Death and the sun are not to be looked at in the face.
Maxims, La Rochefoucauld
Don Paterson and I were crossing the Wolfe Tone Bridge in Galway contemplating Thomas Crapper. This was at early o’clock in the morning on our way back from an awful curry at the only Indian restaurant open in Galway in the wee hours. The night was mild, and our thoughts drifted towards talk of Crapper as the air behind us burned with the elemental fire of flatulence. It was an awful curry.
Why else would two internationally unknown poets, in Galway to recite our internationally unheard of poems, the guests of the Cuirt Festival of Literature, be talking about the implications of the invention of the flush toilet and about its inventor, that dismal man whose name shall for ever be associated with shit? Why else?
Here, after all, was an opportunity, to tender vengeance towards the man who’d damned, by faint praise, my most recent book of poems – in the TLS for chrissakes! Indeed, given Don’s fairly damaged condition – a night of drink, the aforementioned curry – I could have pitched him headlong into the Corrib and watched him bob up and down out to Galway Bay humming like Bing Crosby, an odd and gaseous swan gone belly-up from bad food and good riddance. But really the review wasn’t as bad as it was, well, ‘fair’ and any ink is better than no ink, after all. And I like Don. He’s an amiable Scot, a Dundonian, and a crackerjack poet if, like myself, not exactly a household name. It could be worse I tell myself. We could be Crappers. And he still drinks well, in a way I never did, allowing excess to be its own reward – a little change from the teetotal life I live back in Michigan where I haven’t had a drink in years suffering, as I do, from all of the F-words: I’m fortyish, a father of four, a funeral director and full of fear for what might happen if I go back on the Black Bush. So I don’t.
The first time I was ever in Ireland was just over twenty-five years ago. Driven by curiosity about my family and my affection for the poetry of William Butler Yeats – an internationally known poet – I saved up a hundred dollars beyond the cost of a one-way ticket and lit out, 20 and cocksure, for Ireland. Several of my generation were going off to Vietnam at the time but I’d drawn high numbers in the Nixon lotto so I was free to go. What made me so cocksure was the knowledge that my parents would bail me out if I got too deep into trouble. So it wasn’t exactly like Kerouac or Woody Guthrie but I was, nonetheless, on the road. Or more precisely, flying the friendly skies.
When I located my cousins Tommy and Nora Lynch – brother and sister, bachelor and spinster – they lived in a thatched house on the west coast of Clare, in the townland of Moveen, with flagstone floors, two light sockets, a hot plate and open hearth and no plumbing. Water existed five fields down the land, bubbling up in a miracle of spring water, clear and cold and clean. I soon learned to grab the bucket and a bit of the Clare Champion and on my way down for the precious water, I’d squat to my duties and wipe my ass with the obits or want ads or the local news. It was my first taste of liberty – to crap out in the open air on the acreage of my ancestors, whilst listening to the sounds of morning: an aubade of bird-whistle and wind-song.
Tommy and Nora kept cows, saved hay, went to the creamery, and, as any farmer knows, dung is a large part of that bargain. It greens the grass that feeds the cow that makes the milk and shits again: a paradigm for the internal combustion engine, a closed system, efficient as an old Ford. And so the addition of my little bits of excrement to the vast dung-covered acreage was hardly noticeable; like personal grief among paid wailers, it gets lost in the shuffle and becomes anonymous and safe. This is the model for the food chain: the elements of feed, cowshit and what-have-you, get lost in the shuffle by the time we sit down to the Delmonico or T-bone; likewise we are blind to the copulation of chickens and the habits of pigs when we sit down to the bacon and the eggs. The process blurs – dead fish make onions grow, manure turns into hamburger and tossed salad.
It was a good life. After nights of song and stories and poetry, common in the country in those years before the television replaced the fire as the thing stared at and into, I would step out the back door of the cottage, take my stance amid the whitethorn trees my great-great-grandfather had planted years ago as saplings brought home from a horse fair in Kilrush and piss the porter out – I was young, I drank too much. And in the midst of this deliverance I’d look up into the vast firmament, as bright in its heaven as the dark was black, and think thoughts of liberty and be thankful to be alive.
Years after, I would try to replicate these reveries when I found myself living in a large old house on Liberty Boulevard in a small town in Michigan. I lived next door to my funeral home and, returning in the early mornings from embalming one of my townspeople, I’d stop near the mock-orange tree by the back door of my home and look up into the heavens and relieve myself. Some nights I would see Orion or the Pleiades and think of mythologies blurred in my remembrance of them and be thankful for the life of the body and the mind.
