High Hopes and Dreams, an Irish Odyssey

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 READ THE FIRST CHAPTER

Brian wept openly as he knelt in earnest prayer at the bedside of his stepmother, Sarah O’Donnell. She was burning up with fever and her dehydrated body had become emaciated with its ravages. Her skin stretched tightly over her bones and had that translucent quality that Brian recognized so well from watching his own family members, one by one, as they succumbed to the dreaded fever back in their stone cottage in County Donegal.

He cupped her cold, work-worn hand in both of his, but she was unresponsive to his gentle touch. Her breathing, shallow as it was, would fade away and then, after an excruciating delay, start again. He put his ear down close to her nose and listened earnestly for the sound of her breath of life to resume.

In the dim light of the steerage, he watched intently as her eyelids fluttered and her lips curled up at the corners with barely a hint of a smile. It was, as if, in another world, she was seeing something beautiful, but known only to her. He leaned in close again and whispered in her ear, “Dear Mama, please don’t die.”

He looked up toward heaven and prayed, “Oh God, You brought me back from starvation and nearly dying by giving me life and hope with the O’Donnell’s. You know my new mother, Sarah O’Donnell. You know who she is. She has done so much for me and for all of us on this voyage. You took my mother and my whole family. Don’t make me lose another mother! Please, bring her back and make her well.”

Then, he rested his right arm on the edge of the bunk and lowered his head onto his arm to hide the copious tears that rolled down his cheeks and soaked his sleeve. Exhausted, he must have drifted off, because when Liam lightly tapped his shoulder, he trembled, jerked himself up straight and looked at Liam, who was standing next to his left shoulder. Through his tear-filled eyes, Liam’s face was blurred and indistinct. Liam bent down and whispered, “Brian, so sorry, I didn’t mean to alarm you. But, I’ll take over now. Why don’t you go up on deck? Stretch your legs and get some fresh air. But, be careful, it’s nasty weather up there. I don’t know how long it’ll be safe for any of us on deck. You should go now before it becomes too dangerous. Go on, my boy, I’ll watch over Mrs. O’Donnell.”

Father McFadden approached while both Liam and Brian were still talking. His broad smile lit up the gloomy passageway and he said, “Good evening. I dropped by to ask after Mrs. O’Donnell. Any change? Is she doing any better?”

Liam answered, “No, Father. The fever still hangs on and assaults her body. She’s fighting for her life and I’m sure that angels are supporting her in her battle. But she seems weaker by the hour. The way she drove herself day and night, sewing new clothes for the women and caring for the sick, left her completely exhausted. Her strength was stretched way beyond normal limits. When the fever struck, she had nothing left to fight it off. All I can say is that, if she recovers, it will demonstrate that our Lord has plans for her, here on earth, before He takes her home to heaven. Thank you for your constant prayers. She’s beyond medical help. Our only recourse, now, is prayer.”

“Aye, and I, as well as many onboard, are praying day and night for her full recovery. God’s Will be done.

“But, without prying into your personal business, I’d like to ask a question, if I may.”

Liam said, “Certainly, you may ask.”

“It’s only this. The outcome of Mrs. O’Donnell’s illness, notwithstanding, do you have a place to stay upon arrival in Baltimore?”

“No, Father. We were forced to leave Letterkenny with only a fortnight’s notice. We weren’t able to make plans. We have a little money. I plan to look for lodging when we arrive.”

“That will be awkward if it occurs that Mrs. O’Donnell is recovering and still quite weak. And, if she passes out of this life, God forbid, looking for lodging under those circumstances would be well-nigh impossible. If I may be so bold, I would like to offer you and your family a solution that will, I hope, be acceptable to you, regardless of Mrs. O’Donnell’s condition when we arrive.

“Here it is...I have a letter of introduction to the Archbishop. My understanding is that he has spacious quarters at the Basilica. While I am awaiting an assignment in Baltimore, he expects me to stay at his house. I’m sure he would extend a welcome to any others that I might bring with me.”

