Friday 13 December 2019

A letter to my darling girl: Grab life, live it and love it

In a letter to her daughter from 'beyond the grave', Miriam O'Callaghan shares the life lessons she's learned so far

Across the country you will hear the collected sigh of relief next week as children go back to school
Across the country you will hear the collected sigh of relief next week as children go back to school

Miriam O'Callaghan

If you are reading this I am dead, set fire to in a field - you know the one - with rosemary for remembrance, juniper for gin. Or, I am in solitary confinement. The exquisite depravity of my crime against the one who harmed you, gifting me a private electric island until my heart's electrics fail.

If I am dead, know that every day, your existence made me relentlessly happy. You were living proof that gods might exist. On the off-chance, I thanked them extravagantly for the gift of you.

If I am an outcast, remember in the first seconds of your life, I knew I would die for you. That I would kill for you, took around a minute. The realisation all the more disturbing since I accepted it so undisturbed.

Martin Luther King said violence begets violence. The evangelist was wrong. It is love begets violence. Violence mesmerising, unbound.

In letters such as these, mothers are expected to give Elysian, elegant advice. Some of it unsuited to life that tends to be equatorial. People are good, the world is sweet, smell the roses, cut your cloth, don't let the grass grow, love your neighbour, mind the planet, listen to whales, swim with dolphins, dance with wolves. Never let the sun set on an argument. Remember you carry your home within you. Speak truth to power, forgive and forget. Love, trust, believe. Read, fast, moisturise. Fair enough.

To be more specific, over 40, every Christmas gift yourself a mammogram. Over 45, at a smear test, you require only two words: virgin speculum.

You have a good chance of reaching your 40s, if you remember it is not a perquisite for living to be popular, cool or thin. Unless, of course, you intend to settle in Dublin 6. There, thighs and tummies are verboten.

As you start out, keep in your heart the old wisdom 'beware those who can do no wrong, they do the wrong'. Run a mile every day. Away from them and every mogul of correctness. What is correct today can be incorrect tomorrow, making their values extrinsic. Don't join their pack. Hunt instead for the keepers of intrinsic values. You can rely on them to do what is right, even if their heads remain unpatted, their arses blue from all the kicking.

And as you do, carry a sachet of catfood in your bag. Any day you could come across the scrap of fur who will become your familiar. And your healer. Purring between 20 and 150 hertz they will fix your bones, mend the muscle of your broken heart.

From your 20s keep a bar of Dairy Milk in the press. Family-size. Just for you. You'd be surprised how often a big bar and a small cry are enough to save you from what you imagine is disintegration.

Despair is a horse of a different colour. I have found you its whisperer. Together you can corral the rogue, repel him from your life.

And that life is short. One morning you might wake up and find you are missing years. Unless you have become a mindfulness nut - dear Christ say no - this is normal. Like socks, the 30s and 40s are prone to vanishing, especially if they are occupied by work, mortgages, or are populated by children.

If you are a mother, know the missing years are never lost. They are hidden inside your children, alive, accumulated in their joy, kindness, love. Or threats.

"Idiot, you shrank my jeans. Only kidding. Love you. Only kidding. You completely f****** ruined them. MORON. I'm waiting up."

I have kept every note you wrote me, from those encrusted with the crumbs of a junior-infant lunch to the most recent post-concert teenage cursive 'Thank you for the best night of my lives. I can die now. Bye'.

You're prepared. You wrote your will the Christmas you were seven. You'll find it with 'my Papers'. That disordered box under my desk full of unordered living. Your generous instructions are between the coasters from the Gougane Barra Hotel and the blotting paper holding the translucent corpse of that baby gecko. Ticket stubs to The Polar Express - your first-ever movie - are tucked behind.

Go often to the movies, theatre, concerts. Study hard. After university, buy a table. Haul it with you to your various abodes. There is relatively little that can't be fixed by a good dinner with people you love. Be generous with your invitations. Sometimes a simple meal can save a complicated life.

And that, dear daughter, is central. The only life you can save is your own. Avoid the men with 'Rescue Me' hung, sometimes invisibly, around their necks. They will hang their need and chaos around yours. Do not squander a millisecond of your present on their past or future. Be alert to the signs. It's easy. By moving a single letter, rescue becomes recuse.

But never recuse yourself from your own life. Grab it, love it, live it lavishly every day. Remember, it's a straight-through big sing. With no da capo arrangements.

Be sceptical about success. Sometimes it's the Nobel prize. Often, it's managing to stay alive one minute to the next. If you're not flying first class to Stockholm, but on the worst days are breathing in and out, congratulations.

You already have a signature scent. This is good. Keep it handy. A spray of that and a night with 'the girls' from school, will take you home to yourself, when the breadcrumb trail is eaten, the moon can't find the pebbles and the huntsman has had a change of heart.

When you are broke - especially when you are broke - spend money on flowers. On grey days feast on their coral or vermilion. Remember you belong to the world of the Silk Road and Spice Road, of Vienna and Berlin and Prague and Paris, of Mozart and Vivaldi, of Tolstoy and Nabokov and Camus. Whether it's Bowie or My Chemical Romance or Dylan or Rachmaninov and his Vespers or the Sixteen and the Strathclyde Motets, or Hey Violet or Twenty One Pilots or 5 Seconds of Summer, all these are your tribe. Take shelter with them.

Because despite luminous moments, life can be a clusterf**k. It's nothing personal. You don't possess a pass for the most appalling shit to pass you by. There is no right to happiness. So when it comes welcome it, live it, protect it.

Be thankful for it. And for the fact you are loved.

For as long as you live, remember those who have no one else to remember them. One day, you will number among them.

And 100 years from now, a mother will look at her child and think "I wonder where she gets that from"? She gets it from you. On lonely days look in the mirror and you will see me - God love you - your grannies, your aunts, all your people looking back at you. They, we, are in the turn of your head, the colour of your hair, your hooded eyes. Sing and you hear their voice. It took thousands of people, thousands of years to make you. And you are perfect. Simply because you exist.

And when you are 96-and-a-half, still a ballerina and badminton champion, those who will love you after me, will hand you back to my care. Though I never left you, for the first time in a long time, you will see me again. And we will tell each other how nothing about life is known; everything is to be created, imagined. Only love is real.

I will take your hand, my darling girl. And you are three again, going to the zoo on a hot day in June, to smell the tigers.

Love, Mom

Sunday Independent

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