Life abroad: When I lost my mother I became immune to homesickness
‘On good days, I feel liberated by the loss. Because nowhere is home, anywhere can be’
Hannah Harman Conlon: ‘Losing my mother at such a pivotal age has made me seek similarities between cultures and places, rather than differences.’
Hannah Harman Conlon with her mother.
I am immune to homesickness. It’s not the pick of the bunch when you think of superpowers. I would rather have the ability to fly or teleport loved ones from all over the world, and from beyond this world.
It’s not that Ireland does not make my heart sing. My relationship with my country and nationality is just as complex, dysfunctional, reductive, nuanced, loving, biased, loyal and philandering as any other Irish person’s. The smell of rain and the sound of its hollow ring as it collides with window panes, makes me yearn for home.
But I lost my mother (if I must consign her to that role alone) five years ago. On top of the loss of a best friend, editor, musical accompaniment, book recommender, counsellor, caregiver – I lost my first physical home. Since she died my relationship with my birthplace has changed.
I am lucky, in some ways, that my sense of home is utterly straightforward. I was born in the house my father still lives in and I lived there for the first 20 or so years of my life. My mother gave birth to me in a paddling pool in our sitting room while my father ferried pots of hot water back and forth from the kitchen. He still describes how this caused the fuse to trip and they had to wait in the dark for the midwife to arrive. So when someone asks me where I’m from, the answer is simple: “Dublin, Ireland”.
And yet, the loss of my mother has been fundamental to my rootlessness. It is, above all, intensely physical. Losing a mother is losing your first home.
My mother died when I was 19 during my first month of college. At a time when I was meant to be discovering anew through the eyes of my non-native Dublin classmates, the city I lived in, I wrestled with leaving my father alone in our house transformed by grief and silence. I forced myself to integrate with new people when all I wanted to do was wander our cold, quiet house, rendered now as familiar as the formless final scenes of a dream in the first moments of waking.
In the intervening years I studied abroad. I felt cleansed by the initial homesickness but it soon began to fade as my loss ebbed again to the fore, its rhythm as constant as it is tidal. I came home to Dublin changed and took almost as long as I had spent away to settle back in. I had left but the grief remained wherever I was– following me.
I finished my undergraduate degree and moved away. I have, once again, settled and created a life in London, which feels astonishingly real and concrete. I rarely think of where I am from and I love the life I have created in a city that was entirely unfamiliar to me less than a year ago. Bereavement has, for me, internalised any feeling of homesickness. Because I constantly carry the loss of my first home within me, I can no longer acutely miss any geographical place.
It means that I can find familiarity in the kindness of strangers, or the softness around a woman’s mouth of a certain age. Losing a mother at such a pivotal age has made me seek similarities between cultures and places, rather than differences. On good days, I feel liberated by the loss, the interiority of my homesickness because nowhere is home I can make anywhere home.
I still wish I could teleport loved ones from across the world, especially when I hang up the phone from a friend in Dublin and the sound of shrieking seagulls down the line rings in my ears. The wishing is as physical as the loss, which constricts in my chest on bad days. And, like many other Irish emigrants, I still cannot bear the idea of never returning home.
My English housemate asked me the other day if I ever got homesick. I laughed off her query. London is too close, geographically, culturally, linguistically, even aesthetically in some parts, to Dublin. Later, in my bedroom, I thought again of her question as I got ready for bed.
The sound of my housemates’ quiet conversation and gentle, easy laughter drifted through the floorboards and I remembered falling asleep as a child to similar sounds. I felt, then, something akin to homesickness. Followed by the breaking of the wave, these sounds of home are replicated here, across the Irish Sea and I am buoyed by my rootlessness, somewhere in between.