“Oh, no, Father. Your offer is grand, but we could not impose on you or the Archbishop. We will be just fine.”

“I won’t hear any more of your Irish hesitation. It’s settled. We’ll all be guests of the Archbishop. He’s a Dubliner. He’ll understand.”

“In that case, we’ll gratefully accept.”

“Thank you, my son. That does my old heart good.” Then he turned and made the sign of the cross over Sarah O’Donnell’s feverish body.

He offered a prayer for her speedy recovery and followed it by saying a ‘Hail Mary.’ Liam and Brian joined in.

He said, “May you all, including your missus, rest in peace tonight.” And he ambled down the narrow passageway in the direction of his own bunk.

 After Father McFadden left them, Brian reluctantly, relinquished his spot to Liam, stood, stretched his cramped legs and left his post where he had been keeping watch over his new step-mother. Slowly and cautiously, Brian made his way to the ladder that led up and onto the main deck. Even after a two-month voyage, he still had not become accustomed to the unpredictable rocking and rolling motions of the ship.

He cautiously and carefully climbed the ladder and when he popped his head above the open hatch, the force of a powerful wind coming in from the west, struck him full in the face. It was blowing horizontally across the deck, carrying frozen raindrops that stung like a thousand tiny needles when they impacted his skin. The freezing sleet had glazed the deck with a thin coating of ice. Walking on it was perilous, nearly impossible. When he stepped out of the hatch and onto the open deck, he was unable to gain footing. The gusting wind knocked his feet out from under him and he fell on his back. He began sliding back and forth as the ship lurched and rolled on the wind driven whitecaps. Unable to stop careening back and forth from one side of the deck to the other, the boy in him took over and he gave in to it. He thought, “Whoa! Hey! This is fun! I’ll run into something, eventually and I’ll be able to hold on and stop this sliding around.”

Sure enough, after a few trips across the glassy smooth deck, Brian’s momentum propelled him to the starboard rail. He caught hold of the rail and carefully pulled himself up to a standing position. Disregarding a few bumps and bruises, he declared himself uninjured and said aloud, “That was the most fun I’ve had since this voyage began.”

He looked up at the shrouds and sails and was amazed at what he saw. The shrouds were covered with a thin coating of ice and the sails were icing up, too. Sailors were still moving about in the rigging, in spite of the icy conditions, in spite of the irregular movements of the ship and in spite of the stinging sleet carried on the freezing wind. He heard Mr. Crump shouting orders from his spot at the helm. The sailors, ignoring the danger, seemed to be able to carry out his orders with ease. As the sails caught the westerly wind, MOHONGO tilted to starboard and picked up speed and began moving smartly along.

Brian marveled that the sailors were able to set the sails to Mr. Crump’s satisfaction, in spite of the weather and icy conditions. Adroitly, they descended from the rigging and down onto the deck. In a straight line, they headed for their quarters to shelter themselves from the foul weather. Brian watched them walk confidently across the slippery deck and he marveled at their ability to maintain their balance. No slipping, no sliding. They seemed to be able to anticipate the ship’s next movement and allow for the wind gusts. They adjusted their bodies accordingly and thus maintained balance. It was a sort of nautical dance step, beautiful to watch, with the ship leading and each sailor following.

Then, as they passed him, for the first time, he paid attention to their shoes. They were made of sturdy black leather and had substantial heels that were two to three inches thick.

Aloud, he mused, “So, that’s how they maintain their footing as they crawl around up there. They hook those heels over the rigging. Keeps them from sliding off.”