Such was the firmament this night in Galway. And despite the flatus, harbinger of impending disaster, Don and I were glad to be alive. Glad for the soft air of springtime, somehow sweeter in Galway than Dundee or Michigan. And glad to be paid for giving out with poems when so few can say they were ever paid for the inner workings of their souls. And glad, I daresay, for the rooms provided for us at the Atlanta Hotel in Dominick Street by the Festival Committee – rooms with solid beds and flush toilets towards which we made our gaseous ways that mild Marchy night in the City of the Tribes.
I still have the house in West Clare. Tommy died and Nora outlived him by 18 years, living alone by the fire. Then Nora died, just shy of her 90th birthday, a tidy jaundiced corpse, made little and green by pancreatic cancer. She left the house to me. I was her family. I kept coming back to West Clare after that first time, year after year, though the visits were shortened by the building of my business and the making of babies.
When her brother Tommy died, in 1971, she rode the bike into town and called from the post office. I flew over in time for the wake and funeral. I think that time was when she began to count me as her next of kin – the one she could call and be sure I’d come. I think that’s when she began to trust me with her own obsequies, mention of which was never made until the week before she died.
Of course, first among the several changes I made was the addition of a toilet and shower. I added on a room out the back door and put in a bathroom like a French bordello, all tile and glowing figures. I had a septic tank sunk in the back haggard and declared the place all the more habitable for the trouble.
But for every luxury there is a loss. Just as the installation of a phone when Nora was 80 cost her the excitement of letters coming up the road with John Willie McGrath, the postman, on his bike, and the installation of a television when she was 85 meant that her friends gave up their twisting narrations in favour of Dallas reruns, so the introduction of modern toiletry removed from Moveen for ever the liberty of walking out into the night air or the morning mist with a full bowel or bladder and having at the landscape in ways that can only be called ‘close to nature’.
The thing about the new toilet is that it removes the evidence in such a hurry. The flush toilet, more than any single invention, has ‘civilised’ us in a way that religion and law could never accomplish. No more the morning office of the chamber-pot or outhouse where sights and sounds and odours reminded us of the corruptibility of flesh. Since Crapper’s marvellous invention, we need only pull the lever behind us and the evidence disappears, a kind of rapture that removes the nuisance. This dynamic is what the sociologist, Phillip Slater, called the ‘Toilet Assumption’ back in the Seventies in a book called The Pursuit of Loneliness. He was right: having lost the regular necessity of dealing with unpleasantries, we have lost the ability to do so when the need arises. And we have lost the community well versed in these calamities. In short, when shit happens, we feel alone.
It is the same with our dead. We are embarrassed by them in the way that we are embarrassed by a toilet that overflows the night that company comes. It is an emergency. We call the plumber.
I sometimes think the only firms that put their names on what they do any more are firms that make toilets and direct funerals. In both cases there seems to be an effort to sound trustworthy, stable, established, honest. Twyford’s Adamant, Armitage Shanks, Moen & Moen, Kohler come to mind. Most other enterprises seem hidden behind some ‘assumed name’ someone is ‘Doing Business As’. Drugstores and real estate agents have given up the surnames of their owners for the more dodgy corporate identities of BuyRite or Pay Less or Real Estate One. Doctors and lawyers have followed, taking in their shingles and putting out neon with murky identities and corporate cover. Drygoods and greengrocers, furniture merchants, saloons and restaurants – all gone now to malls and marts and supermarkets with meaningless or fictional monikers. But funeral homes and water-closets still stubbornly proclaim the names of the ones you’ll be doing business with. Lynch & Sons is the name of ours. Is it ego or identity crisis I sometimes ask myself.
The house I live in here on Liberty was built in 1880. It had no plumbing at first. It had a cistern in the cellar to collect rainwater and likely had a pump in the kitchen and an outhouse in the backyard surrounded by lilacs. Next to the kitchen was a birthing room where agreeable women of that age had their babies. It was next to the kitchen because, as everyone knows, the having of babies and the boiling of water were gerunds forever linked in the common wisdom of the day. And after the babies were born and showed good signs of living (no sure thing then – 53 per cent of the deaths in 1900 were of children under 12) they were christened, often in a room up front, the priest or parson standing between the aunts and uncles and grandparents that populated the households of that era where everybody looked like the Waltons with their Johnboys and Susans and ‘Goodnight Grampaw’. These were big families, made large by the love-making of parents before the mercy of birth-control turned families into Mommy and Daddy and 2.2 Johnnies and Sues and the modern welfare state turned families into Mommy and babies and no on-site Daddy.
