I found my tribe at the cove in Greystones

My house is full of strangers because my husband has motor neuron disease, but my secret all-year swim club saves me

Ruth Fitzmaurice at Ladies’ Cove in Greystones, Co Wicklow

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.

My husband is a wonder to me but he is hard to find. I search for him in our home. He breathes through a pipe in his throat. He feels everything but cannot move a muscle. I lie on his chest counting mechanical breaths. I hold his hand but he doesn’t hold back. His darting eyes are the only windows left. I won’t stop searching. My soul demands it and so does his. Simon has motor neuron disease, but that’s not the dilemma, at least not today. Be brave.

I am sitting in my car in Wicklow town, looking out on the harbour. I'm watching these yacht masts dancing. Their heads are swaying to and fro, warbling with Joni Mitchell on the radio.

Ruth Fitzmaurice at Ladies’ Cove in Greystones, Co Wicklow

Wicklow harbour is nice. It’s vast and full of blue. It has a higher, wider reach than the Greystones view. I can’t breathe in Greystones right now, so this is good. Maybe Greystones is like all great loves. You either marvel at every familiar dancing step and soak it into your bones or, like today, the familiar edges trip you up and annoy the shit out of you. Too claustrophobic, a rat in a cage, a lift with no panic button.


Here’s the dilemma. My house is full of strangers. I have painted it bright colours and surrounded it with love, but strangers step through it at an alarming rate. Well- meaning Muhammads make tea. So many Helens and Marys and Jackies and Michaels and Deirdres and Claires and Sams and Franks and Graces smile and leave mops in weird places. I sidestep them in the hall and at the dishwasher. Our house is filled with nurses and carers and they are hurting me. It’s not their fault.

'I Found My Tribe’ is a book by Ruth Fitzmaurice. It explores the writer’s life with her filmmaker husband Simon Fitzmaurice, who has motor neuron disease and their family. Video: Nick Bradshaw/Roisin Ingle

Some stay a while, but most are passing through. Some stay a while. I grow to love them and then they break my heart and leave anyway. It's nobody's fault. This is agency work. Some wear overbearing perfume. It attacks olfactory emotions I didn't even know I had. I feel irrational hatred towards them because they make my house smell like them. Most of them smoke but I don't mind the smell of that. At least it's a universal smell, like fire or Fairy Liquid or Persil Automatic or petrol. A lot of them try and turn our home into a hospital, and I fight like a tiger against that and bare pointy teeth.

They all leave eventually, except for Marian. Marian believes in angels and blood moons. She lives purely through her emotions, and a good day always starts with this night nurse and a sleepy, chatty cup of tea. I wish I believed in angels. We drink tea together on dark mornings. Marian believes everything happens for a reason and that people have colours and swirly energies around them, positive or negative.

If you hang out with her for long enough, you could be laughing or crying or both and you can almost see a pencil outline on the walls of angel wings in the shadows. She is, of course, my angel. “I’m not going anywhere,” she said to me once. “I’m here for you.” I look into her eyes and I believe her.

There was a blood moon last night and the sea is agitated. My soul is agitated. A blood moon. We are 90 per cent water, Marian says, and that is why the moon and the tides affect us. That is why I jump in the sea, I say. I am trying to find a home, make a home, be a home for my five children. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I fail.

Some people understand that the small things make a difference. A nice pen to write with that slides perfectly on the page. Hot coffee in a particular cup. These things matter when your soul is on the edge. It fills you full of holes, this life.

This is my cove

I have to tell you a secret. This is my cove. No really, it's actually mine. So says an old lady who rolls up on a flowery purple push- bike one day. We are standing in swimming hats, my friend and I. Two ladies at Ladies' Cove, the steps that lead into the sea at Greystones, Co Wicklow. We are standing, turning slightly blue on a sunny April day. The air is warm but those in the secret all-year swim club know that the sun is deceptive. The sea is bloody freezing this time of year. Colder than Christmas.

We are trying to be brave. It’s my cove, says the old lady, and hitches a foot to the ground, leaning her purple bike into a chat. We don’t want to chat, we want to dive, but she isn’t going anywhere. She is lonely and wants to talk to us and that’s that. I aspire to be this old lady some day. I would feel lucky to grow old like her, on her purple, flowery bike, wind in her hair, stopping to chat when she feels like it and when she needs it. Some old ladies are great like that. I aspire to be her, because obviously, it’s not her cove at all. It’s mine.

I collect stones on the beach of my precious cove. My favourite stones are the grey ones full of holes. The sea made these holes, but each one is different and beautiful. I rattle them home in my pocket and arrange them on windowsills.

My swimming friend has a cousin who is one of those calm people who are healing to be around. A drink of tea with her in summer garden sunshine brings me the revelation that I am not a calm person. I yearn for her serenity. We were talking about a first-world problem, maybe a universal problem: the dilemma of where to live.

We have love in the nucleus of our family, but where do you put roots down with that love? An affordable bigger house in the countryside, or a commutable distant town? Or stay where you know people, in a smaller house bursting at the seams? My friend’s calm cousin cuts through the bullshit. “Find your tribe,” she says. Finding your people is more important than what kind of house you live in. Decide whether you’ve found your tribe and go from there. I believe her.

Find your tribe, she said, but maybe the cove is my tribe and the cove is mine. My babies stand with soggy shoes and noses on the shore, skidding on wet stones and cheer as their Momma plunges to her salvation. Yes, this is my cove and the sea is my salvation. It shocks my body back to life, as rain darts on the sea surface on a misty, romantic day.

On other days I need to weep. When your body breaks down in a parked car, it is embarrassing. A man walked by on the footpath at the precise moment my face crumbled, and I turned away sharply. Oh, the shame. The horror that someone should witness this pain in the safe routine of the school run.

On this day I can’t escape the feeling of being robbed in a ransacked house full of strangers. I cry for all the things we have lost, my husband and I, for the pain of lost things in a ransacked house. I thought of stepping out of the car in the rain. Step out and walk in the rain to the sea, to the steps down to the cove. To just step into the waters and struggle in my winter jacket and not come back up.

I could never do that because of the five snoring beauties in my public space of a house. My five beautiful children. The sweep of Sadie’s curls are the closest I’ve come to a God.

They’re just American

Some people took over our cove one day, a group of tourists who announced they were jumping in with their clothes on. I stared at this lady in horror with her big winter coat and remembered I had thought of jumping in myself not so long ago. But this was no tragic, stones-in-her- pockets, Emily Dickinson endeavour. They were whooping and laughing.

“Are they drunk?” I muttered to my swimming friend.

“No, I think they’re just American,” she said honestly, and we both got a fit of the giggles. They had rolled up from the YMCA. A religious cleansing? I just kept eyeing the American woman’s puffy winter jacket and imagined her swirling under with the seaweed. They marched in from the shore, arms raised in triumph, and emerged John the Baptist-style.

But on another day I stood at the edge of the sea and wept. My feet were submerged on the bottom step and I wiggled my red toenails and sobbed. My sea-swimming friend was there to hug me. Today the sea was choppier but my soul was calmer and refreshed and content when I climbed back up the steps. We are 90 per cent water, says Marian, and my emotions are as mysterious to me as the swell of the sea. All I know is that I could never leave this place. The cove is my tribe and the sea saves me.

We have lost many things. But sometimes I find my husband: lips on the curve of his temple, a crawl space in the crook of his arm. Some things are lost and found again. I email him words of love, and he emails back. A mad moon tidal wave. Screen to screen, we’re holding hands at last. Two souls. It’s a marvellous, familiar dance. Great loves are for the brave.