The right prompt at the right time
My mother died two years ago. I hadn’t written about her death—too soon, I thought—but a prompt from an online writing class spurred this meditation on her loss.
The prompt was fog. When I read it, I immediately remembered my visit to the Poulnabrone Dolmen some years ago and the thick fog that had descended on me there. And I remembered John Montague’s poem, well known to students all over Ireland, “Like dolmens round my childhood, the old people.” In his poem, Montague confers myth-like status on the old people who populated his childhood. I thought I might write something similar about the old people in my own life, but it quickly became apparent I wanted only to write about one person, my mother.
I started to jot down memories of her illness and death. The details were foggy—I hadn’t realized until I tried to articulate them. Her confusion was a type of fog, my own grief another. Links began to emerge, but I needed to place my personal experience in a wider context. I began to research the history of dolmens, looking for echoes of my own experience in that of my ancestors.
Some of the connections were obvious. Placing a photograph in my mother’s coffin was part of a long tradition of grave goods, although I hadn’t realized it at the time. Other connections surprised me. Organizing home care was not simply a matter of endless paperwork. It was also as difficult as lifting a heavy capstone into place, with all the attendant risks of collapse.
I knew straight away the essay would be braided. Grief is a type of fragmentation, recovery a type of assimilation. I wanted the essay’s structure to mirror this process: two independent narratives that gradually coalesce, one mythical and universal, the other ordinary and personal.
The various meanings of fog are a unifying element, a direct result of the prompt that generated the essay. A second set of images also creates cohesion. These images relate to walking, or more particularly, to the difficulty of maintaining balance: old people hobbling, twisted ankles, arthritic bones, mobility ramps. The essay ends with my husband and me tiptoeing through the fog, negotiating uneven ground. Grief is imminent. We must learn to walk in the shadow of Montague’s “dark permanence of ancient forms.”
The essay came together relatively quickly, the happy result of the interplay between memory, prompt, and a much-loved poem. I don’t always respond well to prompts—they often exasperate me—but in this case, the right prompt enabled me to bypass my conscious resistance to writing about my mother. I was ready. The word fog helped me see.
AILEEN HUNT is an Irish writer with a particular interest in flash forms and lyric essays. Her work has been published in various online and print journals, including Cleaver Magazine, Sweet: A Literary Confection, Hippocampus, Slag Glass City, and Flashback Fiction. Her essay “The Shell of your Ear” appears in the anthology Oh, Baby! from In Fact Books (2015). She lives in Dublin.