As soon as Labor Day weekend hit, my wife Heather packed up her suitcase, hit the road and headed for Wyoming.
Gee. I didn’t think my puns were that bad.
No fear. This was a trip 25 years in the making. Once upon a time in high school, Heather and her grandma had gone off together to visit Devils Tower. Unfortunately, visit it was all they managed to do; the weather had been so foggy they could barely see the famous monument.
Someday, they promised each other, they were going back. And one day, after my own grandma died, Heather realized that a lot of “somedays” had passed.
The time would be now. Lest it become never.
Kilkellys can be like that.
Kilkelly, Ireland, eighteen-and-sixty,
My dear and loving son John,
Your good friend the schoolmaster Pat McNamara’s
So good as to write these words down …
— Peter and Steven Jones
“Kilkelly, Ireland” is one of those quiet songs that still makes me swallow hard when I encounter it unexpectedly. It describes a series of letters between an Irishman and his son John in America, drawn out over 30 years. The letters are never harsh, always loving and full of the family news of the day: the latest children, which relatives are doing well or getting in trouble, how the crops in Ireland are going from bad to worse.
And almost always, there’s a wish in closing that John might find a way to come home again.
Years pass. Then decades. And one day, John is the age that his father was when they parted, now with his children grown and thinking he might finally come for a visit at last.
And then the next letter arrives.
Kilkelly, Ireland, eighteen-and-ninety-two,
My dear brother John,
I’m sorry I didn’t write sooner to tell you,
That father passed on ….
Ever since the first time I heard that song, I’ve referred to “Kilkelly moments.” Times where you realize there is only so much time, that promises don’t keep forever, that the passing world can undo the best of intentions.
That chances with those you love should be grabbed while they can.
Heather and her grandma saw that moment. And they grabbed it. The result was a weekend road trip with all the fun and chaos that implies, including crazy drivers, fatigue-driven giggles and a lost-and-found wallet.
And yes, they finally saw Devils Tower.
“Now I understand why so many Indians thought it was sacred,” Heather’s grandma said as they got close.
Funny enough, I understand something as well. A facet of the song that eluded me for years.
Namely, that there’s two sides to a Kilkelly moment.
Even while overseas, John remained close to his father. He sent pictures, he sent news, he even sent money from time to time. And when time finally ran out, it was John who had been at the front of his father’s thoughts all along.
And it’s funny the way he kept talking about you,
He called for you at the end.
Oh, why don’t you think about coming to visit?
We’d all love to see you again.
With an ocean between them, John and his father had still “visited” each other for 30 years. Enough to keep the bond close, even if it wasn’t enough to keep the last promise.
With Devils Tower still a memory in the fog, Heather and her grandma stayed close. There have been visits and songs and memories in plenty over the last 25 years, including the 16 or so that have passed since I came into the picture.
Even if the second trip to Wyoming had never happened, that bond would still have been there.
It is important to seize the Kilkelly moments before they pass. But it’s also important to remember how many moments there have been in between. How much of a life and a love has grown up.
That’s what gives a Kilkelly its poignancy. We want to keep every promise we make to those we care for, however impossible it might prove to be. But it’s that love those promises grow in that is the greatest treasure of all.
Remember the promises. Honor them when you can. But remember also why they became important in the first place.
That’s a meaning that even time can’t take away.
And a greater monument than even Wyoming can offer.