The Low Point
IF I HAD BEEN ASKED TO REPORT ON middle age when I was halfway through my fifties, I would have said that it was too bleak to talk about. Much too bleak if you believed, as I passionately did, that your life has been a failure. I seemed successful, I knew-I was an opinion columnist with an Irish newspaper, and columnists are not nobodies. But when I looked at the private side of my life, all I could feel was regret, and all I could see was what was missing. I had no child, and no other creation. I didn't have a partner. I didn't have a lover, however provisional, and I didn't have any appetite for one. I occasionally saw my sisters and brothers who lived near me, but I didn't think of them as a resource for everyday living. Our father had been a big fish in a small pond because he was the first journalist in Dublin to write a daily social diary about the receptions and parties and formal events that happened around the town every night. His dapper, charming figure, usually wearing evening dress, had been welcome everywhere he went. Not so, my poor mother. She was a shy, lonely woman, the inefficient manageress of wherever we happened to be living, a bookworm who, when she added drinking to reading, could escape the reality of nine children and a husband she was in love with but could not trust. Over the years, we watched our father become more sought after and our mother become a hopeless alcoholic. Worry about her became a bond between us when she was left a widow, but once she died too, the family didn't seem to have any function. Anyway, I felt that at the age of fifty-five I shouldn't be depending on the family I came from; I should have made a circle of my own. As it was, I didn't even have the company of colleagues in a workplace because I wrote my columns from home. And the truth was that I made no effort to find company. Every night I quietly drank just a bit too much wine, and other people would have interfered with that. There were only ten years to go till retirement from the paper. But what would I retire for? I had no savings, and because I'd only just joined the staff I wasn't going to have much of a pension. I had no plans anyway. My job with The Irish Times was much the best thing I had.
There's a famous challenge for writers in creating a character who's a convincing bore without boring the reader-Shakespeare is said to have pulled it off with the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet. I was so dull back then that even a description of my dullness would have too much life in it. I don't know that anyone outside me looked closely enough to know how I felt, but I was so low I thought I'd never come back up. When you're young, the endings of relationships are all swirling feeling, and the practical implications don't matter. But it's different when you're a shade nearer sixty than fifty, and you had taken it for granted that what you had together would be your life to the end. The house, with its dustmarks and jangling hangers where her clothes had been, was a constant reminder of the breakup with a woman so well known in Ireland as an activist and writer that she is a household name: Nell. Our home had also been an office for professional work, so there was all that to sort out-the telephones and the cable companies and the shared expenditures and the rerouting of mail. There were dishes, plants, quilts. Things reappeared. The porcelain soup tureen we bought that day in eastern Hungary when we saw Russia in the distance-a dark forestry plantation on the other side of a river-and sang "Lara's Theme" at the top of our lungs to whoever might be over there. Things like that, carrying our history, now devalued. And what about friends, holidays, the two families, all that we knew about each other and had allowed to be known? The house became more silent every day as her departure drained the life from it.
But I read once that certain pine trees need extreme cold to germinate-that is, the cold of the worst of winter starts new life in them by splitting their seeds. At least now, the wrangling was over. There were still strong bonds between us, and on my side gratitude, but I've seen it happen to other couples, too, that every sentence becomes a flashpoint, every statement is disputed, every point is hung on to until one person proves that the other is wrong. Dry, angry victories. We went for a kind of marriage guidance to a psychologist friend. After nine sessions she said to us, "Couldn't you go on living in the same house but make it an absolute rule not to talk to each other at all or have anything whatsoever to do with each other?" I read my book from six o'clock every evening in my room, my bottle of wine beside me. Nell worked in her own room. We would share a tight-lipped meal, cooked by me. She would not say thank you because she felt silently pressured into it. I would flame with silent rage because she did not say thank you. And one day, the previously unimaginable became possible. I had never even in my most secret thoughts imagined us parting, but suddenly it was the only thing we could do. She had harried me on some point-I used to back away from the sound of her voice-down the hallway as far as the front door. I leaned against it, turned around, and said the sentences that begin, "Just go!"
And that was that, after almost fifteen years.
I don't know of any other event that causes as much pain and destruction, and that is as little understood, as the end of love. It's written off as a woman's thing, as if men don't suffer just as much-financially, often, more-when a relationship breaks down. What authenticity is it that people are honoring when they refuse to live under the same roof-even roofs as wide as, say, the mansions Charles and Diana had at their disposal-though the well-being of children depends on it, though businesses depend on it, though everything is as it was except that the tide of affection has gone out? And why, when it does go out, can nothing at all make it come in again? For nothing that a name can be put to, the whole world of a shared life is torn into pieces and the pieces scattered, as if truth depended on getting rid of it. Maybe it was an illusion in the first place, the love, but if so, why should its absence be so devastating? What is it, anyway, within oneself, that is hurt so much by a withdrawal nobody wanted to happen and nobody can control?
