The massive earthquake in Alaska last week prompted me to email a mate of mine living in Anchorage. Everyone is fine. And apart from some bits of broken glass, the damage is minimal. For them. Others were not so lucky. They updated me on what’s been happening, most notably the death of an old friend I’d lost touch with. With the news came a link to Eileen’s obituary.
Quite a number of lifetimes ago, I worked with Eileen on the first Irish Music Festival in Alaska – it was in Anchorage in the late mid-90s. I can’t remember if it was called the Anchorage Irish Music Festival or the Alaskan Irish Music Festival but I can still see the posters she laboured over and I’m sure I have my signed copy tucked away somewhere. I have vague memories of chatting to potential donors trying to persuade them to sponsor this fledgling venture. One particular night that comes to mind involved a prominent Anchorage lawyer who had worked his way through university giving dance classes. He made me look like I knew what I was doing on the dance floor of a basement city jazz club. My date, Tom Kruse, sat and watched, wondering how I kept this particular talent such a secret. I even impressed myself! Eileen’s knowledge of traditional Irish music and musicians put mine to shame. I remember her getting really excited when Martin Hayes and Denis Cahill said they’d come and play. Seán Keane’s confirmation also set her heart racing. [Interestingly, I see that he has an album out titled Gratitude.] I wasn’t into the music at all, but have distinct memories of being blown away by some of the fiddle playing.
Eileen didn’t drink but she wasn’t fussed at being around people who did. She’d prop herself up at the bar, fan awaving, and hold court. At the heart of everything, she seemed to know everyone in town and everyone knew her. With her bottomless pit of energy, she would regularly leave me lagging, and this was when I was in my heyday. She could talk anyone into just about anything. I once ended up cooking Irish stew for a visiting accordian player and his entourage at very short notice. I have distinct memories of practising saying no to her 🙂 A consummate conversationalist, Eileen was always talking, which is why it was so heart-breaking to read that she hadn’t said a word for the last five years of her life.
Diagnosed with both Frontotemporal Degeneration (FTD) and Primary Progressive Aphasia (PPA), Eileen’s wit was a victim of this dual pairing of very nasty afflictions. She couldn’t communicate, or show emotion. And for someone who was once a master in communication at all levels – emotionally, verbally, and musically – this had to have been beyond bad. I’ve thought of her often over the years. I’ve mentioned her, too, in various anecdotes I’ve told from my time in Alaska. I was sad to hear of her passing but know that heaven has itself a new MC and that the party has only started.
To read the obituary her kids put together says so much about her as a person, a friend, a mother. What great tribute could they pay.
She was a connector of people, a serial partier, and hosted some of the most memorable proms in Anchorage history. Eileen was known for loving a good céilí and if there wasn’t one happening, she would host one. If you were her friend, she was the best kind of friend. When she heard of a need, she helped fulfill it. When she loved, it was unconditional. She was the best kind of mother, friend, and human. The light she brought to the world can never be replaced and will never be extinguished. She illuminated us all and we are grateful for the time we had with her.
I am grateful, too, for the time I had with her. That couple of years I spent in Anchorage have stayed with me. Eileen and her indomitable spirit are very much part of those memories.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h’anam.