Traveling with the Accidental Terrorist

Over the past five months, I tried not to dwell on some of the things I’ve really missed during Covid-confinement. Yet, as the weeks passed, I pined for a good browse through the racks at Marshall’s and TJ Maxx. I craved the Saturday night energy of a crowded Cafe Paradiso in Boston’s North End, my go-to for nocciolo gelato and a Nutty Irishman coffee. I mourn the rescheduled Tower of Power and Clannad concerts to which I hold tickets that aren’t happening until 2021. But most of all, I really miss travel and Logan Airport, my gateway to the world and most especially, Ireland.

Almost every year since 2005, I’ve made my way to Ireland at least once, sometimes twice, and, in 2008, three times. Call it an addiction or an obsession, Ireland has become a second home to me, a place where I can escape without needing adventure. A place where I breathe easier. A place that is so familiar that it is “home.”

As the plane touches down at Shannon, the flight attendant announces, “Tá fáilte romhat go hÉirinn,” and I breathe. At Border Control, my highly decorated passport always gets the agent’s attention. “I guess you really like the place,” is one of my favorite remarks. Then it’s around the corner to Baggage Claim and I’m off.

My friend Simon at the rental car desk welcomes me back. “You don’t need a map, you’re a local,” he says, and we both chuckle. I know he’s ribbing me but I love the familiarity.

The first hit of Irish air at six in the morning as I walk out of Arrivals at Shannon reminds me of why I return. I grab a car and exit the airport on my way to Connemara, or Clare, or Kerry in the pre-sunrise duskiness, driving on the “wrong” side of the road like a native. What I wouldn’t give to hop on Aer Lingus right now and disappear into the Irish mist!

Unfortunately, my travel habit has a dark side since not everyone in my party has things go quite as smoothly. Tim and I travel frequently, so last November, we went to Logan to secure “Global Entry,” but not because we hate lines (although we do). No, rather, for some reason, my poor, unsuspecting, nondescript (except for a face that just can’t deny his Irishness) husband at some point has been identified as a terrorist, meaning he is randomly detained at airports in the US and abroad, including Ireland. The tell-tale ‘SSSSSSS’ along the bottom of his tickets is a dead give away. He acts like he doesn’t care, or like the SSSSSS’s aren’t there. I cruelly laugh at him, as he argues with me in denial of the inevitable.

As I pass without issue into the gate area, I pause as Tim is directed to “wait there,” off to the side. Looking back helplessly, armed airport security shoo me away, down the gate, and into the plane while Tim is left behind to be frisked and interrogated in a separate room. In the interim, I befriend the flight attendants who often chat with me since I appear to be traveling alone. When I tell them my sad story of the terrorist husband, I usually get a sympathy bottle or two of wine, or a Cadbury, or some Biscoffs. It’s a bit of a racket on my part while poor Tim suffers humiliation and possible incarceration. 

There are times that he boards the jet moments before take off, only to endure the “Walk of Shame” as he passes the other passengers already belted and nestled in their seats. They all know who he is–he’s the terrorist guy.

In an effort to remove him from the terrorist watch list, we arranged to free him of the embarrassment with Global Entry, anticipating an uneventful, travel-filled future. However, I don’t think anything will change. According to a Homeland Security official whom Tim casually engaged in conversation at a wedding, “Once on the terrorist watch list, always on the terrorist watch list.” 

Now that we are in a travel holding pattern, Ireland, false terrorist identification, Global Entry, and bizarre post-911 airport procedures don’t matter. I think wistfully of the days of TSA x-raying my carry-on gummy bears and confiscating my contact lens solution. There’s nothing like the skeevy feeling of the grit of the airport floor on my bare feet. I even miss seeing the SSSSSS on the bottom of Tim’s ticket, just for the entertainment value, although I doubt he would agree.

I hope to get back to Ireland in the (near) future, but near is subjective. Who knows when it will be truly safe to fly again?  Ireland has made it clear, despite being a “local,” they don’t want me or the rest of us germy Americans, making all the commotion with Homeland Security and TSA mute. Yet, at this point, even Tim, an Irish citizen, would be willing to endure a little humiliation for a hit of Irish air or a real Irish-pulled Guinness. 

