It is a perfect summer morning. The cicadas are still buzzing and the rains that have recently fallen have given a second life to my gardens which were on the edge of death a few weeks ago.
I wandered out to snip some hydrangeas for a vase. White hydrangea paniculata. When we moved here I planted several bushes because they reminded me of our old house in DC. The first pictures taken of me with my infant son upon arrival home from the hospital were in front of the huge, luminous hydrangea bush in our backyard. August 1995.
That son, Spencer, is turning 17 at the end of the week. Impossible to grasp. People tell you (I am sure my parents told me but I couldn't comprehend, no one can...) how quickly the time passes but really it is specific segments of time that seem to pass quickly, not all of it. The teenaged years have been this time for me.
Spencer is a strong, strapping boy and embarrassingly, I cannot help but glow with pride upon seeing him. In addition to being smart and kind, he has turned out to be an accomplished athlete, something I never expected. He rows on the crew team, wins medals. Seeing him whoop, his arms up in victory, at the end of a too-close-to-tell-from-the-stands race in the finals at the Scholastic Nationals this spring was like nothing I've ever experienced, or can even begin to explain. I've always laughed at people who sport those bumper stickers "my kid is an honor student." Now, if there were a bumper sticker that said "my kid is a bad ass in a boat!' you bet I'd slap it on by bumper.
About a month before Spence was born, an old friend came to visit. Liam, from Dublin. We were not long time friends but rather bonded over a summer, working together in an Irish pub in Florida. He had just graduated from university and came over to see some of the US, work in his cousin's bar. I was just passing through. We became fast friends, simpatico souls who would discuss books and music while the others got rip-roaringly drunk in the wee hours after closing. I liked him so much, called him my brother. We joked about it all the time. He wept openly the last night I said goodbye to him in the pub, right there in front of all of his macho cousins, who laughed and hummed the wedding march. It was like that. He was like that.
So I hadn't seen or heard from Liam in a few years when he called, said he wanted to come see us in our new digs, in DC. Wanted to see me pregnant! Of course I said yes. I was eager to see him, though he did sound a bit manic on the phone. "He's just excited, he's Irish. Passionate!" I told my husband, who raised his eyebrows when I recounted pieces of our conversation.
As soon as we picked him up from the airport I knew something was wrong, dreadfully wrong. He had always been tall and thin but now he was nearly skeletal and wild-eyed. He appeared to have lost his grasp on basic hygiene. My husband saw it too and cautioned me in private to be careful. To not take anything he'd say personally. We didn't know then what it was, but we knew it was something. He was no longer my Liam.
The weekend that ensued was a nightmare. Liam hardly slept, barely ate and ranted non-stop. Told me I should not be married to an Englishman - "you need to leave! You don't want this, you don't! Having a baby with an Englishman? They are bastards, abusive! Look at what they've done to Ireland!" He then tried to prove it to me by showing me how the island of Ireland looks as if it's being beaten by England on a map.
"Oh, right..." I answered evenly.
He proceeded to tell me that U2 are the four horsemen of the apocalypse, that Bono is Christ reincarnate, and that he was working on a book which was going to blow the lid off modern philosophical thought. That he had figured out the dynamics of male-female relationships in such a way that once people read the book, their lives would take on new order. There could be world peace once his book was published and people started to live by his teachings. I wish I was kidding, or that this was funny. It wasn't. I was frightened and confused by what I was hearing, the unforgettable look on his face.
"You wait! I'm gonna be on Oprah in one year's time. You'll see! You'll say 'I know him and always knew he was bloody fucking brilliant!' " He bought me a picture frame that I liked so that I could put his photo in it. "Keep it right here" he said, placing it on the mantel. "It'll be worth something some day!" His clear blue eyes looked enormous, like they might pop right out of his skull.
I still have the frame though it does not have his photo in it. Of course not. I put a photo of my husband in it and it sits on my desk at work. It reminds me of so much - of the day I snapped the shot of my husband in England, on his 30th birthday. Of the day Liam and I wandered through the flea market in DC and purchased the picture frame, of his ranting and my distress. Of our days working in the pub, talking about novels and songwriting. Of my daily and deep seeded wishes for him to be OK out there, wherever he is.
I try to find him now and again, looking on the internet, but never have. It's been 17 years. At one point I got in touch with one of his cousins, from the pub. "Ah Christ, he's wacked. Left his whole family for fuck's sake. His own parents don't know where he is. A disaster." They didn't understand him. Never did. "Always talkin' bout yer effin' books, you two!" they would shout. There is no way they could empathize with him now, accept his obvious illness.
This morning, after cutting the hydranges, I came indoors to clean up the kitchen. I turned on the tap, squirted the citrusy lemon verbena scented dish soap into the pan. I was suddenly reminded of one of Liam's platitudes: "a woman can be happy doing the dishes, if all else is right, 'cause that's what she wants, ultimately. To be partnered with a strong man. A man is hard, a woman soft..." it went on from there in a direction I don't need to elaborate upon. At the time I was outraged, livid! How dare he say that THAT is what we want! I ranted myself after he left about that to whomever would listen, for quite some time.
But now, all these years later, something in it resonates, does not sound so insane. I can be happy doing dishes. Being at home on a weekday summer morning with my two teenaged sons healthy and content. One lies peacefully asleep on the floor in the next room - lanky, tanned legs sticking out from the blankets. The windows are open, and I love the sensation of flexing my soles against the 200 year old pine wood planks under my bare feet. I look out my window and see all that green, verdant life. I start to think about what I am going to make my son for his birthday dinner on Friday, what kind of cake he wants...
As of now it is good, all good. But I know that can change. I know I cannot take my boys, their health, these easy and calm days for granted. I've known Liam.
Oh my Irish poet wherever you are I send you love. I remember that it is your birthday around now - an August Leo, just like Spencer. If you ever appear again I will bake a cake for you too, put flowers on your bedside table. You can tell me all about your book and dissect U2 lyrics, and I will tell you about washing dishes, how you were right about that. I will again call you my brother - my mad and sweet, maybe genius brother.
photo credit: K. Hurley on Flickr, Creative Commons