When the tide went out for us I saw in the sand, so to speak, the outline of my obdurate self, which the years of companionship had obscured. It seemed to me proved, now, that I could not sustain a loving relationship. I had no experience of anything other than love disappearing, however long that took. It had been like that from the beginning: the first man I ever adored was the first man I left. This was a man in whose arms I had learned what making love can be like, a man with whom I'd seen the Mediterranean for the first time, who'd played Mozart on his old cottage piano for me, who'd slept out in the open with me and woken me to marvel at a satellite going across the indigo sky through the tracery of the cherry tree overhead. He had faithfully waited at piers and in train stations for me, shopped and cooked for me, bought things for me-sandals, I remember, elegant little sandals with fine red straps and a kitten heel, in San Remo-and yet I stood on a street in Dublin one winter night and he stood in front of me trying to talk, and I was surreptitiously rocking on one foot while I dangled the other one in the gutter. Barely, barely moving, concentrating on the tiny, inward feel of the rocking, so as to pass the time till he would stop talking and to distract myself from listening to him. And he had done nothing and I had done nothing to bring this about, nor was it in his interest or mine. It was just pure waste. And then much the same happened with the next person I greatly loved, except that this time he left me, and now this, the one that was meant to last forever. Gone.
But I had blessings to count. Though the house was lonely, the loneliness was purely private. I had my public role: I might easily hear something I'd written in the newspaper quoted on radio or television, or I myself would be on a discussion program. I valued my job very highly, not just the privilege of working out my point of view in front of an audience once a week, but the pleasure of finding the words for the arguments. The column wasn't very well paid, but then, I didn't work very hard. With what I had, I was paying off the mortgages on the Dublin house and on a two-room cottage in the west of Ireland. The Dublin house wasn't a home anymore, and the Clare one wasn't one yet-it had no heating, for one thing, and nothing to cook on except a broken range-but I loved being there. Whether in the west or in Dublin, I read all the time-the summer of the breakup I finished Remembrance of Things Past for the second time.
The hours of the evening when I listened to classical music and read with my whole self were rich. People think that solitary drinkers are fighting off misery, but it isn't like that-if anything, it's too attractive an occupation. And although I did drink too much I was still drinking less than I did in my thirties and forties. I honestly considered myself rather disciplined about drinking-when you have an alcoholic mother, almost anything short of gross alcoholism feels like an achievement. I was in good health anyway-"thank God" comes involuntarily to my lips when I say that, not because I think that there is a god who knows about me, but because I know that if you're not fortunate enough to be physically and mentally well, there's not much you can do about anything else. I was healthier, in fact, than I'd been since I was a girl, since I had managed that year, with incredible difficulty, to give up smoking cigarettes. This may seem a small thing, but anyone who has ever been a chain-smoker like me will know that quitting is so hard that you can hardly believe it-you move around delicately because your head feels as if it might fall off, and also because you're stunned at what you're trying to do. Conquering the addiction had been an action on the philosophic level, as well as every other. It involved taking hold of the way I imagined time. Instead of picturing the days stretching endlessly ahead, intolerably cigaretteless, I managed to train part of my mind into being in the here and now, where I could make the repeated decision not to smoke.
But I was barely succeeding. I followed people who were smoking in the street to gulp their slipstreams. In cafés and trains I was a keen passive smoker. I was obsessed with having cigarettes in my pocket to finger, so for months I carried a full pack in my pocket, replacing it with another when it became battered and began to leak tobacco. Once, a perfect stranger ran into a store after me and grabbed me to stop me buying the replacement pack, because he, like half of Ireland, had read my articles about trying to quit.
"I carry the pack so I won't feel deprived," I explained desperately. "The important thing is to avoid awakening every bit of deprivation you ever had in your life, beginning with the loss of the maternal breast. You have to emphasize to yourself that quitting is not a thing that's been done to you but a choice you've made."
He looked dubious. I didn't blame him. I was trying to brainwash myself into believing what the woman who ran the stop-smoking clinic had said. But I didn't believe anything she said. I didn't believe anything I said myself. I didn't believe anything except that I had a gaping void within me that ached to be filled full of smoke.
And yet-I did not fail. I became an ex-smoker. And after that I was able to believe in myself along a wider front. I decided to get a laptop computer and learn how to use it to send my pieces of journalism to the paper. So, after years of making no effort to learn anything new, I learned that. The laptop's Delete function was so different from the old typewritten sheets with their rows of Xs-reminders of each word and phrase that had been laboriously thought better of-that language itself seemed a refreshed medium now. Words swam into their place, where before they were cemented in.
I also decided to get a dog. And that's what I did, just before things went finally wrong in the relationship with Nell-indeed, I've wondered if my unconscious knew she and I were going to part and prompted me to get the dog so as to have something to keep my heart alive. I got Molly from the animal pound, a black and white mostly sheepdog mongrel pup, and I took her home and followed her around the house with wads of newspaper. I got her in advance of loving her. I had no idea of the abundance of pristine love a dog can release. I had no idea how grateful I was going to feel to her just for living with me. She was-she is-an honest, trusting, anxious little enthusiast of a dog, and I watched her as if I could learn from her-as if the simple truth she lives in is something a human can learn. And then I got a big, glossy, black cat, to keep Molly company. Not a very lovable cat, Hodge, but an impressive one, and above all, beautiful.