Where the Ocean Meets the Sky

Banna Strand, Co. Kerry, Ireland, August 2017

by Kristin McGowan - January 8, 2018

As a child, the old, wide, brown radio on top of our fridge was tuned to 90.7 WFUV at all times. From my childhood vantage point, I couldn’t see the dials, but little Krissy Cotter could just reach the on/off knob. Every Sunday afternoon Dad and I would listen to Ceol na Gael: The Music of the Irish or as we’d call it – the Fordham Station – broadcasted noon to four from Fordham University. I loved it, more importantly, my dad loved it, and most importantly, I loved my dad. Music bonded us; he would sing me goodnight with the chorus of Daddy’s Little Girl and promised to learn the rest before I married.


Irish music kept our bond strong. My childhood sing-a-longs were led by Paddy Reilly, Mary Black, and the Dubliners. Contrary to Irish stereotype, Dad never knew all the words, but loved belting out the choruses. Dad also loved the Wolfe Tones and played them often. Fiddler’s Green was the first song I learned by heart and Snowy Breasted Pearl still brings me back to summer evenings in our backyard, not to mention the volumes of history I learned through their songs of rebellion. Dad often told the story of the group’s early days in the United States and the fateful night they ended up in the Bronx apartment of my grandfather, a Cork man and New York City police officer. Lead singer Tommy Byrne made the innocent mistake of sitting in the big man’s chair. No worries - he got up.


I write this on January 2 of this new year -- Dad would have been 75 years old today. In February of 1996 he suffered a massive heart attack and slipped into a coma. The next month he underwent quintuple bypass surgery while still unconscious. He also had half his stomach cut out due to several bleeding ulcers. He received Last Rites three times. His great friend Tom came repeatedly and played the Notre Dame Fight song in his ear. Eventually he woke up, but the medication made him confused about where he was, what year it was, and why he couldn’t just leave. When he did leave, he was in rehab for months before coming home.

He was home! We would take drives, usually up to East Durham or Windham, NY, listening to the radio. He really liked Rod Stewart’s Rhythm of My Heart, – and would sing along to the chorus:
The rhythm of my heart/Is beating like a drum With the words ‘I love you’ rolling off my tongue. Never will I roam/For I know my place is home. Where the ocean meets the sky I’ll be sailing.

We both knew his health was bad; I joked that it wouldn’t be fair for him to get thinner than me…but he did. He didn’t talk about the future much, but he did say he’d see me marry and have my first child…but he didn’t.


We had about a year – in February of 1998 he was back in the hospital with chest pains – only this time there was nothing they could do. The doctor advised him to get his affairs in order. On May 20 at 10:38pm I had a weird daydream of him dying. I found him on May 21, 1998, having passed away in his sleep.


Months and months of time disappeared in my fog. I was driving – somewhere – when I heard Stevie Nicks on the radio say, ‘This is for you, Daddy,’ before she began Landslide, a song that found me, woke me, and spoke to me, putting into words all the questions I had for the one person no longer here to answer them.


I took my love and I took it down I climbed a mountain and I turned around And I saw my reflection in the snow-covered hills 'Til the landslide brought it down Oh, mirror in the sky What is love? Can the child within my heart rise above? Can I sail through the changin' ocean tides? Can I handle the seasons of my life?

I don’t know.

Well, I've been afraid of changin' 'Cause I've built my life around you But time makes you bolder Children get older And I'm getting older, too

 On the day my father was buried, my (future) husband moved back to the New York area. We were both in Westchester that day, but wouldn’t meet for another six years. My father would have loved Michael McGowan, born in Donegal to Irish-American parents and the best person I’ve ever known. On our first trip together, we went camping in Maine. We watched the sunrise over Cadillac Mountain – and a proposal off in the distance! Driving later that day, we passed a church as newlyweds were rushing out. That night, we were listening to the radio in our tent and I wondered if Mike was ‘The One,’ and wishing I could get my father’s advice. I was shocked when at that moment, Landslide, played on the radio. I started crying when immediately after Landslide, the DJ played Rhythm of My Heart. Dad approved.

It wasn’t the first time I felt my dad through music. In the late nineties I played the bagpipes with a band out of Kearny, NJ, and was travelling with them in Canada a year after my father’s death. It was May 20, 1999. I had always wondered if the daydream I had this night a year earlier – at 10:38pm no less – was his actual time of death rather than the next day. As we all drove home from dinner that night, listening to one of the piper’s mixed CDs, I was looking out the window, thinking of my dad and still wondering if I should have checked on him – when a Wolfe Tones song started playing. My head immediately looked to the front of the van where the music was coming from. The clock on dashboard read 10:38pm. I smiled, welled up, and marveled that my anxiety and worry ran from my grasp.


Time moved on – I married Michael and together we have three beautiful girls. Last summer we were fortunate to take them to Ireland for the first time. After a carriage ride one morning we had lunch in Killarney and the Wolfe Tones came on in the restaurant. We walked the breathtakingly beautiful Banna Strand later that day and I smiled hearing my dad singing along with Tommy Byrne: ‘And the waves will roll in peace again/On the lonely Banna Strand.’

Mike handled the stick-shift, left-side-of-the road driving and the girls and I car danced to RTE2 and stared out the windows as the gorgeous green hills of Kerry rolled by. I drove through these hills with my father almost thirty years prior and I couldn’t help wondering what he would of thought of me and my family today. RTE2 had a call-in vote for a song – I’m not sure of the details, but was shocked to hear, after a day full of Justin Beiber’s Despacito and Dua Lipa’s New Rules the unmistakable accordion beginnings of Rod Stewart’s Rhythm of My Heart. Unbelievable. Dad was with me.


My father will be gone 20 years this May, and into so many years my original link to Ireland is dissolving. Ireland isn’t the same as it was – it’s growing and changing as it’s meant to; as I’m meant to.


Well, I've been afraid of changin' 'Cause I've built my life around you But time makes you bolder Children get older And I'm getting older, too


So I tear up when any of the ten or so versions of The Parting Glass bubble to the surface of my Spotify playlist:


But since it fell into my lot That I should rise and you should not I'll gently rise and I'll softly call Good night and joy be with you all


Only I’m not ready to say good night. It’s why my husband and I opened Carrick Mór, our Irish gift shop, and fill it with the handiwork of old and new Ireland. It’s why one daughter is learning the harp and the other can’t wait to get her hands on Mom’s fiddle. It’s why I relish every hour of my girls’ Irish dance practice, especially the counterpoint beats in Soggy’s, a slip jig by Beoga.

It’s why we’re already planning our way back to Ireland, with our girls leading the way.


Tonight, we celebrated my dad’s birthday with Ring Dings (his favorite) and a candle in each. I asked my girls to think of a song they’d love to hear their grandfather sing to them, and blow out their candles. Now they’ll each have a song to hear him by, too.


Some people sense their loved ones are near when they see a cardinal or find a penny; my dad sings to me. Still.

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