Brian’s curiosity momentarily satisfied, he maintained a firm grip on the rail as he scanned the eastern horizon. He shivered, glanced over his left shoulder and his exposed face was immediately attacked again by the wind-driven sleet. He turned quickly, keeping the wind and sleet to his back, leaned over the rail and looked down. The sea directly below was almost as black as MOHONGO’s hull. She sliced through the angry black waves that were crowned by spray flung willy-nilly from the roiling whitecaps by the westerly gale. Wind gusts darted and danced among the waves gouging deep trenches into them and then moving on. The waves fought back, breaking in on themselves and, in their exuberance, giving up the salty spray that blew across the deck and froze solid whenever it touched sails, shrouds or the decks. Brian’s face and clothing were not spared. The spray froze when it touched his clothing, creating an icy surface that cracked and made a crunching noise when he moved. His hair and eyelashes froze solid. He touched his hair and frozen pieces that had formed tiny icicles broke off in his hand. When he opened his mouth, the wind blew the spray in across his tongue and he tasted the salt in the water of the Chesapeake Bay. He licked the briny spray from his lips and mused, “So that’s how America tastes!”

Then, as quickly as it had arisen, the stinging wind abated and was replaced by a gentle westerly breeze. With the gale’s departure, the angry waves rested and the bay gently cradled MOHONGO as she sailed smoothly toward Baltimore.

The distant gray of the sea melted into the featureless, barely visible, darker gray of the eastern shore coastline that drew a jagged line marking the horizon, sometimes visible and sometimes obscured by the low-lying fog that seemed to arise from nowhere and then, just as quickly, to disappear again.

Brian stood at the rail for a long time searching the horizon, looking for a light, looking for any sign of life. His thoughts wandered to his new mother, Sarah O’Donnell, fighting for her life on a bunk in the steerage below. As he stood grieving over her condition, a huge surge of sadness spread from his heavy heart and through his whole body. He gazed out into the distance, over the black water that now merged, into a formless gray wall of low-hanging fog. He assumed that, if the fog lifted, the shoreline would reappear. He strained to make out its darker gray, but the shoreline, obscured by the fog, was invisible again. Similarly, his brain was fogged in. His new mother’s illness had plunged him, again, into that dreaded deep morass of despair that haunted him in the days after his whole family had died of the fever. Ever since the onset of the Great Hunger, with only short periods of respite, tragedy had been dogging his heels. He thought, “Why me? Why am I always suffering such rotten luck? Will it never end?

“I was happy working with my Dad on our little farm nestled on the green rolling hills of County Donegal. Each year’s successful potato crop was triumph enough for me. I wasn’t to blame because the Crown allowed absentee landlords to steal our land. And it wasn’t my fault that our potato crops failed three years running. Did I cause the fever that caused Mom and Dad and my brothers and sisters to get sick and die? Was I to blame because I was evicted from our cottage and the very stones were tumbled into a heap and the thatch was set afire? Did I deserve being left penniless and homeless?”

And now, his new mother lay, close to death, below in the steerage. His heart cried out in silent agony, “What kind of reward is this? All the passengers she took care of are alive and healthy. Why her? And, to top it off, she’ll not ever see the America of our hopes and dreams that holds such promise for all of us. If this is the beginning of a new life, I want no part of it. I should have stayed in our cottage with my dead family and let myself starve to death.

“Why did I accept Mr. O’Donnell’s invitation to come aboard?...I should have stayed on the wharf at Derry…I was miserable and starving and they took me in, gave me hope…For the first time since before the Great Hunger, I felt safe enough to be at rest and at peace within myself…Now, look at me, my new mother is dying and without her, all my hopes and dreams for a new life are gone…I shouldn’t have trusted them…Without her, I’m locked in this gray prison called America.

“When we reach Baltimore, who knows if it even actually exists?...I’ll join the crew on the first departing ship…I don’t care where it’s going.”

He thought to himself, “Oh, Lord, you must not like me to put me in this storming hellhole and smash all my hopes and dreams.”

The wind freshened and the storm raged around him, once more. The ship was being driven briskly through the water, but nothing on the horizon changed to indicate its passage. To Brian, the world around him, and time itself, had stopped. The only movement that penetrated his awareness was the insistent wind and the return of the stinging sleet that it carried. He leaned over the rail and looked down and was mesmerized by the churning black water of the Chesapeake Bay. As MOHONGO sailed steadily onward, the deep, somber black waters seemed to beckon, ‘Come to me…I’ll free you of all your troubles...’

