Sunday, April 02, 2006

A Book of Life

This weekend, I finished reading Pull Me Up, a memoir by New York Times journalist Dan Barry. I feel as though I have completed a deluxe guided tour, not just of my childhood but also of large, painful segments of my adult life.

The parallels in our personal histories are plentiful. Barry is the eldest of four Irish-American children, two brothers and two sisters, as am I. He grew up in 1960’s Long Island, New York, and is intimately acquainted with Bugs Bunny, old black-and-white “B” movies, and the lyrics of Clancy Brothers songs, also areas of my expertise.

We both share great familiarity with the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR). At Jamaica, Queens, the central hub of the LIRR, where commuter lines converged to change trains for the long reach to the eastern edges of the Island, the conductor’s disembodied voice would ring out over the loudspeaker:

“Attention please, the Ronkonkhoma train, Track 17, stopping at Garden City…Carl Place…Hicksville…Bethpage…Farmingdale…Wyandanch…Deer Park…and Ronkonkhoma. Ronkonkhoma train, Track 17.”

My home stop was Bethpage. Dan Barry lived in Deer Park. In my first summer job, I rode the same Ronkonkhoma train as his father. Who knows, we may have shared the same car.

One of Barry’s boyhood friends, Brian McShane, makes an appearance in the pages, and is mentioned in the Acknowledgements at the book’s conclusion. Could this be the same Brian McShane, friend to my sister and her husband, who sang Clancy Brothers songs with me at my father’s Irish wake? As I recall, Peg told me that she attended Brian's brother Terry McShane’s funeral at Sts. Cyril and Methodius Church in Deer Park. In Pull Me Up, that was Dan Barry’s family church. Methinks indeed yes, ‘tis one and the same McShane clan.

These are but minor similarities compared to events yet to unfold in Barry’s story. Like me, Dan Barry has both suffered a loss to and won a triumph over the beast of cancer. His mother died at home of cancer. Then Barry himself battled the cancer beast and beat it into retreat a few years ago.

I watched my husband Pete vanquish his first cancer in 1994. We then began our dozen “Bonus Years,” which ended when Pete lost his second battle this past January. At home, on morphine, a shell of his former self, just like poor Mrs. Barry. It was during Pete's last days that I received this book, a gift from aforementioned sister Peg, when she and my brothers flew in together from the East coast to bid Pete goodbye.

The poetry and brilliance of Barry’s prose in Pull Me Up is at times breathtaking in its beauty. I found myself stopping to re-read several passages, simply because they are so powerful. Barry deftly captures the flavor of his times, the vulnerability of youth, the fragility of existence, and the persistence of hope. If you’ve ever had to suffer alongside an ill parent or spouse, if you've ever felt disappointed in the present and frightened of the future, Barry’s book will resonate deeply within you.

So even if you’ve never been to Long Island or heard of the Clancy Brothers, Pull Me Up is a story you’ll find easy to savor. It is a golden tale of universal human emotion and experiences, wondrously told.