In the past five months, I’ve spent enough time at home; now, I wait for the time, hopefully not too far away, when my ‘accidental terrorist’ and I can truly go “home.” As far as getting the SSSSSS’s, it’s a risk we are willing to take to be “local,” once again.

The Lost Art of Selflessness

 

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When I visit Ireland every February, there are a few things that I can count on: the first “hit” of Irish air at 6 a.m. as I emerge from Arrivals at Shannon Airport; the first time I have to say “Mar-i Ca-hill-an” versus my usual flat American pronunciation; my first bag of Taytos; and my first really fresh pint of Guinness. Other things for which I yearn include driving on the wild Irish R and L roads (all on the “wrong side,” as Americans say), eating my first bowl of “vegetable soup and brown bread,” hearing the obituaries on Clare FM radio, and attending Mass spoken in a mixture of Latin phrases spoken in an Irish accent. Roman Catholic Mass in Ireland is truly a cultural experience, where occasionally one receives Communion at an altar rail and “Prayers of the Faithful” include pleas for things like “a reduction in the use of the Lord’s name in vain”.  I have to chuckle at the latter since Ireland is a country where  “Jaysus” is invoked at every turn and “Mother of God” punctuates many a sentence where the narrator conveys shock and dismay. But this time, church offered a very different and unexpected lesson.

As we walked to St. Brigid’s, just up the road from the inn where we were staying, the rain pelted us and we hustled to the churchyard. Clearly a popular Mass, parking was at a premium for those faithful who drove. But most interestingly, parked just outside of the door of the sanctuary was a flower-filled hearse. Momentarily deterred, we pressed on and walked in mid-church, the congregation assembled and a casket prominently displayed before the altar.  With the pews full of mourners and townspeople, we made our way to the rear and mounted the stairs to the “Gallery” or as we Americans would say, “the balcony.” In the gallery, we gazed upon the full church from, arguably, the best seats in the house.  As Mass proceeded, references to “Mary” and the “repose of her soul” were peppered in the priest’s comments and the church was heavy with sadness without visible emotion (the Irish don’t really do that).

As the priest mounted the pulpit to deliver his sermon, our voyeuristic urges to hear more about “Mary” and her life ignited.  Mary, it seems, was a wonderful person. But aren’t we all after we die? However, in Mary’s case, she epitomized the image of a saint on this earthly plane. As the priest shared the details of Mary’s life, we learned that Mary’s mother passed away when Mary was only fifteen years of age and Mary assumed the role of “mother” in the home, leaving school and raising her siblings. Years later, she married “Jack,” and she and Jack had five children of their own, to whom she dedicated her life. Sadly, Jack died at the age of forty-two, leaving Mary to raise her children alone. The priest expounded on the virtues that Mary possessed and the life of service to others that clearly defined Mary. Her family, now expanded to twelve grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, all beneficiaries of Mary’s goodness, dabbed their eyes as they considered the virtuous soul now lost.

When the priest shifted his focus to her family, he acknowledged their dedication to their mother and grandmother and the fact that Mary remained at home, despite her declining health. Everyone pitched in and Mary’s care was delivered lovingly by those seated there. Hearing this approach to elder care, I felt a little sadness and some regret that I was not strong enough or had the time to deliver that same level of care to my own father.

As I sat there listening to the story of Mary, I wept. For Heaven’s sake, I didn’t know Mary, or even how she died, but Mary and her deep love and commitment struck a chord with me and I felt the loss. The story was one of a simpler, yet complex, life. Despite the amazing opportunities that our American way of life affords us, I fear that we have sacrificed a deep connection to our families and our roots. We often hear that we should “live our lives” and when family life becomes complicated and presents challenges, find the geographic remedy and move away. Now when things get difficult, we turn inward to ensure that we are “taking care of ourselves” and “making ourselves a priority”.  Yoga and mindfulness to address the stress in our lives, and big cars and swish houses in desirable zip codes that cause the stress are the rewards and byproducts of our frenetic lives, motivating our view of success. But as I ponder the life of Mary, her selflessness was her success. It is her legacy. It is the lesson that she left behind, so well learned by those who so selflessly cared for her.

It has been two weeks since Mary’s funeral and I think of her often, and marvel that I cried for her, a total stranger who touched me in death because of the way she lived.  Rest well, Mary…

And as they go, it was a hell of a funeral! As the Irish would say, “She got a great send-off though, didn’t she?”

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