Down at Ladies Cove in Greystones, Co Wicklow, a willowy woman is picking her way barefoot across the stones. Her name is Ruth Fitzmaurice. She is a writer, a mother and a self-described mermaid.
“People pay a lot of money in fancy spas to walk across stones like these,” she says. She is wearing a short red and blue summer dress, the kind that’s good for getting quickly in and out of your swimsuit.
She is in and out of her togs a lot and not just on perfect summer days like these. The bright and beating heart of her debut book, I Found My Tribe, is the solace and solidarity she finds here in this cove and in this sea with like-minded female friends who swim in all weathers. The book, a memoir, is a powerful, emotional, poetic, funny, philosophical and courageous work of art.
The view across the headland is mesmerising. Those famous foodie locals, the Happy Pear twins, would make a meal of this day on Instagram. Just around the corner, her five children are in school. Ruth changes quickly into her flowery swimsuit and gingerly makes her way down a slope, slick with green sea moss, to the stone steps, for her daily dive into the sea.
Tell me again what you get from this sea swimming business, Ruth? I ask her, shouting down from a far less precarious position on the concrete path above. I think of the line in her book: "I stand on those steps every time with raw fear. Your brain screams no! Steer past your brain. This makes no sense. That's why it makes perfect sense."
“It’s just magical,” she says before chiding herself, saying she uses the words magic and magical too much. She tells me how one of her swimming tribe likes to explain the lure of the sea: “You may not always like the person who goes into the water but you always like the person who comes back out.”
Dive in, she urges, no matter what horrors life flings your way.
On the back of her neck is a trident tattoo, inspired by her son, Raife, who once said to her that he’d rather pray to the Greek god of the sea, Poseidon, that she have a nice swim than pray to “Catholic God”. She calls it her “midlife crisis tattoo”. She moves to the edge of the steps. And then she dives.
Ruth's book, which began life as an article in The Irish Times in January 2016, is a joyful, raw, urgent invitation to her readers to "just dive" – into the sea, and into life. Dive in, she urges, no matter what horrors life flings your way. And life has thrown the 41-year-old and her family and friends some real horrors.
In 2008, her husband, Dubliner Simon Fitzmaurice, love of her life, film-maker and author, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease (MND) and given four years to live. Two years later, as his lung function collapsed, he chose to be mechanically ventilated at home against the advice of doctors.
He is paralysed, unable to speak or move. He communicates (and wrote his own acclaimed memoir, and wrote and directed his film, My Name Is Emily) using an "eye gaze" computer. Their house in Greystones is filled day and night with nurses who provide the life-maintaining 24-hour care for Simon.
Nurses, nurses everywhere, writes Ruth in her book. The bathroom door is locked and there’s a queue. Who’s in there? It’s a nurse.
I knew Simon long before he got sick. Back when he was a young and irrepressible film-maker, he got in touch and persuaded me to interview him about his debut short film, Full Circle. It was hard to say no to Simon. He's one of those people. Unstoppably charming. He kept in touch by text message as the years went by, jubilant messages about the birth of his and Ruth's three sons, Arden, Raife and Jack. He wrote for The Irish Times about attending the Sundance Film Festival in 2008 with his movie, The Sound of People. It was on that trip that he developed a limp, which turned out to be the first sign of MND.
A couple of years ago Simon wrote his memoir, It's Not Yet Dark, a remarkable book which will come out in the US in August.
In November 2015, Simon sent me an email. His emails, written using only his eyes, tend to be short, lyrical and to the point:
It’s time for Ruth to speak. Ruth has written an article. But naturally she is worried about getting hurt in case it is rejected. You know I would not waste your time, the writing is beautiful. Would you be interested in an article from Ruth?
I told him I would. And so he sent it to me. It was the kind of article that gives you goosebumps. These are the opening lines:
"Three-year-old Sadie says that Dadda talks with his eyes. An eye-gaze computer sounds less romantic. 'I'll ask his eyes,' she says when she wants something. 'He loves me!' she exclaims, like a surprise present. Love like a present is the gift we share from him. I hold it fiercely. His magnificent heart."
