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“Connection”: a relationship or association. Something that connects, joins or relates. A link or bond.
A few months after my dad died in 2004, the tsunami hit in Southeast Asia. It was devastating. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed and hundreds of thousands more were left dealing with an emotional tsunami of epic proportions. I was glued to every ounce of coverage I could find. At first I didn’t know why my reaction was so visceral. I became slightly obsessed and decided that I needed to go and help these people, to be of some use to someone. But I’m not a doctor, nor an engineer without a border – I have a fine arts degree. What in holy hell can I offer in a situation like this? An interpretive dance?
Even though I felt that my skill set was remarkably useless, I decided to go anyway. I had to move myself to action. I had been so numb since Dad had died. I was cognitively aware that things were sad or happy in my life, but I couldn’t have mustered a laugh or a tear if you’d paid me. And I suppose my reaction to the destruction in Southeast Asia was a part of that – a cognitive awareness of suffering.
Here I was grieving my dad’s death, a metaphorical tsunami of my own, but the difference being that mine had happened in the first world. We’d fought for 3 years to keep my dad alive. We’d had countless people -oncologists, nurses, palliative care specialists and psychologists – all helping us try and sort through our feelings and move on with life.
Fast forward to the beach in Thailand, where there were no funeral directors assisting with arrangements or grief counsellors helping people sort through the emotional wreckage. There was carnage and chaos and misery on an indescribable level. There was a difference between the value of a first world and a third world life. And I couldn’t understand any of it. All I understood was the common language of loss. And I felt it in every part of my bones. The only thing I could offer my fellow wounded journeymen – was my witness and my love. I understood their pain and their heartache. Because as the Thai say, it’s all the “same same, but different”.
“Same Same, but Different”. Philosophically, it is actually quite profound. We’re all just a bunch of little atoms bouncing around together on the planet; the same same, but a little bit different.
That phrase also became a bit of a joke at times too. Because, for example, if you requested chicken pad thai and they brought you beef and rice, they’d say “same same”. Or when I tried to buy a new pair of pants, (because I’d sweat through mine), they brought me a size 0, when I asked for a larger pair the shopkeeper shook her head, handed them back to me and assured me that they were the “same same”. I assure you, a size 0 ain’t the same as a size 8, but I got the message…it’s close enough…we’re close enough – we’re all the same same.
The idea of connection, of “same sameness”, has been a strong theme for me throughout this journey. I am surrounded by the concept. The connection I feel to my parents as I retrace my father’s steps, the connection I feel to my ancestral lineage as I pass over this beautiful land, the connection I’ve made with so many people with whom this voyage seems to resonate, and the connection I’m re-forming with my own little self. What is it about connection -that intangible and powerful phenomenon that keeps us all tethered to one another?
On March 6th 2012 my Mom was packed and ready to embark on an incredible trip to South America with her sister, Sheila, and two dear, lifelong friends, Liz and Craig Bennett. I spoke to her from her car around noon as she was headed to Toronto to see her brother and run some errands before her flight left later that evening. We spoke for 45 minutes about the trip and this and that and she assured me she’d behave herself and that she’d try to email when she could find the means to do so. I told her to have fun and not to find me a new father unless he was a tall, dark and swarthy Latin man who could make our Christmas a much sexier event. We hung up and I felt excited for her impending adventure and proud of the strong woman she’d become, who embraced life even after my father’s death. I felt great, until about 8 pm.
I’ll admit it, I was watching trashy television, while enjoying a glass of wine and an unhealthy dinner that involved carbs and cream sauce. The perfect night of gluttony for every sense! Suddenly I was overcome by a sense of panic. Something was wrong. I had an unexplainable sense of loneliness. I felt a wave of knowing. I was an orphan. The logical part of me, (yes there is still some logic left in this artsy fartsy body), knew that wasn’t the case. My mom was alive and well and about to board a plane. The soul part of me knew something was amiss and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I tested myself – did I think the plane was going to crash? No. Was I worried because my remaining parent was leaving the country? No, not at all. She’d travelled a lot since Dad had died. What was it? I phoned my mom. I told her I loved her and that I thought that perhaps she should just come and watch some idiots find pretend love on The Bachelor instead of expanding her horizons. She laughed, told me that she appreciated the love, but that I should stop being so dramatic and she’d email from the South Pole.
I didn’t sleep that night. And the next morning I told my co-host about the experience. I told him something was wrong and that I couldn’t shake it. And I didn’t for the entire duration of her trip.
