The West's Awake by Cormac MacConnell
Return home to Ireland for a death in the family
Posted on Thursday, March 29, 2012 at 10:14 AM
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|Illustration by Caty Bartholomew|
There was a big powerful hired car waiting for him. He threw his single bag into the trunk and was immediately on his way down home to West Cork.
He adjusted quickly to driving on the other side of the road again. He drove briskly but carefully, taking no chances at all, but was quickly through Limerick City and the tunnel and on the road home.
He made no stops at all on the two-hour drive, kept going all the time, but he was still too late. His mother passed away less than a half-hour before he pulled up on the home street.
He did not break down or weep when he stood at the bedside in the room off the parlor and viewed the pale, pale corpse with the rosary beads entwined in the clasped hands at her breast.
Ben O'Sullivan did not weep or break down when they left him alone for a little while at the bedside.
He sat in the chair beside the bed and touched his mother's cold forehead and the backs of her hands.
Maybe his eyes were a small bit moist at the time but he was totally composed. He noted that she had not physically changed much since he had visited the previous summer.
The remains were those of a big, strong countrywoman who did not look 90 years old at all. Her white hair was still thick and strong.
Ben O'Sullivan bowed his head and prayed silently beside her for the five minutes he sat alone in the room. When he was getting up to leave the room he bent over and kissed her forehead.
It was very cold. He did not weep.
He came out into the kitchen and parlor and re-connected with his family. They shook hands, the brothers and sisters and in-laws, but they did not hug.
The only one weeping was his sister-in-law Rita, wife of his older brother Robert who had taken over the family farm, but then Rita is an Oates, and that family shed tears at the drop of a hat.
Robert poured him a stiff shot of whiskey and told him their mother went away peacefully in her sleep, there was no pain or suffering. The neighbors and extended family began arriving in numbers and the house filled up fast.
Ben O'Sullivan remained totally composed and in control of himself as he met again his old friends.
Many said that it was hard he had not made it back from New York in time to be there.
Tea and coffee and drinks and sandwiches were circulating, and there was a constant footfall of mourners to pray at the bedside.
Jimmy Somers and his son Sean arrived. They were especially warmly greeted. The two families have been in quite bitter dispute for two generations over an ancient right-of-way between the farms, but such matters don't count when death comes along. That is the way it is.
Ben O'Sullivan conducted himself with total composure and courtesy all that long day as the tide of grief and ritual ebbed and flowed through the farmhouse on the hill.
Robert and Liam and Susan, his brothers and sister, already had the funeral arrangements sorted out and they discussed these with him.
The canon came in the early evening to lead the prayers and was interested in discussing American politics with Ben. He managed to handle that too.
His first girlfriend Fiona arrived with her husband, and they shared Ben's first and last hug of the day.
Before he emigrated all those years ago his mother had advised him to stay and, by implication, to stay with Fiona but that had not worked out. His mother had liked the girl a lot.
Late in the night when things had settled down Ben O'Sullivan walked through the home in which he had been born and raised. He left his bag into his old room which he had shared as a boy with Robert and Liam.
It looked very small now and largely unchanged. The window still had its matchless view of the mountain.
Standing there, surrounded by memories, he still did not weep. He felt strange rather than sad.
Liam brought him in a mug of instant coffee that did not taste all that good. It was maybe the first coffee he drank at home. It had always been tea before.
Later still in the night, when most of the family were already exhausted abed, Ben O'Sullivan was in the parlor. All the old pictures and ornaments were still there. The red lamp still burned before the patient Sacred Heart over the piano that nobody had ever played.
He went to one corner of the room where the little walnut desk was. He opened the drawer and inside, as always, was the writing pad with the fountain pen atop.
It was a Parker pen. His mother had always used that for her monthly letters from home, bold straight upstrokes full of the news of the season, all the home happenings, all the advice to the emigrant son over three decades, all the queries about how things were going for him in the New World.
Never once, he thought, had she ever explicitly said that she loved him, but every letter was an implicit statement of that caring and love. He held the pen in his hand and it felt somehow warm and comforting.
Ben O'Sullivan broke down then. He put his head down on the desk and he wept loud and long and uncontrollably.
Other members of the family must have heard him but they left him alone. That's the way the clan handles that kind of thing now and always. It's the way it is.