Emma M.Murray spent her twenties with a rucksack on her back travelling extensively around the world.
She returned to her native Donegal three years ago to raise her children. She has a degree in Education, a passion for Gaeilge, all things Irish and teaches the language.
She dances well and sings badly.
By Emma M.Murray
The severity of the blow, unleashed on the back of my head, knocked me unconscious instantly. The doctors say I’m lucky to be alive.
I don’t see it like that.
They look at me with pitiful kindness in their eyes, and speak like I’m no longer present.
I hear every word.
My assailants that night robbed me of so much more, than my meagre old man savings. My independence, my dignity, taken so viciously, through the senseless injuries they inflicted.
I will never understand the evil, with which they so wildly set upon me.
Rendering me completely powerless.
Within those few lucid moments, I both feared and welcomed the kill. But as they drew nearer, my body failed me. Ankles and wrists bound together, thrown like yesterday’s rubbish on top of the bed, a warm wetness escaped below. Unforgivable mockery.
Leaving me there.
Unworthy of life.
The speech and language therapists have tried their best, but maybe I’m too old to re-learn the basics. The fundamentals our parents teach us from birth.
Or maybe I just don’t want to.
A caged animal.
Refusal my only power. Wondering why I would want to be a part of this world anymore, when this is the world I now inhabit.
“Daddy, please can we go see the gorillas now, pleeeease Daddy?” my little girl, Nora, pulling on my arm and heartstrings simultaneously. Eight years old. Inquisitive and adventurous. Reminding me of someone I knew long ago.
A trip to Dublin zoo had been quite the luxury back then. There had been enticing advertisements plastered all over town, promoting the addition of two silverback gorillas. The magnificent creatures were pictured in their natural habitat, wonderfully majestic. I could almost smell the scent of the rainforest as I stared at the colourful posters. Lost in memories from a trip to Uganda a lifetime before. The honour of seeing them as they were intended to be.
As the summer holidays loomed, I promised the kids a day out.
I think I’ve been a good father.
I had been there for every birthday, every milestone.
But I’d always been somewhere else too.
Somewhere far away.
Approaching the enclosure, we could see a small crowd had gathered. Clearly viewing the main attraction. I lifted Nora high up onto my shoulders, in the proud way fathers do with their baby girls.
Protecting their young.
The boys being teenagers, were already clambering up nearby walls for a better view.
It was the eyes of these spectacular creatures, that I will never forget.
For only once before had I seen such sorrow.
There were no tears.
There didn’t need to be.
Their hearts lay bare, visible in their vacant stare.
A pang of heartache hit me so suddenly, I almost stumbled backwards.
Old friends through a prison wall.
The alpha, locks eyes with me.
Man to man.
Beast to beast.
For I, the man, now the beast.
The thief, robber of life.
“Oh Daddy, look at him! He’s huge, isn’t he? Will he do that banging on his chest like they do in the cartoons?” eager, excited…oblivious.
I scrunch my nose.
“Oh…I’m sure he will….” the lies we tell our children, shielding them, from this cruel world we have created.
Sitting in the chair by my hospital bed, all I do is wait.
What for? I’m not sure.
Death perhaps? But I’m not excited about that.
Cognitively I’m still here…I suppose.
I’ve always been an avid reader, a leisurely past time of contentment.
I can still read, but I don’t.
I can’t turn the page.
And I can’t tell them.
Maybe I’m waiting for the words to come?
For there’s always something we should’ve said.
Nora comes by, everyday. My angel. She stills smiles at me, though there is a new sadness in her eyes.
I don’t like it.
I long to tell her so.
She keeps talking to me, even though I’m unable to respond and for this I love her even more.
Her eldest daughter Chloe, sits on the side of the bed. Feigns a smiley ‘hello’ and a rushed rub of my cold wrinkly hands, then she’s gone.
She doesn’t leave physically. But she retreats to a world I’m unfamiliar with. A civilization born through a screen. Shoulders hunched, pupils squared, inevitable arthritic thumbs. I wonder if this is the picture they will paint of homo-sapiens hundreds of years from now.
