Image Credit: Tom Cowton. Fuchsia bush growing in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile circa 2004.
I was 13 the first time my mother threatened to kick me out of her house. I wanted a tattoo for my 14th birthday and she pulled the ‘not under my roof’ card. This became a regular threat of hers in response to my teenage capriciousness, but one that I was inclined to pay heed to. And, it turns out, I was right to believe in the strength of her resolve. Only she waited another four years, until I had finished the secondary school and our relationship was teetering towards the edge of a mutually assured destruction that neither of us could see a way back from, before she finally give me marching orders. I got a week’s notice of my eviction. Two suitcases awaited me outside a locked door the day that notice expired.
My desire for a tattoo was not a passing teenage flight of fancy; I remain enamoured with body art to this day. Cave paintings and body markings might be among humanity’s first forms of art. We marked the places which gave us shelter with traces of our presence: we were here, we hunted we danced, we made fire. We marked our bodies with symbols representing our place in nature and the universe. Even now, when tattoos are often more of a fashion accessory than a ritual practice, there is something powerful about marking your body as a way of honouring the experiences that have marked your life. I have put myself under the needle seven times, handing the blank canvas of my skin over to the skill of diverse artists for stretches from 30 minutes to seven hours, to fill my body with an inked symbology of my own imagining.
One of my seven tattoos, a pink and purple fuchsia etched onto my left foot, is in memory of my mother. Because, five years after kicking me out of home I found myself sitting by her bedside holding her hand, watching as her chest stopped rising and she slipped into oblivion.
My mother grew fuchsias in pots and hanging baskets around her house throughout my childhood. They would bloom pink, purple and white from spring through autumn. Wherever I have seen fuchsia growing wild, whether it is in the mountains of Patagonia, spilling over colonial masonry in Guatemala City, or lining the boreens of West Cork, I think of my mother’s hanging baskets and I feel connected to a home which now only exists in memory.
The inked flower grows from a paisley patterned vine that contours my ankle and is traced with ornate lettering: “Ursula: Rose up to the light.” The words are taken from a lesser known Patti Smith song, Mother Rose, from her 2004 Trampin album. It was the song I chose to play at my mother’s funeral, a secular send-off that raised more than a few eyebrows in a village where people rarely stray from traditional Catholic rites. My mother was never one for respecting traditions, however, least of all of the Catholic variety. Her farewell was accompanied more of her favourites from the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.
I first heard the Mother Rose in 2004 while watching Patti Smith dancing barefoot at a concert in Cork Opera House. Smith introduced the song as a tribute to Rose Shanahan, the late mother of Smith’s long-time bassist, Tony Shanahan. The warmth, tenderness and simplicity of the composition stands out among a body of work that is often characterised by punk-rock anthems such as Horses or Because the Night on one hand, and rage-infused, political-poetic epics such as Radio Baghdad on the other.
My mother was at the concert that night, sitting four rows behind me, acting as chaperone to my youngest brother. I was 19 and only weeks from heading off to Chile for a year, or possibly two, of travelling. The distance between us was not just because we had bought our tickets separately, nor was it because I didn’t want to seem uncool by going to my first Patti Smith concert with family, rather than friends. It was because my mother and I had not spoken since the afternoon she locked me out of her house, leaving me to drag my suitcases off to a friend’s, the culmination of years of conflict that had festered since my parent’s separation.
My father had left my mother for a younger, childless, woman when I was seven, causing such a rupture in my family that its impact reverberates to this day. He had deftly deflected my anger at his departure towards my mother who, he claimed, was not only a bad wife, but a bad mother. Not bad enough, however, for him to assume any real childcare responsibilities, financial or otherwise. My mother, propelled into a situation of absolute financial precarity, with no job and three young children to feed and clothe, floundered in this new, and unexpected, reality. I remember coming home from school or weekend visitations to find her crying in the corner of the kitchen or unable to get out of bed. To watch her crumble like that in front of my very eyes, rather than elicit my empathy or complicity, seemed only to confirm the my father’s version of the truth. My anger over the pain, abandonment and uncertainty that now permeated our lives became increasingly explosive. As sometimes happens when the pater-familias departs, the women of the family, rather than becoming allies, get caught on either side of the rift and are turned into enemies.
I felt my mother’s presence behind me throughout Smith’s concert. The only interaction between us was a nod and a curt hello as I headed for my seat. I remember the look of hurt surprise on her face at my coldness. I felt nothing but anger and the conviction that my father had not lied when he said my mother did not, in fact, love me. That anger could have ruined the concert, but the power of Smith’s poetry, the magnetism of her stage presence and the enduring artistic chemistry between the musicians would have won over even the most unwilling heart.
