Definition of a House: A structure serving as a dwelling for one or more persons, especially for a family.
It should have been an ordinary day, a day like any other in May, a Wednesday, not the beginning or the end of the week, not the struggle of a Monday or the excitement of a Friday. The sun did not shine and the rain did not fall, at least not from the sky that day. It’s difficult to tell what will break you, what the final point will be when the struggle bears down so much that breath betrays you and the guard falls away like withered leaves from winter trees leaving you naked and defenceless against the elements.
The setting had been the most ordinary scene to me; the long road winding from where the tiny river ran, that car lined street where children played football with driveways for goal posts and pillars for counting at during juvenile games of Hide and Seek, those low walled gardens with their flower beds and cherry blossom trees which let pale pink petals dance in the summer breeze and those semi detached, two-story houses which had been homes for more than 25 years, and that 3 bedroomed No.19 with its front porch of potted plants which had been the only real place, till then, that had informed me of what the word home meant and no more so than on that normally mundane Wednesday when it no longer meant home anymore.
Throughout childhood, the world is a place of wonder, to play with and run among, dream in and sleep upon. Days are full of such certainly that the next day will follow on from the one before in much the same way, with a similar ease, that weekdays spent in school will be rewarded with weekends spent in bed, by the television, in the street; at play on a canvas of life so vast and endless that nothing should ever touch nor threaten it with any thoughts other than those derived and dreamed from the point of view of a child, lest they dry up before the painting is completed. So is the way we look at the world at first, from our youthful point of view, our arrogant train of thought and an innocently ignorant perspective.
Which is why it came to pass that day, that Wednesday, that Mayday without rain or shine, it came to be the ending that bore the rest of all my beginnings. It came without announcement, without prior warning, without any preparation being taken on my account of how to handle myself, my thoughts, my strength, that day that would be the relinquishing of the last cord, releasing childhood from manhood. The last look of a boy caught around the first cry of a man.
Definition of Family: A fundamental social group in society typically consisting of one or two parents and their children…who share goals and values, have long-term commitments to one another, and reside usually in the same dwelling place.
I could not see you but I felt you there, a step beyond the shadows, your gaze heavy upon your son as I melted in the mayhem on that street. The one that used to be ours. The one we had lived on together, in what the outside world called family, for so many years. The street you drove me home to as a baby, next to the driveway which you walked on as you carried me in your arms into our home for the very first time, tears of joy streaming down everyones faces and a poster in the window of Welcome Home Baby Boy, did I even have a name at that time? But that day, that afternoon, you stood behind that very same window watching, yet this time with no tears on your side. There was no poster now to pronounce the end, to say the welcome was no longer warm, at least from you.
And yet it is only with time that we can look back with hindsight, it is only with distance that we can see how close we were to the edge, it is only with age that we can look back on youth and cringe at all it believes to be black and white which is why, at that time, I failed to see the grey area that lay with you in the shadowed window on that equally grey day.
For although I was about to become a man, I was still clinging desperately on my claim to being a child that day when I arrived to that place I’d called home for 18 years to say a final goodbye while everyone else tried their best to make it appear extra-ordinary. How lonely was it really for you to watch the world close in with their arms around us and exclude you? Did it make you more angry than before, that they’d loved us more in all those years together, it had been Mum and I that had made the friends, felt the affection, reaped the final benefits like crutches we could lean against in those last years when your anger at your world found its release in us and yet all that could so easily have been a better world for you to be a part of. But you had carved yourself over time as stubborn man, worn and wounded and unwilling to see the world in any wondrous way but the one you’d clumsily created in your head, full of mischief and mistrust, misery and mind games. I pitied your unfounded, self destructive view on life and those who lived it and, in the naivety of my own newness, I wanted no part of that darkness that weighed upon you like an ageing blanket you’d wrapped around yourself, deriving no comfort from but eager to hold onto something.
You weren’t there when I first arrived that day, off somewhere festering wounds that should have healed during your childhood and should have not bothered mine. They took me next door first as if I had just called in to say hello to those neighbours that had proved more like family, at times, than you ever had. The Bernie’s and Mikes and Angela’s and Marie’s and Carmel’s of my world, the ones who held in their eyes all the comforts I ever needed. Who poured mugs of tea and big glasses of wine and cut apple tarts with extra helpings of whipped cream on the side like any normal Wednesday, who hugged me at 18 just enough without it feeling like pity. Who joked with me as if just to remind me that it would be possible to smile again. So I sat among the voices and faces I’d known forever and wondered where my place was. What would now be home now that home was no more? Two weeks of rainy night flat hunting resulted in a basement flat on the south side of the river for a north side boy. Was that now home? I’d been an independent child since I’d first learned to walk but I’d walked in circles around those I knew and places familiar. Suddenly there was the possibility that independence had muddled itself with isolation and loneliness and my brittle hold on childhood security was swelling up inside the man I was turning into.
