In Orphans, poet psychologist Joan Cusack Handler explores our most primitive and essential relationships – those with our parents – our aging parents – particularly the intense ambivalence that stems from the truth of their impending death.
Feelings erupt that we aren’t prepared for – those connected to the reversal of roles and unresolved conflicts that persist from childhood; all collide in what may be considered the most vulnerable of adult life stages when we are all rendered orphans.
I Her life would be in danger if she had any more children, the doctor’d said. But what was she to do? If the Lord decided to send you another, that’s just the way it was. She was wailing and calling out in deathly pain, Please, Lord, please . . . My father and the neighbor women sponged her hands and brow to soothe her, lips moving in private prayer begging the Lord to show mercy and His Blessed Mother to intercede. I watched through a crack in the door, trembling at the sight of her writhing in the bed. The pastor arrived to give her last rites, but I kept pleading with the Lord to let her live. But He didn’t answer; I guess He just wanted her with Him. Siobhan . . . Siobhan . . .the women whispered as the writhing slowed and wailing gave way to forced breath; then her eyes popped wide like something had scared her. The doctor crept closer and closed them, Lord have mercy on her departed soul . . . he pronounced and the women started to wash her. But maybe she’s not dead ! I screamed silently. Please, Jesus, please. . . . Then they were combing her hair. She had beautiful long red hair. I still see her laid out on the bed (people were waked at home in Ireland) in a long brown habit like a sister would wear or a monk (That’s how every body was dressed in death) rosaries draping her hands. I crawled close to the bed crouching beside her on the floor; tassels from her habit hung over me. Nobody knew I was there. I was six.
* Somebody brought in the baby. I remember the baby. So small and crying. My father, weeping too, held him. The room was dark so someone lit a candle. But that’s as far as I go. I buried the rest of that day and the wake that followed. The next I recall is the funeral. They put her in a small grave beside Saint Brendan’s where she got married and we went to mass. A quiet procession escorted her from home to church, then to the grave. We followed along in back of her . . . It was something awful, it was, our mother dying. There were six of us kids and our father left behind. After the funeral, we went back home and picked up our lives. My father tended the cattle, and I watched baby Dan while the others went to school. I finally got to go too when my father began taking Dan on his back while he worked the farm. Then I took him when I returned. My father took care of everything else. But the life was gone from him and grief scarred his face, yet he never spoke of her again. No one did. It was terrible. Like she never lived at all. I missed her something awful and talked to her always, often prayed. I never knew what became of her things—her dresses, hair clips, and shoes. I guess my father gave them to the neighbor ladies, but I never saw anyone wearing anything of hers. I wouldn’t have liked that at all.
V We were spoiled rotten. My father let us do whatever we wanted. We never had to lift a finger when he was around. He’d tend the farm and do all the cooking and sewing too. He was a mother and a father and the one who taught me to embroider and crochet. A small pint of a man— like a leprechaun. And he played the tin whistle. We sang along every night. The six of us kids. Then, when the Troubles started, he was one of the first to sign up—not for the out-and-out fighting— he had us to tend to—he was more of a spy collecting secrets from the loyalists and channeling them to the rebels on the other side of the mountain. (I remember many a day we kids set fire to that mountain—there was so much land, no one would miss a few trees.) But when the loyalists started to suspect him of working for the IRA, he could no longer cross the mountain, so I begged him to let me go. I was swift and sure on my feet, and I loved the adventure of being a spy. And I had a father who never stopped me from doing anything. There was no such thing as discipline. I’d often lie about it to my friends, complaining, I can’t go out. I have chores to finish. I wanted to be like the other kids who had to be home to start the potatoes or make the bread. I wanted someone to say you can’t or you must.
IV My father didn’t believe in war—killing of any kind. So when the Troubles started and all the lads were going off to fight, my father wouldn’t let my brothers go. It was against God’s natural law—killing was— and no son of his would do such a thing—not with his blessing. My brother Mike joined the police instead. But when the local lads came home from the war, my father hid them in our hen house and in the crawlspace above the attic. He was a good man. Yet when the freedom fighters came round to collect a pound from each family to support the cause, he wouldn’t give even a farthing, he said. It was a sin against God Almighty—supporting the killing. They said we were traitors— the people in the town. I recall walking to school through the town center—and smeared on the fence of the old courthouse in huge red letters was— The Cusacks Are Fraternizers with the Crown. It was terrible. But there’d be no talking to my father – I found a way to school through the back pasture. But there was no relief there either. Months passed and the ridiculing finally stopped. We never knew who painted over the fence, but Thanks be to God someone did.
How lucky the child of Irish parents, Carol says, I’d expect you’d have jumped at the chance to attend Trinity. But I am silent. Refuse to admit that shame kept that thought outside the door. & poverty, of course - we could ill afford it. Still, living in Ireland was never my dream. So profound the embarrassment - Saturday mornings when Mom insisted she’d heard enough of our Make Believe Ballroom - it was time for Johnny Mathis, Perry Como & The Platters to step aside while Paddy Noonan’s Jigs & Reels pranced proudly from our Victrola into the street, shouting to the whole neighborhood our shameful communion with The Old Country. No gift greater than to have been born of American parents without that funny way of talking, the lilting accent, & the ouncey, bouncy, old - fashioned accordion- dominated commotion announcing to our normal American neighbors the Cusacks didn’t belong.
In her verse memoir Orphans, Joan Cusack Handler tackles the big subjects—family history, aging parents, Irish Catholicism, belief and unbelief, and her own impending mortality—with a fierce, wrenching fearlessness. Examining her parents’ stories from many different perspectives, Handler creates portraits of her mother and father that are fully rounded, alive, and moving, the central question for the poet not “Who am I?” but “Who were they?” “Our terrors take over pilot us through / this most shaking of times...,” writes Handler with force and grace, recognizing that the bright and the dark, love and the absence of love, must always coexist with each other. Orphans is a brave, searchingly honest, and compassionate book.
In poems that convey victories and loss in the disruption of family through death and fear, we are brought to the jagged edges of acceptance in this stunning memoir in verse. There is the loss of the mother as woman who gives life, and country as the native land that secures early memories, lending definition to the idea of family. In poems that shift across terrain and time, we see the beauty of an aching for life in the face of... trials of the soul... . The poems here vary in texture as they move through the fields of forgetting and remembering... It is an Irish story in that the family is Irish, and the taut strings of Handler’s lyric make it indelibly human, assuring us that life continues in many dimensions and that love is the cradle of our eternity.
A hauntingly moving and beautifully honest collection, Joan Cusack Handler captures intimate experiences of love and loss and love again in her evocative verse memoir of her mother and father. Digging deep into her soul, she creatively transforms conscious and unconscious moments into luminous poetry.