The homes were large to house multiple births and generations. These were households in which, just as babies were being birthed, grandparents were ageing upstairs with chicken soup and doctors’ home-visits until, alas, they died and were taken downstairs to the same room the babies were christened in to get what was called then ‘laid out’. Between the births and deaths were the courtships – sparkings and spoonings between boys and girls just barely out of their teens, overseen by a maiden aunt who traded her talents for childcare and housekeeping for her place in the household. The smitten young people would sit on a ‘love seat’ – large enough to look into each other’s eyes and hold hands, small enough to prevent them getting horizontal. The aunt would appear at strategic intervals to ask about lemonade, teas, room temperatures, the young man’s family. Decorum was maintained. The children married, often in the same room – the room with large pocket doors drawn for privacy and access. The room in which grandparents were waked and new babies were baptised and love was proffered and contracted – the parlour.
Half a century, two world wars, and the New Deal later, homes got smaller and garages got bigger as we moved these big events out of the house. The emphasis shifted from stability to mobility. The architecture of the family and the homes they lived in were changed for ever by invention and intervention and by the niggling sense that such things didn’t belong in the house. At the same time, the birthing room became the downstairs ‘bath’ – emphasis on the cleanly function of indoor plumbing. Births were managed in the sparkling wards of hospitals, or for real romance, on the way, in cars. A common fiction had some hapless civil servant or taxi man birthing a baby in the back-seat of a squad car or Buick. The same back-seat, it was often assumed, where the baby was invented – sparking and spooning under the supervision of Aunt Cecilia having given way to ‘parking’ under the patrol of Officer Mahoney. Like most important things, courtship was done en route, in transit, on the lamb, in a car. Retirees were deported to Sun City. Elders grew aged and sickly not upstairs in their own beds, but in a series of institutional venues: rest homes, nursing homes, hospital wards, sanitoria. Which is where they died. The chance, in 1960, of dying in your own bed: less than one in ten.
And having lived their lives and died their deaths outside the home, they were taken to be laid out, not in the family parlour, but in the funeral parlour, where the building was outfitted to look like the old family parlours, busy with overstuffed furniture, fern-stands, knick-knacks, draperies and the dead.
This is how my business came to be.
Just about the time we were bringing the making of water and the movement of bowels into the house, we were pushing the birthing and marriage and sickness and dying out. And if the family that prayed together stayed together, in accordance with the churchy bromide, the one that shits together rarely sticks together.
We have no parlours anymore, no hearth-sides. We have, rather, our family rooms where light flickers from the widescreen multichannel TV on which we watch reruns of a life we are not familiar with. Kitchens are not cooked in, dining-rooms go dusty. Living-rooms are a kind of mausoleum reserved for ‘company’ that seldom comes. Love-making is done on those ‘get-away’ weekends at the Hyatt or the Holidome. New homes are built with fewer bedrooms and more full baths. (Note how a half bath is not called a whole crapper.) And everyone has their ‘personal space’, their privacy. The babies are in daycare, the elders are in Arizona or Florida or a nursing home with people their own age and mom and dad are busting ass to pay for their ‘dream house’ or the remodelled ‘master suite’ where nothing much happens of any consequence.
This is also why the funerals held in my funeral parlour lack an essential manifest – the connection of the baby born to the marriage made to the deaths we grieve in the life of a family. I have no weddings or baptisms in the funeral home and the folks that pay me have maybe lost sight of the obvious connections between the life and the death of us. And how the rituals by which we mark the things that only happen to us once, birth and death, or maybe twice in the case of marriage, carry the same emotional mail – a message of loss and gain, love and grief, things changed utterly.
And just as bringing the crapper indoors has made faeces an embarrassment, pushing the dead and dying out has made death one. And often I am asked to deal with the late uncle in the same way that Don Paterson and I were about to ask Armitage Shanks to deal with the bad curry – out of sight, out of mind. Make it go away, disappear. Push the button, pull the chain, get on with life. The trouble is, of course, that life, as any 15-year-old can tell you, is full of shit and has but one death. And to ignore our excrement might be good form while to ignore our mortality creates an ‘imbalance’, a kind of spiritual irregularity, psychic impaction, a bunging up of our humanity, a denial of our very nature.
When Nora Lynch got sick they called. The doctor at the hospital in Ennis mentioned weeks, a month at most, there might be pain. I landed in Shannon on Ash Wednesday morning and on the way to the hospital stopped at the cathedral in Ennis, where schoolchildren and townies were getting their ashes before going off to their duties. The nurses at the hospital said I was holier than any one of them – to have flown over and gotten the smudge on my forehead and it not 9 a.m. yet in West Clare. Nora was happy to see me. I asked her what she thought we ought to do. She said she wanted to go home to Moveen. I told her the doctors all thought she was dying. ‘What harm,’ she says. ‘Aren’t we all?’ She fixed her bright eyes on the spot on my forehead. I asked the doctors for a day to make arrangements for her homecoming – a visiting nurse from the county health office would make daily calls, the local medico would manage pain with morphine, I laid in some soups and porridges and ice-creams, some adult diapers, a portable commode.
