As children, my brother and I (along with every kid in the neighborhood) played outside from the time we woke up until the street lights flickered on. Even as little children, because our parents didn't worry; no parent worried. We were safe. Free to run and play and frolic. We hopped on our bikes and trikes and took off for wherever our wobbly little legs could take us.
We were safe. The worst thing that could happen during the course of the day was a fall resulting in a bruised or scraped knee. Or palm . . . which was the most painful.
Even the winter months couldn't stop us. We merely bundled up. Came in after we could no longer feel our feet and, once they thawed out, we pulled on a drier pair of socks, slipped into our boots, and away we went. Days of snow--yes, it snows in Georgia--were non-school days, full of adventures. We made snowmen, trekked up one street and down the other. We gathered our friends as we went along, battled in snowball fights . . . laughing and giggling, blowing thick clouds from our warm breaths into the cold air. Occasionally, mothers beckoned us inside for mugs of hot chocolate, not once afraid of where we were or what we were drinking.
We were safe. Every day was for living; dying never entered our minds. But then . . . childhood was over and we were adults who eventually swam in the murky water of middle age. Safety became less sure as death diagnoses stared us in the face. We now had property to go through and financials to settle and legal papers to sign and a funeral to plan.
And he did . . . right down to the song he wanted sung by a local men's singing group. He chose the casket he wanted to be buried in, the wood reminding him of his childhood bedroom set. He picked out the guestbook---the one with the big-mouthed bass because "you know I love to fish"---and the thank you cards I would inevitably fill out.
He asked me to please speak at the funeral. "But only if you can," he said. "If this beats you up too bad, and you can't, I'll understand." I assured him I would speak, beat up or not.
"You know . . . " he said one day as we drove to another round of chemo, "I always knew I would die." He struggled for the next moment, the pain slicing its way through his declining body. "I just . . ." he said finally, "never expected to die like this."
Clare and I left the Cliffs of Moher, drove up the Wild Atlantic
Way, and cruised into Northern Ireland without incident. Remarkably, we didn't get lost, although we did stop once to call Clare's brother, Alistair, to make sure we were headed in the right direction.
Timing was everything; we were meeting Clare's brother and their parents at ("we should be there around") 5:00 p.m. at a place called Florence Court, an 18th century estate located near Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, which Clare was quite excited about showing me. Along the way, we drove through quaint villages, our conversation set to nonstop. One would never know she was young enough to be my youngest child . . . or that I am factually older than her parents . . . we were and are bound by a commonality I cannot begin to describe. We think a lot alike. We are both writers. Both Christians who take faith seriously. Both women with goals and plans toward those goals (although one of us has more time, I think, to see those goals to completion).
As we drew closer to the five-o'clock hour, I grew nervous that Florence Court and its tourable mansion would not be open.
But a sign as we pulled into the lush grounds assured us that it was, in fact, open until 7:30 p.m.
Well, the sign said it, but apparently the staff had not read the sign---the placed was locked up tight.
Undaunted by rules, Clare and I hiked along lovely trails through tranquil woods until we reached the mansion hoping that, surely, someone would be about.
No one was.
Here we were, face-to-face with an impressive 18th century house bowing its chest with its colonnade arms stretched wide, 14 acres of woodland behind us . . . and we were alone.
We traipsed back to the parking area where, according to a text from Alistair, the family waited for us in the walled garden, located just beyond a stone, ivy-covered "cottage." As soon as we entered through the foliage covered "gate," Alistair was there, greeting his sister with a hug and me with a handshake. I took a photo of them, so
chummy . . . and for a moment--but only a moment---my heart ached at what I had lost, then rejoiced at what they still had. A bond. An unmistakable bond that only siblings can share, if they will. I met Diane, Clare's mother, and David, her father who soon walked off to stroll between the rows of the English garden.
Tranquility blossomed here and we, too, walked through it, stopping here and there for a photo. "My husband would love this," I said, knowing that he would . . . but that he would never dare take such a trip to witness and enjoy it.
And then we came to the hanging gardens and I thought, "I could walk through this and come out on the other side of forever."
Magic swirled around me. I pictured tiny fairies (or faes, since I was in Ireland) flitting between the leaves and draping branches. They danced on the air, brisk and inviting, turning to flick their wings at me, asking me to join them.
A part of me wanted to journey along. Another part wanted to stay right where I was. Perhaps for always, never to leave.
"Take me with you," I had begged my brother one afternoon as we discussed his departure from this life to the next, and he had chuckled.
Yet, here I stood, unable to follow after him, not just yet. Here I stood in Ireland with my friend and her family surrounded by such earthly beauty, yet knowing it compared little to what my brother now beheld.
Soon enough it was time to leave. We would drive into town where we would eat pizza, then drive on to Belfast, to Clare's home.
And then tomorrow, ah tomorrow! . . . the Carrick-a-Rede bridge!