It was astonishingly good. Utterly devoid of sentimentality and yet moving beyond words. Honest and raw, yet never mawkish. Funny, uplifting and as pure as little Sadie’s sweet exclamations.
Ruth wrote about the chaos of a house filled with strangers that no longer felt like home. She wrote of the secret swimming club she had started with two women friends. She wrote of the grief at losing so much of Simon to MND and her desperate need to find a connection with him wherever she could. The crook of his arm. Her lips on his temple. She wrote of finding her tribe and a nurse called Marian – a warm, loving character in the book – who promises she will never leave.
The article appeared on January 3rd, 2016, the first miserable Monday back at work for many. While I knew it was a uniquely lovely piece of writing, I could not have anticipated the response. Ruth’s words went viral. Emails came in from agents looking for her contact details with the view to publishing a book. BBC Radio 4 wanted to do a documentary.
A couple of months later a very excited Ruth emailed to let me know she had decided on Sarah Williams as an agent and that Chatto Windus had offered a "significant" pre-emptive bid for her book based on a 25-page synopsis. Then came the offer from Irish film company Element Pictures – makers of Oscar-nominated Room – for a film of the book.
It was the stuff of publishing fairytales. What is even more remarkable is that the article was the first piece of work Ruth Fitzmaurice ever had published in her life.
At home from the sea
Ruth has been for her swim. We are sitting at her kitchen table now. She is shivering. “Don’t mind me, this always happens. Sometimes I turn blue,” she says. There are cowboys and Indians on the oilskin tablecloth. An impressive Minecraft Lego set is spread out at one end of the table. She hasn’t the heart to dismantle it even though the dinner table gets crowded. It’s a comfortingly cluttered space, all children’s notes and drawings and family photographs. Knick-knacks and well-thumbed books. When we arrived back, there was a large box on the table, her first batch of books from the publisher. “Oh, look what’s here,” she laughs in amazement, ripping it open.
Simon is resting elsewhere in the house. The nurse on duty, a friendly man called Benedict, bustles in and out again. Later, she and Simon will do a joint interview about their creative processes with a Canadian radio station. Also on the schedule for today, a photographer from an English broadsheet. Ruth is just back from London where she was showcased at a publishing event. "I was on before Salman Rushdie. I was his warm-up act".
Ruth likes coffee. It's one of many simple pleasures in her life, another is "a nice pen sliding across the page". While she does her thing with the stove-top coffee pot, she recalls her nerves before The Irish Times article came out. She also remembers her mum's thoughts: she was glad the article was coming out in early January. "She said, 'Grand, nobody reads the paper that day'," Ruth laughs. "But that was the start of a whirlwind. The response was so unexpected. I had to choose between all these agents, but how do you choose? I went for Sarah Williams because she really seemed to connect with the emotion of the piece. I call her the Canadian badass."
Many writers spend years trying to find their voice. Reading that initial article it was as though Ruth's had arrived fully formed.
“It was a mental time,” the communications graduate says of writing the first six chapters to send to Williams. They were written by the end of February. Within 24 hours of it being sent out, it had been snapped up.
She continued writing. “As it happened there was a drought of nurses at the time so I was sitting at this table trying to write and running in and out to Simon. It was intense but I was all fired up doing something I’d always wanted to do”.
Finding her voice
Many writers spend years trying to find their voice. Reading that initial article it was as though Ruth’s had arrived fully formed. The book is like that. Deceptively simple prose, laced with clever imagery, emotional complexity and heart. It’s themed, going back and forth to life before and after MND. Her childhood in Ardee, Co Louth, in a house with four brothers which doubled as her doctor father’s surgery. It’s a love letter to Simon, to her children, to her tribe and to life itself. It contains short chapters with titles such as Friends, Kisses, Colour, and Kicking Cars. (In one of my favourite passages in the book, she describes a moment of rage at an inconsiderate driver where she got out of her car to kick the daylights out of his).
