By Áine Greaney
“I wrote “On Being Saved” in second person because, in times of loss or confusion, we feel distanced and estranged from ourselves and what used to be our normal lives. Now, as we face down a worldwide pandemic, I find myself doing this distancing thing again. It’s a very visceral reaction, a self-protective move to cope with all that’s unfolding in the external world and how I’m inwardly processing it, how we’re finding and providing sanctuary for others.”—Áine Greaney
After Logan Airport you unpack your suitcase and return to your job where your colleagues have left cards in your office mail box:
Sorry for the loss of your mother.
You read each card and you think, “Loss? What loss?” Because for now, there is no loss. Instead, in these busy, catch-up work days, there is only this underwater silence where loss and life belong somewhere else, to someone else.
Evenings on Route 95 North you watch the faces in the cars and you wonder how many of these drivers still have parents. You take Exit 56 to drive past the red maples and the farm stand and the roadside pumpkins on display.
While you were overseas in that Irish hospital, while you were walking behind the hearse that ferried your mother’s coffin to the village graveyard, New England went and turned itself to bright, high definition Autumn.
Every night you go to bed early because now, even two weeks later, you are still exhausted from the arguments of the cancer ward. Some nights you dream of a woman whose black bones float like flotsam through her molten body.
On your days off work you wander through your old misshapen house. The floors creak. You make coffee. You pour cereal and bring it to the table. You forget the milk. Going back for the milk takes ages because you are trapped in this underwater stasis in which every step takes forever.
After breakfast you head upstairs to shower and dress but you stop at the dining room window to watch your street with its brightly painted federals and Victorians, their window boxes planted with hardy Mums.
The side streets lead down to the sea wall and the clam flats where once, a man could feed his family with just his clamming fork and a rake.
Some of your neighbors’ houses have painted plaques with the original owner’s name and his ancient trade: Nathaniel. Jeremiah. Caleb.
Chandler. Rope maker. Ship merchant.
These are not the names or trades of your childhood. This is not your history, this Yankee place where the merchants voyaged out to sea and the wives scanned the horizon from their lonely widow’s walk.
At your window you are scanning the rooftops, the treetops, and the white clapboard church across the street. You are watching and waiting for something inside you to slip its moorings, to unleash that grief you’re supposed to feel.
This watching, this waiting goes on.
On Sunday mornings the cars park along the curb outside your house. Old men hold the passenger door for their wives. You watch them totter down the sidewalk, this Sunday morning pilgrimage to the People’s United Methodist Church.
In your mother’s and grandmother’s country—your ex-country—Protestants went on fox hunts. In their red coats and tally-ho fox horns, they rampaged across your and your neighbors’ swampy farms because, just a generation earlier, they were the Colonial or occupying force. They were not these old Methodist women in stout shoes or these Medicare men in Sunday overcoats.
On Sunday afternoons you and your mother and sister used to drive to a neighboring village where, centuries ago, the Guinness family had a huge lakeside castle and stables of servants and horses and a small stone church.
The Guinness gentry are long dead, and now the castle is a tourist hotel, but the lakeside walks are still open to locals like us.
On those Sunday walks your mother stopped to look at that little stone church that appears in the church-and-holy-water scene in the 1952 movie The Quiet Man. Staring across the castle lawns at that little Protestant church with the red door, you mentally replayed that age-old old creed: Step inside one of their churches and you’ll be dead within a month.
For her funeral you wore a black suit to Saint John’s Parish church where you knelt with your brothers and sisters in the front pew. The priest sang Ave Maria, and he shook incense while you prayed that you would remember the right places to kneel or genuflect.
Winter comes to New England. Down by the sea wall, the tide cracks and creaks in the crevices beneath the ice. The last Canadian geese fly south over Plum Island Point. You are still pacing your widow’s walk through the creaking house.
The night dreams are worse now, and you wonder if this is a kind of madness, an infirmity that’s here to stay.
One Monday you are stationed inside your window when your mind flickers half awake.
When she answers the church phone, you tell the pastor that you’re a writer and a neighbor and that you’d love to rent a place where you could work undistracted. You do not tell her that you must flee your own infirmity; you must quarantine yourself from your own house.
The pastor says she’s hardly ever there, and that the United Methodist Church, the church founded for clammers and fishermen and their families, would be happy to have its first writer in residence.
On your days off you stir yourself from the breakfast table and pour a travel mug of coffee.
In the church you set down your laptop bag in an office where the pastor’s vestments hang on the back of the door. The writing bag stays unzipped as you sit staring out the long windows at your own footprints through the snow, at a mirrored view of your own house and life.
You unpack a notebook and you begin to hand-write your requiem for a mother and a daughter–for the women you once were, the women you could have been.
One morning you depart the pastor’s office to walk across to the actual church. You open the double doors to a sanctuary with a crucifix, the rows of wooden pews before an altar.
All that New England winter you return to sit in this same pew.
The wind creaks in the trees outside the windows and you do not find God.
But you wonder if you’re being saved.
Sanctuary previously appeared in: Paige Leaves: Essays Inspired by New England (anthology), 2012 and The Drum: A Literary Magazine for Your Ears, Issue 35 where it was been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.