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James Claffey

Guest Posts, Letting Go, The Hard Stuff

Waiting for the Grassy Drop. By James Claffey.

April 21, 2014

                                         Waiting for the Grassy Drop

“Oh, he loved his mother / Above all others” (“The Great Hunger” by Patrick Kavanagh)

We drive the seventy-five miles to my father’s grave and my mother barely says a word. Through towns and farmland once so familiar she’d list each one and its inhabitants, the names dropping like musical notes. No more. Today, all she says is, “Ah, I don’t remember any of this. I must be addled.” My heart cracks a little more.

We pick our way back from the grave, treading carefully to avoid someone else’s resting place. Clouds scud by over the mossy, bird-shit stained gravestones and my mother stumbles as she navigates the grassy drop to the path. I catch her fall and bear her weight, realizing the next time I visit this blasted patch of earth might be to bury her beside my father. “God bless you, Son. You’re very good,” she says.

No. Not really. I’m not very good at all. Far from it, if I am honest with her. I left home and twenty-one years later return to witness my mother’s descent into a childlike state of bewilderment and uncertainty. The signs were there eighteen months ago when she tripped over a trouser press in her bedroom and gashed her hand. It was three days before she had it looked at by a doctor. An accident, she said. No, she didn’t lose consciousness, she said. No, she didn’t lose consciousness, she insisted when the doctor pressed her on the matter.

You’d have to have known my mother to know her strength. Raised four boys and a husband who was, for all intents and purposes, a fifth boy. He couldn’t boil an egg. Mow the grass? No problem. Domestic duties? You must be joking. After raising us, she took care of him in the aftermath of a terrible car wreck. Started a small business selling apple tarts and cakes to local shops, until some jealous neighbor shopped her to the health department. She marshaled our father through his medical appointments, his drinking, and his flailing nightmares.

Since my father died of a stroke fourteen years ago she has lived alone, independent, taking care of herself on her own terms. I call her every Sunday. The conversation rarely wavers from a well-oiled script—the weather, “How are the family? How is work? The words turn in on themselves, repetitive patters of paisley print. She asks, “Are you happy to be back teaching?” And three minutes later, “Are you happy to be back teaching?” And again, “Are you happy to be back teaching?” The repetitiveness is ominous. Her short-term memory is in tatters.

She no longer cooks: this, the woman whose baking and cooking was the talk of our friends and relatives for most of her lifetime. The cousins and aunts and uncles who’d show up every year just before Christmas to collect their cakes and puddings and couldn’t stay for tea because of a million excuses are long gone and never visit. The fridge is a museum of hard-caked milk in jugs, of meat gone off, of bread with mold, of decay and ageing.

There is evidence she no longer bathes, either. The week I’m home, the shower in her room never gets used, nor the bath in the landing bathroom. I sneak into her bedroom and check her washcloth for dampness and use. Best I can figure is she’s dabbing her body with the wet cloth every few days. Her clothes, too, are dirty, unwashed, recycled. I do three loads of laundry for her, making sure to dry them on the rickety clotheshorse in the spare bedroom. The fastidious woman who took so much pride in her appearance has been shut inside another version of my mother, a living Babushka doll.

For as far back as I can remember, mother solved with alacrity the Sunday Observer Crossword for forty years. Every time I arrive home we pass the paper back-and-forth, solving the last few clues together. This time the grid is a blank slate. I fill in a few clues to get her started and pass the paper her way. Two days later only my handwriting is on the checkered grid.

I can’t say I didn’t see it coming. The phone calls from my brothers warned me, “You’ll be shocked at what you see.” Not really, as my weekly phone calls, or Skype time with her tip me off to the changes afoot. I ask her what she had for dinner at my brother’s house. “Chicken,” she says. He interrupts and corrects her. Not chicken. Chorizo. Her once-strong mind, her sharp-witted remarks, her caustic comments on various topics are now faded tapestries in a room no longer accessible to her.

I see myself in my mother; the genetic code of her side of the family is strong in me. I have her family’s famous ears, as do my son and daughter. I put my daughter to bed each night, reading her a bedtime story, giving her the “double cuddles,” she asks my wife and I to bestow. My toddler cried her eyes out when I got on the bus for LAX and my heart gave way. “You go see your momma?” she asked me before I left. “Yes, my love, I go see my momma…” I didn’t finish the sentence. I wanted to say, “Yes, I go see my momma, and it might be the last time I get to see her alive.”

