I found a picture of Sean and me at the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare. I am hugging him so tightly, his hair whipped by the heavy winds, his pink lips bent with laughter, behind us, the Atlantic Ocean pounding against the cliffs. The swollen clouds above us lingered, spitting rain and coldness on our necks. Sean was two years old, feisty and unpredictable. I am smiling but I know how scared I was that he’d be swept away by an indiscriminating current of air. I showed it to my husband and said,
“Remember when we took him on that long plane ride, when he was just two, to Ireland? What were we thinking??” We weren’t.
It was a family trip --my parents and all my brothers and sister and their families were going to the wedding of our cousin in Galway. We didn’t think twice. When we arrived at Dublin Airport Sean was a mess. His big brother, only four years old, trying to calm him as we waited for what seemed days in line at immigration. He cried, screamed and squirmed, too much for us to handle with the luggage and car seat. We ended up abandoning the car seat in a corner near the baggage claim area in order to free up our arms to help contain him.
We took a bus that dropped us off too far from our hotel. We were like the walking wounded, jet-lagged, strapped down with too much luggage, carrying one child and pushing the other in a stroller down the uneven streets of Dublin looking for our hotel. When we did check-in, we collapsed, exhausted while Sean, still wide awake, ran around the room, climbing on chairs and jumping on the bed. The three of us managed to sleep through it all.
We took Sean and his brother all over Ireland by bus. Up to the north, to the county of Donegal -- a little town called Drumkeen where my mother was born and lived for a time. We stayed with cousins who adored the boys, especially the little red-headed leprechaun that never stopped moving. We caught another bus down to Galway to stay in a little carriage house we rented in the neighboring town of Clarenbridge. The boys loved it but my husband and I felt that we were living in the Keebler Elves’ cottage, with tiny beds and chairs and a mini-stove. The rose bushes spilled over the fences and the boys ran up and down the gravel with a soccer ball. We went to the Galway races, hung out in the pubs and had lunches with family and old friends of my mother’s. Finally we took yet another bus after the wedding back to Dublin where we caught a flight to Chicago.
There is something completely innocent and blissful about not knowing. Sure Sean was a handful, but he was so clever and bright and beautiful. We had never suspected that he might be autistic. In a way, I’m glad we didn’t know. We might have never taken that trip. My children and their cousins played on the same land that my mother’s ancestors lived and loved and died. What a gift to share with them. We made the trip, unsuspecting of what was happening on the inside to our lovely child, not realizing that little by little, he was slipping away.
He remembers the trip. Or maybe it’s just the stories we have told him, creating pictures in his mind as real and alive as anything. I show him photographs of us in the hills of Donegal, where the land comforts the sea, the hills thick with heather.
“That’s me,” he laughs, “that’s me where Grandma’s people come from.”
Once the Druids and Irish pagans roamed those same hills, chanted around stone circles worshipping elves and fairies; and in the glossy pictures my children tumbled through those ancestral lands, carrying the humid wet winds on their shoulders, unaware of the sacred ground beneath their tender feet or the sweet breath of earth-gods rising up from the holly and hazel.
4 months ago