Further Afield

Back in 2017, I did a post about my younger son heading off on his school trip to Barcelona. The quiet joy and the dull ache of it all. You can have a look at it here if you’re bothered. This week, four and a half years later, and he’s off on a plane again. This time, though, he’s not coming back on Saturday night.

It’s all good. He turned twenty-one just after he left and he’s a seasoned university-goer who is well-used to living away from home and looking out for himself. He’s been looking forward to going and will be back in this country come Christmas. So, it’s all good.

Still, the tug.

Neither of us had been to an airport for a couple of years. Where have all these cars come from? We have to go up and up and up through the multi storey car park to even get a smell of a parking space.

The automatic bag check-in machine nearly defeats us at the first hurdle. No matter what touch pads we touch or how we present the damn case, the device will not co-operate. All around us, people are weighing their bags, attaching their sticky labels, and moving on while we remain confounded. It is almost enough to make you say, ‘sod it, let’s just bugger back home and try again next year when it’ll all be easier.’ But no. It turns out we have chosen a machine where someone has abandoned their check-in in mid-process. A quick shift to another machine and everything is fine. We are as good at it as everyone else is.

A brief discussion about going through security, which has always confounded both of us a little. ‘Best take the Docs off, stick ‘em in a tray. The eyelets might set some bloody thing off.’

Then it’s the departure gate, up the long escalator that seems to get you halfway up into the sky already. That’s as far as I can go, Buster. A brief tight hug. Weave your way through the simple maze of queueing-barriers. Round the corner past passport control. A fleeting wave and gone.

I find a quiet spot. He’s never flown on his own before. There’s security, find the gate, fly, land, find the baggage, get the transfer, find the place, find the room, get settled… ‘Know what, though? It’ll be fine. The Dude is calm and resourceful. Everything is doable, nothing is all that hard.

The occasional text throughout the day confirms all this. Everything gets done. Any glitch is waltzed through. I’m an old fool to ever consider worrying. But you do, don’t you? It’s hard not to.

It reminds me of something I’ve forgotten or at least of something I know but which isn’t as much to the forefront of my mind as it used to be. It’s just this. You have to do hard things to do great things. The easiest route to everything is not always the best. You have to occasionally pull up a stake, shake your leaves a bit, stretch out to the sun.

I’m only writing this for all the parents and young adults who are feeling that university separation tug in this current week. I don’t think you are alone, and I don’t think you should feel that you are. Everybody feels the tug, I reckon, it’s only natural. Plus, as with most everything, our Pandemic has made it all that little bit harder. We’ve all been comfied-up together for a long time and, even if it hasn’t always been totally idealistic for everybody, it’s still something we’ve got used to having. It makes the tug that little bit jerkier.

So be easy on yourselves, parents and children of the newly separated generation. If I know anything, it will get easier quite quickly, even if it never quite gets A-Okay.

Our practically grown-up kids are off on something like a slightly qualified Star Trek mission. Boldly going where it sometimes feels like nobody has ever gone before.

And they'll be fine. 


Driving the Wrong Way Down the Road to the Final

I had to make an unexpected drive to Dublin on Friday evening. My son needed to get there for early on Saturday and this was the best way to make it happen. I didn’t mind at all. Sam is always fun company in the car and the playlists on his phone are unerringly great. I stayed over for the night and got back on the road home the next morning.

This was Saturday morning. The morning of the All-Ireland Football Final.

I was heading firmly west while meanwhile, over on the other side of the road, everybody from my entire county was heading east. That’s how it seemed anyway.

Looking back on it now, exactly one day after, the drive seemed like something of a privilege. It was a view of something that I might never have otherwise got to see. Not to overstate things, it was a small joy to behold.

A line or two of context. Bear with.

The Gaelic Football team of my adoptive home county of Mayo are, without question, one of the most powerful forces in the game. Few could argue against that. But the team have not won an All-Ireland Final, and thus the coveted Sam Maguire Cup, since 1951. That makes it a round seventy years this year. For many years, the team to beat has been Dublin. A team could do very well against all comers and then face Dublin and find an immovable block wall in their face. Dublin won five in a row and were looking for a sixth this year. Except this year, Mayo beat Dublin in the semi-final. Suddenly, the block wall was gone. The final lay ahead, as it had done so many times before, but this year was different. Dublin would not be there, waiting.

So, as I made the three-hour drive home to Castlebar yesterday, the football faithful were making their way to Croke Park in the hope and expectation of seeing history made.

I had expected something on the road. I silently gave thanks that I wasn’t going the other way, trying to get into the city in all that traffic. I expected there to be cars whizzing past me on their way. What I got, though, I didn’t expect that.

It was a parade. A quite wonderful parade. More than that, it was a legion on the move. The Mayo fans, heading to Croker.

When you’re in Castlebar in the weeks before the big match, you may see little flags attached to a car. You may see a licence plate, illicitly changed out for a red and green ‘Mayo4Sam’ sentiment. Individually, these things look fun and nice.

But when practically every car going the other way is decked out in the red and green, when every car is packed with families and friends, it’s an entirely different effect. Every petrol station along the way was replete with fans and flag-ridden cars. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh they went past me. I couldn’t help but wave and occasionally toot my horn at people I didn’t know. I glanced in my rear-view mirror and figured that the person behind me thought I was a damned lunatic. Who cares? Wave, toot, wave toot.