What I see when the door to her house opens is not my mother. Is my mother? My mother is not my mother. Not the mother I want. Where has she gone? She has been replaced by this diminished, bird-like imposter. I try to draw her into conversation about her life, my brothers and their families. She sits in her armchair, smoking cigarette after cigarette. A distant look on her face. She is there, but not there. I am bereft; witnessing her withdrawal from this world, seeing this woman who used be the rock our family clung to, reduced to shards.

The truth is unknown. Over coffee with my brothers we speculate. Willful decision to withdraw? A series of mini-strokes? Dementia? We don’t know. Tests on Thursday: brain scans, angiograms, EKG, MRI, the lot. Maybe there’ll be answers. She has an inhaler for the emphysema and smokes like a fucking chimney. Did the doctor tell you to cut down on the cigarettes, I ask. “Ah, no, he didn’t.” Of course, the doctor said cutting back would be a good idea, but that cutting them out at her stage of life might be depriving her of one of her few pleasures in life. Irish doctors, I suppose they know what they’re doing…

She tells the doctor at the Royal Victoria Eye & Ear Hospital when we go in to have her eyes checked that she’s addled, too. She also tells the Romanian receptionist we make her six-month check-up with: “I’m addled.” Code for bewildered, confused, unsure, and unable to remember. All I want to do is go home to my wife and daughter and cry. I’m addled, too.

Her pills are displayed on the kitchen counter. Seven boxes, and three bottles of eye drops in the fridge. The names and the directions confuse me, so I can only imagine what they do to her. “I don’t know whether I’m coming or going,” she says. Several times a day I ask if she’s all right and she answers the same each time, “I don’t know if I’m coming or going.” She sits in her chair, smoking. Silk Cut Blue, the long ones. The cushion and the carpet around her feet bear the burn marks that have us so worried she’ll burn the place to the ground one of these nights. Grandchildren refuse to enter the house because of the smoke, and one tells my brother to shower immediately he returns from her house.

We meet again, my brothers and I, at a local coffee shop, to have a conversation we never imagined having. Talk of living power of attorneys, of long-term care, of nursing homes, of unimaginable scenarios we surely only thought happened to other people. Amazingly enough, for a quartet that rarely agrees on anything, we are in consensus about how to move forward with my mother’s care. We all agree that maintaining her independence for as long as she is able, and of reasonable sound mind, is what is best. If, or when, she becomes a danger to herself, well, that’s another conversation to be had.

My mother and I sit in front of the television; her breathing a shallow wheeze of short, swift inhales and exhales. I picture her lungs, 80-90% useless, blackened from seventy years of smoking. The specialist spotted her breathing issues straight away, declared her to have “emphysema.” Strange, how her regular GP never said a word about her breathing. Bloody nationalized medicine and its inept purveyors.

At night, her bedside alarm clock beeps incessantly, the snooze button malignant and disruptive. I try to fix it for her, but she shepherds me out of her bedroom. The alarm keeps going off every ten minutes, and after two nights of this fiasco, I take the batteries out and hide the clock in the spare bedroom.

Two weeks later, back in the smoke-free house on the avocado ranch in Southern California, I realize it’s as if the alarm clock was displaying the same repetitive pattern as my mother does when I speak with her on the telephone. If only the answer to her problems were as simple as replacing the batteries inside the clock. There’s no replacing her batteries. All that remains is to tell her I love her, ignore the repeated questions and answer them as if each instance is the first time of asking. If we’re lucky we’ll travel home at the end of the summer so her grandkids can have a few memories of their Irish grandmother before she deteriorates further.

I see my mother in my children, I hear her voice on Sunday phone calls, and I write my stories and novels with the love for words and literature she gave me when I was a young boy. She is in all my stories, standing over the actions of my characters, a witness in a manner of speaking. And I too am a witness, to the playing out of her dénouement. All I can do at the end of the day is bear witness, say, “I showed up.” All else is beyond my control.


Claffey hails from County Westmeath, Ireland, and lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA, with his family. He is the author of the collection, Blood a Cold Blue. His website is at


Jennifer Pastiloff is a writer living on an airplane. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, Salon, Jezebel, The Nervous Breakdown, among others. She’s the founder of The Manifest-Station. Jen leads The Manifestation Retreat/Workshop: On Being Human all over the world. Next up: a weekend retreat in May to Ojai, Calif as well as 4 day retreat over Labor Day in Ojai, Calif.  She and bestselling author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing retreat to Vermont in October. Check out her site for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up is Seattle and London July 6 and Dallas. (London sells out fast so book soon if you plan on attending!)

Dear Life.

Dear Life. Jealous of Friends Relationships. Answered by James Claffey.

