Seamus Scanlon is an associate professor and a Carnegie Corporation/New York Times awardwinning librarian at the City College of New York’s Center for Worker Education. He is a native of Galway, Ireland and a graduate of University College Galway, the University of West London, and the City College of New York. Recent achievements include a residency at the McDowell Artists Colony and an emerging writer fellowship from the Center for Fiction in New York. His latest theater project ‘Dancing at Lunacy’ ran during March 2012 at the cell theater in New York to enthusiastic reviews for example in the Huffington Post. The sequel ‘I Am Harm’ is nearing completion. His work has appeared in the Irish Times, the Sunday Tribune, Promethean, Journal of Experimental Fiction, Review of Post Graduate English Studies, Global City Review, Fish Publishing Anthologies, the Roanoke Review and Gemini Magazine.
By Seamus Scanlon
I moved back home to Galway from Belfast to take care of my mother when her Alzheimer’s disease worsened. Many years before there’d been slight changes in her memory and reasoning, but she was able to function in the world without anyone noticing. Except me. Later she ended phone conversations abruptly so that the growing fault lines in her verbal and mental ability wouldn’t show.
Now, on a warm August night, as we sat together in her kitchen, she looked out across Galway Bay, and believed herself to be in America.
“Seamus, those lights are beautiful.”
“Isn’t America beautiful at night?”
“I was beautiful once, you know, and Brendan Behan asked me out.”
“I know, Ma.”
“Brendan Behan asked me out, but he drank too much.”
“I know Ma—you preferred Da in the end.”
Da was dead. Buried the year before in Bohermore Cemetery. Da was handsome once. Read us crime snippets from the papers, spoke fluent Irish, and attended scholarly talks on Sunday nights at University College Galway, although he never went to secondary school. The day he died Ma held his hand in Merlin Park hospital and kept saying, “He is so cold.”
I was the only one back home now. Ita was teaching tough teenagers in the Irish-exile redoubt of Dagenham. Sean was a psychiatrist in Northeast England. Maura was a teacher in Wexford. I was the one who caused her the most trouble from the beginning. It seemed appropriate that I was the one guiding her to the end.
At the table she rearranged the cutlery, folding serviettes and wiping imaginary dust from the tabletop. She stood to wipe the outer edges of the table, as she had done every night for the past year.
“Ma, the place is fine. You can sit down now. Your tea is ready.”
She moved to the window again, staring out with clouded eyes. Once more I drew her back. I turned on the radio to distract her, and she started to eat. I reminded her to finish before the potatoes got cold; otherwise she would forget. She forgot everything.
She forgot her childhood in Mayo, how she walked barefoot across the fields from Renbrack to Callow school; how she would lie in the shade of poplar trees on summer days and watch her father save hay; how she once pulled a pot of boiling water from the range that melted the skin off her back. She forgot her adolescence too, and the story of her friend Winnie Battle dying alone in the river field. She forgot the years she spent nursing in the open TB wards in Dublin and cycling through the hard rain to dress wounds of working-class Galwegians. And she forgot my name, her firstborn and favorite. She forgot everything.
Except Brendan Behan.
“He was a great poet and writer. He was a great drinker too. He used to sing “The Auld Triangle” when he was drunk.”
“I know, Ma.”
I brought her upstairs to bed, turned on the radio, “Tonight with Vincent Brown,” left a light on in the bathroom so she could see it when she woke. When she slept the worry lines in her face dissolved. I lay on the bare floor of the sitting room with the door ajar so I could listen out for her. I got up from time to time to stand at the bottom of the stairs, where I heard the low hum of the radio and her garbled code of prayers before she fell asleep; recited in Irish, the sound melodic and mournful. If she startled awake and called out, I would get up from the floor and climb the stairs to sit with her until she relaxed. Some nights when she did cry out, I did not go because I was exhausted. I struggled up from the wooden floor and stood in the dark at the foot of the stairs feeling guilty as I waited for the crisis to pass until all I could hear again was the radio.
In the afternoon her care assistant, Kathleen, brought her on long walks through the streets of Renmore, and they’d both become fit and lean. As I walked toward them on Lough Atalia Avenue, during my lunch hour, I hoped my mother would recognize me one last time, but she looked up, frowning with concentration, and could not summon the name and the face.
“Hi, Ma,” I said. “It’s me, Seamus. You look beautiful.”