Alive in the dying embers of someone’s mind
You’ll starve in perfect happiness
When you’re very old and perhaps near the end of your life — if you are fortunate enough to make it there — what memories do you suppose you’ll still hold onto as the lights fade? What do you hope today that you’ll be able to have held onto?
I was thinking about this after I read a lovely but brief thread by Sean McTiernan on Twitter the other day about his grandmother. I asked him to write more about it and I’m glad he did.
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You’ll starve in perfect happiness
by Sean McTiernan
I’ve been thinking about my grandmother. It's not an anniversary or anything, she's still just dead like always. I’m thinking of a simple painting of a figure alone in a boat. She made it as a prescribed activity in the amazing home she spent her final years in while suffering from dementia after a severe stroke.
It was painted with great intensity, as if light was pouring out of the man. What complex feelings, it’s easy to wonder, was she trying to convey with this painting that she couldn’t with normal speech? Should I break out The Dictionary Of Symbols to see if there were any hidden messages or confessions?
My grandfather died 44 years before my granny did. He was a legendarily stoic man who loved a handful of things in the world. One was my granny. Another was fishing alone in a boat.
Of all the things my grandmother did in her life, this painting would not be what she’d want me to tell you about. She worked in Bletchly Park as part of the effort to transcribe and decipher Nazi radio transmissions during World War II. She ran a pub in London in the 1950s. She married an ex-boxer from Sligo and they eventually opened a sweet shop in Kilkenny, Ireland together.
She golfed, played bridge, watched birds, built her own furniture. She kept absurdly fit. She spent 60 obstinate years in Ireland never really warming to the place or dropping her increasingly fictional British accent, but she couldn’t stop the people in it from loving her. She traveled the world. Through several precision strikes she waged a very specific war as a private citizen in local politics too complicated to explain here and won. She was the mother to three sons, all of whom she instilled with her rich disinterest in agreeability.
She did much of that last paragraph without the man in the boat. He died of a heart attack on Christmas Day in 1970, cementing the familial command of acidic comic timing. Not to be outdone, she responded by taking, for a time, to the cigarettes that certainly killed him. She also somehow kept a wholesale delivery business afloat despite, at the time of his exit, her being unable to drive. She did everything she had to and always made sure that included everything she wanted to.
All of that, but the first you’ve heard of her is a simple painting. She’d hate it. She’d hate it even worse if I talked about seeing her in the home, watching her mind slip away from her. She would mock our guilt about not seeing her more when my parents saw her multiple times a week, even when my mother was driving to the other side of the country to see her own mother, a similarly bulletproof and fascinating woman experiencing an identical physiological betrayal.
Even so, this picture. It had to be my grandfather. Admittedly when I proposed this to my dad, his mother’s son, he told me “Ah, she'd no idea what she was drawing at that stage.” A member of the same family, this didn’t dissuade me.
I only know a few quick stories about my granddad. Once, he and my dad drove past a hall in Dublin, on their way to collect some stock. My granddad, not a huge talker, absentmindedly said “I boxed there.” My dad, an excited teenager, asked “What happened?”
“I had the shit beaten out of me, why do you think I’m here driving a van?”
In the end my grandmother had the kind of funeral only real local characters have, a mass of people with competing anecdotes. It was a Protestant funeral so one of several Catholic priests present who knew her well joked to me he was considering “storming the altar.”
This cemented why the man in the boat has stuck with me so. All this outsized personality that people loved, it all washed away as she died. All that person that my grandmother was, all the mind that was chipped evilly away by biological inevitability. But safe at the center of her mind was my grandfather, decades and decades after he ruined Christmas, afloat under the moon after getting out on the water nice and early. Not only alive in the dying embers of someone’s mind, the mind he’d have preferred over any other, but alive as he’d want to be.
All the stories about my granddad seem to have a silent and purely rhetorical “...and what are you going to do about it?” hanging over them, disdaining what people might believe he should be doing. I wish I could show one particular picture of him. My grandmother kept it in her bedroom. It's a picture of my grandfather, his friends, and their sons. They are standing in a line and have been fishing. Four normal besuited dads of 1960s Ireland posed shoulder to shoulder. Beside them my handlebar-mustachioed grandfather sports the patterned jumper and knit cap combo of a French dockworker, looking for all the world like he’s there to capture Tintin. It’s easy to know she loved him because if confronted with such a picture who couldn’t?
My dad swims in the river by my parents’ house or in the sea every day. He has walked every mountain in Ireland and the UK more times than I can count. He has run 26 marathons. He could tell you the names, colloquial and Latin, of every plant, animal and mineral he has seen while doing so. When he got his degree in Zoology, Geology and Botany in the 70s, a lecturer told him “You're a naturalist, you’ll starve in perfect happiness,” but he settled on teaching insead. When I was growing up every person of a certain age I’d meet in the area would tell me about him. That’s what happens when your dad is a character (though he would deny this outright).