March 15, 2014

Welcome to Dear Life: An Unconventional Advice Column With a Spin. Your questions get sent to various authors from around the world to answer. Different writers offer their input when it comes to navigating through life’s messiness. Today’s question is answered by author James Claffey. Have a question for us? Need some guidance? Send an email to dearlife at or use the tab at the top of the site to post. Please address it as if you are speaking to a person rather than life or the universe. Need help navigating through life’s messiness? Write to us!


Dear Life,

How can I be happy for my close friend’s relationships when I am in such a crappy place in my own relationship? All I can feel is jealous of them and that in turn makes me feel so guilty. My first friend just got engaged. It’s going to be her 2nd marriage and I’ve met her fiancé. He’s a very nice guy from what I could tell in our short meeting and she speaks highly of him. How compassionate, supportive and sensitive he is. They are very much in the “lust” stage of their relationship so the sex, of course, is great and copious. She received a gorgeous blue sapphire ring surrounded by diamonds for an engagement ring. They are very happy. My second friend, is also in a very romantic, dedicated relationship. She is closing on a house and in a very good place in her life. On the surface, I’m so incredibly happy for them. I’m happy that things are going so well for them after having to go through divorces that involved young children over the past couple years. Divorces are never pretty or easy. Below this thin veneer I am green with jealousy and blue with sadness. Sad for myself because I’ve been married almost 23 years and I’ve never had it as good as they do. In the beginning of my marriage (which was when I was 18 and didn’t know any better) things were as good as I could expect. We were two very young children really, working hard to pay mounting bills. My son came along, we worked harder, bills mounted higher – stress grew over jobs and life in general. During all this time, we never worked on “our” life together. After many, many years, it finally occurred to me that I was not a priority on my husband’s life list. His list generally goes like this 1. Son 2. Work 3. School 4. Me. I’ve read many articles on marriage and it’s a reoccurring topic where in a marriage, the spouse should be just under a person’s relationship with God. I’ve tried to speak with him about this but I never find the right words to express just how much he’s hurt me over the years. Sex happens just enough times to count on one hand during the course of a year. He’s emotionally numb, emotionally distant and intimacy has always been an issue for us. Now I’m not innocent. I’ve pulled away over the years and I don’t open up anymore. There’s no feeling of security, of being understood. There’s never been any permanent change from previous conversations, so I’ve stopped communicating. I haven’t really helped the situation. I want out because I deserve to be loved and romanced and sexed! I’m still young enough that this is important to me. I crave intimacy and deep conversations. Shared life goals and Sunday breakfasts in bed. Unfortunately, we’re fairly deep in debt and my job is a seasonal job that doesn’t pay much. I’m scared of leaving and living below the poverty line for the rest of my life. Much as my mother has had to do since she left her marriage over 20 years ago. I have no savings, as it had to be used when I left my good paying job (that was making me sick) to follow my passion. It’s a passion that historically, doesn’t pay much. Especially when you’re a beginner. Not having enough money is my main fear and my second fear is being alone for the rest of my life, coming in a close third, is having to give up my dream job. To make things even more interesting is the face that I still love him very much. If he opened up to me, I would crumble. He is just so familiar to me, has been my safety net for so long. He’s a kind and good person. He’s my son’s #1 person, they have a super relationship. He works hard, is working on his Master’s degree and will keep “climbing the ladder” so to speak. On the surface, I have it all – a smart husband who loves his job, a wonderful son, a big house, and my dream job. I still yearn for more. For more closeness, love, and intimacy. I ask myself – If nothing changes, can I stand this one more year? (It’s been over 5 years that I’ve felt like this) Can I stand to live this way 5 more years? No, I can’t. If I leave, there’s a 95% chance that I would have to leave my dream job to find another position that pays enough for me to live on my own. I’m only good at one other thing, which is what I left due to sickness. Not looking forward to ever having to go down that road again. I get mad at myself that I am only “good” at a couple things. That I never got good enough to make decent money to live on my own. We tried marriage counseling years ago but it didn’t “click.” I’m hesitant now because I want someone who is basically a miracle worker. I don’t want to dig up the past, rehash everything and then go from there. I want to start with today and move forward. I’m tired. So, so tired that the search for a miracle counselor seems impossible. To go back to my friends – I genuinely want to be in their happiness with them. To share this wonderful time in their lives I don’t think I can as all I can see is myself crying for myself. They are aware of what is going on in my life, we’ve had many talks about it. So many that I shy away from participating in further conversations about me. I refuse to perpetuate this story of me. It never changes anyway, there’s never anything new to report. When they ask how things are going my response now is “Same ‘ol, same ‘ol.” Then I change the subject. I’m tired, scared, and so confused as to which way I should point my intentions. My energy is so low. Most days I feel I’m in a hopeless situation, that I’m literally stuck. Some days, courage pokes it’s beautiful head up and I think I can do this. Either work on this marriage more or leave. I pray for more courage and bravery and insight. Writing this all out is a relief in a way. Maybe this will stop the recording in my head from running over and over for a little while. It’s amazing just how much room it takes up in my head, how much weight it places on my shoulders. I am dreading Valentine’s Day too. Ugh, it hasn’t been a good holiday for a long time. It hurts to hear about all my friends’ dates, presents, etc. Thank you for creating this space where anyone can write about anything and possibly get a response. I was very hesitant to write this. There are a lot of people in a much worse off situation. I’m working on making myself a priority and believing that my feelings count. By writing this, it’s another small step to confirming that I count. Thank You, Thank You, Thank You, Warmly, ~G

