I wander through the streets of my city, curious and learning. Finding new places, seeing old ones, getting stuck in traffic patterns that were inconceivable to me 10 years ago before I left Ireland. I'm rediscovering a Dublin I was once a learned expert on. I knew every route, every shortcut, every sneaky little way.
Coming home is a series of news and olds. You see old things with new eyes. I grew up in the time I was away. I learned a thing or two about how wonderful and brutal life can be. I dropped the youthful ignorance and arrogance and put in its place a sense of humility and acceptance about my place in the world. Bringing this new old person back home requires patience and time.
As I begin to find my feet and discover what ground to plant them on, I am looking around at a city I knew so well and loved so much, for the familiar faces that made it home. Most of them are there. But as I meander through this new time in my old home, I stumble into holes. I fall into the spaces where faces that used be there are now gone.
The most painful element of being gone, of emigrating, is loss. Losing people you love and being too far away to be part of the important ritual of burying our dead. This is, far and away, the most difficult part of leaving your tribe.
At a great distance, with a vast Atlantic Ocean between us, I was able to somewhat displace or set aside the pain of losing people. I had the luxury of not having to walk their streets or sit in bars beside empty stools or watch the space where they used to be fill up with gone.
I was lucky enough to be home when my beloved grandmother, Peggy Keogh, passed away. But the grieving period immediately afterwards was spent on the streets on New York, being shoved on subways or honked at by drivers who knew nothing of my bereavement and didn’t have time to care.
When people died, I was far away. Too far. “Don’t come home,” my family would say. And I didn’t. For others, I was not well enough to travel. I would grieve silently in the city that never sleeps. I read obituaries over and over and listened to conversations we’d had in my head and poured over photographs. And then I would push the pain down and get on with being a New Yorker.
Now that I am home, the wounds of grief are opening up. For years, I was able to pretend that people who had died had simply just gone away for a bit. That they’d be back. Distance will allow you to do that. Being so far away lets you believe that lost loved ones are still with you, just far away.
In Blackrock, a walk down the street has me strolling in my grandmother's footsteps. She lived there for 20 years. On Moore Street, where she came from and I spent my childhood, the feeling of her loss is so immense I sometimes won't even walk down the street. I'll walk past on Henry Street, looking up only to glance at the row of buildings where my family once lived.
In a bar last week, celebrating with my father and dear friend, there was an empty seat where Johnny Murphy might have sat and told stories that would blow your mind and spit out your drink laughing.
On Dominick Street, where my Uncle Ken reigned, there is an empty space where his kindness and beautiful soul used take up. In the Abbey Theatre, where I am lucky enough to spend time in these days, I feel the loss of Tom Murphy so intensely it hurts my heart to think of it.
A Chinese doctor in New York told me once that death was a part of life. He had an Eastern approach to my Western suffering. I was deeply pained about the loss of my best friend’s father. I was struggling to make sense of how I could be away from her while she endured such immense pain and grief. I could not justify being so far away from someone I loved so much during her time of need. It was agonizing.
When people ask me how I’m settling in, I’ve finally found an answer that will satisfy them and myself. I tell them “it’s great and it’s hard”. Because it is. Coming home stirs up emotions I couldn’t have even imagined. I had no idea that repatriating would mean facing grief and loss all over again. That there would be reminders on every street corner of people who are not there anymore.
We do not know the day nor the hour. We only have what is now. Life is precious. Hold your people close. They are all worth it.