Respite from Reality
Michaela Brady
Michaela Brady • Nov 23

Respite from Reality

by Michaela Brady

This is a profile piece on my father. Born and raised in Drogheda, Ireland, he emigrated to the United States in 1992 and joined his sister, who had emigrated to NYC a few years before. I was born two years later; in many ways, I believe my father and I grew and learned together throughout my life. Since 2009, he has worked as a general contractor in Manhattan, renovating apartments and often bringing me on the job. To clear his mind, he goes on long, sprawling walks through the nature preserves and parks.

With a subtle squelch, shards of broken glass, rubber bands, seashells, and unidentified debris are buried beneath a rubber sole. The action repeats, boots trudging through the dampness of dawn. Disillusioned and industrialised as the Bronx may be, nature finds a way to hang on, even if it must revert to clinging onto the edge of the coast. Erosion from Hurricane Sandy and other major storms has raised concerns as history, ecosystems, and resources sink beneath the water. None of this phases the next boot that sinks into the mud, or its successor, stalking the beach at low tide. Where there is loss, there is also opportunity, and this is exactly what he’s searching for.

To his left rests a shell midden: an exposed part of the coastline with layers upon layers of debris from centuries before. Erosion is both a cause for concern and celebration if you know how to look. He peers into the chunks of land, speckled with relics and the scars of ecological disturbance, searching. Any of those stone flakes poking their heads to the sunrise could be an arrowhead. All he needs to spot is the slight shine of worked stone.

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Behind his arched back, Manhattan’s spires twinkle in the swelling daylight. They call to him, “see you Monday.”

***

I turn to my right, nine floors above the street. An unremarkable cascade of windows faces my own. A grid of offices in the lopsided grid of a city—this is where I have agreed to spend the majority of my time. My impression of London is as colourful as the graphics on a Time Out article, with a constant dragging force draining its vibrancy. If I gaze for too long, I might be tempted by the ground below, temper my gloom with the beaming sky above, and wish for a chance to fly away. 

Turning back to my laptop screen, I confront a pair of policy report documents littered with Track Changes, each for a different subject, each reprimanding me for daydreaming. The remaining three hours of the workday involve periods of hunching forward, scrolling, adding more articles and sources to the pile of tabs on Google Chrome, and a creeping sense of futility. Absorbed in the world of remunerated stress, I can’t shake the sense that I am living someone else’s life; the real me is outside, wearing each day as a new coat, rising above the din of urban life. Homesickness, stress, entrapment, and exhaustion are foreign to that woman.

The sun has descended, shrouding Bishopsgate in lavender-pink. All my romanticism of this moment stems from how much happier I would feel in NYC, near my father, near my home.

***

A pixelated panorama flickers to life: a field in Loughcrew, Ireland, the camera’s viewfinder, shaking with the wind. The audio consists of a man insisting he can fly away like Peter Pan, as the camera lingers on the panorama of greying hills at dusk. 

“Noo Daddy!!” moans an offscreen three-year-old, “you can’t fly!” 

“No, but I think I can! I can just fly right now. Goodbye!”

The three-year-old repeats herself, insistent. Of all the things she believes are possible, flying just isn’t something humans should do. This especially applies to her father.

When back in Connecticut, my father would often state, either in anger or determination, that this was his last year in America.  He’d move back to Ireland, he’d find a way out somehow, and I didn’t doubt that. I recall one moment where he swore he would be gone by Christmas. Fortunately, that was sixteen years ago. Still, the threat loomed in the air as I departed for college: he was bound to my mother, his work, and his daily “pickings” for arrowheads in several parks and ploughed fields across New York and Connecticut. I was so sure he’d go “home when the drove is done.” Of course, when I was old enough, even he pointed out the irony in those lyrics: the drove is never done; you just promise yourself you’ll be Home as a way to look forward to what may never be. 

***

He stands, glances briefly back at Manhattan, his sprawling office of wealthy apartment-dwellers, of buildings, rising and falling like the waves beneath his feet. Dread briefly tightens his chest but passes with the breeze. While scanning the terrain for artefacts, he subconsciously strains to catch a spirit, an archaic presence he knows exists. It is the hope that, even in the Bronx, peace and a landmark of America’s native peoples will be uncovered and appreciated, unlike all the waste that passes through NYC’s complacent, modern streets. The call, the Yeats excerpt, churns in his head as he bends down once again:

I went down to the hazelwood

Because a fire was in my head.