I did not know it then, but that concert marked the breaking of the ice. By the time I was ready to leave for Chile we had reached a tentative, if not wholly convinced, truce. Two years away from home, with several thousand miles between us, were enough for me to take stock, reassess and ultimately forgive my mother what needed forgiving and accept my own responsibility in the conflict. We met on the other side of those two years not just as mother and daughter, but as friends.
I assumed, as anyone would at 21, that we still had years of concerts, weekends away and afternoons gossiping at her kitchen table ahead of us. Life, however, had other plans. A year after I came home from South America I received a phone call with the words no daughter ever wants to hear from her mother: cervical cancer. A year later she was gone.
With a terminal illness the grieving begins before the person has even left you. You’re scrubbing the kitchen from top to bottom in preparation for the next home visit only to realize that there probably will not be one. You fight confusion and frustration when your mother makes plans for the future, knowing that her future is a question of days, or weeks, at best. Nothing, however, prepares you for the moment when it actually happens.
Ursula Marie Walsh passed away in 2008. She was 47. I was 23 and my brothers were 22 and 18. Not quite children, but barely adults. It was a Friday evening in early September, around that time of day when people begin clearing off their desks, shutting down their computers and making their way home for the weekend. We were gathered by her bedside, my uncle, my brothers and my mother’s partner, stuffed into a tiny room where she lay sleeping on a single bed in the corner. Some of us stood, resting our backs against the wall, some of us sat on chairs. Nurses squeaked back and forth across the tiles in the corridor. Conversation was redundant. The few words we could find to say were spoken in whispers. We watched, listened, waited, wishing for it all to be over. Feeling guilty at the expectation of relief. And yet, none of us were ready to let go, not really.
I remember the rustle of the Friday paper. The trips to the vending machine for, yet another, coffee. My aunt arrived from Dublin and we stood outside in the corridor while the sisters-in-law had a moment alone together. We started to relax again, making dinner plans, preparing ourselves for a third all-night vigil, but the nurses called us back in, the urgency in their voices unmistakable.
I took up my position next to her bed, holding her hand and stroking her palm with my thumb. Her eyes were firmly closed, her body limp and heavy with morphine. No one spoke, everyone knew what was coming. It wouldn’t be years, months, weeks, days or even hours. It was a question of minutes now. We were attentive to every breath, watching her chest rise, noting how the pauses became longer and the breaths shallower, until there was nothing but silence and stillness.
Somewhere out there beyond the pain, the morphine and the delirium she made her final decision, to take her leave of the world, and us.
There is never a good time to lose your mother, but that Friday afternoon, I felt like I was free falling into an abyss with nothing and no one to catch me. My father had performed his latest, but this time definitive, leave taking only days previously, washing his hands of all responsibilities towards me, emotional or otherwise. The world as I knew it was collapsing around me and I felt crushed by the certainty that I was, for the first time in my life, truly alone.
My mother, in the only moment we had spoken of all that had passed between us and all that was about to come, had told me that I could achieve whatever I put my mind to. It was the highest praise she ever gave me. It was all I had ever needed to hear from her: that she believed in me. Her words now seemed foolish, naive even, in the face of death and everyday tragedy. My millennial optimism towards everything I had imagined my life could be, would be, was replaced by a crippling uncertainty, distrust and suspicion of everyone and everything. It felt impossible to imagine a future without my mother and I had seemingly so few good memories to hold on to. I felt cheated. And in the face of all this I pressed pause on life.
Or at least I wanted to press pause. I yearned to defy the limits of space, time and physiology by crawling back into her womb, where I might remain safe and protected from a painful reality that was threatening to swallow me whole. I wanted to stop time, freeze myself in the moment where her physical existence was still tangible and lock myself in that space of pure raw grief, uncontaminated by joy or anything as frivolous as a lust for life. But life came after me no matter how much I resisted.
I was back to work within the week, losing myself in the routine of commuting back and forth to the city every morning and evening. I read all the right books, saw the social worker every week and talked myself through the five stages of grief like the grade ‘A’ student I was brought up to be. I went to file for the death certificate, applied for planning permission for the grave, commissioned the tombstone, worked on the wording and design of the epitaph and visited the solicitor. Those were my duties and I performed them without fault, earning a martyrdom badge for my grieving daughter sash.
