Personal · Travel

The Summer of Suitcases, Festivals and a Solar Eclipse

Having survived a dramatic birth and a house fire, our family began a summer of travel.  I decided to turn our homelessness into a holiday when the 4 weeks at the rental came to an end. The insurance company approved two more week’s accommodation since our home renovations were taking longer than first anticipated. School was finished so we were no longer tied to West Cork.  We packed what belongings we had into boxes to be stored in a shed.  With only one suitcase per person we hit the road.

Our first stop was at Shannon airport.  After 2 months- her longest visit ever- it was time to say goodbye to Grandma M.  It wasn’t a sad goodbye though.  Our summer plans included a trip to Ohio to visit her.  First we needed to acquire a passport for the baby; our trip to the American Embassy in Dublin was scheduled the following week.

My oldest son opted to stay behind so I was only traveling with my three other children.  My partner Christy was in the process of completing the project he was overseeing in Co. Westmeath.  He had dedicated most of 2017 to designing and building the new main stage for Body & Soul Music and Arts Festival.  The project required him to bring two sawmills on site and manage a full-time crew for several months.  I thought it turned out beautifully.  I’m very proud of all of his work and his greenbuild ethos.  Check out his designs and let me know what you think.

To be near him, I rented a house close to Ballinlough Castle for a week.  I had no plans of going to Body & Soul that year, but I also hadn’t planned on being homeless or having my house catch fire.  The festival is always held during the summer solstice which happened to correspond with our baby’s due date.  Since he was premature, Blessing was 6 weeks old by then.  He was definitely the youngest there and people kept stopping to do a double take because he was the smallest baby they’d ever seen. (In fact, the entire summer people constantly asked us- in all seriousness- if he was a doll. It happened almost daily in America). So yes… Blessing attended his first music festival at the time he was supposed to be making his grand arrival.  Don’t judge me.

Below: Second row, pic 1 is the new main stage mentioned. Christy also built the old main stage pictured in row one, pic 4.

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Body & Soul 2017

From Westmeath we traveled onwards to Dublin to apply for an emergency passport for Baby B.  At the same time he was registered as an American born abroad based on my citizenship.  None of us are allowed to travel to the USA on Irish passports because it’s against the law for dual citizens.  We stayed in the capital for a few days and visited with family.  Christy’s niece was born a few weeks after our baby.  It was fun seeing the newborns together and comparing notes.

Next stop was Galway.  First we had to drive back to Westmeath so Christy could get his car, drive back to West Cork, and collect his other two children.  We arranged to meet outside the lovely village of Oughterad (currently in the news for controversy regarding direct provision) at a lake house that had been kindly offered to us by Christy’s friend.  I was blown away by the beauty of Lough Corrib as well as the house itself.  I was so grateful to have a place we could relax with our five children and our little King Charles spaniel.  Everyone had their own bedroom and the garden couldn’t have been more idyllic.  There was even a trampoline. We had use of the kayaks, a grill for barbecuing, and a hot tub.  We were also fortunate to have a stunning week of sunshine and blue skies which is rare enough in Ireland.

A highlight of the week was a trip to Brigit’s Garden.  It was designed by Mary Reynolds, a longtime friend of Christy’s best known for winning the Chelsea Flower Show in 2002. (A film, Dare to Be Wild, based on Mary and Christy’s journey that year has since been made).  Anyone visiting Galway should definitely spend time walking through Brigit’s Garden, which celebrates Celtic hertitage.  We were delighted with the vibrant colors of poppies in bloom, the blue sky reflected in pools, the dappled sunlight on stone, wood, and the natural art.  The wildlife, textures and smells blended harmoniously to create an experience our family will treasure for many years to come.

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Brigit’s Garden (Galway)

A high school friend of mine happened to be visiting from New York.  We arranged to meet him and his fiancé at Connemara National Park.  Hiking 7 km to the top of Diamond Hill (at 400 m), while carrying Baby B, was a huge accomplishment for me.  Two months previously, when I was struggling with severe preeclampsia, I couldn’t walk across a room without becoming short of breath.  Inhaling fresh air and feeling my strength return, as we immersed ourselves in Ireland’s natural beauty, I was overcome by profound gratitude.

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Top: Diamond Hill (Connemara National Park), Bottom: Lough Corrib (Galway)

It wasn’t all fun and games though.  During that week I received a phone call from a doctor in Cincinnati conveying terrible news.  My biological mother’s cancer had returned after 20 years and quickly spread everywhere.  Nothing could be done.  She had been having difficulty eating since shortly before I was admitted to hospital so I knew she was unwell.  She had been in a nursing home since I was a child; I became her power of attorney after my grandmother’s death when I was 18. With a heavy heart I consented to hospice care for my mother.  We managed a video call and it was heartbreaking seeing how fragile she’d become.  My one hope was that I would have the chance to introduce her to Blessing in person before she passed away. (His middle name is Joseph, taken from her name Josephine).

If Aer Lingus hadn’t cancelled my flight (for unspecified reasons) my wish would have been granted.  We made the journey a few weeks later.  I really think she was holding on to see us.  Due to our flight cancellation we arrived a day late.  My mother took her last breath while we were flying over the Atlantic Ocean.  I learned  the news shortly after we landed and wouldn’t see her until the day of her funeral.