She grunts and shrugs, and somehow these merit appropriate answers to questions her mother asks. Too interested in what a full lipped celebrity in the US is doing, or taking ‘selfies’ on her phone, that make her look more like a puppy than a human.
It worries me gravely. These online interactions, replacing legitimate human contact and relationships.
A tribe unto themselves. Void of sincerity, closeness and lacking in any real morals if you ask me!
But what do I know.
A senile old man, whose voice has been silenced. An unworldly elder through youthful eyes.
I yearn to regale my family with stories of days gone by. To watch their faces light up, in awe of this eighty three year old man who had experienced so much. Societal norms had always been something I’d battled with.
Perhaps it was the staunch Catholic upbringing, the Christian Brother school, or the dutiful expectations the air of 1950’s Ireland was so heavily laden with, that made me flee.
Crean, Shackleton, these were people who knew how to live, and I aspired to be just like them.
I travelled extensively.
Exploration itself my companion.
Sleeping under the stars. Borrowing the kindness of strangers. Listening to the cicadas sing, as I slept in a cheap nylon tent on the Amazon floor. A local tribe fed me for a week, after finding me disorientated and dehydrated, three miles north of where I should’ve been. They treated me as one of their own, cared for me, until I had the energy to move on. I always felt deeply connected to the people I met along the way.
A natural friendship.
An understanding that we were all one.
Something I haven’t felt since returning to my home soil. My ‘developed’ country. The one where we have access to everything. Education, healthcare, democracy and the right to practise whatever we choose.
Two ungodly men chose to rob and beat an elderly man, a pensioner, to within an inch of his life.
A Masai warrior in Tanzania once saved me from a venomous snake that had slid under my hammock, unbeknownst to me as I slept. Me, a white man, a mzungu, who historically had often brought trouble and hardship. Yet I was treated with compassion and respect.
A tenderness in humanity that we have lost,
through constantly being ‘connected.’
I fell in love once, I think we all do. But not with my wife. Sitting on the cobbled streets of Mérida, Central Mexico, listening to the rhythmic salsa beats, sipping a local beer, is when I first laid eyes on her.
Sitting with other like minded people, other travellers. Nomads. People with stories to tell. Pretending to listen but unable to take my eyes off her.
She noticed me watching. Her hips swayed sensually to the Latin music, and I knew in that moment I would never love another like her. Love at first sight, that awful cliché that no one believes…until it happens to them.
My heart beating erratically inside my chest as I watched her gracefully twirl and spin. Her smile illuminated the night, and enveloped me.
Light seemed to radiate from her.
And I, a moth to a flame. Captivated.
She sat, and we talked, and we laughed.
Broken English, broken Spanish, kindred spirits.
I lay with her that night and every other night after, until word of my father eventually found me.
I was now the man of the house. A terminal duty and responsibility, in old Ireland that nothing could ever cure.
What society expects.
How it had to be.
I left Isabella on the steps of the Catedral de Mérida, with a promise I never fulfilled. Sorrowful truths, in glistening tears.
“Are ya in any pain Da?” Nora asks anxiously. I gently move my head.
No, not in the way that she means.
“Ah well that’s great. Thank God for that.”
No one wanting to be here. Everyone knowing, we’ll probably never be anywhere else.
Despondently sensing extinction.
“Tis a lovely day Da. Maybe we’ll get a wheelchair and take a walk around the gardens, would ya like that?” trying.
Bless her. I am nothing but a burden.
Not my smile. For that was also taken from me, that life changing night. The smile I use now is merely a gross contortion of my lips.
It feels different.
It is different.
But so is everything.
Nora returns with two nurses. They use a specially designed hoist to transfer me into the chair. Tight straps secure me in place.
The fresh air soothes me. The warmth of the sun on my face momentarily lifts my spirits. The garden of the hospital has been well maintained, and for the first time in a long time I feel nearly like me.
