the Customs line that stretched into the distance.

The visit wasn't about the Giant's Causeway or Blarney Castle or Newgrange.  It was about the frantic waving and first hug after my bright orange suitcase and I popped out of Customs and saw Maggie waiting.  It was about pissing ourselves laughing when I tried to get into the right side of the car instead of the left as a passenger.  It was about seeing pigeons on the streets of northern Dublin the size of capons, and people using bicycles, and immediately noticing subtle differences in an accent that Americans do a terrible job trying to imitate.

We didn't hit tourist attractions.  For me, it was the grocery stores, which were enough to produce wide-eyed lust and carts full of fresh-baked bread and milk pasteurized differently that didn't make me sick, shampoo that came in scents we don't have in the States, cereals, double cream for coffee, and cheese.  Bacon is "streaky bacon" and is considered a cheap cut.  Stacks of whiskey bottles sat in a corner of every store.  Those little differences travelers speak of were plenty for me.  I was a kid again.  I want that, and that, and that, and that ....

We did visit Grafton Street one day; I insisted because Nanci Griffith sang about it.  And we visited the seal rescue center in Courtown and the deserted beach in Gorey (where I pocketed a salt-smoothed stone).  There was a metal hedgehog on the side of the road to Gorey, a bit of Alex Pentek's art.  Just a great, big, looming hedgehog.  It's different there.

It was Holy Week.  Restaurants and bottle shops were closed on Good Friday, so the pubs did brisk business on Thursday night.  One afternoon I walked alone to Christ Cathedral to hear the music, not by main roads but through not-the-nicest neighborhoods, determined to see "real" Dublin.  The unbroken continuation of connected brick and stone buildings along winding streets and alleyways was disorienting.  (Maggie and Maria told me not to go that way.  So I did.)  I arrived just in time to find the boys' missal choir adjourning, my choice of route having cost me more time than I anticipated.  I returned more or less the way I came.  Seeing a man woodworking in a tiny front yard and laden clotheslines defying the overcast sky and corner newsstands closed for the day was worth getting lost on foot for a while, rescued eventually by my daddy's sense of direction.

Most of my time, though, was spent in the flat, tucked into the corner of a comfortable sofa with my laptop and their Lurcher, who snuggled up between Maria and me and kept typing numbers with his nose as he lay his head on the keyboard and vied for my attention.  A cozy, dim-lit haven from the recent storm, inside a converted historic building, embraced by old, old stone.  Instant coffee and cigarette smoke and honey-scented soap.  Hours of talking and laughing and fleshing out the reality of each other.  Hours of more talking to process all that had happened.

They said I was the perfect guest, because I helped myself to whatever was in the kitchen instead of being proper and mannerly.  I think they were the perfect hosts, because they didn't tidy up much and thereby sterilize the environment.  I was in someone else's real home.

And then one morning, Maggie shook me awake because it was time to go.  We drove to the airport and savored the last hug.  I flew home.

I'd only been out of the hospital for three weeks.  P.J. and I needed healing, and Dublin was the place where I could recharge and then depart for home, laden with new insights and sheep-themed souvenirs and an internal reset button that allowed for a fresh start.  I brought all of that home to her and spilled myself out, bountiful and overflowing, into her waiting arms.


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