Dear G.,

You count. However difficult the landscape of your marriage and circumstance, you count. How hard it must be to watch your friends’ parade of happy events pass in front of you as your own life bears witness. You are a bit like what my father used call “a ghost at the feast.” You have to shake off the “weltschmertz” burdening you and come into your own space and claim your better self back.

Certainly your friends lives sound marvelous. Who wouldn’t want the joys you describe, yet, as with most relationships we see, the perfect ones and the problematic ones, we are only ever granted the vision of what those relationships look like from the outside. There are plenty of miserable couples in this world, holding it all together—the marriage, the house, the cars, the fancy vacations, the kids—but behind the curtain, when they’re alone and exposed to each other, they are as flawed, troubled and fucked-up as the rest of us. As Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I have been on both sides of Tolstoy’s family seesaw, and let me tell you, there is life on the other side of divorce, no matter the circumstances, no matter how painful the split. I could be you. I was married to a woman for some years, fell out of love, lost our bearings, and in a last ditch attempt to reconcile I agreed to a vacation in the desert before the school year began. Too much wine, too little self-worth, too little strength and I swam in an infinity pool of red wine and forgotten anger. She became pregnant; I met my present wife/partner, and left my marriage behind. Had I stayed who knows where I’d be now? Back in San Diego, married, for the child’s sake, my creativity unfulfilled.

I left. Divorced. Moved away. Went to grad school. Became a writer. Figured out how to forge a relationship with my son, despite my ex’s deep, abiding anger. The truth is, you’ve got to take care of yourself, selfish as that may sound, and your husband is not doing that for you. From what you write you are the one doing all the emotional work in the marriage, and that’s not sustainable. You are low on the priority list. Elevate yourself, leap, and allow the universe to catch you as you fall into the great emptiness of possibility. Sure, you have the dream job, but clearly that’s not cutting it for you. That miracle counselor doesn’t exist, and if your husband isn’t prepared to dig deep and fix the ancient ironworks of your marriage, then you have to save yourself.

I’m a writer. I tell stories. We all tell stories about ourselves. You need to change the narrative of the story you are telling about yourself. Tell the truth. When someone asks you how things are, tell them straight, “My life is shit. I’m married to a man who doesn’t value me the way I need to be valued.” Testify your own truth. Stop hiding behind the drapes and pretending all’s perfect in that big house of yours. Claim your space in the world, even if it takes telling your husband the marriage is over unless he redefines how he treats you. I know, the safety net, the fact that he is kind and familiar to you, is all well and good, but do you want to die with a fat bank account and a bankrupt soul?

What you have in your life right now is an illusion of the real world, it’s like one of those fake pies in the restaurant case, looks great, but you don’t want to bite into it! Listen, this life is yours to claim. Stop being cowed by the expectations of your friends and family, they don’t live in your skin. You need to take your courage and invest in your own future, and if he wants to join you for the journey, great. If not, no matter, you can make it on your own. Good luck!



James Claffey hails from County Westmeath, Ireland, and lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA, with his family. He is the author of the collection, Blood a Cold Blue. His website is at


Please note: Advice given in Dear Life is not meant to take the place of therapy or any other professional advice. The opinions or views offered by columnists are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed physician or mental health professional. Columnists acting on behalf of Dear Life are not responsible for the outcome or results of following their advice in any given situation.


Jennifer Pastiloff is a writer living on an airplane and the founder of The Manifest-Station.  She’s leading a Retreat in Costa Rica at the end of March and a weekend retreat in May to Ojai, Calif as well as 4 day retreat over Labor Day in Ojai, Calif. All retreats are a combo of yoga/writing for all levels. She and bestselling author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing retreat to Vermont in October. Check out her site for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up is NYC in March followed by Dallas, Seattle and London.