[Fiction] Yes, Virginia

by Gary Grace


I went to visit Mam every Wednesday evening in the home. Ultimately it was my decision. Her and Dad hadn’t spoken in years. Not really. He signed the forms and said he didn’t blame me after all she’d put me through over the years. Her only daughter. I used to hate it when he’d say how much I was like her. Now I could see it. She wasn’t a bad person. I gave her that. She did a lot of good in her day, giving her time to various causes that helped those less fortunate. She deserved some dignity.


When things started to slip a little, in the beginning, even Mam conceded she was getting a bit doddery in her old age. She found it funny, finding jewelry I’d been accused of stealing hidden in pairs of odd socks with the rest of the secrets of her bottom drawer.


“Well, that’d be the safest place for them,” she crooned, offering no apology. “So, you’ve finally come to visit me.”


I’d been popping in two or three times a week at that stage. Soon I was calling daily, locking all the doors bar the loo, kitchen, and back door so she could get out for her fag.


“My grandfather smoked well into his nineties,” Mam always reminded us, whether we asked or not.


She’d developed this kind of selective agoraphobia, never going out the front door, so I didn’t have to worry about her wandering through traffic. Initially I thought it was more of a sick pleasure she took in having me running errands for her, finally the obedient daughter.


“She hasn’t managed to burn the house down, sure,” Dad had said. “She’ll never go into a home if she has anything to say about it.”


Even the concerned neighbors, letting us know about Mam out in the back garden at all hours, naked, singing Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” weren’t enough for the social worker to force an admission.


But then there were the sausages. A friend of mine told me he’d had the same thing with his dad. He’d been living with his dad and had to put a lock on the fridge. The poor man would forget he’d just eaten and keep going back to make sandwich after sandwich until he was sick. That day, I arrived and walked into the kitchen to see Mam’s slippered feet popped out from behind the open fridge door, shivering on the lino. I thought she’d had a fall. Seeing my once dignified mother in a soiled nightgown, biting into a raw Clonakilty sausage, saliva dripping from her chin with the last link dangling from her lips, was not the most disturbing part. It was the smiling. I couldn’t remember her ever smiling at me. Not really. I knew something was wrong.


“You were very good not to tell Mammy on me,” she said as I helped her up, with the childlike Cork inflection she’d long since diluted after moving to Dublin all those years ago.


She thought I was her sister. And she kept smiling, even as I undressed her.


“Are we going to the dance?”


*


The social worker was a nice man. He was patient, delicately explaining everything to me and Dad.


“Bray is only down the road, not too far,” he’d said. “And didn’t you say she loved the sea?”


“Inchydoney,” Dad had replied.


“Sorry, what was that?”


“Oh sorry, Inchydoney. She grew up in Cork. They’d go to the beach there, near Clonakilty, when she was growing up.”


*


Rosevale didn’t look out onto the seafront, but it was only a short wheel away. Mam was well able to walk but liked to be taken care of. The staff were very good there. Darna, a lovely Filipina nurse, gave me little updates when I was in on Wednesdays. She said Mam put out the Scrabble board in the evenings after dinner and always convinced one or two to play. She checked the little pocket-sized dictionary on every word. That thing must have been older than I was. The others, when they could, paid attention, awaiting the results of each challenged word, like they were at bingo or watching the lotto.


“Yes, that’s absolutely correct,” Mam would say, or, “No, no, Charlie, I’m afraid not.”


The evenings I visited were no different. Out came the Scrabble board. Darna would convince any hangers-on that “Miss Virginia is going to spend some time with her sister, Patsy.” Even though I knew it was coming, I loved Darna’s playful wink. It was our secret. I waited for it and enjoyed it every time. My aunt Patsy used to tell me, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”


Mam had maintained my whole life that she’d been named after Virginia Woolf and that her sister was named after Patsy Cline.


*


On my wedding day, I’d become slightly maudlin, the champagne having gone to my head, and I’d told Aunt Patsy how much I’d always loved the romance behind their names.


“Not at all, love, sure, your mother has notions.”


That was possibly the only thing I loved about my mother—her name.


“Our daddy named her after the Blue Ridge Mountains, or the song at least, not that he was ever there. And our mam named me after your granduncle, Pat. ‘I was going to be Pat one way or another,’ she always said. I’ve been going along with that spiel of hers since we were teenagers.”


*


My friend Brian told me there was at least one good thing that came from folks like ours suffering with dementia.


“There’s the things they’d never have said to you before.”


“Like what?” I asked him.


