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revisiting a visit / missing the missing

By BKPublished 2 months ago Updated 2 months ago 6 min read
Runner-up in Travel Snaps Challenge

This would be a long story, if I told it right. Enough for a full scale memoir. It begins with my sister’s birth in 1989, and it never really ends. But at the heart of it is a trip to the Republic of Ireland in 2011.

The tagline of the 2011 chapter might read something like:

  • An American family visits Ireland to retrace their ancestry; a drama unfolds

Or, if I were to use a wide angle lens on the larger story, it might be called:

  • “She’s in the drunk tank” : bearing witness to my sister’s descent into alcoholism

When Katy was alive I supposed it was a story that could not be written, to save face. It would be scandalous, a relationship-ruining tell-all drama. She’d never forgive me. But that’s the thing about suicide really. You give up the rights to your story. I’m the surviving sibling. This story is mine now, and she isn’t here to request, persuade, or even manipulate otherwise. She isn’t here to control her narrative. If she wanted me to continue hiding her skeletons she shouldn’t have left. (It’s been nearly six years; grief has subsided a bit- bitterness not so much.)

There are 1,200 photos in my Flickr album from this trip, mostly taken with a Pentax K5 DSLR camera. I spent a lot of time in those days fancying myself an ameteur photographer. (I can’t tell you the last time I so much as turned on my camera. The convenience of my iPhone has overridden the joy of manual photography.) Looking through my album I’m reminded that my camera lens had become damaged, leaving behind a sea of tiny dark specks on each photo. I painstakingly edited the best photos, but most of the blemishes remain because I wasn’t up for the task of taking a photoshop brush to a thousand images. To our friends and family it probably looked like a picture-perfect idyllic family trip. But like the lens marks, if you look closely the imperfections aren’t hard to spot.

Despite their flaws, the images of this trip are infinitely precious to me. They represent a happier time, when my parents were younger, healthier, and hadn’t yet been crushed by stress and grief. When all of my favorite people existed on the same metaphysical plane and we were able to create new memories together. Even the photos of landscapes are so dear, proof for my ego of the satisfaction of wanderlust, the thrill of experience.

The intro to this story would read something like:

To celebrate my sister’s graduation from college (and because we’d always talked about going), my parents, my sister (aged 22), and myself (aged 28) planned a two week trip to the Republic of Ireland. We didn’t have a firm agenda, but aside from taking in the country we planned to visit graveyards in an effort to find out more about our ancestry. We flew into and out of Dublin, driving south to Wexford, west toward the Ring of Kerry, up the northern coast and east back to Dublin with a stop in Athlone. We took in ancient Celtic sites, castles, quaint cafes and windy beaches. It was September, almost exactly two years before my sister’s mental health issues would begin, at least in their final full fledged form. Ireland was a nexus of sorts, a glimpse into the drama we’d later accept as second nature.

I found Dublin to be gray and drab, too much cement. But once we reached the countryside everything was green and lush, peat bogs and emerald fields. From the backseat I made frequent requests for my dad to pull over so I could take pictures. Everything was stunning. The landscapes and vistas, the culture, the heritage sites, the local color, the wonder of knowing these were places my ancestors lived and roamed. A homeland. Our homeland.

And now, some stories.

  • In the backseat of a rented car, while our father drove south from Dublin toward the southern coast, I told my sister I had the urge to paw her in the face like we were baby tigers, and then proceeded to do just that. The gesture became a lasting language of affection between us- a gentle little pet/smack on the head, like kittens at play. We were surely adults, but being on a road trip with our parents evoked the vacations of our childhood, and brought with it the silliness of “are we there yet?” antics and squabbles.
  • Standing in a graveyard surrounded by several gravestones bearing my name: In Ireland it was tradition to name your children after their grandparents, and while my name is not that common in present day United States it was a dime a dozen in County Wexford circa 1882. My mother found it eerie, seeing her husband and eldest daughter’s names etched on headstones, yet as a foreboding omen it certainly didn’t yield anything but irony - we are both alive today, and the youngest (whose name was unique enough to be absent in the old cemeteries) is the one who is gone. Eight years later we’d erect a headstone in our hometown cemetery with all four names, my own, my parents, and my sister, with a place for four urns. Katy’s ashes pave the way for the rest of us. It is strange to know a lot of graves exist with my name engraved on them. I’m glad to not be within or beneath them quite yet.
  • Making out with an Irish guy at 4am outside my bed and breakfast (which I am locked out of, because Katy had our key) to more or less kill time while waiting for my parents to wake up and hopefully look out the window so I can wave them down, have them let me in, and tell them my sister is missing. Irish Guy had accompanied me walking around the town yelling my sisters name for hours, periodically asking if he could kiss me. At some point I was out of excuses and the idea of locking lips with this stranger seemed a fair way to distract myself from the worry. The whole time I was thinking about the movie Mermaids.
  • That look of sheer horror on my mother’s face when I have to confess that my sister is missing in a foreign country.
  • The immeasurable, tearful relief of being told by an Irish police officer that your missing sister is, in fact, alive and in a holding cell / the laughability of finding out someone you love is in jail being good news, because it means they are safe. (There would be echoes of this concept in years to come.) We don’t really know to this day what led to the arrest. She had no memory of the evening's events. Later interactions with medication would lead us to believe she might have been slipped something at an Irish bar. For her part, Katy thought it was funny to be arrested for presumably being drunk in public in Ireland. No one else was laughing. She was arrested, again, later that morning for assaulting a police officer while being released from custody. She had no memory of that either.
  • Retracing steps to locate Katy’s purse (containing her passport) leads to a final very hot and hurried makeout session with Irish Guy while my father waits downstairs. Two days later we’d all be kissing the Blarney Stone, one by one laying on our backs while an Irishman gently holds us in place so that we can tilt our heads back and be blessed with the gift of gab.
  • Encountering the ghost of Charlie Chaplin in Waterville and being unable to sleep all night because of the notion that ghosts exist.
the author and her first ghost
  • On our final full day before heading back to the airport in Dublin my parents meet a man in the oldest bar in Ireland with the same first and last name as my first boyfriend who offers to give our family a ride on a boat around Lough Ree. He treats us to a 12-pack of American beer and lets us all take turns steering his cruiser.

Throughout the trip I make frequent jaw-dropped comments while snapping away with my camera that this must be the most beautiful place in the world. My mother argues her belief that our native land, Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, is the most beautiful. She is met with my scoffing.

A couple of months after our return the autumn leaves are turning spectacular reds and golds while I drive home from the city for a visit. I recognize the valley’s magnificence and for the first time I suspect my mother might be on to something. For all of the novelty of travel, there is nothing quite like your homeland.


About the Creator


self-indulgent attempts to write personal essays on the subject of being human + whatever else pours out

all photos are my own.

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Comments (3)

  • Angie the Archivist 📚🪶about a month ago

    Congrats on placing in the competition. Very sad about your dear sister, but glad you have some happy memories of this trip with your family all together.

  • Gabriel Huizengaabout a month ago

    Thank you for sharing this deeply honest and remarkably detailed window into part of your story! And congrats on placing runner-up!

  • Marie Wilson2 months ago

    Excellent & harrowing writing.

BKWritten by BK

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