In this age of a global pandemic, we are cautious about every surface—every doorknob, grocery cart and pizza box.
So I skipped the elevator (and the surface of elevator buttons) and opted for the stairs this morning. Five flights is doable. Mindful of the railing, aka: surface, I tucked my hands in my jacket pockets and took off down the stairs.
In that moment, I was reminded of Seamus. And how he may be the poster boy of our day.
When my mother was in her late 20’s she was engaged to Seamus Hanley, at home in her small town in Ireland. He was quite the catch back in the day. Tall, handsome, business owner, came from a fine family, very “well-to-do” as they say. It was the small, Irish town equivalent of marrying a Kennedy.
Engaged to be married, my mother took a quick trip to America (late 1950’s), to see family and bring a close to her single life. Once married, life would be different for her, in her small, Irish town. Priorities would be shared. Traveling to America to visit aunts and cousins would surely not be a shared priority of the newly wedded, Hanley household.
So off she went. To America. The America of the movies. In the 1950’s. Big cars, handsome city men with slicked back hair, princess phones. What my mother knew of America in the late 50’s was shaped by the movies that came to her small, Irish town. Pearl wearing women, coiffed hair, sweeping stairs cases, all very glamorous. Hollywood in its heyday.
And as it happened, while visiting Chicago, she met my father. Also Irish born, now living in America and looking like a 6’3” Robert Mitchum. In full color. And she sent the ring back to Seamus and married my father.
Life in America unfolded for my mother and father. She longed for Ireland. My father never wanted to set foot in it again. The compromise? Every summer my mother would take my brother and I to Ireland. My father got a quiet house for a few months. My mother got to breathe in the air that gave her life.
We’d go back to her small, Irish town and spend our summers there. With her friends and family. That same small, Irish town where Seamus still lived.
Seamus had seemingly moved on, married and became the business and community leader everyone knew he would. He was quite the man about town.
Except when we were about town…..
Every summer, for weeks on end, the man at the center of it all was nowhere to be found.
I don’t know what was in Seamus’ head or heart. But he avoided us at all cost. Every summer.
And in a damn small, Irish town that couldn’t have been easy.
As it turns out, it wasn’t.
One year, as the story goes, on our last day in her small, Irish town, we were taking a quick walk down the street to say good bye to friends. Seamus, as the story goes, was on the same street, headed right for us. He thought we had left. He saw my mother. She never saw him.
He crossed the street, pulled up the collar of his jacket, jammed his hands down into his pants pocket in frustration and barreled forward. We never saw him. We said goodbye to our friends, got in the waiting car and left for the airport.
Seamus was fueled by an unfortunate mix of frustration, anger and bad timing…. He picked up his pace and kept walking, hands in his pockets, head down…. Until he came to a curb. And misjudged the step and stumbled. And tumbled. And he fell flat on his face, hands still in his pockets, in the middle of the road, narrowly missed being run over by a car.
Seamus spent weeks in hospital and months in rehab. He had broken his nose and both damn elbows.
Can you imagine the recovery with two broken elbows? He couldn’t feed himself, dress himself, stand up or sit down without help. For months.
We heard the story in a letter from a cousin of my mother’s. And if we knew how, and why, Seamus fell that day. Then everyone in that small, Irish town knew that he fell, as he crossed the road to avoid my mother.
I’m not sure what was worse for him. How he fell. Or why he fell.
Regardless, what a frigging nightmare for the poor bastard.
I don’t know how Seamus would feel about me knowing that story (and retelling that story 100 times in my life) and finding a lesson in that story.
I thought about Seamus this morning as I avoided surfaces and stuck my hands in my pockets and took off down the steps. Like it or not, Seamus will be the poster child for this moment in history if we are not careful.
I worry about who we will become if we continue to avoid touch and moments to be together.
I think we are stronger together. I think we are wired for community, to be of a tribe.
That’s hard to do with your head down and your hands jammed down in your pockets.
I worry that we won’t look up. I worry that we won’t reach out.
I worry about where we’ll misstep in all of this. What that will mean. And how we will recover.