Stephen O’Connor

Dear Shadows

Sean Laffin and I had been students together in Dublin, where we did a master’s degree in Anglo-Irish Literature back in 1980, in that still-old world where no one walked along Grafton Street, or any street, looking down at a device, and in which, when you were alone, you were alone. Sean, Joe Gallagher, and I were scholars and drinking companions in those days, along with Arend Van Troost, a Flemish friend who was more scholar than drinker, but always good company, and the only one of us who went on to get a PhD and become a world-renowned authority on James Joyce.

The program lasted a year, and at the end of it, shortly before the fellowship was broken by time or life, the four of us sat under an awning at a table outside the Quayside Pub, drinking our final pints and looking cautiously toward a hazy future. Sean Laffin said, “I’m sure we’re always going to stay in touch. I can’t wait to read letters from you crazy bastards.” Sean was really the crazy bastard, and we loved him for it. He was what Jack Kerouac would have called “a mad one.” He simmered with a wild enthusiasm for life, for literature, and for jazz, (he was a jazz drummer among other things). This enthusiasm bordered on delirium at times, particularly when he was drinking.

I was less confident about our friendship in the days to come. “We’ll stay in touch for a year or two, and then life will overwhelm us. We’ll have wives, mortgages, kids…and every few years we’ll send a Christmas card, maybe.”

“Daniel is right,” Arend said. His face was square and handsome, though the blond hair was already thinning, and I could almost imagine the bald, bespectacled professor he would one day become. “People lose contact.”

“I’d like to believe we’ll stay in touch, but the years, the years.…” Joe Gallagher said this with the gentle resignation that often marked his speech, “and I was never a great letter-writer.” As a kid, Joe had survived cancer; consequently, he had become philosophical about everything. Like Shakespeare’s Horatio, he was a not a man on whom Fortune could play whatever tune she pleased. He always maintained a certain equilibrium, and would take, to paraphrase the bard, life’s buffets or rewards with equal thanks. He was tall and slim, a college basketball player who had been the MVP that Spring for the UCD team. The chemo treatments had left him hairless as a youth, but when the cancer went into remission, his hair grew back, flourishing in thick chestnut curls that women loved to touch.

“Nah, we’ll always stay close,” Laffin contended. “After this year? Are you kidding me? Taking breaks from research in the National Library in the snug at Mulligan’s? Our all-night literary discussions? Following the crowd out of a pub to a wild night in a flat in Ranelagh? Parties with those French Breton expatriates avoiding the draft in Ireland? The trip to Cashel?” He looked at each of us, then guzzled the last half of his pint. He set the glass down on the table where many a parting glass had stood in that pub by the quays and so close to Dublin Bay. “Yeah,” he said, finally, “maybe not.”

As I drove the winding road to Concord, Massachusetts, I recalled that sunlit day in September of a year long passed, the sense of sad acceptance of the approaching conclusion to that part of our lives by three of us, and the resistance to it by one—Sean Laffin. I was to reunite with my old friend after thirty-five years; yes, a lot of water had flowed under the old Ha’penny Bridge. We had never lost touch completely and had seen each other a couple of times in the years right after our graduation, but we had lost touch for long years at a time here and there. When Facebook came on the scene, the four of us stayed in touch in the sort of unreal way that people stay in touch through social media.

I knew little of what had really become of Sean over the years, only that he had married Siobhan, a woman he’d met at one of those parties in Ranelagh. They had a couple of kids, and then divorced. He had now been with Elena, a Venezuelan, for twenty years. He had come up from his home in Philly to a funeral in Boston, and we had agreed to meet in Concord. I parked my car and found him standing in front of the Colonial Inn in an Irish tweed patchwork cap and navy pea coat. He was facing the street and didn’t see me approaching. I broke into one of the boozy ballads we were wont to sing long ago:

In the merry month of June, from me home I started 

Left the girls of Tuam, so nearly broken-hearted

Saluted father dear, kissed me darlin’ mother 

Drank a pint of beer, me grief and tears to smother

Then off to reap the corn, leave where I was born

Cut a stout blackthorn to banish ghosts and goblins…

Passersby gawked or laughed, but what did I care? Here was my old pal. He turned toward me, smiling broadly. The first thing I noticed was that he now wore glasses, but the eyes behind them were those of the Laffin I recalled, full of generous sympathy and joy. “Jasus, if it ain’t oul’ Danny O’Brian,” he cried. His parents were native Dubliners who had moved to Philadelphia, so his rendition of the accent was always spot-on.

We embraced, and geography and time intersected once more in this friendship begun across the sea. I was not sure where to take Sean in the hours we had, but I thought he might like to see the “Author’s Ridge,” in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where many of the former literary luminaries of Concord were buried. 

“Yeah. Yeah, that sounds great,” Sean said. 

It was a mild winter day, and we walked to the cemetery, catching up as we went. We spoke of our kids, our wives, our work—he had retired from his high school teaching job—I had a year or two to go in the same field—things we still wanted to do or see. Soon we were passing the first headstones in that vast necropolis, old Revolutionary War soldiers of Concord, abolitionists, farmers, frugal Yankee businessmen, respectable women, arbiters of taste, all the unremembered dead—citizens who once inhabited the town and now lay under it, and Sean said, “It’s a fitting day to be here, and to meet again—January 28th, the day Yeats died in 1939.”

“Nineteen thirty-nine. No wonder he sensed the rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem.”

I didn’t remember precisely where the “Author’s Ridge” was, but I knew generally and was sure we’d find it soon enough. We wandered the cemetery paths, while he told me about a recent trip to Inis Mór, one of the Aran Islands off the coast of Galway where a lot of Irish was still spoken. “In January?”

“Yeah!” He said the word a lot, and he said it like a hipster, with an intonation that suggested passion based on deep understanding. “Yeah man,” he said. Then he laughed as if suddenly recognizing the craziness of such an excursion. “I got stuck out there. I told the publican that I was leaving on Wednesday. ‘There’s no boat on Wednesday this time of year, nor Torsday neither. There’ll be no boat before this day week!” 

“What did you do?”

“Learned some more Irish. Seán is ainm dom. And I rented a bicycle . . .”

“Wasn’t it freezing?”

“Ten, twelve degrees Celsius. That’s what—in the forties. Wandered around Iron Age stone forts, Dún Eoghanacht, Dún Aonghasa, and said some prayers in a 9th century desolate roofless ruined chapel, drank coffee and read James Baldwin and listened to the Mulkerrin Brothers play in Joe Watty’s Bar. Met a guy who taught me some stuff on the bodhran.”

“Reading Baldwin on Inis Mór.”

“Yeah! I could read James Baldwin anywhere, man. Baldwin loved Joyce. I’m researching Joyce’s influence on Baldwin.”

“Still researching, eh?” I pointed ahead. “There’s the ridge.”

Soon we were in the company of the hallowed dead—those Transcendentalists who had finally transcended time. Here was Henry David Thoreau, his dear sister Sophia, Louisa May Alcott, Bronson Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose wife, Sophia, and daughter, Una, had moved to England after his death and died there. In 2006, their remains were returned and buried beside Nathaniel. A propitiation to his spirit, or maybe to ours. 

“How did they all end up here?” Sean asked.

“They all lived here!”

“What an extraordinary place!”

We lingered, reading the dates and inscriptions, and feeling that sober tranquility that an old cemetery induces. The grief that twisted hearts was gone, and the sobs had left not the faintest echo among the stirring pine boughs of Sleepy Hollow. Sean broke the silence with a quote from Yeats: “Dear shadows, now you know it all.”   

“Yes. Birth, life and death.”

We began to walk back to the center.