“One day my dad was talking gobbledygook, so I just started reading the paper. But then he called me by my name.”


“And then what?”


“He looked right into my eyes and told me he was proud of me and that I’d always been a good lad.”


After Brian buried his dad, he had to pack up the house. He was an only child, the same as myself. Brian said he found all kinds of gems in his dad’s little office. Photos of his dad lifting trophies. Letters to his uncles, boasting about how well Brian had done in school. Things like that. I asked him if there was a trick to it. Could I coax her?


He said, “Just let her think you are whoever she thinks you are. She’ll wind up saying something nice about you one of these days.” He gave me a playful nudge in the arm. His eyes were always kind, holding back his own pain. We finished up our cigarettes in silence, outside our meeting.


Sure, I always let her think I’m Patsy. I sing for her, even. I watched Brian’s broad shoulders bob back toward the fire exit, and began singing “I Fall to Pieces” softly to myself.


*


I tried being other people. Her mother. Her neighbor. Her younger self, but there was never a kind word about me. No words at all, in fact. Last week, however, she mentioned Paul, my dad’s older brother, and began to cry. She barely knew him. Then she started talking about how much she’d love some black pudding. I didn’t have my friend Brian’s patience. That night, I went to her house, let myself in with the key left under the mat, and started digging.


I didn’t find my old report cards or pictures of me at the Feis Ceoil. I did find a photo, though, in an old tin of Roses, buried beneath a loose sewing kit and a dozen spools of colored thread. It was of her and my uncle Paul—with his arm around her. She had a delirious smile. The date on the back of the photo was scribbled in pencil, just a little under a year before I was born.


*


When I arrived at my dad’s flat in Ringsend, it was late. He’d been asleep in his chair in front of the telly watching Match of the Day. I could hear it blaring, even on the doorstep. I kept on ringing the doorbell until eventually the racket from the TV ceased, and I heard the sound of his slippers shuffling toward the front door. He opened it, surprised to see me.


Who is Uncle Paul, to me?”


Dad was still rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “Ah Jayzus. Sure, come in out of the cold, and I’ll stick on the kettle.”


I’d never been furious at my dad for anything in my whole life. My fists had been clenched while I’d waited for him to answer the door, but as soon as his tired eyes met mine, all I could feel was the hurt love he was sure to have felt all these years, unbeknown to me. Even when I’d been grounded by Mam as a teenager for mitching off school, he was always kind and fair. He’d drop my dinner up to me in my room, the converted attic. He’d hide videotapes in my schoolbag, picked up on the sly at Xtra-vision on his break. Mam had smacked me once, in the face, after I’d been suspended from school. I can’t even remember what for, but I’d grabbed the bread knife and pointed it at her. He just spoke to me calmly, and at the sound of my name, I lowered the blade back down onto the bread board. Dad could always talk me off a ledge, and that night was no different.


“How much do you want to know, love?” Dad asked, pulling out a chair for me at the kitchen table.


I wiped the tears from my eyes and took a few deep breaths before taking my seat.


“Everything. I don’t imagine I’ll be sleeping anytime soon.”


It was true. My mam and Uncle Paul. I’d thought perhaps Dad didn’t know and that I’d be the one breaking horrible news to him.


Mam had been only seventeen. There were these guys hassling her in town one day, and Uncle Paul had crossed the street and given the lads a clattering. He was almost thirty. Soon after that, he’d fecked off to England for work on the building sites. Dad did the honorable thing. Her parents knew. They were respectable. They ran the pharmacy in their village, and Dad was only a couple of years older than her. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a solution. Keep it in the family at least, they’d said. I thought about the times they’d lived in. The alternatives. I suppose they could have sent her away, but Dad said they'd needed her to stay working in the shop, and for practically nothing.


“Her mother was not exactly Mary Poppins, either, you know.”


It was clear to anyone that Mam did not love him. My marriage had ended in divorce, too. Part of me had known from the beginning it would never last. My mam never understood my dad, and Ken had never understood me. “How could you have stayed with her all those years?” I asked Dad.


“She wasn’t always the tyrant you knew growing up. Your mam was really great fun when we were young, believe it or not. Very sarcastic. Could give as good as she got. I fancied her big time. I’d seen her at a Céilí at our parish hall, a while before all that happened with Paul and those lads. I almost asked her up to dance, but she’d fecked off to the toilet with her girlfriends just as I was plucking up the courage. I thought she’d grow to love me later on. It wasn’t even Beauty and the Beast—I figured I was younger and better looking than Paul. But I wasn’t the man he was, in her eyes anyway.”