The parts where she describes her early relationship with Simon as a young, romantic and creatively-driven man come from a period where she was following Julia Cameron's course The Artist's Way, a seminal book on unlocking creativity. The author advocates writing "Morning Pages", a daily stream of consciousness. Ruth did the course, and wrote her Morning Pages. When she went back to those pages to help write the book she discovered the same voice that appeared in the article. Clear as a bell, it had been there all along.
She had nine months to finish the book during which she also mined the journal she had kept since Simon’s diagnosis. “I remember thinking, I can do it in nine months. I thought, ‘well it’s like a baby and I’m really good at having babies’.”
Some of the most interesting things happen out of pain. My life has often been the best and the worst things happening at the same time,"
She is, to be fair. One of the chapters is called Twins. When Simon came home on the ventilator, Ruth’s response – to expand her family of three – was surprising, but perhaps only to those who don’t know her.
“Some of the most interesting things happen out of pain. My life has often been the best and the worst things happening at the same time,” she says. “Simon was in respiratory failure and we decided to have another baby. In the midst of a horrible thing happening, you find a good thing. That’s survival”.
When she wrote about the decision to have another baby, her editor suggested she needed to “unpack that decision more so people will understand”.
“I can’t really explain it,” says Ruth. “For me, it was completely obvious. Simon nearly died, so let’s have a baby, what the f**k else would we do?”
“It’s the opposite of death. It’s the ultimate expression of life. We didn’t discuss it with anyone, we just went ahead and did it.”
She is bemused by how fascinated people often are by exactly how they did it. “It involved a bed and a stand-up wheelchair and a lot of manoeuvring. It wasn’t all romantic and candles but we made it work. ”
Her mother was worried about her during the pregnancy but the 20-week scan changed everything. They found out they were having twins, a girl and a boy. “It was an unspoken feeling. If anybody had any doubts about whether it was the right thing to do, it felt as though the universe was saying: yes, it’s the right thing to do.”
The five children, Jack (11), Raife (10), Arden (8), and twins Sadie and Hunter (5), loom large in the book. Their observations, such as "I wish I remembered his voice" or "will I get Meuron disease too?", provide heart-wrenching moments. Lately Hunter, who loves Mr Men books, has been suggesting a new title for the series: Mr Can't Move.
Tragic Wives Swimming Club
Friendship is also a huge theme. It dovetails with swimming. The Tragic Wives Swimming Club is made up of Ruth’s friend Michelle, a forensic psychologist and mother of four, and her childhood friend Aifric, an architect. Michelle’s husband, journalist Galen English, a keen cyclist, crashed his bike in 2014 leaving him paralysed and in a wheelchair. Ruth and Michelle’s friendship deepened even further as a result of shared experience.
“Often when things are particularly rough she is the only person I want to talk to. It’s an unbelievable gift to have a friend like that. It’s such a strange situation that both of our husbands ended up in wheelchairs and yet here we are. A lot of the reason I am coping is because I have her as a friend.”
Michelle and Galen were avid sea-swimmers before his accident, but for a year afterwards Michelle could not face the water; it was too painful a reminder of what the couple had lost. Aifric and Ruth began swimming with her, as a way to get her back into the water.
“The first time we stood there together and dived in there was this huge adrenalin rush. Let’s do it again, we said. It was an instant thing.” So they began bringing their gaggles of small children down to the beach – various beach regulars including a woman called Nancy who collects sea glass helped mind them – and diving in.
We refer to ourselves as mermaids, in a way we're being silly but the cove is like this space where you get to be whatever magical creature you choose,"
The book records their full-moon swims and occasional skinny-dipping swims. “When your home sometimes doesn’t feel like your home you need something else . . . I only have to go down to the cove or even drive by and say ‘hello sea’ to immediately feel at peace.”
“We refer to ourselves as mermaids, in a way we’re being silly but the cove is like this space where you get to be whatever magical creature you choose,” she says. “A lot of people who spend time in the cove have a lot of pain in their lives and that’s why they are compelled to swim all the time.”
She mentions Aifric who is “so untragic, she’s this lovely calm person and yet she also feels compelled to jump into the sea. She’s the perfect friend to have, a sponge that can absorb all the madness”.