“I wish,” he said, “that you and I, and Arend and Joe, and our wives and kids, all our friends and the people we loved could all be buried on a hill like that, together, under the shadows of pines and oaks.”

I recalled how Sean had once insisted that we would remain close throughout life, though I hadn’t seen him in decades, and really, after today, might well never see him again. Now the longing of his imagination was for us to remain forever together as dead friends. There was something about the remark that, like so much of what Sean had always said, was touching and hopeless at the same time.

We rode out to Walden Pond and made the pilgrimage through the woods, picking our way warily over the icy paths, since Sean was wearing dress loafers, to the site of Thoreau’s cabin, talking all the way about Thoreau, and Joyce and Baldwin and the life transition we had both made in the intervening years by having lost both parents. Sean said, “The parents, the aunts, the uncles—they’re all gone—and now we’re on the front lines in the march to eternity.”

“Yup, In the ranks of death you will find him…” 

“I told you my father played jazz trombone and flugelhorn in the old days with the Jan Savitt Orchestra, a band devoted to integrating white and African-American musicians. He introduced me to Sonny Stitt and Ahmad Jamal and George Tunnell. What an education, in jazz, in the evils of segregation, in brotherhood. When he was dying, he asked me, no, he told me, to buy him a flugelhorn. I said, ‘You want to play again, Dad?’

I knew he couldn’t; he was too weak. He says, ‘Of course not, knucklehead, I want to hold it.’ I probably should have got him a two hundred-dollar Yamaha if he was just going to hold it, but I wanted him to hold a good instrument there at the end, so I picked up a nice Getzen Eterna on eBay for eight hundred bucks. And he would just close his eyes and lie there with that flugelhorn over his chest, hearing the music and—I don’t know—getting ready for his solo.”

“I can understand that. You want to hang on to the things of this life.”

“He hung on to it all right. I put it in his coffin before they closed it.”

“Getzen Eterna.”


 Finally, we got back to the car and returned to Concord Center. “Let’s have a beer at the Colonial Inn,” I suggested.

“Yeah,” he said, almost apologetically, “I don’t drink anymore.”

I was surprised, though I recalled that he had said he drank coffee in the bar out on Inis Mór. 

“Haven’t drunk in twenty years,” he continued.

“What happened?”

“You remember—I could be a pretty wild drunk. I drove poor Siobhan away, and then after a few years, Elena said, ‘Either go for counseling and quit drinking or I’m leaving.’ I said, ‘In which order?’ She said, ‘Both. Together.’ I had to get out of that cycle of losing people I loved. So, I did, both.”

“Well, God bless you, then. Let’s have a coffee.”

We found an overpriced coffee house with a French name and brought our coffees to a table. Sean took off his hat for the first time. “Jesus, what a cue ball,” I said. 

“I was going bald, so I just shaved it.”

“I’m right behind you. Getting very thin.” 

“I guess we’re all bald or balding, except for Joe, he’s still got those thick curls, white now.” Sean began to tell me about the job he’d retired from as a teacher in Philly. “In eleven years, I went to twenty student funerals,” he said. “That about sums up the character of life in that neighborhood.”

“How were the kids? Did they do any work for you?”

“Nah, they were doin’ their own shit.”

“What if you told them to get to work?”

“They’d tell me to go fuck myself.”

“Could you send them to the Discipline Office?”

“Dan, the Discipline Office was dealing with violent crime. They didn’t care that some kid got in my grill or swore at me.”

I was trying to imagine Sean Laffin, this intense intellectual with a love of poetry and literature, in an environment like that every day. What torture it must have been. “What do you say when a kid tells you to go fuck yourself?”

“I’d just say, ‘I wouldn’t talk to you that way because I respect you.’”

“God help us. I’d rather be flinging garbage into the big orange trucks every day.”

“The funny thing is, I loved those kids. They didn’t make the world they lived in, and that world sucked for most of them.”

