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We All Live in Each Other's Shadows
By Zack Budryk
Thousands are sailing across the Western ocean,
To a land of opportunity
That some of them will never see;
Fortune prevailing across the Western ocean,
Their bellies full, their spirits free,
They’ll break the chains of poverty
And they’ll dance.
-Shane McGowan, “Thousands Are Sailing”
On the afternoon of August 15, 2010, a day before my grandmother’s 78th birthday, my mom, my aunt and I took her out to lunch. She’d moved into assisted living earlier in the year and was clearly hating every minute of it, so we tried to take her out whenever possible. Towards the end of lunch, we realized she was choking. We tried the Heimlich; didn’t work. I called an ambulance, but by the time it got there she’d gone into cardiac arrest. It took her to the Medical Center of Virginia and we waited.
She died around noon the next day.
Grandmother, as a person, was always at this strange crossroads of stereotypes and subversion of expectation. She was a devoutly Catholic native of County Meath who once lectured my father for making a joke about the Resurrection, but she was raised Protestant and had a period of vague agnosticism between the two. She had distinctly Catholic views on abortion, sex and marriage equality, but she was divorced and once resigned her job at the Richmond Times-Dispatch because her editor tried to restrict her to “women’s work” like the wedding section (I’m reminded of Joss Whedon’s quip when asked about his enthusiasm for empowered female characters—“If you met my mother, you’d understand.”) She admired the IRA and Margaret Thatcher in equal measure.
Most, or at least a substantial portion, of Irish-Americans have to go back as far as the Famine to trace their roots to Ireland, so I always felt lucky, no pun intended, to be able to grow up around someone who provided that kind of context for my identity. I didn’t speak directly to her very much about our mutual Irishness (I wish I had) but I always saw her generosity and stoicism with a distinct, profound sadness showing through to be a perfect illustration of the Irish character.
One of the most defining moments I can remember was a story from her funeral. The late Bishop Walter Sullivan gave a homily where he described writing a column in the Catholic Virginian that used the phrase “Jesus justices.” My grandmother, he said, wrote in shortly thereafter to inform him in no uncertain terms that “justice” is not a verb. Bishop Sullivan countered by pointing to a passage by the English poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins using it in that manner. She grudgingly conceded to him and thus began a years-long correspondence. That’s an Irishwoman for you—when you talk of the Savior, God help you if you’re not grammatical about it.
St. Patrick’s Day has been weird for me ever since; I didn’t give much thought to it before she died, but only two generations removed from Ireland, the celebration always seemed like a weird photocopy compared to the actual Irish people I knew. Since 2010, though, I’ve come to value it a lot, less as a celebration of my heritage and more as a reminder in the air that four years on, she was here, she lived and she left footprints.
The week of St. Patrick’s Day 2011, Raychel and I took a weeklong trip up to New York and, both of us being irredeemable nerds, our itinerary was largely museums and historical sites. One of the things I was most looking forward to was the Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park City, a half-acre plot of rocks, grass and soil imported from western Ireland. Since we had timed our trip with the parade, and this would be the first St. Patrick’s Day since Grandmother died, I was thinking a lot about her on the trip. During our visit to the memorial, I noticed a Gaelic inscription on the entrance corridor: “I scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine”—we all live in each other's shadows. Seeing those words and thinking about Grandmother and all her contradictions, and all of my own, I felt like I didn’t quite get it at that moment, but I felt like someday I would. Or maybe I never would, but it would still be okay.
#StPatricksDay #Grandmother #IrishHeritage #Family #Ireland #Heritage