Definition of a Home: An environment offering security and happiness. A valued place regarded as a refuge or place of origin. The place where something is discovered, founded, developed, or promoted; a source.
I went in alone that day, that afternoon, to No.19, back to where all my life had begun, back to that very source, trying to convince myself that I was brave, that I’d already moved on and this was nothing more than walls and carpets and doors and stairs. Nothing more, nothing less, nothing to pine over, nothing to feel torn from. It was as if time had stopped, I’d moved out, moved away, moved on, seemingly, and now I’d come back to find everything was as it had always been; that porch door which jammed slightly as it opened, the hallway with its carpeted stairs and telephone trolly, the last place I’d seen you as you screamed at me to get out of your house, not our house, your house, you had said, the sitting room with its plush green sofa and two single seater swinging chairs, the ones I could nestle in when I was a kid and hide in when the tension seemed to much to bare and the living room that I’d wall papered every other year since learning that Daddies aren’t always DIY aficionados. I could remember the very step I had sat on, that morning, on the stairs when it all came out, when you and Mum had made up again after another 6 months of you not speaking to us again for some reason which no one could remember, when you both wanted all three of us to hug it out minutes before I broke the un-swallowable sweetness and flung the boiling burden of my ‘Outing’ at you both like I was vomiting up an unbearable bile that had festered for too many years.
It was upstairs where it really started though, in the bedroom, those four walls that had been the sanctuary for an Irish boy growing up gay in 80‘s Dublin and feeling so alone and scared and who prayed on his hands and knees at night just to be normal, just like everyone else. I had actually forgotten how much I had hid from in that room upstairs, how much I had dreamed and lived within that space. It had been a sanctuary, it wasn’t just a word or an exaggeration. It had been my whole world, a make believe place so removed from the injustices of life where I had been happy, found, saved and loved and all this before I’d even began living.
It was my neighbour who found me crouched on those shining floors and who held me that day. She watched me as I carved my name into the inside of the airing cupboard and she then cried for me when I could not cry anymore, Tracey, the neighbours daughter and my childhood friend with a golden soul, gentle eyes, blonde hair, tougher than me at times but the kindest of hearts on the street.
Somehow I ended up back next door, to the other home that I’d spent half my childhood playing in, eating in, growing up in and now I was the sinking mess on the sofa, Mum in tears, my aunt arriving to take us away for the final time, childhood was over and I was starting manhood as a crying mess and it felt like the world was watching as I fumbled on those first steps.
Did you fumble too, did you ever feel as confused as I did that day in May? I had seen you fumble all though our life together, unable to say what you felt and mistaking silence as an attempt to take control, taking pride in our downfall because you couldn’t be man enough to raise us up instead. When was it that you fell so weak? There was so much love around you but it never seemed to sink in although I only see that now. You were drowning amid all the joy that surrounded you and instead of joining in you tried to take us all with you; me, Mum, our friends and neighbours.
Somewhere amid the commotion of trying to console me you slipped back into the house, the neighbours saw you and, like guards, informed us it was indeed time to say goodbye. They didn’t want me to see you. Funny, because at that moment you could not have hurt me anymore. I was beyond it then, at that point, on that afternoon. Or maybe they saw it in my eyes, how I now wanted to take back the control, I wanted to kick you out and unlike you, I had a reason and I could verbalise it. Whatever your reasons were you never let me know, you took that to the grave with you. Had you planned that too?
Definition of Goodbye: a conventional expression used at leave-taking or parting with people and at the loss or rejection of things or ideas.
They almost had me in the car, we’d almost made a quiet getaway when someone whispered he was at the window. You’d always been the neighbourhood curtain twitcher, constantly on the lookout for what others were doing, was that a way to avoid what you were not doing or did you watch others to see what you should do, were you trying to learn how to live in those hours you spent watching life pass by? Or did you really just despise the world as it seemed to me, back then, when all I wanted to do was grow up and be a part of it and accepted by it for who I really was.
And so there, on that street, my street, I screamed out everything I’d never said, every drop of anger built up over the years but never expressed because you were my father and, as I was told by others, I was supposed to respect you. But now they all saw what that respect had gotten me. They saw the hurt that I’d held, the pain that I’d suppressed and they had no idea what to do with the shy and quiet boy they once knew who stood by the open door of the car and cursed the single shadow within the house he’d always called home, 18 years at No. 19.
