The Passing: A Memoir Excerpt
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I came home one afternoon from Mission Dolores grammar school and found the door locked. Climbing the fence, I saw the basement flooded from an overflowing washing machine. I pulled the plug and went upstairs. In the dark bedroom, Agnes lay with glazed eyes staring at the ceiling. Her face seemed to have collapsed upon itself.
She didn’t speak. Occasionally her jaws worked but no sound came. The dark room was quiet except for the ticking of a clock. There was a mystery suddenly working, an intensity that would change the family forever. I called her name but she didn’t respond. At a favorite spot in Dolores Park, Grandfather played cards with retired friends. Exhausted, I still gripped her hand when Father came home from work. He called the ambulance. Paralyzed, Agnes rode to a San Francisco hospital for a brain operation.
The vigil began.
Agnes appeared fragile in the hospital bed, and I tried to remember what her voice was like, and what she had done after adopting me at three. How did this go badly so quickly? Had I helped enough in her garden that mysteriously flourished despite cold San Francisco fog? Would Jesus heal her? Suddenly, I could hear her County Sligo voice again as she beckoned me near the Christmas tree. Mirth glowed in her blue eyes.
“Look into the tree and you’ll see something wonderful, lad. Come on. Look close.”
I looked close. It was an old game and fun.
“See—something wonderful is hiding in the tree. Something magical.”
Her tiny mirrors turned in the branches and I saw my face.
“Didn’t I tell you, you’d see something beautiful?”
At the hospital, Doctor Listretto took my father to one side. "She’s diabetic and needed insulin," he insisted. "Not an invasive brain operation."
“A bit late now,” Father said.
One March morning, Grandfather broke into the shared bedroom, waking me and Father, demanding in a broken voice how we could sleep with Agnes dead.
"Jesus," Father said. "How could we know?"
We got up. In the hall, Grandfather looked like an animal that had been struck a fatal blow, yet unaware it was dying.
At the wake, I stared at Agnes in the coffin, waiting for her to move, to speak, to communicate. I imagined her a pretty Irish maiden at an Irish ball, holding a tasseled dance card, or huddled in a ship crossing the ocean to America though her name doesn’t appear on Elis Island records. I saw something pass over her dead face, a ripple, yet the rosary continued, people kneeling, sitting, listening to the droning voice of the priest. The old Irish wore black. The stale air of the chapel was redolent with flowers, full of whispering voices. Father knelt or sat bolt upright, attentive, ready to pray, but there would be no miracle. Agnes was gone. He turned and looked at me.
"Son? Are you all right?"
"Yes," I said. The murmuring voices continued.
Grandfather sobbed, leaning over the coffin as they were about to close it before her final ride to Holy Cross Cemetery after the funeral. He kissed her dead face. "I'll never see her again," he said. I had never seen Grandfather cry. Then I saw Father listening to Mr. Comisky, a childhood friend and the funeral director.
"There’s a strike on,” Comisky whispered. “We can’t inter the deceased until it’s over. I’m sorry.” Grandfather stopped crying and glared at Comisky.
“Comisky? You’re going to keep her on ice, for God’s sake?”
That night, I had a nightmare. Wearing grave clothes, Grandma Agnes lay on ice in the Morgue. I walked down a long dark hall with corpses in closed drawers. Reaching for the drawer marked Agnes, I woke up and I saw her standing at the foot of the bed, staring at me. She was a presence against the darkness, a force without a saintly aureole. Her eyes were kind, and I felt all the moments she had spent with me, filling the loneliness left by Mother. A barrier shimmered between us, like the river Styx in the Greek myths Father loved to read aloud. Had she come back to take me with her to the other side? The house creaked like an old ship, and her spirit faded. I finally slept without any more nightmares. They buried Agnes in April.
One night, Grandfather sat on his bed, face pale in the light, his head bald except for wisps of white hair, the once tough body suddenly frail. His breath came, slow and labored. A brown tinted wedding photo from 1914 hung on the wall.
"I paved and tarred all the San Francisco Streets after the 1906 earthquake. How many times did I come home without finding any work to be greeted by five kids waiting for me to read the funnies, and Agnes with so little to feed them? But we managed."
"Tomorrow, The Lone Ranger and Cisco Kid are on television. James Dean's on the General Electric Hour tonight with Ronald Reagan."
"Reagan’s an Irish Protestant and I won’t be surprised if he becomes a turn coat Republican son of a bitch!” He closed his eyes. “I'm not after watching television anymore."
I suddenly felt I had invaded his dark, sealed room.
"Granddad? I think I saw Grandmother.”
He looked at me, his expression calm. I was expecting one of his explosions like, “For the love of six bits!”
“I know,” he said.
“You’ve seen her?”
“Every night in my dreams. Then I wake up and she’s gone.” For a moment, I could see his lower lip working as he tried to suppress the tears. “It's time to go," he finally said. “One day, the ship will take us both back home.”
We still had the big Irish family dinners on Sundays, with stories and songs. Aunt Kate, sister of Agnes, grew more frail, a spinster in dark clothes, always cheerful but sitting apart. Grandfather retired to his room early. The memory of Agnes filled the old house, inspiring even the less literate of our Irish clan to sing songs and recite poems. Everything began and ended with Jameson whiskey. (Bushmills was made by Protestants who didn’t hire Catholics in their distillery.)
"The difference between an Irish wedding and an Irish funeral is one less drunk," Father said, toasting the guests. “To Ireland—a nation once again!”
For a year, I heard Grandfather sobbing nights in the same closed room where Agnes had her diabetic stroke. How much longer could Grandfather endure being left behind without his wife of forty years? He still lay in bed after we returned from late Sunday Mass. Father rubbed his chest with medicinal oil when Grandfather sat up and gasped for breath; from the door, I saw his face suddenly turning blue. Did he see Agnes coming to take him? Looking into his eyes I had a child’s view from his shoulders as the J trolley came up the suddenly bright tracks. Then the train was gone. Grandfather’s spirit struggled as time condensed and a door slammed. Father cursed and pushed me from the room, shouting out a number to call. As I dialed, I could hear his voice calling out, "Dad, dad!" I paced in the front room, seeing only the image of a frightened thirteen-year-old boy in the huge mirror over the embossed mantle and hearing my father's desperate voice. The number I called was for the priest house. Then Father came into the front room and said, "I think he's gone." I didn’t witness the final moment of his passing. The priest arrived before the ambulance.
Later, I sat in Dolores Park before our house on 20th Street where many evenings, Grandfather had proudly stood next to the blue stairs smoking his one cigarette for the day. It was a bright sunny June day bringing the occasional warmer weather that circled the San Francisco Mission District. Why were children playing with a hose in the street, splashing each other? Didn't they know Grandfather had just passed? Had he died of a broken heart?
Outside the big church that stood next to the original adobe mission, the sun was too bright and I remembered sunlight on a palomino called Blondie. Father was suddenly reining in the horse as I walked into the road, the hooves rising up, up, the mane white in the sun. We were in Sonoma for a vacation, and Grandfather—still alive—sat inside the cabin, reading the newspaper, throwing the pages on the floor as he read. Father’s startled face above the rolling eyes of the horse faded and we stood again before Mission Dolores church after the funeral. I waited for Grandfather’s ghost to appear, but he never arrived.
This article was adapted and edited from a chapter in Confessions of a Shanty Irishman. The excerpt was originally read at the Rocky Mountain Writers’ Festival in Pocatello.