Leaving Cork is something I’d expect to be getting used to at this point. I’ve been doing it seriously for 21 years now. That first time was the worst. Right before leaving for the airport my Dad and I took a walk down a country boreen by his house in Waterfall, and I waited for him to ask me not to go. I would have changed my mind so easily then. But he didn’t. Instead he talked about the power of youth and opportunity, and the importance of being brave with your life. That was all very inspiring of course, but what I really wanted him to say was, “Leave? Don’t be ridiculous. Come back inside and we’ll have a cup of tea”. He didn’t though, and I sobbed and sighed all the way to Shannon, and then heaved my way, in a snotty, drippy mess through immigration. How did they even let me on that plane? It was the early 1990s though, the Irish economy was bad, and US immigration officers were probably well used to the sight of heartbroken Irish youngsters setting out to try to make a better fate for themselves in the new world.
It’s been twenty one years now since I left Cork to start my new life in Florida – I know, you suddenly don’t feel so sorry for me anymore, but leaving Cork has become only marginally easier over the years. As I write, I am sitting on the Aircoach from Cork to Dublin. This time I was home for a funeral. Only the second funeral I’ve had to rush home for over the years, but a very hard loss. Leaving my father behind, knowing that he is now not only bereft of me (and my sister and brother, who both left Cork in time), but also his main partner in crime, his sister Rita, is just so difficult. I am at that awkward age now where funerals in my parents generation are becoming increasingly common place, and I can’t help but think about how leaving Cork that very first time has taken so many days away from us already.
Whatever the reason for the visit, the rituals of leaving remain the same. The day before I mentally check to see if I have met up with everyone I intended to, and eaten everything I meant to. If not, action plans are put into place. The night before I start to gather the mass that began to flow out of my suitcase, like slow seeping lava, since the day of my arrival. With every day that passes it has poured out in increasing volume. For some reason, and without fail, I catch myself singing John Denver’s Leaving on a Jet Plane quietly to myself as I go through this process. Contents of suitcase have at least tripled in size, a fact I seem to never remember to plan for when doing the initial packing. The expansion is fueled by too many trips to Penney’s and Dunnes (shoes that I absolutely did not need, but were only four euro – you’d have to), tons of Cadbury’s chocolate – Twirls, Crunchies, Flakes, boxes of Barry’s Tea Bags (the one Cork commodity that I have not been able to move on from in the past two decades), Sudocrem and the all important 20 pack of Tayto, destined to be reduced to crumbs within two seconds of being packed, as I inevitably sit on the suitcase in order to get it to close. Zippers strain, and not just on my luggage. The fear of the weighing scale at the airport is totally trumped by the fear of the one in my bathroom in Orlando. Not only has the luggage expanded but there has also been a personal expansion; the inevitable result of ten days of Seize the Day style indulgence in Clonakilty sausages and pudding, Tom Durcan spiced beef, crusty bread rolls, brown bread, trips to KC’s in Douglas, and an immodest amount of pints of Murphy’s. That other kind of excess baggage is going to take a more sustained and even less pleasant effort to deal with.
The ritual of packing is a good distraction from the reality of the departure. Used to be my aunt Rita would come over the night before I left and give moral support as I engaged in the ritual. Not this time though; Rita’s in St. Finbarr’s now. She was buried with her head where her feet should have gone, and though we all noticed it at the time, in good Cork fashion, no one thought to question it. So I got the packing done on my own last night. Dad likes to avoid that part of the proceedings so we can stay in the moment a while longer. Packing complete we sit by the fire watching TV, as if nothing out of the ordinary is happening in the morning.
I did do better at hiding my tears from Dad as he drove me in to Patrick’s Quay to catch the bus this morning. I held it together, singing Neil Diamond loudly with him on the way into town. Because we were running late there was only time for a quick goodbye on the Quay, “Thank you. I love you”, I said, grateful for the time crunch because I could not bear even the suggestion that he might have tears in his eyes. Off he drove alone, and I swung my bags onto the bus.
If my father was a selfish man, I imagine that he might have felt more inclined to ask me to stay this morning than that first time I left him. He might have suggested that we turn around and go home for a cup of Barry’s more readily. But he’s not, and now I have a husband and children and a life on the other side of the Atlantic. It’s a good life, and I am blessed to have it, but despite my 21 years away it becomes increasingly obvious that my spiritual home is the one by the Lee, and it looks as though leaving Cork is never going to get any easier.