The Journey of Two Lifetimes
By Kathleen Hayes Phillips
My husband Jim wanted his ashes scattered in Ireland. In easier times, we talked of the hows and whens of such a journey. I did suggest an alternative: Irish Fest celebrated along the shores of Lake Michigan, pipers playing in the distance. Then we both laughed and headed to safer ground . . . familiar retellings of adventures experienced over the years we traveled together. We saw ourselves, younger and full of future, and enjoyed the remembering. But I never forgot how those conversations started in the first place.
Jim died when he was 86. The family knew I would take his ashes to Ireland. They worried about their 80 year old mother traveling so far alone, but knew it was right. After the services were completed, life started up again, with a new and unfamiliar pattern. That is when Jim took over, planning my journey from afar. All I did was Google once and then follow his directions.
When I typed in ""West Coast Writers’ Retreats," Taos appeared, as well as Santa Fe and Seattle. Then the search took a leap to Ireland ... and a writers’ workshop on the southwest coast of the Beara Peninsula and a place named Anam Cara. Anam cara means soul friend in Gaelic. There is a book with that title, written by John O’Donaighue, an Irish poet and philosopher. I chose readings from that book for Jim’s funeral service. It seemed an intriguing coincidence.
And the Beara Peninsula? It is in County Cork, near Dingle and the Ring of Kerry, one of the fingers of land sticking into the ocean at the bottom of any map of Ireland. Jim and I traveled there, driving narrow roads up mountains to cross dizzying passes. We stayed in small village hotels, tiptoeing on the edge, but never exploring Beara itself. I liked the idea of going to a new place I had not explored before, an area not filled with memories of what we had done and seen together.
I had a reason for going. I had a destination. The final coincidence was the date of the conference . . . Jim’s birthday, September 3.
I landed in Shannon Airport and was picked up with “no problem at all.” Within minutes I found myself in the back seat of a small car speeding down one of the narrow Irish roads that terrify American drivers.
Nothing looked familiar until I saw a sign for Kenmare. I wanted to tell someone about our first trip to Ireland so long ago, about the hotel whose sign just flashed by my window and the circle of stones we found in the center of town. The outskirts of the town . . . and my memories . . . came for a moment and vanished before I could say a word.
The drive took four hours. The further south we went, the fewer landmarks I recognized. Soon we were heading down roads through landscapes I had never seen before. With a thrill of excitement, I realized I was in unfamiliar territory, ready to embrace the unknown. And suddenly, at the end of a narrow road with hedges higher than the car, we arrived at Anam Cara, a rambling white brick house set on a hillside overlooking Cloulagh Bay.
Settling in was easy. During my stay, I found time to write, relish the quiet, and share with other poets. We walked narrow roads lined with blackberry hedges to a town with rainbow houses. We drove to the tip of the peninsula, climbing to where the land ends and waves crash against the cliffs. We visited a wise-woman who read our lives in stones. Storms moved across the mountains while we sipped milky tea. And one day we found the river I needed to find.
The Kealinche River flows alongside and beyond Anam Cara. Its calm surface can be seen from the road. It took a fellow writer--Irish, younger, and more intrepid--to follow its path to where it flowed beyond our sight to the sea. One day she took me there.
Clad in borrowed wellies and carrying a stout walking stick, I followed her down a narrow path that twisted through a green world not unlike a rain forest. We both held tight to a guide-line, watching every step. I trusted her to find the way.
Safe at the bottom, we walked to the banks of the river. The quiet flow changed here. When out of sight, the Kealinche plunged down and around tumbled rock, becoming a cascade of rushing waters, not one stream but many, making their way over and around giant boulders, before settling down between leafy banks. That was the sound I heard at night, but could not identify.
That is where I scattered Jim’s ashes, not alone, accompanied by memories and words written by my family, but with my anam cara, the soul friends I found in this place. Together we walked down the stairs singing a refrain I learned when walking the labyrinth in Chartres...I am with you, every moment, I am always with you ...around and around until reaching a wooden bridge spanning the flowing waters. There we read Irish poetry and said the familiar Irish blessing. Jim loved to sing "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean," so that is the song we sang as I scattered his ashes, watching as the cloud of white settled on the water and floated to the estuary. It was more than we could have imagined or planned, a vision I will will hold forever.
I began this journey without Jim beside me, but he was with me all the way. I came with Godspeed in my ears at the beginning and carried the blessing of Safe home on my return. Ireland gave me the strength to be a solitary traveler. Anam Cara taught me I am never really alone.
Kathleen Hayes Phillips lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She and her husband moved from the country to a senior residence and quickly learned to live the vibrancy of the city. Katy, a published writer of poetry and creative nonfiction, started writing late in life and is still surprised at the joy she finds when putting words on paper. Keeper and writer of the family story, explorer of city streets, publisher of many chapbooks and until recently, enthusiastic traveling partner to her late husband Jim, Katy continues to write of her life journey and the adventures she enjoys along the way.