Guest post by Mel Jones
I know Emily because she was one of my writing professors, a mentor while I worked on my MFA. She helped me hone my craft. She’s my friend on Facebook. She’s my daughter’s age. We love the Red Sox. We’re both Irish. We exchanged a few emails, a year ago May, about fussy babies and the possibility Ronan had some reflux. I offered advice that my mother had offered to me, and her mother to her before that: keep him upright, feed him solid food (ignore the doctors on this one); buy a swing. I understood reflux. My son Ian had Reflux Apnea. He’d been in the hospital sixteen times before his second birthday. He stopped breathing several times a day, every day, for almost two years. I knew the things to do. It seemed natural to offer support one mother to another. It was a brief exchange, four or five emails. It was practical, to the point, advice.
I’ve never met Rick. Or Ronan.
I’m preparing for Ian’s high school graduation. By the time this is published he will be a graduate. An adult, well technically anyway. He’s old enough to drive, vote, fight in a war (we actively discourage that). He drives me crazy. He wants to be a teacher, a musician, a computer programmer, a political analyst. We’re making plans for college, clearly a school where he isn’t required to declare a major immediately. A political analyst? But there was a time when I wouldn’t have believed this day would come. I see Ronan refracted through Ian. I see them, spectral colors from similar prisms, rainbows just beyond my grasp. Emily’s pain a reflection of a place I once was. Ever so briefly. I’ve heard a doctor say, your baby’s going to die. To me.
High risk: SIDS.
The color of life faded into a dismal gray. The music turned off. The universe collapsed silently in on me, a black hole, folding in waves that could just barely contain my heartache. A place too sad for tears.
I read, and reread, that first post on January 14th: heavy heart… Tay-Sachs… claim his life…
I wanted to say something eloquent and profound to her. But there was no practical, to the point, advice here. Just remember to breathe. I wanted her to know, one mother to another, that I knew that in listening to the doctor’s clinical report she had died. All that she knew, all that she trusted as real, disintegrated into an unfathomable chasm that was once Emily. A place too sad for tears.
But I had no words.
The digital frame on the table beside me flashed pictures of Ian, small and helpless. Ian at a week, IVs and lead wires attached; at three months in a sailor suit, propped against some bohemian-looking pillows; at six months propped up against a chair covered by an Indian/Mexican blanket, an over-exposed picture that has an ethereal look about it. It and captures the heart. Ian first day of school, holding a parrot, a chicken, riding a horse, playing guitar, saxophone. With Santa, the Easter Bunny. Ian with long hair, short. Ian breathing.
Other pictures flashed on the frame too. His siblings, his dad, my mom, sisters, brother, Dad, my grandmother—Nana. Me, taut and tired; wraith-like. My eyes reflecting Bilbo’s comment, I know I don’t look it, but I’m beginning to feel it in my heart. I feel… thin. Sort of stretched, like… butter scraped over too much bread. One picture dissolved into the next.
Little Seal’s blog, Ronan’s blog, stared from the computer screen, a backlit glow in the darkening shadows of my living room. I was flooded with phantom sounds, breathing monitors, pulse-ox, flat-line, racing feet. I could hear the doctor saying, he cannot be alone with anyone who is not infant-CPR certified. Just breathe, Ian. Just breathe, Emily.
The sun set. Pictures flashed. And I remained silent.
The page blank.
I could hear Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues playing in Ian’s room…
goddamn right it’s a beautiful day.
It’s a typically Ian sort of song, dripping sarcasm. He views the world in a way most eighteen-year-olds can’t. He has a way of blending the ethereal with the sardonic. It’s endearing. I imagined him sitting on his bed looking at Tarot cards and waiting for Call of Duty to load on the Xbox. The song forced me to smile. My thoughts drifted to my grandmother, another person in my universe who delicately balanced this world with others. In my memory I heard the murmur of my grandmother’s brogue singing… Tír na nÓg, little one, Tír na nÓg.
It’s old Irish, pronounced Tír inna n-Óc, and means The Land of Perpetual Youth. The land beyond the edge of the map—Ireland’s very own Never-Never Land. A place of simple and sensuous pleasure. It’s the place where the Tuatha Dé Danann, the original Irish, the magic folk, settled when they left the surface. They went into hiding after losing a war. They sought a place to be safe from sorrow: a secret diaspora. A place filled with magic, fairies, and leprechauns. Ethereal images that capture the heart, edged with just enough mischief and sarcasm. A perfect secret hiding place filled with joy and magic. Stories that stir genetic memory. A genetic memory Emily, Ronan, Ian, and I share.
