The Way the World Goes Round
By Maureen Conway
Circa 2010, a few years after his first 12 rounds with the big C in 2006/2007, my husband Michael set up a local window cleaning and decorating business. As is the way of things here in Donegal, most of the work he got was via recommendation through friends and family. Michael landed a job at Mary McCready’s in Donegal Town, a long way from home workwise for him and, knowing Donegal, likely an encroachment on someone else’s turf! But he had come highly recommended by Ardara’s own Bosco McGill, a brother of Mary’s, and by my own Boss at the time, a solicitor who lived next door to Mary in Donegal Town. Mary had been widowed twice; she had married a Whelan from Ardara, with whom she’d raised four daughters, and then, in her later years, married a McCready man from Donegal Town.
As was often the case when Michael set down for his 11am tea break in someone’s else’s kitchen, he and the customer hit it off immediately. Mary was a young-hearted, vivacious woman who ‘kept herself very well’ (Michael’s words), and loved a good chat and a game of ‘three degrees of separation’ as much as Michael. (Of course, the global norm used to be six-degrees of separation, lowered by the invention of Facebook to 4.7. But it was always Michael’s contention that, in Donegal at least, you rarely needed more than three.)
Work commenced, as did the chats. Michael and Mary shared stories of their lives and a new discovery and connection was made. And I don’t mean to say that they fell in love and ran away together! Though over the years Michael did have many of what I playfully referred to as ‘muses’, i.e. beautiful women that served as inspiration for his painting.
Back to the chats. It transpired that Mary’s son-in-law, John, who was married to Mary’s daughter over in the States, had been on the same cancer journey as Michael a few years prior: squamous cell in the right neck, tissue removal surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, all topped off with intense physio to get back on the horse. Both Michael and Mary found an ear, he to share his cancer journey with a sympathetic and knowledgeable listener, and Mary to recount stories of her own family, whom she very clearly adored.
One day, Mary handed Michael a stack of CDs.
‘Take these,’ she said, ‘and have a listen, they’re Johns.’
Now, I’m telling you this story third hand, and I’m honestly not sure whether Michael just neglected to mention to me who this mysterious ‘John’ in fact was, or whether he had failed to realise it himself. Both were well within his M.O., to be honest. And so it was only later that evening, when Michael landed home with a pile of CD’s and more lovely stories from Mary, that I realised it was the legend of folk and country music John Prine!
We began to play his CDs in the kitchen during mellow Saturday mornings and chilled dinner prep in the evenings. We got to know John through his words and music and we both fell a little bit in love. When the local radio station, Owenea FM, started up and Bosco did his wee slot on a Saturday or Sunday morning, you could be sure to hear him play a John Prine song for Michael & Maureen down in Tullycleave. And then the children got on board. Both grown and gone away, when they came home for visits, requests were made for ‘Souvenirs’, ‘Fish & Whistle’ and ‘Sam Stone’. Later Michael and I discovered the song ‘In Spite of Ourselves’, loved it, and adopted it as a kind of tongue-in-cheek anthem for the story of our own marriage. John Prine became a firm family favourite and our lives were enriched because of it.
And so this part of the story ends. Michael finished his painting job at Mary’s house, and we kept in touch with her via Facebook and news passed on from Bosco. Life continued, joy, sadness, loss, failure, achievements. But for the most part it was exceptionally good, and always had a current of happiness running through it, whatever madness was going on.
Fast forward to July of 2019. After a ten-week ordeal in The Mater Hospital in Dublin, a time of great adversity and huge fortitude on Michael’s part, during which he lost his ability to speak and eat, Michael was diagnosed with inoperable laryngeal cancer. With massive reluctance on the part of his team, he was sent home with an estimation of three to six months to live. It was a devastating blow to our family. But we came home, gathered ourselves, assembled our little army and went to battle. We fought hard for 16 months, us fighting to keep Michael here, him fighting to stay. In that time we achieved so much, lived so happily and climbed mountains, albeit metaphorical ones. But we laughed and loved, making new, precious memories all the time. We had such amazing support from family, friends and the community, and received so many blessings along the way. The most unlikely of those blessings came in February of Michael’s final year.
The town was abuzz with the excitement of John Prine’s visit; he was travelling with his wife to visit her mother, Mary, who had recently moved home to Ardara. John did a little stint on the Owenea FM with Bosco (which somehow we missed, only hearing about it when my neighbour text to tell me that ‘John Prine just did a request for you on the radio!!’) We were disappointed but philosophical… ‘We won’t sweat it,’ we told ourselves, ‘they’ll probably run it again.’
Then Bosco called. John was playing to a small private audience in St. Shanaghan house, where Mary was now a resident. We were told that he and Mary would love us to join! Michael was so touched and emotional about the invite, and though he wavered about attending (he really wasn’t in the best of form and was still coming to terms with the impact his physical limitations had on others) he eventually put on his trademark leather ‘going-out waistcoat’, straightened his back and, on a cold wintery February evening, set off for St. Shanaghan House.
We were the last to arrive into the small room crowded with other lucky locals. But we were greeted warmly by Mary, who was so delighted to see Michael and quickly ushered us to front-row seats, next to herself and her daughters and with a stage-side view of John. We could nearly reach out and touch him. What an evening it was: Michael tapped his feet, bobbed his head and grinned ear to ear for a solid hour. This was interspersed with his little moments of gratitude, indicated by closed eyes, a bowed head, and a soft smile whilst he was present in his joy. It was such a gift to hear John’s gentle speaking voice, humbly telling the stories behind the songs he had written and performed over the years and was now singing for us! We were honoured to have John and Fiona dedicate and sing ‘Til Each Tear Becomes a Rose’ for us, another of the evening’s unforgettable moments. Sometimes I like to imagine Michael, wherever he is out there in this big old universe, so far from me but, I hope, still so very near, holding me when I’m at my most fragile, singing it to me softly. There were a few tears that evening, but many more smiles. The icing on the cake came before we left, when Mary so kindly introduced us to John, allowing us to share a very brief little chat. A beautiful soul, with such a gentle, calm presence. Though he was clearly in pain and discomfort himself, John gave Michael a hug and told him ‘Keep fighting the good fight, stay well man.’
It’s a beautiful and comforting memory that will stay with me forever, and I know that Michael carried that evening in his heart until he left us, in October last year, when he finally lost his battle with cancer.
Sadly, not too long after his time in Ardara, John tragically became a victim of Covid, a massive loss to the world, his fans and, most importantly, his family. But what a legacy he has left, not to mention the impact he made on a small family in Ardara, one he never got to know about.
But I love to imagine them, perhaps now buddies, as I’m sure they would have made great friends had they had the opportunity to get to know each other on earth, living out the next part of their lives as John portrays in ‘When I get to Heaven’. The kids and I play that song now and again to cheer ourselves up, joining in the chorus with a smile… ’This old man is going to town!’
Fiona and I are now living through the ultimate degree of separation, from our loves, from our old lives. Travelling similar roads of loss and grief but, I feel, similarly grateful and bolstered by the great love we shared with our respective other halves. Fleetingly known, but unknown to the other. I read her Facebook and Instagram posts and recognise her pain and loss. I also see the strength she draws from the love she and John shared. Her words have strengthened me in times of despair. She’s unknowingly helping me through, just as Bosco and Mary had no idea they were preparing the way, connecting us to John and bringing about a gift which illuminated a dark time in our lives’ journey – none have any idea of the strength of the thread that is indelibly and beautifully woven through our lives.
I think that’s pretty profound, but as John himself said, that’s the way the world goes round.