[Originally published in Jan 2010, republished in July 2015 and Nov 2015 in memory of Liam Loughnane]
We were in the town of Catholic pilgrimage called Cartago at the end of November.
I looked in my wallet but I was low on colones, local cash. “Hey Simone, could you give me some of the money you owe me for the taxi ride to the volcano today, I need to buy this book.”
And so I bought the book.
Its title was “Abuelo” – Grandfather.
There are a million micro climates in these tropical countries: the hill over there is having different weather to here; it’s always springtime in San Jose; and two hours away is fun in the sun on the coast. Roads are like vortexes to parallel universes, you can create whatever climate you want. And I fell through a vortex to the rural West of Ireland in November circa 1978. Glorious gales and pissing rain. Fucking freezing with no heating and dribbling hot water.
The pull of the motherland is strong for me right now. As I write my grandfather is ill in Ireland, recovering from recent problems with his heart. He is dreaming a lot right now, I felt his spirit draw close to me as I went to visit the turtle project on my last day in Montezuma. I was meditating alone in the tropical garden feeling full of vigour and life, when I felt the warm familiar love that I have for him rise in my heart. Then I could see him. I was worried that seeing him meant that he was dying, but he reassured me that he was going to stick around on earth for a while longer. I relaxed. I offered to show him around the garden, so we walked. I needed to move slowly as he is an old man, but I was showing him where I was and who I was through my eyes and my actions. He was gently intrigued by the tropical plants and the strange animals. I felt so held in love.
At the same time, I was wondering if I was imagining things or I was out of my depth, but the love was dense, familiar and real. So I chose to trust what was happening and the love in my heart deepened. I felt moved to speak from my heart. “Granddad, if there is anything that I can help you with, just ask. It would be an honour to help you in any way I can. Any way I can.” And I sensed it with the depth of my heart and cried. “An honour.” I stood tall and waited.
He said he wanted to go by the sea. I felt gentle memories of our many trips together to Lahinch gently flow back. So I stripped down to my bathing suit and left my clothes in a pile in the garden.
The midday sun was shining down on the sea. A surreal, paradise world of light overlapped on the beach I had come to know so well. There were bright white lights shining in the sea. I was strong and tall and glorious with my tanned (!) skin, feeling powerful incarnated in my body. The golden sand was hot but I strode firmly and purposefully towards the sea feeling the presence of my grandfather and now also my other grandparents, who have all passed away. They were all delighted to see me so happy, alive and strong in this beautiful place. I walked against the surf to deeper water and floated facing up to the sun, my heart immersed and held in deep love. Sometimes I could see my grandparents, sometimes I could just feel their love. And I just stayed in the water, swimming, feeling the life and blood in my body and the love and depth in my heart. I looked across the surface at the white lights as they grew more distant until I felt that I was alone again and that the beach was just a beach again.
I gave thanks and walked back onto the beach. I noticed I’d lost one of my earrings, a silver rose. An offering to the sea. An offering to my grandparents.
Mario was standing at the entrance to the garden with my clothes. I don’t know how long he had been watching. I dressed. I didn’t need to return to the garden. As we walked towards Montezuma, I explained what happened (in Spanish!) and I could tell he was touched, but he did ask the obvious question: “Isn’t it easier to speak to your grandfather by telephone?” I laughed as the answer is actually no. Due to a combination of our British accents and his loss of hearing, my Granddad said to my Mum one time, “Kitty, you have two beautiful daughters, but I don’t understand a word they say.” The last few times I’ve seen him, we’ve held hands quietly, communicating with simple words, just feeling how glad we were to be in each other’s presence.
Within 24 hours of my glorious swim, I had found my way to the wet world in Zapotal. I stood on a hill in the horizontal rain with a couple from Nicaragua, waiting for a car that was going our way to complete the journey. They were very young, not even 20 years old with a small baby. So far that day I’d been on 3 different buses, a taxi and a ferry. When our ride arrived, I was still rummaging through my bag for something warm to put over my beach wear, which was quite daft at this point. The young Nico beckoned me over and we all squeezed into an ancient lime green pickup truck.
