Interviewed by Sue Leonard.
Published in Reality Magazine, March 2013.
The writer Dermot Bolger had always imagined that his wife would live longer than he would. So when in May, 2010, Bernie died, suddenly, on a trolley in an Accident and Emergency department, his grief was tinged with bewilderment.
“I once reviewed a book by Alice Taylor,” says Bolger. “She said, ‘when you are young you imagine the world is run by intelligent people making good decisions on your behalf, and then you grow up and see that it isn’t. That stayed with me. There is overwork; there is incompetence. Bernie’s death came as a shock to the doctors, as well as to me.”
The suddenness left him stricken.
“She died from an undiagnosed ruptured aortic aneurysm,” he says. “Other friends had partners die from cancer, and they’d known for months in advance, and that’s terrible, but there is a certain amount of preparation involved. And in my case, it was my wife playing golf, sunbathing in the garden, swimming, and then dying in front of my eyes after this perfect day.
“It’s all upon you, and there’s no way of preparing for this, and the million and one things you have to do. We’d been trying to move house for some time,” he says. “And suddenly, instead of making a decision about a house, you’re having to choose a coffin.”
In that first, terrible, year of grief, Dermot was trying to understand just why her death had happened. Floundering, he was barely able to function, let alone write. The support of his family and friends helped; and when his interview with Marian Finucane was broadcast in April, 2011, he received 200 letters from listeners, anxious to share their stories.
Support came from unexpected places too.
“I had been asked by BBC Radio 4 to write a play,” he says. “A few months after, I said to them, ‘I just don’t know if I’ll ever write again, so I can’t fulfil the commission.’ They just sent me the cheque and said, ‘you will write for us one day.’ That was a remarkable gesture.
“That first year is very difficult,” he says. “Having to cope with that first birthday, first Christmas and first anniversary. I went to grief counselling, but possible too early. There were medical questions consuming me, which the therapist could not answer. In the second year, it’s more of a blank landscape, with no first anything, and I gradually found myself able to write.”
At first, there was nothing creative.
“I remember one day, when I was alone in the house, lying in bed in the dark, and not fit for anything, the phone rang. It was the Daily Mail to say that Edna O’Brien was eighty, and could they have 1,200 words by two in the afternoon. I said ‘yes,’ got up and did it. I was using a different part of my brain.
“And a year and a bit in, I’d been asked to do a rewrite of a radio play for a theatre company in Dublin. I went in to my office – a room in All Hallows, and I began to rewrite a character in the play; a girl of 22 who loves discoing but is married to this really boring accountant. As I wrote she began to tell all these jokes and to my amazement she was really strong and funny. I found it shocking that I could do this again, and enjoy it. I remember feeling almost guilty.”
At the time, Dermot wanted to write something to honour Bernie’s life. But he was wary of writing a piece of prose, because he didn’t want to exploit her death for financial gain; or write a manual for grief.
“I didn’t want to become a spokesperson for grief,” he says. “I wanted to move on.”
At the time, he found bits and pieces of paper lying around. There were notes he’d written to himself, and he realised they were the start of poems.
“Poems take longer to write than prose, and are read by fewer people, but they can be small monuments and pieces of art. They allowed me the space to deal with Bernie’s death, and to create something from it. A book of poetry seemed to mark her death with more dignity.”
Although personal, the poems speak to everyone. When one was published in the Irish Times, reader response was overwhelming. And that’s no surprise. Beautifully structured, the poems encompass the love between the Bolgers, as Dermot remembers Bernie, and struggles with all the stages of grief.
In ‘Venice,’ the author recalls the horror of his wife’s experience in Accident and Emergency; but he intersperses the terror of that days with anecdotes of the happiest moments of Bernie’s life.
In ‘The Empty Car,’ he remembers his joy, driving home to Bernie after a literary night out, compared to the pain of facing her absence.
‘I was the man perpetually rushing home to be with you,’ he writes. And in ‘Warmth’, he describes the wonderful moments when, although he knew she was dead, he felt her presence.
Does he still feel it?
“I do,” he says. “I do yes, though not all the time.” Is it comforting? “It is actually. Yes. But there are certain problematic moments for the bereaved. Landmarks of the future become tinged with sadness. Our elder son graduated with a first class degree in Trinity; in pure maths which is quite an achievement. That occasion was tinged with her absence.”
There are times, still, when he becomes hijacked by grief.
“Grief is an insidious thing,” he says. “It’s little things, like turning a corner and finding yourself outside a restaurant that has been special to you and your wife. Or finding yourself in a situation that suddenly unlocks a memory.”
Two and a half years on, Bolger says he’s just living his life. He is, as always, involved in community projects, working diligently promoting the arts, writing prose and plays. He has a novella out in tandem with his book of poetry. And his perceptive newspaper columns won him Best Commentator, in the Irish Journalism Awards.
“One column was about the fishing tragedy off the Waterford Coast, when some of the fishermen were from the Muslim community,” he says. “And the Catholic and Muslim communities gathered, and as a gesture of solidarity, the Muslims prayed with the Catholics, then the Catholics with the Muslims. It was a great example of Ireland becoming more accepting of other people’s beliefs.”
How does he feel, two and a half years on?
“One never gets over it,” he says. “I’m a different person. I’m not the person I was and I have a different life. I need to go out and make a new future for myself. I’m a balding writer of 53 years of age, and I may still be here in 30 years time. I need to leave mourning behind, and embrace whatever confronts me in life.”
To illustrate where his emotions are now, he quotes Beckett. ‘The sun shone, having no alternative.’
The Venice Suite – A Voyage Through Loss by Dermot Bolger is published by New Island Poetry.
© Sue Leonard. 2013.