Tears filled my eyes. “Ah Dad, c’mon,” I said, wiping some away.


“I knew she didn’t love me. But I loved you. I wanted you to be okay, love, and I knew if I’d left her, I’d never see you again. She had a mean streak as you well know.”


“Dad,” I pleaded with him. “Even after I’d grown up and everything, why didn’t you tell me?”


“Part of me thought, what’s the point?”


“And the other part?”


“That you wouldn’t see me, really, as your dad anymore.”


“D’ye know, Dad, the last time I saw you cry was at Uncle Paul’s funeral,” I said to him, meeting his eye. “You’ll always be my dad, you feckin’ eejit.”


And right on cue, he did that old Irish thing of veiling his sorrow in humor. “Sure, that was only because she was wishing it was me in that box!” He let out his big belly laugh.


“But what your friend Brian is saying is true,” Dad went on to say, after drying his eyes with a spaghetti-stained tea towel. “Sometimes she softens, the way she is now, and lets things out. Things she never would have when we were together, if you could call it that.”


Dad had been going to see Mam without telling me, he confessed. He wanted to be with her again, alone. He wanted to hold her hand and make sure she was okay. I wasn’t alone in my nods and winks to Darna.


“I didn’t want you to be making a fuss about it,” he said.


“Go on.”


“She called me Paul one of the times I visited her, when she first went into Rosevale.”


“And said?”


“She said, ‘Paul, why couldn’t you have been a good man and loved me like your brother did?’ She was crying.”


I waited a moment, placing my hand on Dad’s arm, knowing there was more.


“She said she wanted me to help her. That her time had come, and would I fill her big coat with books and take her to the sea? She wanted to be at rest in the sea that way. She didn’t want to be buried like everyone else.”


In this brief moment of lucidity, he’d said that Mam described an intense claustrophobia and the fear of being buried alive. I hadn’t known that about her. I hadn’t known she was afraid of anything. She’d started to ramble to my dad then, citing examples of people who’d been buried alive by accident. When Mam was running out of steam, she’d started muttering, “Lest we forget Angelo Hays, lest we forget,” over and over again.


Dad hadn’t believed her initially, thinking they were things she’d seen in a movie or read in a book, but that specific name seemed odd to him. Soon she was singing Patsy Cline again and not having a feckin’ clue who he was. This didn’t stop her from getting angry when he didn’t know his lines; she’d wanted him to sing Jim Reeves’s part in the duet “Have You Ever Been Lonely.” At home, he’d looked up Angelo Hays, and “Bejayzusz,” he said. “She was right.”


In 1937, Hays wrecked his motorcycle. The nineteen-year-old French man had gone headfirst into a brick wall. His face was disfigured to the point his parents were not permitted to view their son’s body. The doctor could not locate any pulse and declared Hays dead. Three days later, he was buried. Because of an investigation by the insurance company, his body was exhumed two days after the funeral. Hays was still warm and had been in a deep coma. His body hadn’t a need for much oxygen, so this was what had kept him alive. After dozens of surgeries and rehabilitation, Hays made a complete recovery.


Mam said that, even if she was still alive while being buried, she’d have a heart attack from the claustrophobia, and she could not bear the thought of being eaten alive by worms.


“But the fish, ah sure I wouldn’t be bothered by the odd fish swimming through my skeleton at all, so it’ll be the sea for me, if you don’t mind.”


As he told me all this, I felt nothing. Imagining my mother’s decaying body in a casket struck in me no chord. Nor did the thought of eels slithering in and out of her rib cage in a shallow, watery grave. I didn't wish these things on her—I just felt nothing other than a reinforced closeness to the man I knew as my dad. I loved my dad, and nothing would ever change that.


“So, she had one romantic bone in her body at least,” I said, smiling, moving my hand down to squeeze his.


“Virginia feckin’ Woolf she thinks she is,” and he laughed again, this time with less life in it.


“Of course, you’re a good man, Dad,” I told him, leaning in for a hug.


Dad got up from his chair and moved over to the counter. Staring out the window into his tiny concrete garden, he spoke again as the sound of the kettle began to rise.


“I know, love, but it was that she thought I was.”


I moved over to the counter beside him, dumped the used tea bags into the compost can on the sill, and began rinsing our mugs in the sink. Neither of us said a word but watched the window as it fogged more as the kettle grew louder, obscuring our view of his beautiful hanging baskets until we couldn’t see a thing.


