celtic spirituality Grieving story

Two credit cards arrived in the mail, one for me and one for Terry. It’s been five years, yet her bureaucratic footprint still haunts us. That pit opened up in my belly, the one I haven’t felt in a long time. I’ve gotten red-tape mailings for Terry dozens of times before, but never credit cards. I felt shittier than I had a right to.

It’s been five years after all.

Maybe it hit so hard because Sinead O’Connor died just a few days before. She could have been my sister, my late wife, or even my Mother. They were each as angry as she was at different times in their lives, my Mom was just as outspoken. Seeing the heartbreak in them,  it wasn’t really surprising to me that she died. Isn’t it a miracle that Sinead lived this long?

Her voice was infused with that uniquely Irish mixture grief and sorrow and love, even as she raged. The best Irish singers always contain at least a few rooms set aside for the heavier feelings most of us don’t want to deal with. Those voices feel a lot like home to me, familiar and comforting. I’m sure her songs felt that way to a lot of people.

Our mailbox is down the road from our house, we stop by on our way home, so opening important letters is usually not a private affair. I unfolded the envelope on my lap as I sat in the car, revealing two silver cards side by side. True asked me why there were two and not one. I flipped them over to show her.

“This one’s for me, and this one’s for Momma. See: ‘Timothy’ and ‘Terry’. They made a mistake, they should know better.”
She sensed the change in my mood immediately. I didn’t try to hide it.
“I’m sorry sweetie, I shouldn’t get so upset by things like this. It’s just been so long since something like this has happened. I took her name off my account years ago. I’ve got to fix this.”

I was surprised by the depth of hurt. It reached down into my center, like the taproot of a strong plant wending its way into the soil of me.

Later that day my Aunt wrote that a close friend of hers had died quite unexpectedly. I knew it was a seminal moment for her. They had known each other since their college days, traveled the world together a few times. We seem to forget that some friendships are as important as family bonds, their loss cuts as deeply as loss can. The Irish have a name for such important relationships – Anam Cara or soul friend. Those relationships live outside of time in a beautiful way. When you are together with such a friend you know that life is about more than our achievements or the bustle of our days. You can share anything, and in some magical way everything feels both important and easy. Soul friends are never won or earned, they just happen to us purely through grace. I knew she had lost perhaps the most important Anam Cara of her life. My Aunt is cherished by so many people. I’m sure they’ll feel the change in her. She will need time and tenderness.

Artists like Sinead touch that place in me, if only lightly. They are soul friends in a different way, not as deep, but still seminal for so many of us. They create a kinship of feeling that spans many communities and even many generations. How much of the world did I discover through her? Today she makes my Aunts grief more tangible to me. I wish I were there to hold her, though I know she wants to be alone, for now at least.

It seems I’ve been given a day painted with death and loss. I was curt with the bank on the phone. I didn’t want to waste time thanking them for their condolences. “It’s fine, please just discontinue the card and make sure it doesn’t happen again. Thanks.” Click. I guess I’m good with being a little bit of an asshole right now.

True and I cut my old credit card and Terry’s new one up together. She knew she was helping me to feel better, to get through this little bump in our day. It was a small ceremony held over the trash can in the kitchen. I let go of the anger, but stayed in my moody darkness. I’ve been so good at that since I was a child. That night True prescribed the appropriate stuffed animals for the feelings I was mired in. “Here, Bella and Bun-bun.” She patted me as if I was ready feel much better any minute. I was happy to comply, curling up with them as the summer night air, smokey from this year’s wildfires, drifted in the open windows, cooling the house.

The next morning True and I hopped in the car for her last day of summer care. The radio came on as the engine turned over, it was Sinead singing with the Pogues – Haunted. Grief and loss and love and woman and man all rolled into one. Perfect.

I want to be haunted by the ghost
Of your precious love
Of your precious love

I’ll build my world around you
I’ll bless the day that I found you
I’ll stand beside you, I’ll never leave
Or tell you all those lies
That you’d never believe

True saw me tear up as I turned the song up, filling the car with their gloriously mismatched voices, rough and sweet making a beautifully tragic moment of love.

“Why are you sad Dad?”
“The woman singing this song, Sinead, died just a few days ago.”
“Really? How did she die?”
The meaning and mechanics of death are often an important topic of discussion in our family.“I think she died of a broken heart. Her son died just a year ago, and it broke her heart.”
“How does that happen?” She was suddenly very interested.
“It’s just that way for some parents. When some of us lose a child it hits so hard we just can’t seem to go on living. If the heart breaks completely the body can die.”

She was very quiet for a long time. It was as if a small, sad prayer had found its way into her heart, rooting in and chanting its song of mystery and sorrow in that vulnerable place. We traveled in silence for some time, until the music changed and the rhythm of the road brought us back to our day. We were chatty by the time we arrived at her school. She bounded off gamely, sporting a tie dye shirt, pink shorts and a summer tan.

I complain about all the driving I have to do for her, but more often it’s a gift than a burden. I have time to work through my feelings, line myself up for the rest of the day. That deep grief was still there, I was comfortable with it but wondered how long it would be with me. It wasn’t until later when I heard Sinead singing Danny Boy in her sweetest voice made of wind coursing through dried reeds, that I started to feel better. It connected my father, who loved that song, with Terry and Sinead. They were all holding hands, with my ancestors, across time, grief and yearning entwining through the river they made.

That did it – somehow her voice dug into the taproot of my darkness and twisted it until it let loose and rose up. There are plant medicines that are used for healing, but if taken incorrectly can also poison and kill people. These sorrowful truths about life are like that, like the powerfully rooted henbane. It can ease many types of pain, especially as we age, but it can also take our lives completely away. I wanted to let it go for now, making room in me.

The Irish had a tradition of Keening, or Caointeoireacht, until about a century ago. Back then wakes were held for several days, as people made the long trek across the country side to gather and grieve and say their goodbyes. There were village keeners, who would show up at the house for a wake to get the grieving going. Their songs often began with their own stories of loss. They were usually older women, and by then they had lost at least a few children. Most of the children were young but perhaps a few were older, dying by fishing at sea. Their wailing song was so deeply reflective of the raw, wild power of life, the clergy were threatened by it. Eventually the Catholic church was able to stop the practice, but likely only after several generations.

Sinead would have been an amazing keener, traveling from home to home, sharing her loss so that others might venture into their own grief and emerge more whole. She had already carved that path for so many, through the simple, honest depth of her songs.

Can we keen with her now? Are we too fragile to go there? Can we match her courage?

I pray it be so.

Blessings to you and yours during this time of great change.

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