By COLUM McCANN
A LONDON nursing home. The shape of a
figure beneath the sheets. My grandfather could just about whisper. He
wanted a cigarette and a glass of whiskey. "Come up on the bed here,
young fella," he said, gruffly. It was 1975 and I was 10 years old and
it would be the first -- and probably last -- time I'd ever see him.
Gangrene was taking him away. He reached for the bottle and managed to
light a cigarette. Spittle collected at the edge of his mouth. He began
talking, but most of the details of his life had already begun slipping
Long wars, short memories.
Later that afternoon my father and I bid goodbye to my grandfather,
boarded a train, then took a night boat back home to Dublin. Nothing
but ferry-whistle and stars and waves. Three years later, my
grandfather died. He had been, for all intents and purposes, an old
drunk who had abandoned his family and lived in exile. I did not go to
the funeral. I still, to this day, don't even know what country my
grandfather is buried in, England or Ireland.
Sometimes one story can be enough for anyone: it suffices for a
family, or a generation, or even a whole culture -- but on occasion
there are enormous holes in our histories, and we don't know how to
Two months ago -- 31 years after my grandfather's death -- I got a
case of osteomyelitis, a bone infection. I was admitted to a hospital
in New York for a surgical debridement and a high-octane dose of
antibiotics. I got a private room, largely because I'm middle class and
insured, but also because it was an infectious disease. The double
doors clacked when the nurses entered, visitors came and went, but for
long stretches of time I listened to the ticking of a Vancomycin drip.
There is a lovely backspin in silence.
I had brought an old copy of "Ulysses," James Joyce's masterpiece
that takes place in the back streets of Dublin on June 16, 1904. I
wanted to read it cover to cover. I have been dipping into the novel
for many years, reading the accessible parts, plundering the icing on
the cake, but in truth I had never read it all in one flow.
The messy layers of human experience get pulled together, and sometimes ordered, by words.
Soon my grandfather was emerging from the novel. The further I went
in, the more complex he got. The man whom I had met only once was
becoming flesh and blood through the pages of a fiction. After all, he
had walked the very same streets of Dublin, on the same day as Leopold
Bloom. I began to see my grandfather outside Dlugacz's butcher shop,
his hat cocked sideways, watching the moving "hams" of a young girl. I
wondered if he had a penchant for "the inner organs of beasts and
fowls." I heard him arguing with the Citizen in Barney Kiernan's pub. I
felt him mourn the loss of a child.
He walked the city alongside Bloom, then turned the corner into
Eccles Street, and then another corner into my hospital room and sat on
the edge of my bed. I could smell the whiskey and cigarettes on his
The book carried me through to the far side of my body, made me
alive in another time. I was 10 years old again, but this time I knew
my grandfather, and it was a moment of gain: he was so much more than a
Vladimir Nabokov once said that the purpose of storytelling is "to
portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly
mirrors of future times; to find in the objects around us the fragrant
tenderness that only posterity will discern and appreciate in far-off
times when every trifle of our plain everyday life will become
exquisite and festive in its own right: the times when a man who might
put on the most ordinary jacket of today will be dressed up for an
This is the function of books -- we learn how to live even if we
weren't there. Fiction gives us access to a very real history. Stories
are the best democracy we have. We are allowed to become the other we
never dreamed we could be.
Today is Bloomsday, the 105th anniversary of the events of the
novel. All over the world Joyce fans will gather to celebrate the
extraordinary tale of an ordinary day. There will be Bloomsday
breakfasts, and Bloomsday love affairs, and Bloomsday arguments and,
indeed, Bloomsday grandfathers hoisting their sons, and their sons of
sons, onto the shoulders of never-ending stories.
As for me, with a clean bill of health now, I finally know where my
grandfather is buried -- happily between the covers of a book, where he
sits, smoking and drinking still.
Colum McCann is the author of the forthcoming novel "Let the Great World Spin."