Toasting Helen

Creative Nonfiction
Mark Liebenow

Photo Credit: William Clifford/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Four of us slide into a booth at Ulrich’s Rebellion Room late on Friday afternoon. We haven’t been together in a while, but our friend Helen died this week. In the pall of death’s aftershock, we gather to reassure each other, make sense of what has happened, and drink.

Ulrich’s is a dark, wooden Irish pub in Peoria that serves imports and microbrews. On the walls there are posters for Guinness, Bushmills, Jamison whiskey, a framed photo of John F. Kennedy, and the front page of The Irish Times from 1916. Today is also Good Friday, the day when the hope of the first Christians died on another Friday afternoon, and Jesus’ followers scattered in fear and despair.

It’s a fitting place to remember Helen because she had Irish connections, and she’d appreciate the timeliness of dying during Holy Week when death and sorrow would soon be replaced by the rising on Easter. She liked being on time. She also liked work done right, and would tell you if you weren’t doing it the way she wanted, even at church where idealism often debates practicality to a standstill. For two years, she battled a rare blood disease, and we thought she was getting better, then pneumonia set in, and she was gone. During her last days, when doubts about heaven surfaced, she held on to her faith in faith. We raise a glass in her: Not lost, just gone on before us.

We talk about frustrations with our jobs, the paperwork that takes us away from teaching, and grouse about having to work so hard to build our programs up when we know they’ll fall apart when we leave. We do not share where our lives have broken. We do not mention the unsettling shadows that move through our hearts, nor speak of the doubts that erode the edges of our confidence. We do not push each other to say more, but we listen for the misplaced word to catch a glimpse of the turmoil underneath so we can offer encouragement. We raise a glass to each other.

We draw back, being men, having touched our emotions was enough, and go to refill our plates with happy hour’s fried finger food—mozzarella sticks, onion rings, cheese fries. Back at the table, I stare into my Smithwick Ale and wonder how I will react when I am dying. Will I have accomplished everything I set out to do? Will I be satisfied that I did enough to help others who were struggling? I started out life excited by endless possibilities, but now believe there are few truths that haven’t been compromised. Battle-weary, we limp towards death, tired of holding the status quo together, and wanting to do one last thing that is memorable.

The late afternoon sun shines through the skylight and lights up the stained-glass window hanging below it that has a cross. From an old Irish church, I guess. Light salvaged from the ruins. The only light we ever truly see comes through the darkness of our struggles.

A century ago was the Easter Rising when Catholics and Protestants, the Irish and the English, fought each other for control of Ireland. That’s what’s on the newspaper on the wall. Neither the Rising nor the crucifixion were comforting when they happened, although we romanticize them now. What we see is the nobility of a cause and ignore the sacrifice and death. We no longer feel the sear of their sorrow, or their dreams being torn apart. But there was courage and torture. There was crucifixion and execution. And there was blood in the streets and on front porches. It was moving past words flush with pride, and putting your body on the line to right a wrong as you tried to protect your people. It was standing up for honesty and freedom, and renewing the flames of hope by doing something, although even around this table we wouldn’t agree on how to wage the fight.

Battles once fought, return to be fought again. Brokered truces unravel. Each generation forgets the past, and repeats the struggles. We rearrange our memories to divide people into us and them, leaving little space in between to discuss conflicting visions and find a way through together.

Grandparents stir the embers of injustices done decades ago with nostalgia for a past that they didn’t think was so great then. Parents smudge the soot of ancient prejudices on the foreheads of their children, although they no longer remember why. We try to honor what is praiseworthy in our heritage and ignore the unsavory, but pride in our clan’s mythology is strong, and we often follow the old ways so we don’t upset the family.

In the tired faces of people hunched over at the bar, I see the need to believe that there is more than a cold beer at the end of a long week. We want to know that despite our differences, there is enough compassion in each of us to find common ground.

The Irish poet Yeats wrote of that day in Ireland and the other day that a “terrible beauty” had been born out of sacrifice and death. Heaven had its part to do, he wrote, and so do we. I raise a glass to this.


Mark Liebenow writes about nature, grief, and the wisdom of fools. The author of four books, his essays, poems, and critical reviews have been published in numerous literary journals. He has won the River Teeth Nonfiction Book Award, and the Chautauqua and Literal Latte’s essay prizes. His work has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes and named a notable by Best American Essays. He studied creative nonfiction at Bradley University. Email: muirman1[at]

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