When the pale woman appeared in the doorway of the hotel dining room, I was miles away in my head, wondering what Andrew was doing. Our son Andrew, whom it would be impossible to bring here, to Dublin, where I’d accompanied my husband to an academic conference.
On this first visit to the land of my ancestors, I had hoped to feel some welcoming vibration in my bones or perhaps see a version of my face looking out from a passing vehicle as I toured Dublin. Or would I hear a turn of phrase my Appalachian grandparents had used? Tonight the conference was drawing to a close, but so far I hadn’t found the connection I sought.
Of course, Andrew wouldn’t care. It was a tic I had, wondering about Andrew in foreign places.
The woman with white-blond hair caught my eye and locked into a stare. Why me? I wondered. I was sure I had never seen her before. Her look was unusual enough for me to remember. She wore a cream-colored sheath and pale shoes. The hollows under her eyes and her pinched expression suggested familiarity with pain, but whether the pain was emotional or physical, I couldn’t tell. Because I had recently re-read Yeats’s great poem, “The Wild Swans at Coole,” and because I was in Ireland, I thought of a wounded swan sculpted from snow.
Now I saw that behind the woman stood a tired-looking, bearded man with his hand pressing flat on her back as if to keep her from running away. She squared her shoulders as if making a decision and came towards me in a straight line.
“I’m Kathleen,” she said with an Irish accent. “Let’s sit together.”
Our husbands had met on the organizing committee of the conference.
As the banquet tables filled and dinner got underway, my tentative questions to find common ground with Kathleen elicited only monosyllables. Yes, she and her husband lived in Dublin. Yes, they had children, one girl. No, she had not attended the conference. Feeling intrusive, I gave up and concentrated first on my food, then on the after-dinner speeches. Kathleen appeared to do the same and spoke to no one. Why did she want to sit with me, I mused, if she didn’t want to talk? Had she changed her mind about making friends? Was it something about me? Our husbands were chatting comfortably about their research.
The evening was breaking up, people pushing back chairs and gathering their coats, briefcases, and purses, when she turned to me and said in a low, tense voice, “I know you have a handicapped son. Our baby died two years ago. A perfectly formed little boy, stillborn. With no knowledge before he came into the world that he was already on his way out of it. I got to hold him before they took him away. I saw his tiny fingernails, the damp curls on the back of his dear, plump neck. I have dreams about him out there alone, without me to take care of him. I hear him crying. He had hair like mine. I stroked his knees, his little dimpled knees.”
The suddenness and intimacy of her words astonished and, frankly, horrified me. Was she unsound mentally? No, I decided, as Kathleen rushed on with details about losing her infant son. I had experienced something like her outpouring before, though not one as anguished as this. When you are perceived as living with a tragedy, even though our family does not consider our son to be a tragedy, other people share sorrows with you. After I gave a poetry reading that included poems about our life with Andrew, a man I had known for years began to tell me, for the first time, of a son who had died in infancy from a heart defect. On another occasion, a famous poet who had critiqued my Andrew poems revealed, in discussing my work, that he had a son with Tourette’s syndrome and spoke of his fears for the boy.
Kathleen’s voice thickened with unshed tears. “Are you going on the bus tour tomorrow?”
“At Newgrange, you must go inside. It’s a passage grave from prehistoric times, dug into a hill.” She scooted her chair closer. “Inside, at the end of the passage, stands a large stone basin. It holds cremated remains of a community from thousands of years ago. At the winter solstice, sunlight enters through a hole above the entrance — the roof box — and slides up the passage until it shines on the basin. The ashes are all mixed together. No one is left out. No one.”
“I’ll go in,” I assured her, although I had never heard of Newgrange.
I looked around for my husband. No one stood near us, not even close. I felt as if we were isolated in a force field that repelled others. What should I do in the face of such fragility? Drawn into her terrible pain, I struggled to think of a worthy response. At the same time, weary from the life we led with our son, I was reluctant to absorb her grief.
“Everyone should be together at the end,” Kathleen went on, her blue eyes fierce, “the way it is at Newgrange. They knew something back then. Not alone in a grave, with a poor solitary headstone, but all mixed together for eternity. Your bones and mine, your child’s and my child’s.”
Minerals whispering over stone, a spiraling together of granular remains as now sinks in the sea of forever. The air in my nostrils turned icy.
Our son can never live on his own. His speech is limited to sounds and gestures with a private meaning, and he cannot read, write, or walk unaided. Without warning his body is sometimes swept by debilitating tremors. His attention span is extremely short, so learning is a challenge. Concepts do not register, so he has no idea of death; but he has a healthy sense of humor. Our chick without a shell. He enjoys life, makes choices, and takes joy in many of the same things other people do — pizza, Chinese restaurants, drives in the country, fireworks, holidays, favorite television programs, superheroes, going to the movies and movie magazines, illustrated cookbooks, musicals, friends and family, snuggling on the couch in a nest of pillows and blankets. Like some whimsical god he can be by turns affectionate and violent, the randomness binding us ever closer to him. He is also our greatest teacher about what it means to be human and about what it is to love without expectations. Because it was so hard to find caregivers, my husband and I seldom traveled together. Our daughter, just out of college, had agreed to stay with him so we could make this trip.