That is love
I want to know what Simon thinks of the book. Alongside her great love for him, she's honest about their struggles. She writes about him at one point as a stranger with intense eyes. "Some days my man is mostly lost to me," she writes. And "our marital bed is damaging my soul".
“I was petrified of him reading it,” she says. “It was very hard for him to read those parts. But I told him, look there is only love in there, Simon. The whole book is about love, the good and the bad, that is love”.
Tears come now. Some are Ruth’s. Some are mine. She gets a box of tissues.
Halfway through reading the book, Simon wrote a message for her on his computer: “Ruth, it’s f**king mental being stuck inside your head.”
"I was so flattered," says Ruth. "I knew then that he really got it and he was impressed. But he stopped reading it for ages. He needed a break. The really hard thing about MND is that you are at totally opposite sides of the same thing. Simon can't move and I can move. This is the way things are. I would never do anything to hurt him but we also can't pussyfoot around it. If you weren't honest about all of it you'd go insane."
All through the book, Ruth explores ways to find a connection with Simon, despite MND. Where does she find Simon now? “Well, I’ll never stop looking, put it that way,” she says. “I find him through the kids, when we all spend time together. To see his eyes light up when he sees them, simple interactions where it feels like we are a family”.
But it’s hard?
“Yes it is. There are limited amounts of things we can do together. A lot of the time even conversations can be hard ... it’s tough to find that space.”
“Yes, it’s really lonely. I often think about who I was and who I am now. Our house being this public space and coupled with that sense of loneliness pushed me out to engage with all these other people in the world. Like Marian said to me the other day, ‘you’ve loads of friends, Ruth’. I never considered myself a person with loads of friends but I do have more than I ever had.
“I think I was pushed into doing that and if things were different I would have been much more complacent, just happy to have my relationship with Simon, us being a family.”
“And now I have all these women friends I share everything with. Maybe that happens when you get older anyway? I only know what it’s like now for me. And it’s awesome. Yes, it’s lonely in a lot of ways but that’s why I jump in the freezing water.”
She doesn't like the word "journey" but she has had to reflect on that a lot while writing the movie of her book. In meetings there is much talk of "Ruth's journey" and she says "can we please not talk about Ruth's journey because, well, I am Ruth". It has to be said, Ruth's "journey" mirrors the emotional coming-of-age experienced by many women in their forties who grow to know and love themselves better at that time of life.
“I sometimes think now, what would it be like if Simon hadn’t got sick? Who would I be?” she says. “Would I ever had sat down to write a book or would I have been happy and so in love and there wouldn’t have been that urgency? Looking at the person I was before Simon got sick, how happy we were, I kind of prefer the person I am now. Isn’t that weird? The bad shit makes you the person you are.”
‘Is this going to break me?’
Ruth is wonderful, sweary, funny company and I could talk to her for several more hours but there's a photoshoot planned and a radio interview to record. In a few days, a British magazine is coming to Greystones to do a swimsuit shoot with Ruth and her friends. As the book publicity kicks in, there are invitations to swim coming in from all over England and Ireland. Her mother is mortified that a piece she wrote for lifestyle magazine Good Housekeeping was rejected for not being Good Housekeeping enough. (Ruth, in contrast, is proud of this).
Before she drives me to the Dart station, she talks about strength. “Is this going to break me? Am I going to be able to survive this? I now have a real sense of my own strength. I know I can bounce back from a lot. And that I am going to be okay. You get upset, you think this is the point where I am going to break and you don’t. You pick yourself up and get on with it.”
“If I was looking back, well obviously if there was a chance Simon never got MND . . . but I don’t wish things had been different. Things are what they are. I am not saying everything happens for a reason but things happened the way they happened. With the worst of things, magical things happen as well.”
Then she stops to laugh at herself: “I definitely use the word magic too much.” She doesn’t. She uses it exactly as much as she should. Ruth Fitzmaurice. Author, mother, wife, mermaid. Magic.
I Found My Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice is published on July 6th by Chatto & Windus, €15.99.