Two questions loomed during my brother's short illness: 1) How long could the torture of his sickness continue ... how much would it ask of us ... how would it leave us once it had had its way with us; and 2) should I cancel my trip to Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Scotland, set for the middle of September.
The trip had been planned for some time--a tick of the bucket list box--and had its beginnings over two cups of coffee in a small cafe along Winter Park's picturesque Park Avenue.
The very name summons lovely pictures, does it not? Brick streets, storefronts decorated with every imaginable bauble and frock, every delicacy and pretty for the home. There are bookstores and chocolate shops, cafes and restaurants. Along the avenue, shop owners place bowls of water for pedestrians walking their dogs. There are the elegantly dressed and the dressed down; the sidewalks are nearly always crowded with older shoppers and diners who saunter and mingle as well as students from a nearby private liberal arts college who move and chatter with youth and Starbucks as their fuel.
And there we sat, my friend from Northern Ireland, 33 years my junior, sipping on hot coffee and eating pumpkin bread, discussing our mutual work as writers, when suddenly she said, "Eva, if you ever want to come to Ireland, you've got a place to stay."
We didn't know then. We couldn't imagine, even as we planned the trip in earnest nearly a year later, all that would transpire before I would ever--could ever--step onto a plane bound for Dublin. We talked about the best time of year, we discussed "time off" and where we would stay the first nights, how much time we'd spend in her home, a quick flight to Scotland where we'd enjoy two days and one night. We watched travel videos and had long "chats" on Facebook as we planned everything down to the minute detail. But what we didn't plan was the phone call from my brother in May--four months before I was to leave--telling me his cancer had returned. And, this time it appeared, it had decided to play hardball.
What we never once considered that day was the doctor's words the following day--terminal ... six months to a year--or how it might impact all that careful outlining of my ten-day adventure with my Irish friend, Clare.
I cancelled all business trips but one scheduled for October, yet every time I picked up the phone to dial Delta's customer service, to say, "I need to cancel this trip of a lifetime," an inner voice (was it God?) whispered, "Put the phone down."
And so I did.
The answers came soon enough, although at the time the days seemed endless. “Watching someone you love… die?" wrote Rachel Van Dyken in her book Toxic, "There are no words for how broken that makes a person. It’s like waking up from a bad dream only to find out that it’s you reality, it’s like watching sunlight fade from the sky, like watching death suck the one you love dry, and being powerless to stop it. You may as well try to stop the waves from rolling in, or the sun from rising.In the end, the waves will roll, the sun will set, and death will come. The only thing you have a choice in? How you deal with it…when it does.”
When it did was 13 long/short weeks after diagnosis, nearly one month before I was to leave for my trip. And so it was that the answer to Question One gave me my answer to Question Two.
My traveling companion (Mr. Bear) and I landed in Dublin at about 10:00 a.m. on a gloriously crisp Irish Friday morning. After securing my luggage and making my way through Customs, I walked into the body of the airport, exchanged a few American dollars for European euros, and then waited for Clare to arrive so that our vacation could begin. Within minutes, she strolled through the wide sliding-glass doors. We embraced, exclaimed that we couldn't believe we were actually here, doing this and then off we went, headed for the harbor town of Bray in County Wicklow.
Everything about Bray (Bré in Gaelic) came across as charming and inviting. The morning sun had nearly reached the top of its ascent in a marble-blue sky veiled with a lace of white clouds. Near the shoreline, it shone down on the Irish Sea, casting diamond glints toward those who strolled along the pebble beach or the sidewalks of the pubs and waterfront shops.
Before us, rising like a dome-shaped invitation, Bray Head extended her arms, beckoning me to traverse her incline toward new heights and a new experience.
After parking, Clare introduced me to a "99," or soft ice cream cone served with a shortbread cookie extended from its top like a chimney jutting from the roof of a house. I didn't know whether to eat the cookie first or start in on the cone--if memory serves, I opted for the cookie.
Soon enough, Clare and I were walking along the smooth path that led uphill, me stopping along the way to take a photo or to inhale the crisp air. Or, periodically to say "hello" to another hiker who either passed us going in our same direction or passed us upon their return to the top. Shortly, the footpath became rocky, carved out by nature rather than paved by man. Ancient rocks jutted from the earth and formed a natural rock climb, which I happily darted up--alone--and then, after casting a glance over the sea and harbor, back down where Clare waited.
We came to the remains of a cottage and the location of what was once a "toll booth."
Again, I pushed my body to climb the stones, again returning to where Clare waited. We came around a deep curve in the road where I encouraged her to lean against the stone wall where I photographed her, looking young and vibrant, especially with the clouds forming angelic rays shooting toward heaven behind her.
When we paused long enough to look out and below, I spotted an old railroad track that disappeared into a tunnel, which Clare informed me would be called a "bla ho" (black hole) in Northern Ireland. (I suppose some letters of the alphabet are simply not necessary, but who am I to judge? After all, I come from a part of the world where the letter "g" has all but been forgotten.)
We continued on, climbing higher and stopping periodically to look out, to admire, to breathe in the clear air, until fatigue at having not eaten and having been in an airplane all night, sleeping only intermittently in my excitement, overtook me and I suggested we head back toward town where we'd booked an airbnb for the next two nights.
By the time we got back to the parking area, we were both toasted by the sun and parched dry, ready for something to drink. We stopped only long enough to admire the gardens
around a home before slipping into the dark cool respite of a pub with a large checkerboard floor, French-blue walls, brass accents, and tables and bar chairs rich with patina, and a kind barkeep who made a logical suggestion for "the American."
I dubbed the place my "first Irish pub," because ... it was. But with a pub and a church on every corner of any Irish city or village, it clearly would not be my last.
Though tired beyond measure, excitement continued to pulse through me as we headed to the airbnb because I knew that, even so soon after my brother's awful and--for me--untimely death, my healing had begun ...
... and there was still something quite special I needed to do.
When the time was right ...