I realized that there was something of the missionary in my old friend, and I remembered that back in Dublin, he once told me that he had considered becoming a priest, and had learned Spanish to work with the poor, but his disinclination to celibacy, his Irish heritage, his literary interests, and maybe his doubts had led him to Dublin. “In that roofless stone chapel on Inis Mór, you were praying for those kids, right?”

“Yes. I prayed for them, and my own kids, and Siobhan and Elena and you and Joe and Arend.”

The café was crowded, and three young women asked if we minded if they sat at our table. We began to talk with them. They were students visiting from Utrecht, and I them told how I had once played fiddle tunes for change in the Hoog Catharijne

“When was that?” one asked.

“God, that was, let me see, 1981.” 

They said that was a very long time ago it had all been rebuilt since then. They had come to see the site of Thoreau’s cabin and Walden Pond, and we talked about Concord and its writers and told them to visit the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, which they began to look up in their guidebook. Sean and I finished our coffees and got ready to leave.

“Behave yourselves!” one said.

“We never misbehave anymore,” I said. “We drink coffee.”

“Isn’t it strange,” I said as we stepped out into the dwindling afternoon, ‘the last time you and I were together we were not much older than those women, and now we have daughters their age.”

“Yes, and do you know what they’re saying to each other now?”

“Those were two very nice old men.”

He laughed. “Yeah. Yeah, two nice old men.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. I pulled out my phone and stopped a woman who was walking by. “Would you take a picture of me and my friend? We haven’t seen each other for thirty-five years.”

“Sure,” she said. She leaned back with the phone in front of her. I threw my arm around my old pal and we smiled.

She handed the camera back and said, “Where were you thirty-five years ago?”

“In Dublin,” I said.

“Dublin? Oh, you have to go to the Colonial Inn on Thursday nights! John Fitzsimmons sings Irish ballads.” She took up a balladeer’s stance, fists clenched at her waist and elbows jutting, and broke into song:

I am a weaver, a Calton weaver
I am a brash and a roving blade
I’ve got silver in my britches 
And I ply the roving trade

Whiskey, whiskey, Nancy Whiskey
Whiskey, whiskey, Nancy-O
O the whiskey, Nancy Whiskey
Whiskey, whiskey, Nancy-O

We applauded, and she went on her way. I thought it strange that my reunion with Sean had begun and ended with an Irish ballad on the streets of Yankee Concord. Our brief time together had ended. Geography and time are ever in force for visitations of an ‘auld acquaintance.’ We embraced and walked off in opposite directions along our separate roads. Sean took his place once again among the shadows that inhabited my mind, slightly altered in appearance, but the same man, until I saw him again, if ever in this world.

I drove back to Lowell, listening to Brian O’Donovan’s Celtic Sojourn radio show. Luke Kelly was singing “On Raglan Road.” Another shadow, now. I saw him one day in O’Donoghue’s in Dublin, having a pint on a quiet afternoon with a friend. Time and geography; a brief and tangential intersection of our two paths, the great man and the—whatever I was. We never spoke.

The cold returned that night, and while the city slept, several inches of snow fell. In the morning, I poured a coffee and looked out the back door at the statue of Saint Francis at the foot of the maple tree, cowled and mantled in white.

I told my wife about the previous day’s reunion, our visit to the Author’s Ridge, and Sean’s wish that everyone he loved could be buried together with him in some shady grove. My wife was quiet for a moment, holding her coffee cup in two hands and staring out at the dark branches of the trees, filigreed in white. Finally, she asked, “Do you think we’ll meet in heaven?”

“Of course we will,” I said. I really didn’t believe it, but I had not the heart to tell her. And the truth is, nobody knows.

Stephen O’Connor is a writer from Lowell, Massachusetts, where much of his work is set. He is the author of Smokestack Lightning, a collection of stories, and the novels The Spy in the City of BooksThe Witch at Rivermouth, and This Is No Time to Quit Drinking