Writers-in-Residence Excerpts of Work

Traveling Alone

It hit me halfway over the Atlantic , shortly after dirty dinner trays had been removed, the lights lowered and the parade to the bathroom began. I had expected it might hit a few days into my trip, my first jaunt to Europe on my own, but there I was sitting in 37B feeling the turbulence of homesickness.

I had left my husband and four kids at home and taken off on an adventure. I was on a quest to Ireland to find my writing voice, a voice that after 24 years of motherhood, wifehood, and daughterhood, had been lost like a pair of earrings in an overstuffed attic. My life had become noisy and filled with death. Seven family members in a year and a half had died, I’d sat vigils at two deathbeds and had run back and forth between cities to funerals. It had gotten so bad that when our phones rang, my sisters and I instinctively ran to our closets to get our funeral outfits.

It was in the spring, after the death of my 54 year old sister-in-law that my husband and I decided it was time for me to travel alone. To lighten some of the baggage of life. To travel somewhere where I could hear myself and find out who I was. Without knowing it, I had become the last opinion I had heard. Like butter in a microwave, I’d watched myself melt. And I had been spread too thin.

I decided to go to Ireland , land of Angela ’s Ashes, shamrocks and a writer’s retreat I had found on the Internet.

On the plane, the voices surrounding me were Irish, each with their different regional flavors. This shouldn’t have stunned me since I was going to Ireland , but for some reason, I didn’t think I’d hear Irish until I landed in Ireland .

The young man next to me said he was from Belfast . He spoke English but with an accent so thick he might as well have been speaking Italian. I soon learned every variation of a strong expletive deleted. Depending on how he used it, the word rhymed with duck, deck or when he was expressing total disgust, as he did when regaling me with how he had been strip-searched and followed at Kennedy, he gave the word “folk” new mea ning.

As the nighttime flight wore on, I tossed my head back and forth. I had no other shoulder to lean on but my own. And that’s when it hit me. I am alone.

By the time we landed in Shannon I wanted to get on the next plane home. It smelled different, there were soldiers with automatic weapons (I later learned they have them when money is being exchanged) and I was exhausted.

At the car rental place I asked the man if there was any place to practice driving since I would be driving on the opposite side of the highway than I was used to. “No, just watch the roundabouts,” he said.

“I’ve spent a lot of money to come all this way and die,” I responded, tears glazing my vision.

I drove around the roundabout a couple of times before I gathered my wits and shot off in a direction I’d hoped would take me to my pre-booked bed and breakfast. (Tip number two in guidebook, arrange first night’s accommodation beforehand) By the grace of the traveling God’s I found it. Problem was, it was only 10 o’clock and check-in wasn’t until the afternoon. I supposed it helped my cause that the expression on my face registered an eleven on the crisis scale because when the owner of the bed and breakfast saw me, she said she’d find someplace for me to lie down. Tip number three in the guidebook said get on the time of your destination as soon as possible. Easy for them to say.

Lying on the bed I pondered how I was going to tell my husband I was returning home later that day. I’ know, I’d plead I’d forgotten my Tylenol and needed to come home. Nah, he’d tell me to buy it over here. I’d tell him it smelled funny and I was sure it was something toxic and I’d better return home before I got something terminal. Nope, he wouldn’t buy that. By then I had worked myself into a case of hysteria which is a sorrowful sight. Lips trembling, nose redder than a juniper berry, and eyes at half mast from jetlag, I went downstairs to use the phone to call home.

“I’m sorry,” the operator said, “your security password was changed and won’t be active for six more hours.”

“But, but, I’m in Ireland ,” I said, my staccato blubber making the receiver tremble in time with my lip, “and I’m alone and, and I need to talk to my h-u-s-b-a-n-d.”

“What if I give you a complimentary three minutes?” she asked.

Hearing my husband’ voice settled me for a while. Say twenty minutes. I was embarrassed to ask if I could come back home so I didn’t ask. “You’re just tired,” he said. But I didn’t believe him.

I couldn’t sleep so I got in the car and drove to Bunratty Castle . First thing I did was go into a souvenir shop and buy gifts for those back home so when I returned to the states the next day I’d have proof I had indeed gone to Ireland. I walked through the castle and historic village. Aha, I’ve seen Ireland , I said smuggly. Now I can go home.

When I returned to the bed and breakfast I reported to Maire, the owner, that I had returned without killing anyone, including myself. Well, I thought it was funny.

She took my hand and led me to the drawing room where a peat fire burned in the small fireplace. I was sure she had gone into the kitchen to put all sharp objects out of my reach. She brought me tea and a biscuit.

I called home again and my husband and daughter tried to control their laughter as I cried into the phone. “But this isn’t what I thought it would be,” I said. “Go to bed,” my husband replied, “You’ll be fine in the morning.”

The next morning, I awoke early to the sound of cows mooing. The sun was out. My head seemed newly attached to my shoulders. Things didn’t seem so strange. I was again apart of this world.

At breakfast I spoke with a couple of other travels. I apologized to Maire about my outbursts.

“Aye, they’re all nuts when they come from America ,” she said. “It’s called jetlag.”

After a hug goodbye, I walked to my car. I stood for a moment looking across the narrow road, gazing into the big brown eyes of the cows that had called me awake. I inhaled deeply, sweet, air that smelled of green grass and growth and adventure. I got in my car and without a map, began a three week odyssey that changed my life.

There was no wrong road to take. I couldn’t get lost because I didn’t know where I was going. No one second guessed whether I turned left or right. If I got hungry I stopped and ate. I talked to people, looked into their eyes and listened to their stories. I didn’t have to wonder if someone else was having a good time. I was. And for once that was all that mattered.

If I hadn’t traveled alone, I would never have met a lonely shepherd who held my hand as we walked down the side of a mountain, and who kept asking me, “Are ya sure yer married?” I would have never been sitting in a pub alone and been asked by an English lady, also traveling alone, if she might join me. There was no one to look at me like I was wasting my money as I bought tapes from a fiddle player, a guitar player and a folk singer while walking along the Cliffs of Moher.

If I hadn’t traveled alone I wouldn’t have made new friends at the writer’s retreat. Friends from England , Australia and Ireland . Nor would I have gotten to sing my “Prune” song at a hooly of local Irish people. If I had gotten back on that plane the next day I would never have milked a cow in a two-hundred year old cottage with the sound of the sea playing backup to a cow’s moans. I would never have met an Irishman who told me he could see my good soul when he looked into my eyes and told me how lucky my husband was to have me.

To say I never got homesick again would be a lie. Most everywhere I looked I saw things and said to myself, “Gee, I wish Nick could see that.” I thought of my sons and daughters and relished telling people I met about them. But the longer I was gone the more the day to day disappointment and worries gave way to a renewed spirit. I was moving my thinking forward. And in a sense, isn’t that what life is all about?

Susan DeBow
Cincinnati, Ohio, USA

Go to top