*


We’d exhausted old stories and ourselves. Neither of us figured we’d sleep. I wasn’t safe to drive since the tea had turned to Tullamore DEW, just as the tears had turned to tittering with both of us laughing despite the seriousness of the situation. The records, laden with dust in the brass metal box in the living room, came alive for the first time in “donkey’s years,” Dad had said. As we waltzed around, barefoot on the shaggy carpet, listening to Elvis sing “Kentucky Rain,” it was the first time I’d seen him really smile in just as many years.


As the sun rose, it was decided we should walk. So, we walked. Though our eyes were stinging, having not slept, we couldn’t help but be mystified by the beauty of the darting finches and sparrows in Ringsend Park. Squinting in the sharp morning light, we carried on. Soon we were on Sandymount Strand. We walked along the hardened sand, contented by the sight and sound of racing dogs chasing weathered tennis balls. Dad had said there was something he wanted to show me. Passing the Poolbeg chimneys, we made our way to the lighthouse.


A drastic change in the weather meant strong gusts of wind pushed us wayward on our approach. I wondered if we should turn back.


“It’ll be worth it,” Dad said.


Then I could see what Dad had wanted me to see. The tall, white wall leading up to the lighthouse itself had a freshly hand-painted mural. It glowed and, for a split second, seemed to warm us. I could still smell the paint. The bright beach landscape showed a dog chasing a ball, sailboats hung near the horizon, and a contrail streaked across the light blue sky. In the foreground a mother walked, holding her little girl’s hand.


“They weren’t all bad times,” Dad said to me. “When you were little, you know, you probably can’t remember, but you loved your mam and she loved you…We had times just like that.”


I didn’t say anything but gave his hand a squeeze.


He didn’t take his eyes off the wall, but said, “There’s no sense in fighting with her now, love. And sure, she won’t remember even if you are cross with her. Just be kind when you see her, just be kind.” We beheld the mural, side by side. This meant more for Dad than me, I suspected, but I patted him on the back and told him, “I will, Dad. I will.”


It began to rain, and soon the wind pelted our hands and faces with stinging droplets. Unsteady on our feet, we reached for one another. Dad grasped my hand, pulling me closer, and then, with his arm around me, led us to the base of the lighthouse, which shielded us from the storm. A massive ship carrying a multicolored Lego patchwork of metal containers groaned as it moved slowly through the dark green water before us. Huddled tightly together, we shivered in silence, as though she were a merciless sea monster that could only detect us if we dared move.


*


Darna didn’t seem to think it strange that I was back at Rosevale the very next day. I told her I thought I’d left my phone in Mam’s room. It was earlier than I’d usually be there, before tea. Darna said it was fine if I wanted to take her for a “wheel” as we called it, out on the seafront. Mam liked to have a flask of peppermint tea for these excursions.


“It’ll warm up my hands and warm up my cold heart,” she'd say. “And a drop of cold water, too, Patsy, so it’s not too-too hot.”


I did a lap of the block, getting a few lungfuls of the Bray sea air before heading for my car. I helped Mam into the passenger seat and buckled her in. I had put down the back seats to accommodate her folding wheelchair. I knew the staff would send someone looking after a while, so I turned my phone off and headed for the motorway.


“What are all those?” she asked me, pointing to the boxes on the floor in the back seat.


I didn’t answer her initially, turning up Newstalk on the radio, but she kept on asking.


“They’re books, Mammy, they’re books. We’re taking them to a charity shop in Cork, that one you like.”


“I’m not your Mammy,” she snapped.


I popped in a CD. Patsy Cline’s Showcase with the Jordanaires. Patsy’s deep, dramatic, contralto voice had the desired, anesthetizing effect I’d hoped for. The Valium I’d crushed into her tea couldn’t have hurt either. Mam’s eyes glazed over. She hummed in her sleep, and I hoped she’d be transported to the happy Cork dance halls of her youth. Before she’d been burdened with me and Dad. I sang along softly. The record only runs a little over thirty minutes. Until that long drive, I hadn’t realized how much of it I knew. There were barely any cars on the road, and in the calm of the evening, I recalled being buckled into a car seat as a child for the long drive to Cork at Easter to see the relatives. Single-lane traffic and backroads she said she knew like the back of her hand. Having to do a wee on the roadside. Mam always wanted to drive. Dad wouldn’t object, and we’d be stuck listening to the record—on cassette, mind you—on loop for the whole way there. Mam would puff away on fags, and by the time we’d get there, my clothes and hair would reek of smoke. This was long before the M8 and the new roads, and it felt like it took forever.


