Let us eat cake (and soda bread) while we can
I am 60 today. I will go to the woods and consider the shortness of life
I wake this morning and inspect my face in the mirror and wonder, Will I have cake today? Or soda bread? Because it is my birthday. I am 60 and it is remarkable that I have survived so many years – and buried so many cats.
But how many more birthdays will I have? Or cats?
How much more time have I got to engage with other humans before silence envelops me and the thurible swings around my coffin, and the incense rises in a plume of smoke into the vault of some church as my relations bid me farewell?
Of course I may not be buried as a Christian. It’s difficult to predict what the mourners might decide at some future date.
I was in Arigna last week at the Mining Experience museum. They were having a Gathering; a week-long festival of remembrance, folklore and local history.
Arigna’s mining history stretches back 400 years and it’s a fascinating story.
In the museum there is a tunnel that leads down to the pits and at the mouth of it, just above the stone arch, the Virgin Mary stands in blue robes and adorned with lights.
I gazed at her and wondered how many miners throughout the years had walked beneath her mantle at the start of their shifts as they went down into the dark, hoping that she would protect them and lead them safely home in the evening.
And how many of them ever reached 60? And did they have cake or soda bread for their birthdays back then?
I once attended an old miner’s funeral. The altar boy was a watery little creature but he could swing the thurible with gusto as the deceased’s companions shifted the coffin onto their shoulders and walked up a steep hill to the sloping graveyard.
The hill was so steep that I didn’t think they would be able to ascend it but then I remembered that they were coal miners, and their backs were used to heavy burdens and steep inclines, and even the watery altar boy reached the graveyard with the thurible smoking like a chimney fire.
The thurible in the church in Santiago de Compostela is the biggest one I’ve ever seen; a large barrel of incense flying across the heads of the congregation and filling the entire vault with clouds – although I’ve only ever seen it on television.
But I associate it with my mother, because she died on the feast of St James, the patron of that church in Santiago.
My mother enjoyed 96 birthdays on earth some of which at the end of her life were celebrated with cakes, little sponge cakes from a shop in Carrick-on-Shannon.
We would stick a few candles on top and hand her a big card. It was always pleasant in the nursing home.
The staff made a fuss, and it created some cheer in the day room for the other residents.
The staff would put up balloons and the candles would be blown out at afternoon tea.
Though my mother didn’t bother much with cake in the end, or what was going on. People would wish her happy birthday and she would just clutch her handbag in a fierce grip and nod at them with a kind of confused elegance.
Forty years ago I spent my birthday with an old lady on an island on the Erne. I was the local curate, it was the First Friday and she required communion.
So I rowed my boat out and sat with her. We said the prayers and then listened to a sudden autumn rainstorm lash the galvanized roof, and drip down the chimney and sizzle in her fire.
She didn’t know it was my birthday and I didn’t tell her but her serenity was a gift to me, and her little island cottage was a refuge that no one disturbed, apart from birds or an occasional helicopter of soldiers whenever a new regiment arrived in Enniskillen and saw the smoke of her fire for the first time from the air and wondered might it signify a security threat.
So today is my birthday again. I will go to the woods and consider the shortness of life. If later on someone arrives at my door with cake, or even soda bread, I will certainly relish it, with the relish of the living.