After I leave my marriage, feeling rootless in Canada, I travel several days by plane, train, ferry and bus to reach the remote, coastal village in Donegal that is Griffin ancestral land. I cross the border into the Republic of Ireland at Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Still two years before the Good Friday Peace Agreement of 1998, armed British soldiers stand guard at the border crossing. My Uncle Frank awaits my arrival beneath a bus depot light, newspaper tucked beneath his arm, navy knit-cap resting above bright, blue eyes so like my father’s and my own.
“A hundred thousand welcomes,” he says, smiling.
It is midnight before my uncle mutely leads me to his cottage, each of us puffing frozen exhales into an aubergine sky. My fatigue is replaced by a sense of marvel at the brilliance of the stars against the blackness of night. A simple mattress placed in front of his fireplace is to be my bed, and after a snack of warm biscuits and hot tea, I sleep feeling closer to God than I have in sometime.
In the morning, I open the curtains to look upon a postcard view that the darkness hid from sight the previous night. White cottages dot emerald hills, white clouds break an azure sky, and white sailboats dance on cobalt water. My uncle and his toothless hound-dog, Binbo, walk towards town. Pulling on my boots, I chase after them.
The Catholic Church is white and quaint in its splendor. My uncle and I take turns entering the chapel and stand outside with Binbo. As we depart the chapel, my uncle says, “It’s divorce, then?” Ashamed, I can only nod. “Give it to God. He gives beauty for ashes,” Uncle Frank says.
My uncle is constructing a home for himself and his wife, Bridie, with the help of my Griffin cousins. I join in the assembly and physical exertion and the sweet sensation of belonging begin to quell my grief. I attend daily Mass with my uncle, and find that my faith sustains me.
On my daily run over the surrounding hills, I stop at the white cottage that is my grandfather’s birthplace. Touching its damp stones, the same prayer always settles on my lips. “God. Carry me.” My heart is shattered.
I buy a postcard showing the village chapel. On it I write: “I’m in God’s country. Standing where your father stood. Walking where he walked.” I mail it to my father in Canada.
Rain christens Donegal on my last day in Ireland. I pluck a rock from the north wall of my grandfather’s cottage to bring Griffin strength home with me when I leave that place that has proven to be my sanctuary in January 1996. My uncle takes me to a seaside cemetery and together we examine family headstones.
“There’s always arms for you to fall into, Angela,” he says.
I turn to face the seashore, hiding my tears from him. Ocean waves wash clean silver sands, the water reclaiming in its visiting grasp life stuck there, eager to return to the sea. The rain, fragrant with Donegal bell heather, falls ever softly. Something sacred surrounds me and the internal voice I am beginning to heed whispers above the roar of the Irish Sea: I’m with you always.
In the doorway of the bus station, a British soldier stands guard, his unwavering gaze fixed past me. Inside the station, I write on an ocean-view postcard: You’re never alone.
I mail it to myself.