Brian looked around. Except for Mr. Crump at the helm, he was the only person on deck. And it was highly probable that Mr. Crump was too busy guiding the ship to have noticed him.

“I could slip over the side and no one would be the wiser.” He held that thought in his mind as he continued watching the water below. He raised his right leg and, for a scant moment, rested it on top of the ice-slicked rail. But a flicker of light in the distance caught the corner of his eye and he looked up. Still heavyhearted, he lowered his leg and scanned the horizon once more. This time, in the far distance, he fixed his gaze on a distant point of light. Excited, he spoke aloud, “There’s life out there, after all. Some happy soul is warm and snug in his house. I see a glimmer of light from his window.” However, no one heard because the force of the blustery gale carried his words out across the roiling waves.

As he watched, delighted by what he was seeing, he expected that the light would move astern as the ship pressed forward, but it didn’t. It grew larger and brighter. Fascinated, he strained to keep both eyes on the light. It was moving, coming closer, gliding above the waves, but not touching them. It was heading in a straight line, directly toward the ship. He looked up to the top of the main mast and back toward the helm. Neither the sailor on watch in the crow’s nest nor Mr. Crump, the first mate, at the helm, shouted a warning that a vessel was approaching. Brian looked back at the light, which had grown more distinct. What he saw now was the figure of a man, dressed as a sailor and moving just above the waves toward the ship. Then, the figure, still glowing with a pure white light, passed through the hull of the ship directly below the spot where Brian was standing and disappeared. Suddenly, the glowing man materialized standing next to him, at the starboard rail.

Brian recognized him immediately. “Augie, it’s you! What are you doing here? Am I dreaming?”

His guardian angel replied, “Not this time. But, a lot like today’s weather, your thinking’s a bit cloudy and blustery. You’re wide awake. This was an emergency. I couldn’t wait for you to dream. And, since you’ve been staring at the ocean, thinking thoughts of hopelessness and self-harm, you were too self-absorbed to pay attention to the subtle nudges I was sending your way. So, here I am.

“I’ve told you many times that I’d never leave you and that I’d always be available to help. This is one of those times when you are perilously in danger of making an impulsive decision that would cause irreversible consequences. Did you understand everything that I just said?”

Relieved that his guardian angel had appeared, he said, “Aye, I understand and you have my attention. I’m ready to listen. What do you have to tell me?”

“First of all, I bring you greetings from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He wants to remind you that He is always near and that I, too, am always near you.

“Well, my boy, let me get right to the point. I suppose you’ve noticed the weather today, have you not?”

“Aye, of course! The weather is all there is to notice on a day like this!”

“Dear Brian, you’ve taken the cold, the dark clouds and the wind right into your very heart and soul. Let me ask you…Have you ever known of a storm that lasts forever? Of course you haven’t, and the answer is, ‘no.’ The storm that rages inside you with all of its uncertainties will pass just the same as the storm raging around us now. Most people, and you’re one of them, don’t remember that all storms, no matter how severe, are temporary. The bad part of that is that rash decisions made during an internal storm are often dangerous to life and limb. So, when the storms of life come, batten the hatches and ride it out! Before you know it, the sun will be shining again.

“If you don’t believe me, just turn around and take a look at the western horizon. What do you see?”

“I see a break in the clouds and the sun’s rays shining through. The wind has died down and the stinging sleet has stopped.”

“Brian, I think you get the point. Do you?”

Augie’s lesson struck home. Brian’s doubts and fears had evaporated. He said, “Aye, and thanks for the lesson from nature. With your help and the help of the Almighty who always sends you to me, I’ll weather all of the storms that come my way.”

A gentler wind drove the ship. Blue sky was fast appearing overhead. The raging whitecaps had turned to mere ripples.

With Brian’s acceptance of Augie’s advice and encouragement, his black mood dissipated. Augie’s work in visible form was completed. He faded before Brian’s eyes and returned to his regular invisible watchfulness.

Once more trusting that the high hopes and dreams that America promised might actually come true, Brian’s vision had been restored. He even had hopes that his new mother might recover and have a life in America, after all.