And Yet It All Seems Limitless

“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five time more. Perhaps not even that. How many times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”
—For Brandon and Eliza
Ever Joined in True Love’s Beauty

Beautiful old graveyards address my main complaint about the outdoors: that there’s nothing to read. I’d like more epitaphs, which too few Americans seem to write, but will settle for the barest names, dates, and family labels in this migratory culture, where Hmong mothers lie next to Finnish fathers. Cemeteries makes me wonder about all those lives: short and long, dynastic and solitary, local and far-flung.

In Brooklyn, I used to go to Green-Wood Cemetery to see my compatriots, Dubliner John Mackay, with his heated mausoleum, and the scandalizing Limerickwoman, Lola Montez, dead at 42 and buried decorously as Mrs. Eliza Gilbert.



In Seattle, I lived near the lovely Lake View Cemetery. Another Irishman, P.J. Malone, lies 5,000 miles from his native Mayo, and surely could not have imagined the pilgrims who traipse over his worn 1873 headstone to visit his next-door neighbors, Bruce Lee, who was buried a hundred later, and his son Brandon.

Brandon’s epitaph plays in my mind this season as I make a daily loop of Lake View Cemetery in North Oakland. It’s another beautiful spot, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted with the generosity of a landscape architect who will never see the shapes of his mature plantings. I push my baby’s stroller up the spiraling paths, panting as my softened body tries to harden again. At the top we look down over the San Francisco Bay, south to Silicon Valley, west to Twin Peaks, and north to the Golden Gate Bridge. The Oakland Hills are behind us, with Berkeley to the east.

I take the sunshade down so that Tara can look at the light filtering through the leaves overhead. She squints as she surveys her territory, steering an imaginary convertible with plump arms. Her skin is golden and her eyes darkest brown. She watches her fellow north American natives, the nine wild turkeys who own this hill and the countless Canada geese who gobble the watered grass and then poop more than a ship of babies.

She babbles. We have a little chat about the big birdies.

It occurs to me that she will have an American accent, and that unlike me she will know how to say her name.

(“Is it Taw-ruh or Teaah-rah?” said the obstetrician when I was in heaviest labor, and it dawned on me that there are two distinct American pronunciations, neither of which is my flat Irish “Tah-rah.” Even Siri thinks I say “Tyra,” squashing my hopes that my daughter would have a foolproof Irish name.)

I keep hearing that with motherhood the days are long and the years are short. I don’t find it so, perhaps because I waited so long to meet her. It’s all fast to me. Our days together divide into miniature days that loop quickly. Sleep, eat, blurp, play. Sleep, eat, blurp, play. Walk. Visit friends. And again. And again.

Wherever we are, Tara concentrates on the light, staring at the lamp, the window, the sky, or her Twilight Turtle. The changes help her puzzle out our fruit-fly rhythms. She’s new here, but she’s a great navigator.

I love Brandon Lee’s epitaph. I love the reminder that this immigrant mother and native daughter will have only a certain number of these afternoons at the top of an Oakland hill. Even the act of remembering them will happen only a certain number of times for me, and she won’t record them at all. And yet I look into her face and want to give her every single thing we can see, and all of it seems limitless.

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8 thoughts on “And Yet It All Seems Limitless”

  1. Woohoo, two more Dervala posts!

    Congratulations and all. I am told that even in Ireland things aren’t foolproof: Dubliners say “Tarra” with the TRAP vowel, whereas the rest of Ireland says “Tara” with the PALM vowel. As do I, born in these States though my grandfather was born in Mayo.

    Californians (and Westerners generally, as well as most Canadians) don’t differentiate between LOT, CAUGHT, and PALM vowels, so when a Californian thinks he is saying “Tah-ra” it’s quite likely to come out “Taw-ra” instead. They really can’t hear the difference, and think the TV show is called “L. A. Lah”. As for “Teaah-rah”, that’s probably “tiara”.


  2. John, I love your linguistic analyses. I’ve been in the States long enough to have learned to slightly vocalize the ‘l’ in “palm.” Still curious about why Americans tend to assign that longer ‘a’ to imported words (like ‘pasta’).


  3. I haven’t made it through your essay yet (I am trying to not distract myself from a deadline this afternoon), but was so taken by the quote that you excerpted to kick it off that I had to comment before going on. Increasingly, I realize that while to our girls, childhood seems like it goes on forever (and I remember feeling the same as a kid and teen), to me I’m increasingly aware that the number of summers that they will be young and unselfconscious enough to gallop through the woods as pegasi — or the number of Christmases that they will whisper their wishlists to Santa Claus because that’s how they think he communicates best — are incredibly finite and more precious for it. In the moment, it seems ridiculous to record many of their antics to video, and yet I know that my memory will be unable to reproduce them at any given age with much accuracy and that revisiting them at these ages will be precious, so I remind myself to break out the camera a bit more often than I habitually would. When Ella was born, I remember seeing in one of the baby books something about not even taking late-night feedings and diaper changes for granted, because even they are temporary, short-term, and limited — so to try and revel in the middle-of-the-night stillness in spite of fatigue. Good advice.

    Now I can’t wait to read the essay itself. 🙂


  4. One memory that will be indelible: the Elizabeth Mitchell CD that you and Kathy sent us, Brad.
    We’ve been so lucky to have you in our lives, even though you haven’t met Tara yet.


  5. I have no trace of L in “palm”, but like all other Americans and Canadians (except in Eastern Massachusetts) I do merge it with short “o”, so “father” and “bother” rhyme.


  6. Congratulations, Dervala! Take it from one who knows, it is only with hindsight that you realize that with parenthood, the days are long and the years are short. In any case, just enjoy her.


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