It was an Oscar-worthy performance. Left alone at work I would hide among the library stacks or in storerooms, reading one spine after another, picking up random titles and leafing through the pages, avoiding clients and colleagues alike. At night I knocked around her house feeling like a guest overstaying my welcome. The emptiness was a constant reminder of how quickly things had slipped away from us. I cooked, cleaned and took out the rubbish, trying to keep her house from falling into complete disorder. The radio was always on to take the edge off the silence. I would sit in front of the TV at night, binge watching boxsets or my mother’s favourite soaps, until my eyes could no longer stay open. Or I would retreat to her bed and read her books until exhaustion got the better of insomnia. I had once scorned her for being a devotee of Marian Keyes, but now Watermelon and Rachel’s Holiday were my company and my escape, one more thing to keep me connected to her.
I would fall asleep curled around one of her jumpers; the only I managed to hide from my aunt as we purged her wardrobe. We got rid of almost everything. “Who would want to hang on to a dead woman’s clothes?” she had asked me. I shrugged and said nothing. The jumper had been left hanging over the arm of the chair in her bedroom, waiting for another occasion to be worn. No one had thought to wash it and it was still impregnated with her signature scent: YSL rive gauche. Sometimes on the way home from work I would take a detour through the Debenhams’ cosmetics department so I could pick up a sample stick impregnated with rive guache to keep me company on the bus. Breathing that lingering scent on her jumper throughout the night was enough to remind me that she had existed not so long ago. Still I would wake alone, in the darkness, bathed in sweat and short of breath, haunted by yet another dream in which I could not protect nor save her from some imminent, but invisible, danger. She was always just out of reach. Grief, like her jumper, was something to hold on to in a world that had become incredibly unstable.
Life did catch up with me eventually and by the following September I was forced to exit my stasis and return to college. I left Ireland again as soon as I could. Staying meant the constant confrontation with absences which, at a distance were easier to ignore. So I plotted a career in the international development sector planning never to return.
My suitcases packed to bursting with mosquito nets, khaki pants and my own demons, I found internships in as far from Ireland as possible, first East Timor and then Guatemala. Ultimately, it was Guatemala, a country impregnated with grief and tragedy, that hooked me. The scars of colonization and conflict are written across its city walls and etched into its mountainsides. In Guatemala I realised that the tragedy of others can be alluring; it allows you to forget your own. You can immerse yourself in other people’s struggles and in fighting against injustice, misery and suffering that will always remain at one remove. It is tempting to let yourself drift along the river of righteous indignation, finding catharsis in the “cause.” You too can become a white savior! And in saving others, perhaps you will save yourself?
Guatemala, however, is so much more than the sum of its tragedies. There is courage, resilience, resistance and love to be found among the darkness. Perhaps it is in the places where we have seen the worst of humanity that we can also find the brightest rays of hope? It is a country which draws people looking for alternatives, striving towards something better and creating spaces for deep healing. I was one of them, whether I was conscious of this or not.
Grief can be all consuming. The loss, the longing, the injustice and anger became a black hole at the center of my existence that absorbed almost everything into its gravitational pull. There is no “off” switch, to grief, the loss is not something you just ‘get over.’ There is no morning you wake up and discover that the gaping hole in your life has suddenly filled itself. No amounts of drugs, alcohol, sex, relationships, travelling, writing nor endless other distractions are enough to fill it either. Life trundles forward while you stumble around trying to learn how to live in this new and terrifying space.
Grief and mourning, however, can also be creative forces, writes Sara Ahmed in the Cultural Politics of Emotion: “an expression of love” which “announces itself most passionately when faced with the loss of the object.” It allows you to perceive things others may not. It can give birth to great wells of compassion and empathy and teach you to see, to listen, to ourselves and others.
Grief is what drew me towards accompanying women through pregnancy and birth as a doula. Observing both processes has taught me that the beginning and end of life are two sides of the same coin. I have learned to value silence over empty words, the importance of being heard and knowing when to listen. Grief exposed the fragility of my expectations of others as well as the kindness of strangers. People I had never expected anything from were present and asked nothing in return. I learned that gestures like washing dishes or cooking a fresh meal can be as meaningful as a hug. Birth and death are the moments when life happens.
Even with the wisdom grief bestows there comes a point where the attachment to grief is pathological. As the years crept by I realized, unwittingly, that I had centered my own life around my grief. My adult identity was shaped by a sense of premature orphandom. I carried myself as wounded, motherless daughter, a victim of life, who evaded responsibility for all things because of those early tragedies. Grief was my reason for living and for failing at living for far too long. I know that my mother would not have wanted me to spend so many years floundering around in anger and sadness. But that is one of the grief’s paradoxes, the person most able to help you through it is no longer there. And even as I took steps towards processing the loss, part of me remained trapped at her bedside, in that moment when, having fought so long to hang on, she chose death over life, over me.