The old me. At peace.
The power of nature.
The innate connection, buried deep within us all.
Begging to be released.
Begging to be remembered.
We sit in a happier silence here.
Chloe’s shoulders haven’t lowered yet. I wonder if she has even noticed the change of scene, a new location. It doesn’t seem so.
Enclosed in her self built cage.
A slave to her tribe.
I once swam in a cenote near the ancient ruins of Chichen Itza. Later I learned that the ancient Mayan, threw young children into these sacred watering holes to their deaths. Sacrifices to the God’s. Praying for rain or a good harvest. Their fragile bones lying at the bottom of the murky waters for all eternity.
I was horrified. Sacrificing children for the personal gain of a community seemed sacrilegious.
Looking at my granddaughter’s stiff, robotic frame, I wonder how much of her already lies beneath.
I always wander back to Mérida. I’m under the same sun now. A world away. I still think of her. The way things might have been. The strength I lacked when my tribe called.
You couldn’t let the family down.
Let your mother down.
What would the neighbours think!
I have never stopped loving her.
I don’t think we ever do.
My wife knew deep down that my heart lay somewhere else. I fell at the hands of the very society I tried so hard to escape.
Cowardice. I hated myself for it at times, for she was a wonderful wife and mother. My children filled my life with a different kind of love, and time passed by.
In my dreams, I live in a different land.
A wilderness of freedom. I had tasted it, absorbed it and longed to hold it forever. An existence of stolen fantasies.
“Daddy, those gorillas at the zoo today were very…very… sad I think?” she says, as I’m tucking her into bed. One of my favourite moments of the day.
Bedtime stories with my little girl. Where bonds and imaginations, are formed and explored.
“I think you’re right my darling,” I stroke her wispy curls from her innocent face. Piercing blue eyes full of wonder, staring back at me. The power to fill me with pure love, at any given time. A beautiful gift.
“Why Daddy? Why were they sad? Did they not like us coming to see them?” a hint of disappointment in her delicate little voice.
We cloak our children in the bubble wrap of parenthood, without their consent.
I’m not sure.
“Well… those gorillas were in a cage today, with very little room to roam. Not like the wild jungles they would’ve come from…so maybe they miss their homes…” and maybe that’s enough.
I want her head full of dreams as she sleeps, not nightmares.
They will come when she’s older.
When she sees the real world we live in. The inequalities and injustices that prevail.
On a daily basis.
For now, she’s my baby girl.
And I’ll keep her safe for as long as I can.
She’s looking pensive. Nose scrunched up, distant.
“I think they were sad Daddy, because they can’t go anywhere…ever again! They’ll be in that cage til they die?” reality dawning.
They tried to make it look pretty, appealing, but she’s already scratching the surface.
The layer beneath.
The one that’s everywhere.
Hidden in plain sight.
I nod slightly, a small, pitying smile. For my daughter who has learned a hard truth, and for those silverbacks whose fate has been unwillingly sealed.
I kiss her on the forehead, and turn off the lights.
I don’t look back as I close the door.
Nora returns me to my ward. With more assistance I’m transferred into my bed, tucked in. I passively wonder how many hours I’ll lie like this, not that it matters. Merely a thought, to occupy my mind. The fear of it slowly slipping from my grasp.
Chloe vacantly tells me ‘bye’ and rushes out the door, sticking tiny white earphones into her ears.
Stealing her further.
She wasn’t really here today.
My daughter is looking at me, lovingly. Those blues eyes have never lost their shine.
She scrunches her nose, scrutinising, “Are ya alright Da?”
I nod slightly.
All I can.
Tears in her eyes.
My body, my cage.
Knowing I will never be anywhere else again.
She stands by my side, places a gentle kiss on my forehead.
Holding my hands, she tells me I’m wonderful.
She’ll be back tomorrow.
I miss her already.
And I miss me too.
She wipes the rogue tear that escapes from my eye, and gives me her best smile.
She doesn’t look back as she closes the door.