He lives in one of Ireland’s few landlocked counties and, though he could if he wanted, he has no real interest in fishing. My grandfather died when my dad was 17.
My parents’ house has so many beautiful paintings of fishing boats.
My wife makes all of her own clothes. Before I was married to someone who made all their own clothes I’d be skeptical of that too, but trust me, they look great. When I think of her, inevitably, the first thing that comes to mind is the silhouette of her back at her table overlooking our garden and the train tracks and local football pitch in the distance.
I looked in on her the other night at work and saw this same picture, the cat asleep beside her. “Ah, and there's my boat,” I thought. I’ll be needing that someday.
Sean McTiernan lives in Dublin, Ireland. You can listen to his podcasts here.
If you’d like to read more from Hell World about aging and dementia because why wouldn’t you please see this piece from a couple years ago. It’s not exactly a fun one. It starts like this.
My mom looked at me and my brother and was like 'Who are you?'
If a tsunami wipes out your small village it’s a lot easier to cope with the idea that we must have pissed off god
“It was fucking surreal,” Steven said. “One of the least healthy things I’ve ever done is walk out of my childhood home with my brother, grab a hip flask, and just chug it as they were being exited.”
He’s talking about his parents there. This one isn’t going to be much fun I should tell you right up front. There aren’t many laughs in this one. Steven which isn’t his real name said the local fire department had to come carry them out against their will. Big strong firemen were carrying his aging parents outside in their strong fireman arms but in this case the fire or the crumbling home or whatever metaphor you want to use wasn’t something they could be safely whisked away from because it was inside of them.
They were being exited, he said. I don’t like how that phrase sounds but it’s probably an accurate way to put it because leaving wasn’t really their choice and in any case they had already left a while ago.
Both of his parents had started suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s-like symptoms around the same time about four years ago and it was time to start a new portion of all of their lives whether they were ready for it or knew it was even happening or not. That is what the disease does it changes a person and then it changes everyone else around them.
“For them it’s a full-blown, horrible tragedy that they also wake up in every single day,” he said. “They’re either being life detectives for themselves on a given day trying to figure out what’s going on…or not.”
“A lot of this attached itself to some really elemental childhood shit,” he said.
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I do not have very much unique to say about the latest example of the out of control militarized and murderous police state we live under that I haven’t written in here a hundred times already. At the very very very very very least could we maybe start with something like this?
I am for much more drastic measures regarding policing in America of course but if those aren't forthcoming any time soon changing this seems like a step in the right direction that most people would probably agree with. Even cop kissers don't like being fucked with in their car right?
There are so many different shooting stories going on this week it’s getting a bit confusing. I thought this clip in which a newscaster in Tennessee gets momentarily confused about which of the day’s shootings they were supposed to be talking about at the time was about as good an illustration of Hell World as anything else.
Oh right, “I forgot about the other shooting,” she says.
I was reminded of this old piece of mine in here about a school shooting in Arkansas in 1998.
…It was twenty one years ago and while it wasn’t the first school shooting bullet-riddled children’s bodies weren’t a perpetual specter in the national consciousness as of yet. It wasn’t the grim ambient horror we take for granted today. That wouldn’t happen until Columbine which was a little over a year later. The school shooting when everything changed and then nothing much changed.
On the anniversary of the Columbine shooting in 2018 millions of people in hundreds of cities around the world gathered for the March For Our Lives a student-led demonstration in support of gun violence prevention. The march was inspired by a different school shooting which happened the month before in Parkland, Florida in which seventeen people were killed and seventeen more injured. The school shooting when everything changed and then nothing much changed.
And thus the shooting at Westside felt like it was being overshadowed once again by a larger one as some of the survivors said last year according to NPR.
People often say after attacks like this and the shooting at two mosques in New Zealand in March of 2019 that we’re not supposed to publicize the killers’ names. That’s what they want people say and that may be true but there are so many of them now who could ever keep track? Have I used that line already in here? I think so but there are so many stories like this we have to write after shootings who can keep track of our clichés? Try to name as many shootings as you can. Wrong there were way more than that. How many shootings like this can any one person be expected to hold inside of them forever? Unless you were there of course in which case you likely never forget a second of it.
I don't watch cable news much but it's real weird when you do when there's something you want basic information on like a shooting but you also have to filter out the consent manufacturing in real time as they have like five retired police chiefs and a CIA goon and someone from the I Love Sucking Off Cops Society on to comment on it. It's like working as your own translator. It's like driving with a really fogged up window that you have to keep wiping little circles into so you can see the road.
Holy fuck, so beautiful. Thank you for getting Sean to write.