Dancing the Funky Ceili at Forty

Dancing the Funky Ceili at Forty

I published this story two years ago for a writing contest about middle age life experiences.  I wrote about my fortieth birthday celebration in New York City.  I was a finalist in the contest but did not win.  Although this was a surprise and disappointment after the amount of positive feedback my story received, I came to realize that the response I received was even more important than winning.  People who commented shared things about their own lives and experiences.  This indicated to me that they connected with my writing on a personal level, and isn’t that really the point of artistic endeavors?  Putting my writing on WordPress has opened my work up to a whole new audience.   I anxiously look at my stats and see how far and wide my stories have been read.  I know it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but comments and likes are validating that my work has some value.

link to video: Black 47 at Paddy Reilly’s

“Celtic rock band Black 47 announces plans to call it a day.”
The headline stared at me from the entertainment section of the Irish Voice newspaper. The band I had spent countless fizzy nights bouncing around to in my twenties was now ending as my fortieth birthday loomed large in front of me, and the shadow of my father’s recent death pursued me from behind.

The band was to play only a handful of shows over the next year before disbanding for good. One of those shows was the week of my birthday. It was to take place at Paddy Reilly’s Music Bar, the former home base for the band, a spot where for years the dark wood walls vibrated with the heavy clap of drums, hummed with the squeal of bagpipes, where the notes of the slide trombone cascaded down over the raucous crowd, and the impassioned belting of immigrant stories by lead singer Larry Kirwan worked the whole congregation into a foolish frenzy of singing, boozing and boogying every week.

Of course, that was twenty years ago. We were college kids or at least college-aged. As the fans approached middle age, would the band be able to evoke the same youthful exuberance from their audience? Well, there was only one way to find out.

I would celebrate my fortieth birthday the same way I celebrated my twentieth, minus the fake ID. I reached out to my old pals via Facebook. I was not hopeful. The once-single girls with no responsibilities had become the unimaginable: grown-ups. We had children, houses in the suburbs with mortgages, real jobs. Still, we were not dead — yet. A night out in the city could be just what we needed.

Or, more accurately, it was what I needed. After all, I had just spent the last few months watching cancer eat my dad alive, a piece at a time — with me completely helpless to ease his suffering — until it finally ate him whole. My marriage was teetering on the edge of a cliff. I struggled daily at a job for which I was ill-suited. I needed some friends. I needed a break.

To my surprise my old friends lined up babysitters and skipped their PTA events to join me in celebrating my passage into middle age. Now I had to get the tickets. I went online to make my purchase. I read incredulously “Tickets available at the bar only.” What century was this? No online tickets? So, on a Wednesday evening, I drove through rush hour traffic into Manhattan after a long day at work. Of course, there was construction, making my trek longer than I had hoped. Finally, I reached the block, threw some change into the parking meter and bounded into the bar.

“Three tickets for the Black 47 show, please.” I said to the barmaid.

“Ach they just sold out this afternoon,” Her voice was lilting and lovely but it hit me like a ton of bricks.

Now what? “Are you sure there is nothing? I just drove over an hour to get here. It’s all I planned to do for my fortieth birthday.”

She smiled. “Well if ye leave me yer number I will see what the owner can do for ye. Maybe something will open up. Is there anything else I can get ye?”

“Bud Light,” I replied. It was amateur night but if I was going to miss my band, I needed some live music to show for my tedious journey. The fellow on stage was a tad boring but combined with my beer it was some consolation.

I went home defeated. The next day I checked my cell phone for any calls from Manhattan’s 212 area code. Nothing.

My friends did not know that I was unable to get tickets, and I did not have the heart to tell them. The show was only three days away, and I had not heard anything. Another day passed. No word. I never knew my own birthday celebration could be so stressful.

Finally, I took matters into my own hands. I sent an email off to the lead singer of the band explaining my dilemma. I was surprised to see a reply in my inbox within a few hours. He said he had no idea that the show had sold out and gave the number of a friend who might be able to sell me some tickets on the side. I eagerly jotted down the number and called the mystery man. Sure enough, he said he would hold the tickets for me and my friends at the door and to have cash on hand.