Even more than the legion of vehicles, there was the people and the gestures that lined the roadway in every county. Tractors sat in the highest point of fields, bedecked in the colours. Cherry pickers raised as high as they go with kitted-out mannequins up on the platforms, watching out. But the people. Ah, the people. They were the best of all. Outside of houses and farm gates, all along the way, entire families in Mayo garb bounced up and down and waved and cheered as the parade tooted past. Rare bridges above, all Mayo clad and cheering. It was like how I imagined the Tour de France might be. It only happened yesterday but I don’t think I’m ever going to forget one man alone on the grass verge outside of his house, easily eighty years old. Beside him, his trusty ride-on lawnmower and, on it, a massive teddy bear in a Mayo Jersey. The old guy bouncing and waving his flag like a good thing, the cars responding in kind.

I smiled all the way home. I felt I knew a little more about the passion and the glory of Mayo football. How it raises its people up.

Mayo fans never give up, never will. It is a key part of what defines them/us. Every year that they can, they will ride in that parade, filled with pride and hope and expectation. All the arid years that have gone before only adding further to the love and respect that the place has for its mighty team.

The parade thought that yesterday was going to be their day and, in truth, so did I. I said it out loud where most townsfolk concealed their hopes and anxieties in endless discussions about tickets. As it turned out, it wasn’t our day. We couldn’t get more scores than Tyrone. Pages will be written. The exact ‘whys’ will be addressed by people much more qualified than me. We will be gutted for a time and then we will regroup and reassess and go for it again, the passion undiluted, the drive undimmed.

I’ve written it before, I think. Ours is a team of superheroes who walk among us every day. They give their everything for so little reward. History and glory and the victory itself being the primary goals. In consistently pushing as hard as they possibly can, they elevate our little place to something so much more than it would otherwise be.

So, thanks for the ride, Mayo. Even if, for me, it was in the wrong direction.

Next year will be great.

Company in the Wall

As I wrote in a recent post, after my brother Michael died recently he left a wish that he be put in the Wall in Sligo Cemetery. He wasn’t keen on the idea of leaving somebody with a grave-maintenance job, so he favoured the Wall. The Wall is something fairly new to us although it is a thing that is seen the world over. We certainly see them a lot in the movies. It’s just a wall of little compartments where your ashes go after you are cremated. A little plate is put on front of your space and that’s you sorted. It’s a regular thing but a relatively novel one in my hometown of Sligo where you generally go in the soil and push up some daisies.

So, we put Michael’s ashes in the Wall a few Saturdays ago. It was a nice low key gathering of friends and family. The sun shone, which was nice. Margaret, my sister, gave a lovely eulogy for her elder brother, who may not have been the world’s greatest chatterbox when he was younger. “He left me with two great pearls of wisdom,” Margaret told us, “’Where’s Mam?’ and ‘Shut the door’.” Having said that, she did go on to confirm that in his latter decades, he was as cheery and communicative a man as you could ever hope to meet. After that Eamon, Michael’s little nephew, read his little extract from Saint-Exupery, “And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night…” and Michael would have liked that quite well, I reckon.

Then the little wooden casket, with his ashes in, went in the Wall and we stepped away for a moment while the cemetery men fixed the plate in place.

It was only when we stepped back again that I noticed who was there in the wall beside Michael. Martin, Alan’s dad, right there on his left. Alan is one of a small handful of my very best friends. We go way back to when we were young teens and, as the saying goes, we’ve all passed a lot of water together. Alan is a great man, one of the strongest, most deeply moral, people I know, brilliant musician, motorbiker, dad, husband and (he’d slap me gently for this) outrageously handsome. His dad was always there when we were teens. A cool guy, a man’s man, someone you’d be happy to meet and maybe also be a little in awe of.

And I guess it’s indicative that business is a little slow at the Sligo Cemetery Wall because it’s been a few years now since Martin passed away. I remember travelling up to Sligo and meeting some people who I hadn’t seen in a long time. It’s been a while, yet there they are, Michael and Martin, side by side.

This made me happy. Well, as happy as one can be when the ashes of your beloved brother are being laid to rest. Maybe not happy but more content, definitely content. There was Martin, my good friend’s dad, and Michael. I was glad they were beside each other.

This ‘Ashes in the Wall’ day was the hardest day of all for me. All of it was hard, make no mistake, but that part seemed even tougher than the rest. That may seem strange, weren’t other parts obviously harder? I think it was because this was a little social gathering in the sun, the usual suspects, all together and, critically, Michael wasn’t there. He wasn’t over there chatting to Jim, or hanging back a bit with Liz, or having the crack with Harry up the way a bit. I get all the positive thoughts about how he was there in our hearts and memories but, dress it up however you like, he wasn’t there. And that was hard. And Michael’s place in the wall being there right next door to Martin’s somehow made it a little easier.

I should just leave that alone. It’s enough that it’s true. But it in my nature to ask myself why. Why is it that the presence of my best friend’s dad’s ashes next to my brother’s ashes gave me some kind of solace?

I thought about it and it isn’t some childish notion that they will be company for each other there in that lovely location. Chatting away or some such thought. It’s not anything like that.

What it is, I think, is something that relates much more to the living than to those who have gone.

When I go to visit the Wall, in the future, I will see Martin’s name there too and I will remember him and the fun times we had in his home as teenagers, as well as what a wonderful cool guy he was. A golfer, a dad, a husband, the best man in the world to decorate a cake. All these things will be there at the wall for me, along with of the things that are Michael’s and mine too. And, maybe, when Martin’s family come by, they will see Michael’s name there too and they will recall, perhaps subconsciously, some of the great things about him and his life and what a good man he was.

I think that’s why it makes me content.

Yes. I think that’s it.