Martha

A happy Friday evening: tea with an old friend in Belfast and then to Ravenhill to watch Ulster triumph over Northampton in a European Champions Cup match.

Driving back to Dublin, I switched on the radio. It was the Late Date music programme on RTE Radio 1. The presenter Fiachna Ó Braonáin has an instinctive understanding of how radio works best, he addresses every listener personally. He creates a sense of community among those to whom he broadcasts.

A listener sent in a request for Tom Waits’ song Martha. The request said the song was for the listener’s little girl Martha, who had been born on Tuesday of this week and had sadly died on Wednesday. He wanted the song dedicated to the staff of the hospital who had looked after his baby daughter and his wife.

Anyone familiar with Tom Waits will know his voice is one that hits you in the pit of the stomach, his deep gravel voice expressing the depths of human emotion.

Pondering the request and the sense of overwhelming grief that must have lain behind it, I wondered how anyone might ever recover from the death of a child, how siblings ever come to terms with the loss of a brother or a sister.

I struggled to remember the words of a Seamus Heaney poem, perhaps they are the least inadequate of all the inadequate words that people say on such an occasion.

I
Your mother walks light as an empty creel
Unlearning the intimate nudge and pull
Your trussed-up weight of seed-flesh and bone-curd
Had insisted on. That evicted world
Contracts round its history, its scar.
Doomsday struck when your collapsed sphere
Extinguished itself in our atmosphere,
Your mother heavy with the lightness in her.

II
For six months you stayed cartographer
Charting my friend from husband towards father
He guessed a globe behind your steady mound.
Then the pole fell, shooting star, into the ground.

III
On lonely journeys I think of it all,
Birth of death, exhumation for burial,
A wreath of small clothes, a memorial pram,
And parents reaching for a phantom limb.
I drive by remote control on this bare road
Under a drizzling sky, a circling rock.
Past mountain fields, full to the brim with cloud,
White waves riding home on a wintry lough.

From where was the father of baby Martha sending his request? Was his wife still in hospital? Was he alone, or was there someone to sit with him in silence because there are no words to be said?

“Drive by remote control?” Life itself becomes a matter of remote control in the face of such grief.

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