The Story So Far: Mercy Mulcahy is about to be accused of murdering her elderly and tyrannical father. The tragic and beautiful Mercy has devoted her life to the protection of her daughter, Star. It’s a quest that has taken her away from Zach, the only man she has ever truly loved.
This extract takes up the story when Mercy has been forced to return to Ireland to care for her father, now old and ill, and describes Zach’s return to help her heal from all she’s been through and reclaim her health and creative capacity.
The tools they use—no coincidence here!—are those recommended by the Go Creative! series.
* * *
In those days after I returned to Ireland, I could feel my sanity quivering as I spent days and nights drummed round the endless loop: my lover… my daughter… me… my daughter… my lover. My whole life seemed to have collapsed into this single, unsolvable circle of thought.
Taking on my father, his moods and machinations, provided a distraction. I did my duty by him, no more. And I did it for me, not him. But I did it—and I did it well.
With Pauline’s help, I changed the parlor into a bedroom and moved him downstairs. At night, I slept upstairs with my door open, so I would hear him call if he needed anything. I slept only fitfully, and up on the surface, skating across dreams. Sleeps that left me feeling exhausted when it was time to get up. Then the afternoons, I’d find myself dropping off in the fireside chair, falling into that state halfway between asleep and awake. It came to feel more real to me than the waking life of beck-and-call to the old, ill man who was as interested as ever in me.
Pauline was my only connection with what normal people call normality. Whenever she arrived at the door, I was shocked to see her red-cheeked smile, so ordinary and so nice, breaking the trance into which I’d locked myself with Daddy.
I would drink a cup of tea with her, and feel a piece of myself wakening into the real time of the outside world. Then she’d be gone, and I’d sink again into the regimen of servitude: meals and medicine, bed changes and bathroom duties, cleaning and complaints.
The other hours, the alone hours when I wasn’t cooking or caring for him, I spent in my bedroom. Not writing, no spirit for writing now. Just staring, unseeing, out the window. Clutching the ledge, afraid I was going to spin loose and be flung off the planet.
A few weeks into my time, Pauline said she was going to have to fit my father for a urinary bag, and asked if I could come in to his room with her, to do something called irrigating his catheter.
“Will it hurt?” he asked her when she told him.
He spoke in a babyish tone I’d never heard from him before. “Not too much,” Pauline said. “Not compared to what you’re used to.”
“What I’m used to,” he said in the same little-boy voice, “is not too good.”
“No, I wouldn’t think it is,” Pauline said, her voice all compassion as she put her hand on his, wrapping her fingers round his twigs of bone.
I was his daughter, but I was an intruder here, between a man I’d never witnessed before and a nurse who was a real nurse. Not an unwilling, forced attendant.
“You know it’s important that you’re not in pain, don’t you, Mr. Mulcahy?” she said, gently. “You know that’s what the morphine is for?”
His head dropped, like it was too heavy for its skinny neck. Silence. Then something fell on the conjoined hands. A tear.
Plop. Another one. I felt like a voyeur.
“You shouldn’t suffer any more than necessary,” she said, in the same gentle tone.
“I’m usually better than this.” “You’re surely allowed an old cry.”
That annoyed him and he threw off her hand. “It’s not a girl you have.”
She only laughed, as if to say being a gruff male won’t save you from tears, not in your sickbed. Not even Pauline could turn my father into a good patient, but she could help as I never could. I had to leave the room.
“Do I have to wash him now that bag is there?” I asked her, when we were back in the kitchen, having tea.
“That shouldn’t be necessary. There’s a rubber mat fixed to the side of the bath and I’ve taught him ways to sit on the edge and do it himself, in stages. So no, not yet. Let’s wait.”
“Let’s not meet trouble half way. For now he’s able to do for himself in that department. Encourage him. It’s something to give a shape to his day.”