Almost every parent of a child with severe disabilities has at some point entertained the wish to live just one day longer than the child, so that he will never be without the people who care the most about his welfare. Thinking of this, my initial impulse to keep my distance from Kathleen vanished and my eyes filled with tears. I could not bear the idea of my son lying alone in a grave, just as she could not. He will be more forgotten, more alone than the rest of us, I thought wildly. But all of us united, reduced to essential chemical components, yet together . . .
“I’m sorry,” I said, and laid my hand on her arm. Not enough, but something.
As our husbands joined us, Kathleen stopped talking and bowed her head. I wondered if her husband disapproved of her sharing their story with strangers. We four walked out of the restaurant together and paused on the sidewalk when we saw we would be going in opposite directions. Kathleen pulled me to her and I leaned into her hug, the blood pulsing in my temples so hard from suppressed emotion that I thought I might be having a stroke.
“We’ll see each other again. I’m sure of it. I feel it,” she whispered. Something unyielding in her tone told me that she meant, either in life or in death.
Swords of sunlight flashed off cars and tour buses gridlocked on the narrow road in the Boyne River valley. The pavement steamed after a short, hard rain.
Ahead of our tour bus, against the freshened blue sky, a great bulge rose out of the Irish landscape, a rounded mound of grass with a wide belt of crisp white quartz partially encircling its base. Tumulus: an ancient burial mound. Related to the Latin tumere, to swell. I thought of a huge green breast held in check.
For a structure over 5,000 years old — older than Stonehenge, older than the pyramids in Egypt — Newgrange looked unexpectedly modern, its sparkling stone revetment and clean lines calling to mind a windowless bank or a medical clinic. A line of tourists snaked towards the entrance at the base of the tomb. Standing stones, each weighing three to four tons, were ranged in a curve some distance from it. There once were perhaps two dozen more, forming a wide ring of sentinels, said our guide. Partially circling the mound, great stone lozenges called kerb stones lay on their sides like an incomplete necklace. Trapped in the bus, I was too far away to see the signs carved into the stones that were pictured in our brochure: wheels called triskelions, circles, diamonds, spirals, zigzags, suns, moons, faces. Other mysterious carvings were said to decorate the walls of the cruciform passage inside the mound. The darker stones around the doorway might symbolize the entrance to the birth canal, uniting our beginning and end. I imagined myself already inside, surrounded by cool rock, my eyes adjusting to ancient darkness.
“May I have your attention, please?” Our tour guide, a freckle-faced young woman with green eyes and a bright cloud of orange hair, stood in the aisle, microphone in hand. “It seems we’ve come to Newgrange on a busy day. In order not to miss our luncheon appointment, we’re going to skip this stop. Time permitting, we may go to Knowth later in the afternoon, where it’s sure not to be so crowded. Knowth is another prehistoric site.”
“No!” I exclaimed.
During the night, my conversation with Kathleen had taken on more weight. I was no longer a tourist with a vague wish for genealogical validation, but a mother heartsick with thoughts of separation from her child, aching from a universal worry.
I turned to my husband. “I promised Kathleen I’d go inside. I have to do it.”
“Be quiet,” my husband murmured. He is the calm one, accustomed to smoothing my jagged edges.
I raised my hand and called, “Can I just –?”
“I regret the change of plans,” the young woman cut in cheerily, “but we are on a schedule. The hotel at Slane is waiting with a lovely lunch. Don’t forget, we have Mellifont Abbey this afternoon, where you’ll have plenty of time to explore the grounds.”
The gears engaged and the bus trundled on its way through emerald fields, their boundaries marked by the same dry — mortarless — stone fences, which, to my surprise, I knew from growing up in Kentucky. There they were called slave fences, built by slaves under the direction of settlers from the British Isles.
We left Ireland the next morning.
Back home in the States, disappointed by the aborted trip to Newgrange, I read more about the site. The message of the carved signs has not been definitively deciphered. A lost language, I thought, as Andrew’s will be some day. Inside, the passageway leads to three alcoves with a stone basin in each. The bowls once held human remains, both burned and unburned, but only the remains of prominent people would have been entombed at Newgrange and at similar sites. Legends suggest who that might be: perhaps the kings of Tara or the mythical pre-Celtic people, the Tuatha De Danaan. According to another legend, at the winter solstice, when the light of the sun crossed the stone basin of remains in the center alcove, the souls of the deceased rose through the roof box. Nowhere did I find Kathleen’s idea that the ashes of a whole community were mixed together. Nowhere did I read of the inclusion of commoners.
But why not believe her? Legends are more about the power of story to make sense of life, and about wishes, than they are about what really happened. They concern emotional truth, not facts, and they universalize human experience. About those things of which we will never have proof, people believe what they need to believe.
Today, Andrew lives in a group home during the week and comes home on weekends. He has friends outside the family but is still dependent on others for his basic needs. Had he been born into a primitive society like the one that built Newgrange, he probably would have been exposed on a hillside in infancy. In the years since my conversation with Kathleen, we have not met again. It seems unlikely that we ever will. But my heart is with hers in the quiet, dark, stone space she conceives, where in death we will not be divided from those we love. I count her among the teachers I have met along the way, the ones who have shown me how to rescue gain from loss. Because of her, I understand that to share pain is to share strength, not weakness.