But on my drive, it only took seven plays of the CD before we were there.


Inchydoney beach was pitch-black and deserted, and the wind howled. The tide was all the way out, and the sand was hard. Smooth enough to wheel the chair easily, even with all the added weight of the books. I’d filled the wheelchair’s side, hanging bags with all the substantial heft Encyclopedia Britannica had to offer. You wouldn’t believe how many books you can stuff into a great coat. I lined it with all of her favorite classics before buttoning her up: To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, The Voyage Out, the Brontës, and all the rest.


She’d been in possession of Agatha Christie’s Complete Thriller Collection. Gorgeous, red faux leather hardbacks with golden titles and yellow silk bookmarks. As I packed them into her chair, on either side of her slender legs, it was clear they’d never been read. Maybe whoever gave them to her hadn’t really known her? Maybe no one had? Or maybe she had been too stupid and stubborn to realize what she had.


If dying that way had truly been a long-standing wish of hers, you couldn’t tell. We might as well have been in the park on a warm, sunny day. Mam kept smiling but said nothing, just kept humming away. A flicker of recognition might have spurred some gratitude or fear at least, facing her mortality, but nothing came. I kept on wheeling her toward the sea, hoping for something. A sign, my own conscience, even, anything.


When the first crests of breaking waves met her wheels, I stopped. Music had sparked memories many times at Rosevale. She’d tell whole stories without missing a beat. Back then, she’d been helped up onto the bench at the out-of-tune piano and reeled off show tunes seamlessly. Mam said the sounds of the waves were like music too.


“Patsy, why are we here?” she asked as my socks started to soak up the salt water. “I’m cold.”


“This is what you want, isn’t it, Mammy?” I asked, holding her face in my shivering hands.


“You told Dad you wanted to be at peace, in the water, that you didn’t want to burn. You didn’t want to rot in the ground, , so I’m here to help you go, Mammy, the way you wanted”


I was met with silence and a look of utter confusion. Not the scowl I’d felt my whole life. Not a sardonic quip about how ridiculous I was being. Nothing. Then, as the wind screamed louder, Mam began to look scared and like she might start to panic.


I’d always thought it was just something aunts and uncles said, but I’d never thought we looked alike. At that moment, it was as if I was looking in a mirror. I fell down to my knees in the water and began to weep, holding myself up by the side of her chair.


I’d thought maybe I could get a spark, just one moment of lucidity, that it might be inside her, just my name. Not even a “thank you” or “I was always proud of you” or something as improbable as “I’m sorry.” Just my name, even. Anne.


But she just smirked and patted my hands clung to the side. “Patsy, you’re gas, what the feck are you doing down there?” She started to laugh, asking me, “Where are my fags, Patsy, go on and give me a fag.”


As I scrambled to my feet and had a root around in my coat for her cigarettes, Mam sang Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” once more.


The wheels had become stuck in the sand. I gripped the handles and pulled as hard as I could, but it was impossible. The books had to go. Even after that, it took every ounce of energy I had to drag her out of the cement-like sand. Once to safety, I had to stop. I was out of breath, but I was dying for a cigarette, too. I hadn’t smoked in years, but I felt obligated to try and share even one moment with my mam. Looking back toward the sea, I saw hefty hardbacks bobbing and soggy softbacks being pushed up on the shore. The gray-blue smoke we blew into the night drew our eyes to the clear sky’s stars. In that silence we shared, she uttered a single word, “beautiful,” and that was enough.


*


I told Rosevale I was sorry. That I just wanted to have Mam at home with me for the night. My phone had died. It had gotten late and wouldn’t happen again. They’d called the guards. I had not been at home when they called. Mam hadn’t been able to sleep, so we’d gone for a drive, I’d said. If it ever happened again, they would press charges.


The following Wednesday, I was Patsy again. We got out the Scrabble board, and Mam told me what she’d seen on the news. About all the books that had washed up on the shore in Cork. About all the worried people who had gone out searching, but they hadn’t found Virginia.


“Patsy, will you tell me if they find her?” Mam asked me.


I smiled as I was leaving and said, “Yes, Virginia, I will.”



Gary Grace is a writer from Dublin, Ireland. He holds a degree in English Literature from Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and an MFA in Creative Writing from American College Dublin. His work has appeared in publications including Cassandra Voices, The Verdant, Wordlegs, The Penny Dreadful, and Crossways Literary Magazine.