* * *
My own days—and nights—were all out of shape. I don’t know why, but ordinary, everyday things always seem to be harder for me than everyone else. When Star was small, I remember watching other mothers and the careless, expert way they would swing their baby onto a hip, or wipe a cut knee. Pauline was like that with my father, but, with me, an invisible force was always pulling me back, or tripping me up.
The fatigue didn’t help. And being beside my father day after day. And the effort of not remembering all that happened in this house. After weeks of fractured sleep, night and day had melded. I was never fully awake, never fully asleep. My bones were sore with tiredness.
Pauline advised me to exercise. “One good night’s sleep would get you back on track,” she said. I knew she was right but I would find myself yearning for the Wicklow Hills, as if they were still 6,000 miles away, and not on my doorstep. Yet, doing nothing about it, though Pauline said she’d come sit with him any time. One afternoon, I was napping by the fire when I heard—or dreamt I was hearing?—the creak of the kitchen door and someone coming quietly in. I opened my eyes, or dreamt I did, and saw two jean-clad legs. Long. Familiar. I followed them up from knees to torso. A man. My eyes tracked up, all the way. His beautiful, beloved head. Zach.
I re-closed my eyes, re-opened them. Still Zach.
“You didn’t hear the front doorbell,” he said. “I had to come round.”
Fear rose in me. Was I losing my grip on reality? I felt his arm, flesh and bone. He came in close, put both arms around me, kissed my cheek. I felt his skin, his lips, smelled a waft of his smell. Visions don’t smell. “You’re real,” I said.
“I thought I hallucinated you.”
Again a laugh. His laugh. “You might at least say ‘dreamt,’ Mercy? You make me sound like a nightmare.”
He pulled me in closer, tucked me onto the white cotton of his T-shirt, onto his broad man’s chest.
“Oh, Zach, we can’t. I can’t… Star…”
“Shhhhh. We’ll talk later. We’ll sort something. Just hold me for a minute.”
“Mercy,” he said, stern this time. “Please. Stop thinking. You look wretched.”
“We’re not doing it your way any more.”
“Oh, thank God.”
I let him hold me, felt the strength of him against me, all the stirring that stirred. I held him back, but only for a moment. It was no good. My daughter, my lover, me…
I pulled away.
“Look, Mercy,” Zach said, sitting back on his heels to look up at me and recite a speech he had obviously prepared.
“You need help. I knew it all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, I know it now that I have you in front of me. Let me help you.”
“Later, afterwards, when you’re stronger, I will do whatever you say. But for now, just let me help.”
“You mean stay here?”
“Daddy would never allow that.”
“Allow it? Oh, Mercy, the question is, will you allow it? The question is: what can you allow yourself?”
I thought of what it would be like, having him around here, a shield against my father.
“I’d love to, Zach, but I can’t.”
“Leave it to me.” He jumped up. “I’ll ask him.”
“But he doesn’t even…”
Daddy didn’t know who Zach was, or anything about him… But he gave me no time to tell him; he was gone.
And within five minutes, he was back, giving me a smug, I-told-you-so thumbs-up.
“What? That’s it?”
“Is there tea in that pot?” he said, an old joke between us, one of the Irishy things I used to say that he loved to imitate.
“Ooooh, stop it. Tell me, Zach.”
“Nothing to tell. I asked him could I stay and he said yes.”
“Just like that? Come off it.”
“Mercy, think about it. What else could he say?”
“Anything. He could have said anything. Lord above, if you don’t tell me some of the details, I’ll—”
“So you can obsess over them?”
“Jesus Christ Almighty, Zach…”
“Whoa, okay, okay, no need to swear. I told him who I was and what I wanted—what we wanted—and he said ‘I’m not dead yet. This is still my house.’ And I said, ‘We know that, sir. That’s why I’m asking your permission to move in.’ He said, ‘What if I don’t give it?’ And I said, ‘Mercy and I would understand that to be completely your right, sir, and we would move out.’ That gave him pause. After a bit of thinking, he asked what would happen to him if we did that, and I told him to rest assured he’d be well looked after.”
