OutofDublinAt age 22, I emigrated from Dublin to San Francisco. In addition to the shiny pink Green Card peeking from my Irish passport, United States law also required me to present to the sour-faced immigration official, his cheeks studded with pores like drill holes, a large X-ray of my lungs—the ghostly snapshot proved I was free of tuberculosis and made of the same stuff as Americans.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,

A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,

Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we

may see and remark, and say Whose? – Walt Whitman, from “A child asks, what is the grass?”

A doorstep view of the Dublin mountains, the grazed sky lead and liquid, a radio mast scratching the clouds. Mam buttons your wool anorak up to the neck, kisses your face with her cherry-sticked lips, and you feel the tickle of her mustache, annoying and raspy. Before stepping across the threshold you dip two fingers in the holy water font and make the sign of the cross. This is what it’s like to be seven and about to walk to school for the first time in nine months.


The nephritis came with bloodied urine, straight to the hospital, where they put you in leather straps you called, “strainers,” so you wouldn’t make yourself sicker. At night you listened to Sister’s castaneted shoes on the polished ward floor, the swish of her starched skirts, the glint of steel from her spectacles as she made the night rounds. Always the smell, too. Dettol antiseptic and mashed potatoes and gravy. Even in the night you couldn’t move in the bed, the straps pulled tight against your chest. When you pissed the bed the first time it wasn’t a big rigmarole, but after the third and fourth time the nurse put rubber sheets under the starchy linen. Rubber and piss blended into the scent of a six-year-old’s sadness, the uncomfortable dampness as you lay shamed and silent in the dark.

No school for you, instead the stretched out days of hospital food and leather straps, of bed baths and blood tests. Every day, mam bused to town and walked to Temple Street Hospital to visit you, her little soldier. In the daytime an old man came to your bedside with the Irish Independent and read you the comics—Dennis the Menace, Count Curly Wee and Gussie Goose. Two flaps of hair were plastered to the sides of the man’s head, like a cruel Viking helmet. “Say the words after me,” he’d say, and fear pushed them out of your mouth, reluctant crumbs. This was how you learned to read. One day he stopped coming, Sister shaking her head when you asked where your friend had gotten to.

In time the nurse loosened the straps, the wetting of the bed lessened, and you began to walk the corridors, looking for your friend with the newspaper. In the old men’s ward you peeked between curtains, bruised skeletons sponged, nurses hoisting cracked limbs into clean pajamas. One old shitehawk wrinkled a finger at you and asked whether you’d like to know a secret. When you got closer he thrust his mousie at you and a trickle of piss ran down your leg. As you backed away from his bed he winked a moled lid at you, his tongue poking from the side of his mouth.

Paper chains and bright lanterns suspended from the ceilings, a string across the end of each bed for Christmas cards from home and friends. Mam and Da came with the boys to see you. She had a miniature tree in a pot, just like the one at home, except this one was covered with gold-flake and ornaments attached by bits of pipe cleaner—snowmen, silver balls, an angel in a white robe, gold-haloed, her face a smiling wooden ball. Packages in wrapping paper littered the bed, stuffed animals, baby bear, Lego bricks and a jigsaw puzzle with the Matterhorn in one corner of the sky.

When they let you out it was a Thursday, after breakfast. Mam came with your clothes in a bag and helped you dress. As you said goodbye to the nurses and Sister your eyes leaked. Mam held your hand as you walked down Temple Street towards the bus stop. On jellied legs you followed her as fast as you could trot. At home everything smelled the same, the cigarette smoke and the shepherd’s pie for dinner, an apple pie, crusted with sugar steamed on the counter.

Da was working and Ma hadn’t told him you’d be home, because she couldn’t phone him at work. At six, as the Angelus bells from Radio Eireann bonged, Mam hid you in the sitting room behind the curtains, and told you to wait until you heard your Da’s voice. When you jumped out from your hiding place his face lit up like you’d never seen before and he began to cry. “Don’t cry Da, don’t cry. It’s only me, it’s only me.” He hoisted you so high you were able to touch the brass lampshade with your tongue. That night, the bed did not smell of rubber, though the sheets once again were damp.


Bruce Chatwin held that there are two categories of writers, “the ones who ‘dig in’ and the ones who move.” He observed: “There are writers who can only function ‘at home’, with the right chair, the shelves of dictionaries and encyclopaedias, and now perhaps the word processor. And there are those, like myself, who are paralyzed by ‘home’, for whom home is synonymous with the proverbial writer’s block, and who believe naïvely that all would be well if only they were somewhere else.” I like this notion, but have no opinion about its veracity. I do, however, hold that when I read Chatwin I can detect the shuffle of his restless feet traversing ancient causeways, just as, when I read Melville, I smell salt air.

Please explain what just happened.

I Googled all the past Nervous Breakdown questionnaires to see how other, wittier people answered this question.

What is your earliest memory?

It probably would be the time myself and a fellow three-year-old helped ourselves to the whiskey in her mother’s drinks cabinet. I mean, it would be if I could actually remember that. I got a head-start on wiping out neurons.

 

If you weren’t doing what you are doing now, what would you be doing?

Whatever I’d choose, they wouldn’t let me do it. Probably wisely.