I met my friends at Penn Station. On the walk across town, the girls and I exchanged complaints about our kids, our houses, and our spouses. We arrived early, picked up our tickets, and went to a Mexican place down the street for a bite to eat. The waiter was quite friendly and brought us each a shot of tequila with the check. I did not want to be rude, so while my friends dumped their shots in their waters I downed mine.

We high-tailed it to Paddy Reilly’s, ordered beers and waited for the band. The show was supposed to start at 10 p.m. We talked then we waited. By 10:30 I was getting sleepy, the tequila and beer combination was not sitting well, and the band had not even started yet. Maybe I was too old for this. I scanned the crowd and noticed that aside from a few fresh-faced exceptions, everyone else was around my age or older. I figured if they can hang in there, so can I.

A few minutes later, the band came out playing the boisterous Maria’s Wedding, and the once subdued crowd instantly transformed into the rowdy gathering I remembered. As the band played old favorites and some new ones, we loosened up little by little until, by the end of the show, we were all jumping around, singing along, and laughing while the fresh-faced exceptions caught on to what all the buzz was about. We giggled at each other’s dance moves. We belted out the songs we knew and faked the ones we did not. We clamored for an encore when the band left the stage, which they delivered. In the cab ride back to the train station, there was not one mention of houses or spouses or kids. We agreed, “We have to do this again!”

By the time I am forty-one, Black 47 will be nothing more than one chapter of New York’s history and my own.  Oh, but what a chapter it was.



The End

This was a story I first wrote about 10 years ago.  It came out of the memory of rather suddenly having to go to visit my aunt to say goodbye when she was in the hospital.  The image of this lovely woman hooked up to machines was one that was hard to shake.  After writing The End, I unfortunately had similar experiences with other members of my family.  Repeating the experience certainly did not make it any easier, but rereading this story somehow brought me some comfort.
The story was published in the DCC literary journal Exposed.



She watches the rain hitting the hospital window and the memories come flooding back.  She remembers holding her newborn child in her arms and looking at the rain through another window of the same hospital.  At that time, she was a patient in the maternity ward, not the ICU.  She had looked down at this wrinkled, wriggly little being and the out at the dull, gray sky and teary-eyed told him, “I know this world seems like a big, scary place, but one thing I can promise you.  I will always be here for you.”

Back then she did not even know him. She had felt him moving around in her belly for some months, but it felt more like a frog jumping around inside than a real person. Then Jason was born and her life changed forever.

Last night she dreamt about his childhood, about the sleepless nights when only her warm breast could comfort him, about the first time he called Mama and the thousands of times he called on her after that. And she had kept her promise. She was always there for him throughout his childhood, in the difficult teen years, and even into adulthood.

Along with the proud moments also came the regrets. She thought about the time she lashed out at him for some misbehavior (she cannot even remember now what it was) while coming out of the mall. She did not just yell to get his attention, but rather unleashed a truly venomous tirade in which all her frustrations were unleashed on one dumbfounded three-year-old.

She had been pushed to a breaking point that morning: Jason’s incessant whining all morning; the argument she had with Kevin, her husband, the night before; the guy who was tailgating her all the way to the store; the rude checkout clerk yapping on the phone; the man on the way out of the store who would not hold the elevator even though she was loaded with packages and had a toddler in tow. She sometimes heard other women engaged in similar tirades in public places, just before she shot them a disapproving glare. That day she was the raving lunatic at the receiving end of perfect strangers’ dirty looks.

By now she has long-forgotten all the little annoyances that led to the temporary loss of her ever-cool, laid back demeanor. She could never forget Jason’s response, however. He did not have a tantrum or cry out. He just got quiet and had a hurt look on his face. Really still a baby, he was trying to hold back the tears. She feels guilty even still, thirty years later.

Now she looks pleadingly at Jason, as if to say “You’re all grown up now. You don’t need me anymore…let me go.” She has too many words she wants to say, so many thoughts racing through her head. She does not want to leave this world, but she also does not want to stay in it like this.

The doctor had told her it was a simple procedure, that she would be in and out of the hospital within a few days. Of course, he gave her the standard disclaimer about the risk of infection inherent in even minor surgery. However, she was in good physical condition and looked years younger than she really was. In the end, the risk of infection turned out all too real. She had contracted an antibiotic-resistant staph infection. In a matter of weeks, her plump but shapely body had deteriorated to skin and bones, her perfectly highlighted and cut hair was a straggly nest of grays, and her round, rosy cheeks grew sunken and pallid.