We hail from a people brave enough to go naked into battle and dare the world to take them on. Imagine a people needing a secret, magical place to conceal themselves and at the same time brave enough to face the world naked. The stakes are so high, the cost so unimaginable the only defense is the sheer force of passion. There is no armor to protect her from the world or her future. Emily’s profound ability to share her story, to share her pain, reflexively with near strangers—with total strangers—reflects the courage of our forebears, the Celts.
I don’t know Emily’s family personally, but I know this family—in this moment; because I lived through such a moment in such a family. I want to share with them my own tears, and memory of tears. The sleepless nights, haunted dawns. Loneliness, God, the isolation. I know the immeasurable space between the word baby and die in a sentence. It is within that space that a mother dies. It’s an alone-ness that nothing will fill, no friend or lover, no parent, or even another child. For this family, in this moment has reminded me how close to the precipice I have been. Grief is lonely and this family is fighting naked in the world pushing towards Tír na nÓg, a secret diaspora. A place to be safe.
My favorite Tír na nÓg story is that of Oisín and Niamh: they travel together on a magical horse, able to gallop on water, to the hidden island in the west and the hero, Oisín, spends some time there. Eventually, homesickness sets in and he wants to return to his native land. He’s devastated to learn three hundred years have passed in Ireland since he has been with Niamh, though it seemed to him only one. He goes home on Niamh’s magical horse, but she warns him that if he lets his feet touch the ground, he will be barred from Tír na nÓg forever; the truth is that the weight of all those years would descend upon him in a moment, and he would wither with age and die. While Oisín is searching for his family, he helps two men move a stone, and in the process falls from the horse and ages in an instant.
I remember in the darkest part of Ian’s illness thinking, don’t let your feet touch the ground, son, stay in the land of perpetual youth, where all things of beauty blossom: art, music, strength. There happiness springs eternal with no sense of lack or want. Every appetite is sated. Life. Tír na nÓg is a place where sickness and death don’t exist. It’s the place we all long to be.
I read Emily’s blog every day. Friends have suggested that I am offering to bear witness, but that’s not it. I read because for two years I lived under a similar cloud. I read because I have felt that terror, desperation, guilt, and loneliness. One day, in the not to distant future, Emily’s story will move beyond my ability to comprehend. I read because it’s easy to forget that Emily is not that unfathomable chasm. Emily is recording Ronan’s journey. But for me, it is, more than anything, Emily’s journey. And one mother to another, I want her to know, even in the loneliest of moments, she’s not alone. And knowing that is so important.
In reading her blog, I am reminded of what mother means—in the archetypical sense. Emily is personifying what it means to be a good mother. She is strong, diligent, unrelenting, and yet, tender and loving. There is no sacrifice too great. She is the mother we all hope we never have to be. I want her to understand that she too needs to ride that horse to the land of perpetual youth. I read because the writing touches me deep inside. It is beautiful, transformative. It transforms me. So, Rick, Ronan, and Emily, as my grandmother would have said…
To Tír na nÓg! ’Tis a place with no sorrow, a place ya can’t cry. Don’t let the world trouble ya, ride with Oisín to the land of magic and dreams… Tír na nÓg
Mel Jones had her own column in a local newspaper at 15 and was determined that she would be the next Shakespeare or Tolkien. Probably Erma Bombeck. But then life intervened. She grew up, raised a family, and wrote quietly everyday. Mel did her undergraduate work at The College of William and Mary, and graduate work at Virginia Commonwealth University, and Antioch University, Los Angeles. She holds degrees in History, English, Rhetoric, Literature, and Creative Writing (Nonfiction). Yes, she is overeducated. She has done extensive genealogical research, edited a now defunct literary journal, and taught children from kindergarten through college. She is currently the Director of a Huntington Learning Center in central Virginia. She recently had an epiphany, if she sent her work out more, she would be published more. She’s working on that. Mel lives and writes on a small leisure farm west of Richmond, Virginia with her partner, parrots, and progeny.