It took two of them to get me into the car as mum cried in the back seat and shouted at my aunt to drive away while my aunt tried to wipe her eyes, hold my hand and start the engine. It was too much and too real and too bare for all of us. And all the time you just watched in the shadows, behind the drapes, without a sound.
Did you hurt as much as I did that day when the sun didn’t shine and the rain didn’t fall but I flooded our road with tears. Did it ever occur to you that I could not have been so hurt had there not been so much love there to begin with? Did you remember better times in your head? Those christmas mornings when all three of us sat beneath a tree so big that it scraped the ceiling and opened our gifts together as a family, those parties when the house was filled with laughter and singing, guitars and debates? Did it all mean nothing in the end? Was it really just bricks and mortar, weakness that bore bitterness and a frightened boy inside a broken man I once called Father? How did it not break you, that day, or did it? Was there a moment when you tried to find a way through all that had separated us over time and recover what we had lost? Did you feel like a cast away, carried off on a fury of wild waves that stole the mainland and all salvation from view? Did you sink away from the world as I did in those final moments while you watched me?
As we slowly pulled away from the curb I saw, in the corner of my eye, movement, a door opening, someone running, hands waving in the air. I felt the breath steal itself away from me. But not because of you, because it wasn’t you. Door No. 20 was open and Angela was running, our neighbour, one of the other mothers, who almost felt like my mother. And I turned to her and she ran to me. She ran after the car to tell me she loved me and all the time you stood still and watched. She ran after the car to say that she’d never forget me while all that time you never uttered a word. She chased after the car and cried that she’d miss me while you remained, forever, lost to me in the shadows.
And that shadow was the last I ever saw of you, a hazy darkness barely seen through tear stained eyes, something not quite in focus, a blur just beyond arms length. Later I learned you’d been bullied as a kid, you’d never told me that when I cried in mum’s arms after torments in school playgrounds left me feigning sickness to avoid being picked on and spit upon. You were quiet and lonely growing up, just like me, did you not see how connected we could have been? But the world had scared you and knocked you and you let it in, let it breathe its weight into your soul. The world scared me too and yet I fought to believe in it, to believe it could be better to a small gay boy than what the TV showed and the papers remarked. I believed that a quiet soul could be a gentle light in grey days, those times when insecurities ran deep but hope remained strong. Did you have hope, did you believe that it could be better or was it always all just waste.
What was it like to learn you could never father children, that was the duty of every husband to his wife, no? Did it make you less a man in your own eyes? Is that when you felt the void, is that when the emptiness engulfed you, took you away, is that where you went during those long months when you left us for your own world? A world that could not communicate with us. Every year it was for longer and longer, it began with just a few days of silence, you were there but not there and then it grew to weeks of not speaking, then a month and then months reaped upon months. And we were meant to feel this, that was what you said once, that by your silence I was meant to feel hurt, lost, saddened. And you said it with such razor sharp eyes, with such a look of final control, that this was you at your strongest, rising above us all and judging what lay beneath you. But I saw no strength in your stance, no power in your position and no compassion in your soul. For so long, I thanked the lord that I had not your blood in my veins, that I had not your temper in my hands, not your tendencies in my DNA. It was only after I mourned for you that I finally began to understand you and, in time, felt sorry for you and all the love that had lost itself on you, it was only then that I saw all that grey matter that lay in between the black and the white picture of you that had carved itself into my memory.
It was an ordinary day, a day like any other in July, another Wednesday, not the beginning or the end of the week, not the struggle of a Monday or the excitement of a Friday. But this time, this Wednesday, the sun did shine and but no tears fell. There was peace, all around. There was a serenity, even as we drove in the car, along the streets. All was calm. Gentle nods as we walked through the gates from strangers on their way out from paying their respects, silent smiles from the florist was we bought the flowers and a breeze that left your skin caressed with the sweet scent of nature’s perfume. It was silent as I lay the flowers down on the ground under which you lay next to your own father, that ordinary day, beneath the shade of the tree.
It’s difficult to tell what will break you, as you wander through life in long pants and big man’s shoes and it’s even more difficult to tell what can heal you. I left the graveyard that day, in the light of the sun and felt lighter than I had in years. It’s not until you truly let go that you realise how much you held yourself down. No one can really hurt you unless you let them and no one can really heal you unless you accept all that you have been, the person you’ve become and the possibilities in the future still to come.
Definition of Memory: The power or process of reproducing or recalling what has been learned and retained especially through associative mechanisms… an image or impression of one that is remembered.
All Words by Damien B. Donnelly. Photograph probably by a beloved Neighbour