Being, like Woody Allen, too hostile to drive, I left my son to the airport bus. He was twenty, the first child to cross the sea in any direction, and he was going to America for a year to work in a holiday camp for children. To the Catskill mountains he was going, near New York. I stood on the road until I couldn’t see the bus any more and then I went into town as though it was any old Saturday. At three o’clock, when I knew he’d be taking off, I sat down; I had discovered a new pain in a new place.
Later, I went into his room and looked at the empty bed. I changed the sheets and tidied and cleaned. And then I washed all his clothes and hung them out and took them in and aired and ironed them, and folded them, oh so neat.
Long days later he phoned. He wanted tea-bags, nothing else, just tea-bags, and would I send them? He was having a great time, he said, meeting people from all over the world and he loved the heat and the craic was great but he wanted tea-bags. He said the night he arrived he stood at a balcony window and looked out at New York and he couldn’t stop smiling to himself because he was really there. And the picture of his there, leaning out with hands on the railings and him smiling is still in my head like a lost photograph.
So I got the tea-bags and packed them up and sent them and waited to hear they had arrived. His siblings said it was great; they never had to answer the phone when he was away because I’d have broken bones trying to get there first.
The parcel arrived. He’d be happy now, I thought, and I pictured him in the camp, up in the Catskill mountains with a crowd of children all different colours like in a holy picture, and them all sitting round in a circle drinking tea.
One day in town I looked at a mannequin in a window, and whatever way the head of it was turned or the way I looked at it I got such a sharp, terrible pain. My feet didn’t know where they were and I put a hand to the wall to steady myself.
The months passed and the day came for his return. oh, such cleanings and washings – I had everybody working, and at last, at last, the car arrived and out he got – a stranger, older, tanned, dressed in shorts and sandals – in a place where even on the hottest of hot days the boys sweltered in jeans and runners. He looked like a visitor and for a short while seemed like one.
That was years ago and they have all left and returned many times. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but I’m not.
Broadcast on Radio Ulster 2006.