“Ooooh,” I said. “You’re good.”
“You know, Mercy, it is really very simple.” He took my hand. “He has no power, hon. Not unless you hand yours over.”
The clock ticked, too loud.
“Think about it: If you did move out, what could he do?”
“I won’t, though.”
I hoped he wouldn’t ask why. I didn’t understand it myself, my coming back here. Not being able to cope with Star’s animosity was only part of it. Something primitive between me and my father was in it, too.
“I’m not asking you to. I love that you’re compelled to care for him, even though… y’know. But we could easily move to a rented house nearby, and you could do it from there. Or get him a nurse and just visit.”
How lovely all that sounded. Especially that “we.” I used it myself: “We’ve no money, Zach.”
“We’ll find the money if you think it’s the right thing to do.”
I shook my head, regretfully. “No. He really does need live-in help at this point.”
“Okay. But if we stay here, you must drop him as a burden, in your head and heart. And I am going to show you how.
We’ll start tomorrow. For today, just remember: Whatever he was in the past, now he’s just a sad old man.”
“Hmmm. I’d wait till you know him a bit better before you jump to that.” I looked at my watch. “And now it’s time I gave the sad old man his meds.”
I got them and strode off to Daddy’s bedroom, emulating Zach, playing brave. He was reading the paper, as I came in, and he kept his attention on it, unwilling to confront. As I went about the small chores of dealing out the pills and the water, of plumping the pillows and straightening the covers, of clearing away the assorted debris of the morning—newspaper, lunch bowl, teacup—I hardly looked at him. I was afraid of what he’d bring up, but also I needed time to think.
A man like Zach wasn’t going to want to be around a sniveling wreck for long, I knew that, but I didn’t have it in me to pretend to be strong and, anyway, he’d see through such a pretense in minutes. I was happy worrying about this small knotty question, so much easier to think about than the big one at the back of it all. Star. Star. What about Star?
When I went back out, I said: “I know we’re not going to be able to go on like this, Zach. Like you’re a doctor and I’m your patient. I want you to know I will be strong again.”
He held his two hands up to me and drew me down until I was the one sitting on the floor, between his knees. I sat, looking up at him.
“I don’t think you get it, Zach. Star—”
He put a finger to my lip. “Everything will come out right, if we let it.” He tightened his hold on my hands. “That’s what you’ve got to learn to do, Mercy. Trust.”
I looked up into his eyes. Electric-grey, overflowing with love.
“Trust,” he said again, a whisper this time.
My skin quivered, grew porous, opened to him.
* * *
Zach banished the gnarled thinking, the shallow sleeps, the hours of staring out the kitchen window, by taking hold of my time. What I needed, he said, was less thought and more practice.
“Practice” as he used it was a Buddhist word, with a special meaning. Our days were to begin with meditation. In the morning, after giving Daddy a cup of tea, but before making his breakfast or organizing his medicine, I was to sit down onto a cushion on the floor beside Zach, legs crossed, and, for thirty minutes, focus my full attention onto my breathing.
When thoughts arose in my mind—as they were certain to—I was to label them “thinking,” then bring my attention back to my breath. Especially my out-breath.
It sounds easy, but oh, it wasn’t. The first day I jumped up after two minutes, overwhelmed. Gently, insistently, Zach led me back.
“You can’t do it wrong, so long as you’re sitting there,” he said. “See the thought. Don’t judge it. Just let it be. Then return to the breath.”
I sat back down, quieted again, but as soon as I stilled, hurricanes of thought rushed in, firing me with feeling.
Rebellion, restlessness, craving, agitation. I remembered how my dentist once burst an abscess on my tooth before the painkillers had kicked in. I recalled my first boyfriend, Mossie Mangan, a boy from Doolough with a too-long chin, dumping me when it should have been the other way around. I felt the plug of dread begotten by my father that always sat in the pit of me. I could feel every layer of it.