“Mucha carga”, the driver was complaining about the weight of my luggage as we struggled up the hill. We struggled to such an extent that the young Nico had to get out and walk for one steep section. I was, of course, mortified.
I was going to Betty’s house.
Betty is managing a project to develop ecological agro-tourism in the region. I was coming to help. However, there was a communication failure from their head office, so they weren’t expecting me. The project was on hold at the moment for various reasons. But if I didn’t mind, I could help them on the farm for a couple of weeks instead. So I agreed.
In the morning, I was hosing the cow shit off the floor in the barns, preparing the milking stations, feeding the cows, pigs and chickens and helping to cut pasture to feed the calves. I even helped to milk the pregnant cow by hand because her milk isn’t so great for making cheese and needs to be kept separate. I was a good student, very precise and thorough. Like when I was in Guayabo, I was enjoying the simplicity of the work and being with the animals. Doing the work of my parents and my ancestors. At times, I got vivid flashes of memories my mum has shared with me; of breaking the ice on top of the water troughs for the animals to drink; feeling the throbbing of little hands after a morning of milking; the proximity of life at its most basic, poo, reproduction, shelter, food, drink. It felt deep, wholesome and nourishing to acknowledge the ancient, hard but simple work of raising livestock.
I was the only volunteer, so I had lots of time to read and sleep, which was much needed as I was recovering from a dodgy belly and there seemed to be a cold that was wanting to break through. I was quiet and respectful around Betty and her husband Chi-Chi. This quiet, diligent approach was welcome. They introduced me to their family and neighbours. I watched as Betty taught her pregnant daughter how to fold a terry nappy.
I only made one comment. “Your bump is very low, Marjorie. I don’t think you have long.”
It was a children’s book was about a grandfather telling his grandchild about rural life in Costa Rica as he was growing up.
At first, I thought I would read it to practice my Spanish. But my ability to read Spanish has developed more quickly than I thought (and more quickly than my spoken Spanish). I’m reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo now. So it became clear it wasn’t for me.
One afternoon after the cows were all milked, Betty disappeared off for the afternoon to go campaigning for her favourite politician. There are elections in Costa Rica at the beginning of Feb. I went up to read and snooze. Chi-Chi called me down for a cup of tea and we talked for hours about many different things. We got on well and talked deeply about life, philosophy, capitalism, the food business. We connected more deeply than I connected with Betty, we seemed to share an innate understanding of something intangible.
Two nights later I was woken from my sleep in Betty’s loft at 2:30am.
“Luisa, Luisa” Betty was speaking excitedly using Spanish words that included “water”, “pregnancy”, “baby” and then “milking”, “pigs”, “pigs feed”, “dairy”, “young boy”. In my semi-dormant state I mumbled, “How much pig swill do I give to each sow? Is the boy coming here? Ok, everything will be fine.”
And it was, both with the farm and with Betty’s new grandson. I had inherited the role of Farm Manager with 5 days of farm experience with a staff of a young German girl called Arlen, who had arrived the night before and a young local boy. I organised the tasks and gave instructions confidently and clearly in absolutely abysmal Spanish. Things were going wrong, one of the milking machines broke down and later all the electricity got cut off so we had to do much of the milking by hand. It was a bit bumpy but all the key tasks got done.
After my interview with the head of volunteer operations in San Jose a few weeks previously, I knew the book was for Betty’s project, but I didn’t know of her family circumstances.
All I had to do was choose the right time. After they returned from the hospital. I presented the Abuelo book to Chi-Chi, the new Abuelo, at the lunch table, explaining its story.
Arlen said “You’re a Bruja!” And I laughed.
