The year I was pulled into the world: The Yes Woman signs off
My experiences this year have been enriching beyond measure, and now I will say yes to my greatest challenge yet: helping my mother through her terminal cancer
Laura Kennedy: ‘I knew that I needed to take a year out.’ Photograph: Alan Betson
This time last year, I emerged bleary-eyed from the glittering confines of Trinity College and into the world. I had decided to take a year out of academia, having spent the previous seven studying English and philosophy, and then more philosophy at Trinity, with my head firmly inside a book.
Up to that point, I had entertained no thoughts other than finishing my studies. All too aware of how lucky I was to have earned the opportunity to attend that institution, I didn’t permit myself any distractions.
From a young age, my mother made my brother and me aware that the world wasn’t designed to our advantage, and we would have to work harder than others to achieve. Disadvantaged children from urban Limerick do not generally make it to university, particularly to PhD level, so once I got there, it felt self-indulgent and wrong to waste my time on anything other than bettering myself.
Fast-forward seven years and I’m in my mid-20s, giving tutorials to undergrads at Trinity while finishing my PhD, and living on that mystically beautiful campus. There’s just one problem: I know my philosophy but not much else. In my rage to justify my place in academia, I’ve neglected to do basic things such as learn to drive or talk to men. Almost all of my free time since the age of 17 was spent in minimum wage jobs to pay the rent, and somehow I let myself get to 26 without ever nurturing a long-term relationship, travelling, or, by some standards, having any fun at all.
I sit in my shared student apartment at Trinity, looking across New Square to the concrete box of the Ussher Library, and realise that I’ve used this place as some sort of Fabergé egg prison, walling up inside its splendour and neglecting to develop my whole self in favour of developing a few lobes inside my head, while the others shrivelled and stupefied.
It may have been because I had an epiphany and needed a break, or it may have been because one of my filthy undergraduate housemates had drunkenly left a used sanitary towel in the skin the night before, but either way I knew that I needed to take a year out. Seeing a little of the world, and living in it, suddenly became urgently necessary.
Love letter to Dublin
This column, which was a year of saying yes to a wide variety of experiences, has been – among other things – a love letter to Dublin. Once I moved out of Trinity, and into a tiny apartment in Rathmines, the city expanded in front of me. It is inviting, intimidating, and has an underbelly of menace in parts when the light starts receding, but I walked its streets as though I’d never seen the city before. And really, I hadn’t.
Almost everywhere I went for the seven years prior was in the vicinity of Trinity College, and if I ventured too far from that centre, it would whisper for my return. I would remember that I should be working – that others were and that I would fall behind – and back I would go to Ussher Library, while the world teemed with life outside its thick concrete walls.
This year has transformed Dublin from a two-dimensional map inside my head into something vividly interactive. One walk down Grafton Street can reveal an old man feeding ice cream to his dog, a toddler bucking and flailing on the ground in a paroxysm of agony at a refused request, and a student, head bowed, having a bad day.
The city is littered with little alleys and interesting, hidden things to be discovered. When I feel downcast and revert to my old diffidence, glancing upward on any Dublin street sets me right again. Looking up past the shopfronts to the glorious buildings above is a history lesson, but it lifts you out of the crush of a busy street and sets something at ease inside you.
Our capital city is beautiful and complicated, scuzzy and rambling; it offers a lot to appreciate and experience. There are people all over this city and country who are worth stopping to talk to, if only you took the time. I never had, until the week I said yes to being nice to strangers. I had always operated under the presumption that I should leave people be. Perhaps one in five people I spoke to responded rudely, but four were friendly and open. It was hard to maintain my pessimism in the face of that.
While I was at Trinity, I separated myself from Dublin and the people in it. Moving out of that haven and into the bustle has forced me to engage in the life of the city, and for the first time since I came here from Limerick aged 17 with a very heavy bag on my small back, Dublin feels like my true home.
The experiences that The Yes Woman has allowed me to have were enriching beyond measure. I have been able to confront my own sense of inadequacy in so many ways. Six weeks of Brazilian jiu-jitsu at Straight Blast Gym reacquainted me with the body I had always found so distastefully feeble. An academic life gives you the choice to live – as much as anyone can – outside your body. You can ignore its deficiencies while developing your mind, and you can almost ignore the fact that your mind isn’t worth much if it’s tethered to an unhealthy body. Those weeks forced me to confront my own laziness and fear of my body, and set me on a path to dealing with that.
Volunteering at Tthe Dogs Trust was wonderful, an excellent reminder to be less selfish. Bikram Yyoga reminded me I don’t actually ever want to be in temperatures of more than 40 degrees. I learned to knit and to use a sewing machine. I became open enough to move in with a human man, of whom I’m very fond, despite his ridiculous “no shoes in the house” rule.
Small act of openness
Every small act of openness throughout the lifespan of this column has pulled me a little further into the world. Without realising, I have passed the point at which I could have turned back, and am happier for it. With every experience I have met a person or people with an interest or skill, who shared it with me unreservedly and were kind about it. Throughout the time, I expected judgment and humiliation, only to realise that I was the only person making judgments.
I am not “fixed”, merely improved, and proud for having made the change. It is easier in the short term to stay as you are, even if you are unhappy. Admitting one’s faults and trying to change involves an attitudinal shift that feels like lifting a weight you can’t possibly manage. Over time, though, those muscles strengthen, like any others. After a few months, you look down only to realise that you’ve lifted your burden half way to its destination already.
Still, things have happened this year that I wanted to say no to. When something outside of our control occurs – something too awful to face – we must still assent to it. My mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer two months ago, and at 27, I don’t feel anywhere near ready to be without her. At 58, she doesn’t feel ready to die. On hearing the doctor declare her prognosis, all I wanted was to say no. No. I will not accept this. I will not allow it. I will not watch my mother die. It is barbaric. It is a loss I cannot measure and a pain that might be unbearable.
But it isn’t about me, or within my control, and so I must say yes. Yes I will help. Yes I will. I will defend her interests and nurture her ailing body, and yes I will love my mother. From next week on in the Life Friday page, I’ll be starting a new column documenting the experience of living with a loved one who has terminal cancer.
That is the note on which The Yes Woman ends. It isn’t the metamorphosis that I had hoped to end on. I wanted to return to finish the final year of my PhD newly open to the world. Instead I must take one more year before I go back, in order to care for my mother in the last year of her life. My one parent, support and great friend is dying, and I must help her through the process. I want to say no, as though that will change the situation, but it will happen anyway. So I will assent. I finally said yes to finishing Ulysses this year, so for my mother and for myself, I will say one more yes, in Joyce’s words: ‘yes I said yes I will Yes.’
- Laura Kennedy’s new weekly column, The Leavetaking, begins on Friday, September 25th