I remember John Flanagan. He had a head of red hair and a mouth full of over-sized teeth that seemed to get even bigger if you stared long enough. Despite the can of Bulmer’s in his hand, he was just a kid. That night, the only night I would ever be in his presence, he followed my friend Jacquie around like a loyal hound.
Mcdermott’s. County Clare. Doolin, Ireland. Four musicians lined a wooden bench built against a wall directly in front of a window where sunlight trickled in through lace curtains, settling itself against the cheek of the banjo player. I sat at a table with people I did not know. With every tap of the bodhran, my body smoothed itself into a rhythm shared with everyone in the pub. When a song was fast, we stomped in unison, a few even falling into dance. All of Ireland lived in the ceili music that night. And all of me lived in Ireland. Longing became tangible. The future and the past, extinct.
In between songs my ears caught snippets of Jacquie’s voice. “From America. Let’s take shots. Hate George Bush. Jameson.” A fresh breeze of drunkenness, I had no idea where the night would take her, nor did it matter.
The memory of that evening returns in fragments, particles of star suspended in some weightless realm of youth from fifteen years ago. A car the size of a twin bed. Jacquie passed out in John Flanagan’s lap in the backseat. I was in the passenger seat and the guy who was driving had his hand on my knee when he was not shifting. There were no street lights. The car rolled up and down the hills toward the sea and village.
Those are my favorite types of memories, the ones where I am happy for no reason and every reason at all. I remember that we were going so fast that I made some stupid joke about being in Ireland’s version of The Fast and Furious. The several spots of whiskey we had recently at some old man’s cottage kicked in and I kept saying, “Too fast. Too furious.” The guy with his hand on my knee started laughing. Belly laughs. Then, quiet John Flanagan started cracking up uncontrollably. Soon, the three of us were laughing hysterically. Every once in a while, Jacquie snuffed out her own slobbery snicker, making us an unusual quartet of laughs.
A few months later John Flanagan hanged himself in his family’s barn. I would not have even known this if I had not asked about him the next time I visited Doolin. I had no idea that he was dead or that it was inappropriate to say the name of someone who had taken his own life. I was in the pub. The music had not started. People were eating. In memory, I can hear laughter and the clinking of forks and glasses. I said, “How is John Flanagan?” For three seconds, all sound halted. Then there was that breath a person takes right before a solid swig of their pint. A friend I had made took me to the bathroom and told me of the suicide. More importantly, she expressed that I was to never ever ever to say his name.
And so, with respect to a place and people that I love, I never said his name again in Ireland. It was not easy. I do not know if it was the rebellious side of me or the writer side, or perhaps both; but, I wanted to scream his name every time I was in the village of Doolin for the next decade. I remember walking around the village cemetery and seeing his grave. I would play the tiny memory I had of him like an old black and white movie in my head. No sound but the crackling of film. The fleece jacket he wore. The lost loyal eyes. The sadness.
I have not been to Ireland in many years. The backpack I used on all my trips was stolen by a bunch of tweaked out felons that B allowed in my house when I went away on Thanksgiving with our daughters. He was not allowed to come with us because he could not stay sober. These are stories I am not ready to write.
B is dead. It has been close to six months. I found a letter from him the other day. It was postmarked 2015. He said, “Four years, three children, and two felonies later, I am still so in love with you.”
I remember an afternoon last October. The girls were at school. B and I were in the kitchen. I handed him my kale/broccoli/blueberry smoothie. I can see him lifting the drink to his mouth, his fingers gripping the cup. Flecks of paint on his hand. Apple tattoo on his wrist. We had the patio door open. Seven years we had loved each other. I knew he was not going to like the smoothie, but I had insisted he try it. I can hear the almost roar of the vomit that rainbowed from his mouth, onto the floor where Edith scurried to lick it up, took one smell and then ran the other way. He laughed so hard, said “It’s so bad that a pug won’t even go near it.”
If I am present in this memory, there is no stroke. There is no three week Hospice stay. I do not have to shepherd him to death or take our daughters in one by one to say goodbye to their father.
I do not know what to do with absence or finality. My lover is dead and I am writing about John Flanagan and vomit. I am thinking of The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien when he writes, “But in a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world.” To exist in the present, I sometimes have to write about the past, but it can not be done chronologically.
The hodgepodge of befores and afters. Breath and then no breath. Sickness and overdose. Life and suicide. Mental illness and death. Sometimes, when the cement of panic or grief coupled with gratitude surfaces in my stomach, I have to say the names. What is the writer if not the namer of that which is gone?
John Flanagan. Brandon Doerfler. Liss Hall. Ryan Collins. James Conley. Dave Chapman. Colin Shoff.
Last Sunday on the way home from church, I committed an epic parent fail. In the minivan I turned on “Yo Gabba Gabba.” While the screen is behind me, I still hear everything and often find myself singing along. I heard Anthony Bourdain’s voice. It was the episode where he guest stars and plays a doctor. I turned the volume down. “Tony, the doctor just died,” came out of my mouth. I was sorry as soon as I said it.
Immediately I was machine gunned with questions. “How is he dead if he is on the show? Is he with daddy? Is he really a doctor? Is he a ghost? When did he die?” I said a quick prayer and attempted to carefully fix what I could. The last question, of course, was, “How did he die?” I could see their questioning eyes, like three hungry kittens, in the rear view mirror.
“He was sick like daddy,” I said. “But just so you know, people don’t always die when they are sick.” The girls seemed pleased with this explanation. They continued watching their show.
Sobriety forces me to shift perspectives. After all, it takes a psychic change to build a life without drugs. There are stories to write that have sad endings. However, there is a story to live that currently has a lot of love and no ending that I yet see. I was reminded of this when we pulled in the driveway and I turned off the DVD player. I heard three-year-old Gwynnie say to her sisters, “Mommy was sick too but she could not die. She has to live to watch us grow.”