How does a public tribute to an extraordinary friend and international literary figure who died too soon and too quickly avoid a sentimentality that the subject herself would have found wretched?

Let me tell you. Have Sheridan Hay and John Low Beer organize and program the thing.

Tuesday night’s service for Nuala O’Faolain, who died in May after a three-month illness, was a feast of words, humor, music provided by Susan McKeown, and, for good measure, champagne.

Paul Muldoon and Frank McCourt and Fintan O’Toole shared their memories, as did Nuala’s sister Deirdre Brady and Nuala’s partner John. The audience included everyone from the Irish Consul General Niall Burgess to The New York Times’ Maura Casey, who had earlier penned an editorial page piece about Nuala, to Susan Cheever and Martha Cooley.

But because this site is about women’s voices, we are honored to share with you in full the remarks of two special and brilliant women.

Pull up a chair and pour yourself a glass. If you don’t know the work of Sheridan Hay and Julie Grau, one a writer and the other an editor, consider this a day that you discovered two goddesses of language — more importantly, two women whose embrace of a friendship that endured both silken and troubled times startled and gifted a hushed auditorium.

Sheridan’s piece begins below. Click here to read Julie’s remarks.

-Elaine Lafferty

* * * * * *

Tribute to Nuala
By Sheridan Hay, author, The Secret of Lost Things

“I hung back in the doorway frightened.  Then the warm spring sun washed over me, because the porch blocked off the wind. I turned my face up to the bright sun – the first one, after a long winter.  There was a single cloud, like a dab from a white paintbrush, at the highest point of the sky.  In the instant I glanced at it, the cloud melted into nothing, and the wide arc became perfectly intensely blue.
Orpheus ascending, I said to myself. Here I go.”

It steadies me to read Nuala’s words, I can’t yet trust my own voice not to break in speaking of her. We met over 10 years ago in Dublin at Colm Toibin’s house. My husband, Michael, had fallen in love with "Are You Somebody?" and found it a home with an American publisher. And we fell in love with Nuala.  We met her just at the moment when her life began to change –- when she began to change. She describes it this way in "Almost There" —

"Climbing on my own words and the words of other people, the journey has been upward all the way. Writing … brought me up from the underground. I’ve been my own Orpheus."

For years we met for breakfast every Thursday at the counter in Eisenberg’s, sometimes reconvening for lunch. "Art helps you to live just as directly as friendship does," she wrote in "Almost There," and after moving to New York Nuala wanted and needed friendship -– just as I did when I met her. "Who’d have thought that America would give an Irish woman an Australian woman!" she used to say to me. 

Nuala had a great gift for intimacy, which is not the same as saying intimacy was easy for her. She was a deeply private person: yet she could disregard, with some alacrity, the privacy of others. She was essentially solitary, yet she longed for companionship. Ambivalence ran through her like a charged wire. A deeply sophisticated thinker, she was often childlike: hilariously funny and deadly serious. Brilliant, with a penetrating intellect and a mind full of arcane knowledge, she could be obtuse. She would not proffer her cheek for a kiss but would hold my hand in the street. She was eccentric and contradictory, but there was not a moment I spent with her that I wasn’t conscious of her value, of the great privilege of knowing her. The privilege of loving her.

It was risky to love Nuala –- it was never dull, and while it was sometimes difficult, it was also all too easy. One felt sworn to her in some way. To never betray her. She saw me as better than I am, but would tolerate no compliment in return. I never met any one so quick and it often pulled me up short –- how extraordinary she was.

I remember her protesting, over some small thing I imagined she had invented. "I didn’t make it up!" she insisted. "I’m not that original!"

In fact, she defined the word.

I think Nuala’s gift for intimacy had something to do with her great love of poetry. Erudite, with a fine and sharp sensibility, she knew dozens of poems by heart yet wore it all lightly and without pretense. We both loved Rilke, and when I went to Clare in March to take care of her after radiation treatment, I found a book of Rilke’s poems on her shelf. I had the same collection at home. Radiation had left her ill and exhausted. It was her first experience of invalidism. She hated every minute of my week with her. I did everything she could not. It drove her mad.

Trying to leave her alone, I re-read Rilke in the next room and marked up passages with post it notes. One I remember calling out to her: "I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other."

"Well, then," she answered from the other room. "Shut the fuck up."

In "My Dream of You," Nuala has her character, Kathleen, riff on Rilke:

Oh, to have been a poet like him! To have been grand! To think in sweeps! To see life and death and love in deep and beautiful forms -– not to be suburban, a nobody with a drab little imagination … I memorized a remark Rilke made in an article I read about him once -– that "he had a bitter self-knowledge of the weaknesses from which his strength came."  Well, why couldn’t I hope to be like that –-

Then I started to laugh, even though I was still crying. I’m used to your whining at the least opportunity, I said to myself. But to start crying because you aren’t a genius takes the goddam biscuit! I would read him again. Rilke would be a better resource for me, when I was an old woman, than any man.

Rilke, it turns out, was a resource for her in the last weeks of her life, just as poetry –- as music, as art, as friendship -– had been throughout her life. A poem I’d marked was on her mind the week she died. A great and strange poem –- Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes. It is a disturbing poem for Eurydice is far from unhappy with her state. One stanza runs:

Being dead filled her beyond fulfillment.
Like a fruit suffused with its own mystery and sweetness,
she was filled with her vast death, which was so new, she could not understand that it had happened.

Nuala sent me an email a couple of weeks before she died which said in part: "This place has never been the same since you left. Mabel (her dog) hasn’t been the same. I haven’t been the same. But not worse, more somber, more solitary -– even though there are far too many people around. I am moving, in other words, into the dark — but at the enemy’s pace."

None of us thought she had so little time, but I see now that Nuala sensed it. The poem continues:

She was already loosened like long hair,
Poured out like fallen rain,
Shared like a limitless supply.

Nuala declined chemotherapy knowing, after that week in Clare, she could not tolerate hospitals and staying in bed. Instead, in a wheelchair, she went to Paris, Madrid for the Prado, back to New York to say goodbye, Berlin for the opera, and Sicily with her sisters and brother, and her beloved, John. She died in Dublin a few days after that last trip. It was almost three months to the day when John and I had sat with her in the emergency room at New York Hospital.

When I left Clare, I pinned a note on the marked up book of Rilke poems. I thanked Nuala for letting me come to her and quoted another poem we both knew well: 

Who knows? Perhaps the same
bird echoed through both of us
yesterday, separate, in the evening …

I didn’t fully know what I meant when I left the note, except to say that we could experience the same thing, like Rilke’s bird, while apart — and that meant we were separate but not distant. That  experiencing the same loved thing joins us, each to the other.

As it is, I think and think of her.

But it occurs to me now that it is Nuala, and the memory of her, that echoes through us, like birdsong.  Her memory is here — separate, in each of us — even as she is, tonight, in the library, a shared love -– our common thought.

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