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Overshadowed by Ethel Rohan

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By Ethel Rohan

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I received the wonderful writing news via email while on Easter vacation in New York City and standing in the long line to visit the 9/11 Memorial: I had won the 2013 Bryan MacMahon Short Story Award. Further, I was invited to Ireland to attend the famed Listowel Writers Week Literary Festival to read from my winning story and collect my prize of €2,000. The duality of that moment in front of the 9/11 Memorial—celebration amidst the shadow of death—proved ominous.

Born and raised in Dublin, I have lived in San Francisco for the past 20 years. As soon as I returned from New York, I booked my flight to attend the Listowel Festival, May 29-June 2. However, a phone call late in the night on April 10th from my sister in Dublin changed everything: our mother, Kathleen, had contracted pneumonia and was dying. Erased and emaciated from end-stage Alzheimer’s, our mother passed away hours later on April 11th before I could cross the Atlantic and reach her. She was so frail, so vacant, I had expected, even prayed, for her death for years, but she defied leaving this world so many times and now that she was actually gone, I couldn’t quite believe.

I returned to Ireland then not to collect a prize after all, but instead to attend my mother’s funeral and burial. In an unmarked hatchback, the undertakers brought our mother from the nursing home where she’d spent the last eight years of her life and returned her to us. We placed her coffin in the living room, in front of the empty fireplace. The undertaker removed the coffin lid and said, “She’s home.” His words sliced me.

Through two long days and a night, we waked our mother—remembering, laughing, trading stories, touching her, talking to her, crying over her, rearranging the pearl necklace that wouldn’t sit right on her neck. So many friends and family visited. Almost everyone said our mother looked lovely and at peace. To me she looked nothing like our mother, but, rather, appeared a shriveled husk. That was my ironic comfort: this cold, hard, skeletal corpse wasn’t our mother. Our mother was gone. Our mother was set free.

I have two sisters and three brothers. The six of us carried our mother’s coffin on our shoulders into the church and carried her out again the next day to her final resting place. That act of carrying her, of raising her up, buoyed me. I placed a short letter in the coffin with her, right before the undertakers sealed the lid on her for the final time. I wanted her to go with a tiny piece of my writing. She is also gone with a piece of my heart.

Our father said that the closing of the coffin was the hardest part for him and not, as he had anticipated, burying her in the ground. His grief after he kissed her goodbye bent him over and I don’t think he’ll ever stand straight again.

The day after we buried our mother, I couldn’t bear the quiet and stillness at home, the emptiness of the living room, the heavy smell of lilies. I pushed myself out of the house and into town, to attend the launch of the Listowel Writers’ Week Program at the historic Mansion House, Dublin, where I was congratulated on my story win by An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny. My mother, in her health, would have insisted on brandies all round. This was the mess of moments and memories I carried back with me to San Francisco from my twelve hazy days in Ireland.

As hard as the flight from San Francisco to Dublin was on April 11th, knowing that my mother was already dead and that I wasn’t with her in the end, the flight back to San Francisco felt unbearable. I kept thinking of that flight I made over twenty years ago as an immigrant, when it was me leaving my mother and not the other way around, and her face at Dublin Airport, twisted and tear-stained, her chin trembling, all in a way I’d never seen her cry before.

Many urged me to stick with my previous plan and return to Ireland again at the end of May to collect my prize in person. The wins and highs of the writing life are all too few, they reasoned, and I should celebrate at every opportunity. They’re right, of course, but the truth is that as grateful and honored as I am by the win—a nod of encouragement and grace from my mother country— I hadn’t the heart to return. The Award is so caught up now with my mother’s death and the ensuing flood of feelings that I can’t separate the two.

The other day, for the first time, I saw in the sky a black line running parallel to the jet stream from an airplane, like a shadow. In the space of two weeks I had received thus far both the most exciting writing news of my life and the most crushing of family news. If there’s a lesson to be learned in that coincidence—isn’t all suffering supposed to teach us something?—maybe it’s that everything is light and shadow. Everything is light and shadow and we can’t, and shouldn’t, hold onto either.

(c) Ethel Rohan

Ethel Rohan will teach a short short story workshop at Abroad Writers’ Conference, Lismore Castle, in December, 2013. Flash Fiction Contest and Conference registration details here: http://ethelrohan.com/2013/05/exciting-short-short-story-contest/
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