In the months and years after her death I would listen to Mother Rose on repeat taking comfort from the simple verses that recall tender moments of a mother’s love. “Every little morn come to me,” evoked memories, almost lost, of the cosy intimacy of childhood. My days were book ended by my mother’s gentle early morning wake-up and my favourite Roald Dahl stories read aloud before bed. The song also recounts Rose Shanahan’s moment of departure, “she felt our tears, heard our sighs, and turned to gold before our eyes, rose up to the light.” I would try to reimagine the moment I had watched my own Mother’s chest stop rising and imbue the memory with gold dust and transcendence. This rarely worked. Rather than turning to gold before my eyes, it felt like all the light and joy in life had been snuffed out. I still felt too much pain and abandonment to find anything transcendent about her death.
Grief marks time: a before and after, a then and now. You survive the first week, month, year without your loved one, while birthdays, weddings and other celebrations remain punctuated by absence. It was three years after her death that I decided to get my fuchsia tattoo. My mother might very well have hated the idea of being memorialised in ink, but I have spent my adult life living anywhere but Ireland and can rarely visit her graveside. Though her memory lives in the codes of my DNA and the cells that built my body, I felt I needed to carry something more tangible with me. Something I could see and touch. Something that I would not loose, as I had already misplaced so many of her precious keepsakes. I needed to mark my body with something that we had shared, something that tied us together other than loss.
After careful consideration I decided on fuchsia encircled with words from Mother Rose. That song, the only one I can still remember from the concert, represented much more than a farewell, it had once helped bring us back together. I struggled, however over which words. “Rose up to the light” always seemed a bit too cliché for Smith, whom I so revered as poetess, but they felt less of a lie than ‘turned to gold before our eyes.’ And I hoped that with every scratch of the needle that I might convince myself that there was some light where my mother had gone, because there was very little left on earth, where I was still, just about, standing.
It was in Guatemala that I began to confront my most viscous and deeply buried demons. Though I continued to lurch from one personal crisis to another – a broken ankle, a tapestry of health problems and a failed career change – I found my way to a place where I was allowed to cry, rage, reflect, explore, reconnect and process my grief. Q’anil, a local feminist organisation, offered a space for learning, therapy, a community and friendships that went far deeper than the superficiality of daily interactions. I spent many Saturday afternoons over nearly three years sitting cross-legged on Q’anil’s shady terrace, learning about the mechanics of oppression and the possibilities for healing. I began to claw my way out of the darkness that I had let shape my life for so long. One such Saturday, Q’anil’s director, Yolanda asked the assembled students what death meant to us. My mother’s ten-year anniversary was approaching and even with that lapse of time and the lessons learned, the grief that still marked me left no other response than loss, pain and suffering.
My friend Talía, sitting on the mat next to me, responded to the most difficult of questions by saying that death could mean release. On hearing her words, and the sincerity with which she spoke them something clicked with me at last. I remembered that Friday afternoon when my mother had taken her leave of us and wondered whether, instead of being the most difficult decision she had made in her life, was it in fact the most courageous?
I was as sure then, as I am now, that even after three days of morphine induced sleep, my mother chose to leave us in that moment. For a long time, I thought it was a tragedy that she had been forced to make that choice. The cancer was a betrayal. Her life was finally falling into place: a good job, a loving partner, her children had survived the horrors of adolescence and were beginning to live their own lives. She had rallied against her own body’s sabotage of her future happiness, but it was not enough. She recognized and faced the inevitability of her death and surrounded by loved ones she chose to let go. She embraced her release. I recalled Smith’s words “turned to gold before our eyes” and they felt true for the first time. I had stumbled upon the key to understanding the beauty, rather than the tragedy, of her departure.
Tattoos are intimately tied to pain, not suffering, but rather endurance. To get one means subjecting yourself, voluntarily, to minutes or hours of the scrape and prick of a mechanical needle as it punctures your epidermis. The problem with tattoos is that they are not easily erased. I don’t regret the fuchsia, nor the words chosen at that time; it marked a particular moment in a process that is still not at an end. And while tattoos cannot be easily erased, they can be modified. After nearly ten years of sock friction the pink of the fuchsia has lost its lustre and the lettering has faded and smudged. I’m due for a retouch and when I go under the needle once more I might finally be ready to celebrate that on September 5th 2008 my Mother did, in fact, turn to gold before my eyes.
Aisling Walsh (She/Her) is a freelance writer and translator based between Ireland and Guatemala. She writes across genres, with stories, essays and reports featuring in Pank, Pendemic.ie, The Irish Times, The Sunday Business Post, Open Democracy, The Establishment, The Mary Sue and Feminist Review. She is currently working towards a PhD in sociology at the National University of Ireland Galway, where she is researching decolonial and feminist practices of healing justice in Guatemala. Website: www.aislingwrites.net; Twitter: @AxliWrites