And Star, of course. Star, Star, Star.
I imagined going back home to Santa Paola or onward, somewhere else, somewhere beyond every one. What would such a place look like? It would have a flat, open plain, with the mountains far in the distance, a ranch, a paddock, horses in a corral…
Along with such confabulations, everything I had ever heard or seen or felt was apparently still in there, in my mind. I didn’t want it, most of it. I definitely didn’t want to be sitting here with it drilling into me. It could send me right over. I might cut off my own ear, or choke my father, or tell Star what I really thought, or step into Doolough Lake, my pockets weighed with stones.
On I had to sit.
Next came what Zach called free-writing. Writing down, fast and by hand, three pages of those crazy thoughts of mine. Whatever arose in my head—opinion, idea, commentary, story. Nonsense, bitterness, pettiness, jokes—to be placed on the page, as mixed up as it wanted to be.
“Think of meditation as one leg to take you to peace, and this as the other. You need them both to get you there.”
Like the meditation, I wasn’t to judge what emerged. The meaning of the words was secondary to the act of writing them. Again, I resisted. I had Real Writing, my book, to be getting on with. Wasn’t structured work like that more valuable than these pages of mish-mash? And why did I have to use a pen when my typewriter was so much faster?
“Oh, fast,” said Zach, as if speed was a vice.
“But you said to write as fast as possible.”
“A fast pen is fast enough. This isn’t a race. You’re after depth, not distance.” He pointed to the pages. “Look how much more of you is there than on a typewritten page. Your handwriting is as unique as your fingerprint. An expression of you. That’s what we’re after.”
“Hmmm,” I said.
“That’s the you that you can count on, Mercy. Just do the practice, the rest will look after itself. I promise. The more you’re resisting this, the more you need it. Come on, here’s the pen. Another three pages today, fast as you can, starting now. Go!”
He was right. Thoughts and feelings still tore through me, but as I observed them in writing, I separated from them a little and they lost some of their power over me. As the days passed, I became aware of all the different voices inside me. In time, again a remarkably short time, my feelings shrank.
Or I became big enough to contain them.
I would never gain full control of my mind or my heart, that’s what Zach taught me. You can’t command the ocean, or strap up the wind, but you can observe them, you can get to know them. He gave me a structured way to flex and strengthen my inner self, so I could rely on it. I could feel free and safe, whatever was going on around me.
Meditation and three pages complete, it was time for breakfast. We’d prepare Daddy’s first: some porridge or mashed banana or soft eggs. I loved this preparation of food together, our little dance around each other in the kitchen. And going into Daddy’s room with the food was far less of an ordeal knowing Zach was only a room away.
Once Daddy was looked after, we took time over our own breakfast in the dining room, then I had to do three good hours on my book. This book. You have Zach to thank for it; without him it would never have been written.
We’d break at twelve twelve-thirty to prepare the soup or homemade blancmange or whatever slippery concoction was to be Daddy’s lunch that day. I’d bring it in to him while Zach prepared ours.
And after lunch, it was walking time. Daily practice number three.
“When Pauline is here,” he said, “I’ll go with you. But it’s important to often go alone too.”
The step-by-stepness of those solitary hikes in the Wicklow Hills somehow synchronized with the pages of writing now stacking up on my desk, and the witnessed breaths of my morning meditations. Beat by beat, my days started to drum out a rhythm I liked.
With three simple tools—meditation, walking and writing— Zach nursed me back. The way he taught me was the way he followed himself. I found myself beginning to smile again, to laugh, to listen to music. I started cooking us some of my favorite recipes from our café days. I bought a camera and started taking photos of Doolough, of the mountains and the lake. Daddy was no longer the focus of my day.
At night Zach and I sat by the fire, murmuring quiet chat or listening to Irish radio. On the outside, we looked like two simple people living simple days. Inside, we were warriors, fighting a true fight.
* * *
This is an extract from Blue Mercy. Read more here