Now she hears the doctors talk about her as if she is not even there. She watches them speak to her husband. Kevin looks at them as if they are speaking a foreign language. In a way, they are, since he was never a science person and all that medical terminology would require a PhD to understand, anyway. It is even harder for her to listen to the nurses. She can hear them talking in hushed tones out in the hallway about “the poor husband” and how suddenly it happened and how there was no hope for her. She hears no comforting euphemisms from them. She is going to die.

She had what some might consider a boring life, but she was not ready to leave that life behind yet. She just retired a few years ago. Years. It seemed like just months. It is funny how the more free time you have, the faster it goes by. Still there was, or should have been, plenty of time left for Kevin and her. All those things they had put off doing with each other. They had talked about going on a second honeymoon since the flight back from their first, but it never materialized.

Thinking of her honeymoon reminds her of her wedding day. Throughout her life, whenever she felt discouraged she could think of that day and feel again that sense of just starting out, or perhaps starting over. It is still a comforting reminder of a happier time. She looks over at her husband snoring on the chair across the starkly lit room, salt and pepper hair rumpled from too many sleepless nights and too few trips home from the hospital, and she worries. “What will become of my family?” she wonders.

Even now, she is haunted by mundane anxieties. Will Kevin see the oil bill she stuck in her jacket pocket the day before the so-called minor surgery? Will Kevin give Jason all the mail he keeps getting at home even though their son moved out six years ago? The bigger concerns follow: When will Jason settle down? Will Kevin remarry and will she be good to him? She just wants to know they will both be happy.

A host of scenarios runs through her mind. Maybe Kevin will finally win the lottery he has been playing, and losing, for the past twenty years. Perhaps he will then meet some gold digger who will break his heart and leave him penniless. She envisions Jason on his wedding day – so handsome – and pities him and herself when she thinks of not being there to see it.

Life in the hospital ward is quite surreal. Were it not for the view out the window day and night would be synonymous. The painkillers make her thoughts fuzzy most of the time. A constant flow of medical staff comes in and out of the room changing bedpans, taking blood, changing IV bags, checking irregularities in the monitor readouts. This is what is left of her interaction with the world outside of her family.

Not that she can really communicate with her family. The tube in her throat prevents her from speaking. She can grunt or she can attempt to communicate with her eyes. Usually these two modes of communication are horrendously inadequate, leaving the recipient of her attempts feeling hurt, helpless, and wholly confused about what she wants.

As the days, or perhaps weeks pass, the range of visitors widens. It is no longer just her immediate family who comes to see her: her brother who lives in another state, nieces and nephews who she usually only sees at Christmas or weddings, her son’s friends, even an old friend who she had lost touch with but always intended to get together with again. She gets the feeling they are saying their last goodbyes, although no one actually says that to her. They put on a cheerful face and tell her about what is new with them. Before they leave, however, they invariably look like they want to say something else, or they tell her something that they would not normally say. For example, “We just want you to know we love you,” or “You were always a role model to me growing up.” It is a strange feeling to be told such things and have no means of responding.

With time, the worries begin to slip away. She now spends more of her time in the past. It is strange, but most people assume that your life passes before your eyes just before you die and in chronological order, from birth to the moment of death. For her, the experience was more like a lazy, dawdling walk through a maze of memories. She begins to think about her parents and her own childhood. Even the most trivial events and acquaintances of her childhood become immanent. She is once again playing hide and seek, teasing boys on the playground, getting into trouble, having fun. A look of peace passes over her face.

Suddenly, she is at the moment of her birth being placed in her mother’s arms. She feels so safe, so secure, so far away from that hospital room. A feeling of warmth and happiness overcomes her as her own mother cuddles her and tells her, “I will always be here for you.”


I created this website as a home for my attempts at making something good out of the written word.  I expect that will include some short stories, poetry, and flash fiction, but I also may have some posts that are just my thoughts on the state of the world.

My hope is that visitors to the page experience some joy (or at least enjoyment), enlightenment, or emotional connection.  Feedback is greatly appreciated, good or bad (but please don’t be too brutal).