While all this drama had been going on, my physical condition was worsening and that night I turned feverish and the next day the pains started to come. I continued to work slowly on the farm, but by the end of the milking my nerves were feeling jarred and I was getting shooting pains up and down from my brain and spinal column.
I knew this pain. I had been getting this from time to time when I was in Birmingham and it scared the shit out of me back then. It is intense, no normal pain killers can dull it and its source has bamboozled all medical opinion I have sought so far. It comes in waves at first, I would have about 40 minutes when the pain would be at a relatively low level and then 20 mins of almost unbearable agony and I was unable to walk.
At one point during one of my 20 min phases, Arlen came into the room and was going about her normal business of getting ready but every time she stepped on the floor, it rattled my bed and jarred my spine. It hurt so much I stuffed my blanket in my mouth to stop myself from screaming. But I didn’t trust myself to say anything as I couldn’t trust myself to say something in a nice way and I didn’t want to over react.
I was glad Arlen had a companion now, a very nice young Belgian called Romain, as I just wanted to keep myself to myself at this point. There was a fearsome force waking up inside me, a force with the power to do all sorts of things. But like all births, it was gruesome and painful and I needed privacy.
In Birmingham, the pain would make me panic and I would end up in a dark place, in despair. It was different now. This force inside me knew I had to keep saying to myself – “yes, this is part of my life. This is part of my journey. And thank god for my journey. My fucking nuts and surreal journey through life. But my life. It hurts like fuck, but I believe there is light somewhere in this pain, I want to find it.” I had read somewhere that each one of us is the answer to a divine question. It was hard, but I was being challenged in my commitment to find my answer.
On a recent overnight turtle watch, I noticed that the coldest part of the night is right before the dawn.
The phasing of the pain had changed so that now it was continuously excruciating for 18 hours. It had intensified so there was rampaging rage and frustration as well as the physical pain. Dark indeed, during the night I turned my face into my pillow so that my crying wouldn’t disturb Arlen and Romain. My nervous system was overloaded and exhausted. By 10am, I had got to a critical point…and with all the force I could find with my spirit, I said: “Look, I have limits. You’re asking me to trust you and I do. And that’s obvious. I can bear as much pain as I need to be able to shine light wherever it needs to go. But I also believe that some pain is just unnecessary. My commitment is to a life of deep beauty. Please can you just take what I don’t need right now so I can get on with it!”
3 hours later I was walking normally and jumping boulders across a river. It had taken 4 days of agony, but I had found something that I hadn’t found before. And two days later I was on the beach at Roca Bruja (see photos) in divine contentment, halfway through a 30k trek.
I don’t know whether the pain will return again. I assume it will.
I don’t know whether I’ll speak to my grandfather in the spiritual realm again. I assume I will.
There are a lot of things that I don’t know. But there are a lot of things that I don’t need to know. I’m just happy to be travelling.
Post Script 1
There was a matching ring that went with the silver rose earrings lost to the sea in the swim with the grandparents. It stayed with me when all my other jewellery was stolen in New York City.
I travelled back and forth meeting with Declan, my beloved, in Ireland in 2011 and 2012 and noticed, without drama, that the ring was missing after one of my visits. I gave it little energy as I assumed it was in his flat and that I’d be able to find it next time. In fact, I didn’t even mention its loss to Declan.
Then Declan arrived in England and bended down on one knee and presented me with the ring. I was delighted to receive it as it meant a lot.
“Do you know where I found it?”
“I don’t know, in the bathroom?”
“I found it in Glendalough (a national park in the Wicklow Mountains), it was sitting among the rocks by the lake. I saw it when I was there a couple of weeks ago. It sparkled at me and told me it was yours.”
Post Script 2
Liam Loughnane, my last remaining grandparent, died aged 97.
On the morning of his funeral, the silver rose ring, at this stage my most prized possession, vanished in my aunt Bridget’s house, in the village where he raised his family and was laid to rest.
It would be an honour to help you in any way I can…
A miracle remembered this month of Samhain.