The next day I drove back to Ennis to get her, buckled her into the front seat of the rental car and made for the west along the same road I’d been driving towards her all those years since my first landing in Shannon – an hour from Ennis to Kilrush, then Kilkee, then three miles out the coast road to Moveen, the townland narrowing between the River Shannon’s mouth and the North Atlantic, on the westernmost peninsula of County Clare. It was the second day of Lent in Ireland, the green returning to the fields wracked by winter, the morning teetering between showers and sunlight. And all the way home in the road she sang: ‘The Cliffs of Moveen’, ‘The Rose of Tralee’, ‘The Boys of Kilmichael’, ‘Amazing Grace’.
‘Nora,’ I said to her between verses, ‘no one would know you are dying to hear you singing now.’
‘Whatever happens,’ she said, ‘I’m going home.’
She was dead before Easter. Those last days were spent by the fire in ever shortening audiences with neighbours and priests and Ann Murray, a neighbour I hired to ‘attend’ her when I wasn’t there. Two powerful unmarried women, sixty years between them, talking farming and missed chances, unwilling to have their lives defined for them by men. Or deaths.
And I noticed how she stopped eating at all and wondered what the reason for that was.
When I first was in Ireland, that winter and spring a quarter-century ago, Nora and I bicycled down to the Regans’ farm in Donoughby. Mrs Regan had had a heart attack, we were vaguely related. We’d have to go. The body was laid out in her bedroom, mass cards were strewn at the foot of the bed. Candles were lit. Holy water shook. Women knelt in the room saying rosaries. Men stood out in the yard talking prices, weather, smoking cigarettes. A young Yank, I was consigned to the women. In the room where Mrs Regan’s body was, despite the candles and the flowers and the February chill – a good thing in townlands where no embalming is done – there was the terrible odour of gastro-intestinal distress. Beneath the fine linens, Mrs Regan’s belly seemed bulbous, almost pregnant, almost growing. Between decades of the rosary, neighbour women shot anxious glances among one another. Later I heard, in the hushed din of gossip, that Mrs Regan, a light-hearted woman unopposed to parties, had made her dinner the day before on boiled cabbage and onions and ham, later followed with several pints of lager at Egan’s in Kilkee. And these forgivable excesses, while they may not have caused her death, were directly responsible for the heavy air inside the room she was waked in and the ‘bad form’ Nora called it when the requiems had to be moved up a day and a perfectly enjoyable wake foreshortened by the misbehaviour of Mrs Regan’s body.
At night she would crawl into bed, take the medicine for pain and sleep. ‘Collins is our man,’ she told me towards the end, meaning the undertaker in Carrigaholt who could be counted on for coffins and hearses and grave openings at Moyarta where all our people were back to our common man, Patrick Lynch. She turned over the bankbook with my name on it, added, she said, after her brother had died all those years ago. ‘Be sure there’s plenty of sandwiches and porter and wine, sherry wine, something sweet.’ ‘And whiskey for the ones that dig the grave.’
And Nora Lynch was a tidy corpse, quiet and continent, only a little jaundiced, which never showed in the half-light of the room she died in, the room she was born in, the room she was waked in. She never stirred. And we waked her for three full days and nights in late March before taking her to church in Carrigaholt. Then buried her on a Monday in the same vaulted grave as her father and her father’s father and her twin brother, dead in infancy, near ninety years before. We gave whiskey to the gravediggers and had a stone cut with her name and dates on it to overlook her grave and the River Shannon.
There was money enough for all of that. She’d saved. Enough for the priest and the best coffin Collins had and for pipers and tin-whistlers and something for the choir; and to take the entourage to the Long Dock afterwards and fill them with food and stout and trade memories and tunes. It was a grand wake and funeral. We wept and laughed and sang and wept some more.
And afterwards there was enough left over to build the room that housed the toilet and the shower and haul that ancient cottage – a wedding gift to my great-great-grandfather, my inheritance – into the 20th century in the nick of time.
Still, there are nights now in West Clare and nights in Michigan when I forgo the porcelain and plumbing in favour of the dark comforts of the yard, the whitethorn or lilac or the mock-orange, the stars in their heaven, the liberty of it; and the drift my thoughts invariably take towards the dead and the living and the ones I love whenever I am at the duties of my toilet.
I think of Nora Lynch and of Mrs Regan and of the blessings of their lives among us. And lately I’ve been thinking thoughts of Don Paterson who made it back to the Atlanta Hotel – he to his room and me to mine. And whether it was the drink or curry or the talk of toilets, or all of it together that made him kneel and hug the bowl and look into the maelstrom as we all have once or more than once, adding to the list of things not to be looked at in the face, the godawful name of Crapper.