I’m an only child and spent the next 5 days organizing the mass, cremation, and burial details with the help of Grandma M (my adoptive mom).  I don’t feel this is the space to write about all of the complicated emotions I experienced at that time.  Honestly, the entire year of 2017 it felt like I was simply trying to stay afloat.  Things couldn’t get any worse I hear you thinking.  Reader, you’re wrong!

Despite bereavement I was determined to do things my children would enjoy as well as show Christy my hometown.  He’d never been to America and I had less than a week to give him a tour of Cincinnati.  I was devastated he wouldn’t meet my mother (although he had the surreal experience of shopping with me at Target to find a suitable outfit for her to wear in the coffin).  I wanted him to meet my friends, see the places I loved, eat the food unique to Cincinnati. (Yes, Skyline Chili, I’m talking about you).  We crammed in Kings Island amusement park, the zoo and botanical gardens, sampled craft beers at Taft’s Ale House in the historical Over the Rhine area, took a trip to the Contemporary Art Center, walked along the river at Sawyer Point, and spent an evening listening to jazz music at Washington Park.

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So here’s the part when things got worse… On day 3 of our “holiday” Grandma M fell at the amusement park.  She insisted she was fine. I insisted she go to first aid.  Did I mention we are both incredibly stubborn? In the end we compromised.  She went to first aid and rested, but she also downplayed her pain and told us to go enjoy ourselves.  She was determined not to ruin the kids’ fun by going home early.  It wasn’t until the next day that we discovered she’d broken her hip.

Grandma M, an old friend of my mother’s, had planned to give the eulogy.  As it happened, she went under the knife around the same time we started mass.  After the funeral we had a meal with a small group of family friends before heading to the hospital.  Thankfully the hip operation went well and Grandma M was in relatively good spirits, though she was disappointed not to be with us.  She spent most of the remaining three weeks of our visit in a rehabilitation center recovering.

Late the night of my mother’s funeral Christy flew to Oregon to work on a project for the Solar Eclipse Festival.  While I did consider accompanying him (before my mothers became ill), the thought of camping in a remote location with a young baby and two teenagers, during extreme daytime heat and cold nights, didn’t appeal to me.  Burning Man Meets Baby… no thanks.  After everything we’d been through, hanging out at a psy trance festival for a week sounded like the worst place I could possibly think of, even if they did have the best view of the solar eclipse.  Instead we viewed it from the Cincinnati Observatory with a childhood friend of mine. (If you’re ever in the city, the center is worth a visit.  It’s a hidden gem and is renowned for being the birthplace of astronomy in America).

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Photo Credit: Christy Collard (Solar Eclipse Festival, Oregon, USA)
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Christy and the Pagoda he designed & constructed with his crew (Oregon 2017)

Even though she couldn’t go out and about with us, Grandma M did try to facilitate us having a good vacation.  She gave us Diamond Club tickets to a Reds baseball game.  Before it started we were able to absolutely pig out at a massive buffet.  I couldn’t believe how much delicious food (and drink- but I was driving unfortunately) was available.  Once we’d sufficiently stuffed ourselves we settled into our seats near home base.  Honestly we aren’t big sports fans, but when you’re seated so close to the players it’s a whole different experience!  Some of the players’ family members were seated beside us.

The Reds won the game and my daughter was delighted with the fireworks.  We didn’t realize there was a concert afterwards and were pleasantly surprised when Flo Rida took the stage.  After the show we shared an elevator with the dancers and my daughter was a bit starstruck as they chatted with us.  Baby B couldn’t have been better behaved throughout the whole night.  He received an official first game certificate and I think he’ll be a Reds fan forever.

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Reds Game & Flo Rida Concert

Otherwise our days were spent lounging at the local pool.  Many of my childhood memories are from the same pool and I always enjoy taking my kids there.  We also met up with my old friends; despite living far away I’ve managed to maintain relationships from primary school, high school and college.  These friendships mean so much to me.  They’re unconditional sources of happiness.

However, I often felt lonely that summer and wished I had more support. My friends were working, caring for their own children, and living their normal lives.  They couldn’t always be available to me.  Reception was poor in the remote part of Oregon where Christy was working so our video chats were infrequent.  It felt strange living in my childhood home without Grandma M there.  I had looked forward to spending time with her doing nothing much: having morning chats on the porch over a cup of coffee, watching a film on TV, enjoying meals together and a glass of wine in the evenings.  I did visit her but it wasn’t the same.

Christy arrived back the day before we were scheduled to return to Ireland.  The final touches were being applied to my house in Co. Cork and our suitcase days were coming to an end.  While our summer adventures had plenty of highs, I was more than ready to sleep in my own bed after nearly 5 months elsewhere (factoring in my month in the hospital).

One thing we took away from the experience of living out of a suitcase for several months is that we don’t actually need much.  We learned to make do.  My house had been very cluttered and the fire taught me to let go.  I enjoyed the simplicity of dressing in the morning and knowing I only had a few options to choose from that summer.  Life is lighter without so many belongings.  What mattered most was being together.

As we boarded our return flight, I was excited about bringing Baby B home for the first time.  I hoped that all of the year’s dramas were behind us and we could settle into a peaceful life at last.

 

 

 

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