3 weeks later Mom was back on home soil. She’d had a great time, saw her penguins on the Falkland Islands, the trip was flawless. Except for the last few days when she’d had heat stroke in the jungle and she hadn’t felt right since. She had a pain in her back and she thought she’d get my sister to take her into the hospital to have it checked out. It was cancer. A rare and fast growing lymphoma. And I had known it. I hadn’t known exactly what was wrong, but the DNA in me that I shared with her, knew something was awry and I couldn’t do anything to stop it. That connection I shared with my mom has both bolstered and haunted me since March 6th 2012 to this day.
On this trip, I have visited many of the same places my Dad traversed some 41 years ago. His writing is so eloquent and his descriptions of what he saw are so thorough that I feel assured that I am often looking at the exact piece of rock he spied or am cycling the exact piece of asphalt he did in his time.
On this particular day, I am cycling from Wexford to Glendalough, through the Wicklow mountains. It is a beautiful grind and I feel the hills by the sweat of my brow. It is more lush than the west coast and I pass through tunnels created by overhanging trees on either side of the road. Their branches reach for each other across the thoroughfare as though they were shy teenagers at a high school dance, leaving only enough room for the Holy Ghost and myself to pass through their clutches.
Dad writes: “The Wicklows are different than the mountains of Kerry. They’re mostly farmland and it seems the hills are arable right to the top. Some of them have been reforested and it’s pleasant to look up at a vast hillside all green with neat patches of trees. These mountains are also different in that you don’t sense that you’re actually up in, or on, them. They seem always to be in front of you or off to the side, or, inexplicably, behind. The way is hard though despite this illusion”.
It’s true. It doesn’t look like I’m climbing a mountain and yet I’ve been in my lowest gear for the better part of an hour. The sweat is pooling above my upper lip and drips alternately on each knee as it rises for air before plunging once more into the deep.
Dad wrote about a woman he saw as he passed through one of these many villages along the Wicklow way. He said, “I saw an amusing sight in Rathdrum, an old grandmother was sitting in a straight-backed chair on a patch of grass. I saw her as I passed an alley on the street. The only thing she could see was the little square of the world at my end of the alley. But there she sat, arms folded, intent on the meagre parade that passed by the end of her tunnel”.
That grandmother would be long gone by now. But, life is circular, and as I rode through Rathdrum, I passed an old man sitting in his wheelchair at the end of his driveway. He had positioned himself there to watch the passersby and I gave him a heartfelt “how’re ya” and a nod as I pedalled past. A few feet further on, I looked back over my shoulder. He was smiling and patiently waiting for the next float in his own tiny parade. I vowed not to complain about my fatigue for the rest of the day, but to offer gratitude for every working limb and for the privilege of being part of the moving action.
Dad continued; “I stopped after 7 miles in Laragh for a glass of milk and talked to an old man with a niece in Hamilton; ‘her husband’s an inspector of schools he is’. He told me that 12 miles ahead there was a 3 mile freewheel descent. That’s where I’m writing this account. I stopped after only a few hundred feet to savour the expansive view and break off a piece of raisin loaf I had bought, (and a double curse on the knave who stole my water bottle – raisin loaf doesn’t wash very easily). Those stalky shrubs with the yellow flowers proliferate around here and in this sunlight they are indeed of an intense hue. It’s therapeutic for this ailing right knee to look down the road and to realize how much gravity will soon do for me”.
I stopped at the exact same place near Laragh, I savoured the view, sipped from my water bottle and made a decision. I would give this ride over to my Dad. I would connect with him. I surrendered to him the DNA that we shared. Dad, I give you my legs. I give you my eyes. Let this be your ride. Feel the wind in your hair, the sweat on your brow, and smell this fresh Irish air. The Red Divil is yours again! Fly Marty fly!
And we did. I felt him with me. I can’t explain it, just like I can’t explain how I knew that my mom was ill. But he was there and I felt connected. I pedalled faster than I had thus far, my breath changed and as I banked into each corner on that 3 mile hairpin descent I laughed and I cried with reckless abandon. My 26 year old father got to live that stretch of road again and it was one of the best moments of my entire life thus far. 3 miles of roadway just bridged the gap between life and death, between being separate and being one.
Since I decided to publicly share this journey I’ve undertaken, I’ve been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support I have received from friends, family and complete strangers alike. I have felt profound love, gratitude and fear. What if people have invested of themselves in me and I don’t live up to the challenge? I have asked myself why this story is resonating with others and have worried that I might not be a strong enough conduit to connect to people in the way I desire. Well…maybe I’m not. But perhaps I don’t have to try so hard. Perhaps I just need to surrender. So, I give you my legs, I give you my eyes, I give you my heart. Take what you can from this quest. Because really, aren’t we all just journeying together? Aren’t we all just wounded healers for one another? You and I are connected. Because after all, aren’t we all just the same same, but different.
More to come….