This excerpt has always been his and my justification for yearning for escape any time reality becomes a pressure cooker. He began his sojourn to the U.S. with all the knowledge of a graphic design student crammed into and an enormous, brown-leather portfolio folder. He found solace and freedom in drawing or visual art in general. In many ways he still does, evidenced by the Celtic knots doodled on timber receipts and architects’ blueprints. 

Whenever I’m back in the US, I flip through his old sketchbook. Disappointment and pride colour my tears as I arrive at the final drawing: me, at one year old.

***

Guinness in hand, Peter to the left, and Mom to the right, my father reclines on a black-cushioned barstool in the cobblestoned Dublin streets. Eight-thirty pm on a mid-July day, the sun is at a 45-degree angle in the sky, bathing the striving artists and mad tourists in a timeless halo. Somehow, while deciding what our dinner plans are, the discussion moves on to the topic of his and Peter’s construction jobs when they first arrived in NYC. Working in asbestos removal, boiler rooms, and innumerable dilapidated buildings is difficult; working in these environments for bi-annual payments, under abusive site supervisors, is enough to break a man.

Indeed, he sounds exhausted as he explains how that line of work while supporting a family, caused his capacity for mental escape to wane with each coming year. The fire in his head only grew, he remarks, as the sunlight disappears behind the Powerscourt building. He insists, “I’m not an angry person, or at least I wasn’t until that job. I was never so easily frustrated until then.” Turning to me, he repeats a mantra I’ve heard since those walks in Loughcrew: “if you can, write that novel, publish that poetry book, make a film, do something so you can live as your own person. Nothing is worse than being kept from choosing life, over work.”

Even in the most stressful circumstances, he manages to find moments of respite. The light that glimmers in his stare whenever he reminisces about his breaks during midnight construction shifts is clearer than the sunset. He would stand in an empty, disused church, allow the solitude to envelop him, admire the petrified faces immortalized in stained glass. Eventually, he made his way to the roof, where he would remain, observing life beneath the New York City skyline. More recently, whenever he shows me an arrowhead he picked up or a picture of the sunset over the water at whatever location he ended up that day, I see that same enthusiasm for the beauty experienced in solitude. These are physical products of escape; they prove the outings are indisputably beneficial to his spirit, that for all the toil of walking and the danger he puts himself in on occasion—like bolting out of the house in the advent of a thunderstorm or getting lost deep in the woods—something gorgeous, that belongs to him, is in his hand. Something about the silence, of attaining a moment of freedom, is ineffable.

***

A discovery is made; all the shock, frustration, and exhaustion squirm away like the capsized horseshoe crabs he just rescued. A tiny blade protrudes from the muck. Mouth agape, nearly choking with delight, he fumbles for the camera in awe of the treasure he might have unearthed. After admiring the arrowhead—a white bifurcated orient fishtail, approximately 2,000 years old, with a small chip in the tail but otherwise intact—he finds his voice again and calls my mom, letting her know he’ll be home in time for dinner. Bearing the knowledge that he alone is the first person to touch it in millennia, he stuffs the luminous tip in his jacket pocket and continues on. After picking up the third “beauty” of the day, he sighs, ready to return to the highway.

WhatsApp’s ping pierces the air. Three images stack on top of one another, each of an arrowhead resting on his cracked, square palm. I stare at the screen with a smile, then turn to the downpour attacking my apartment’s windows. No way I can go for a walk tonight. I’m still in London, he’s still in NYC. Neither of us is free, and maybe neither of us will know what to do once we are. He walks the beaches and collects talismans, I add sporadic details to a novel; we dream of a day when our feet are so happily planted that we don’t need to fly away. 

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Michaela Brady
Michaela Brady

Michaela Brady lives in Oxford, UK. When not immersed in research for her public policy job, or copyediting Bright articles, she has an unshakeable need to write in her free time. An NYC native, she studied creative writing, media history and social psychology at Sarah Lawrence College. She then completed a master’s degree in Social Science of the Internet at Oxford University in 2018, where she focused on cyberbullying and mental illness online. She has been published in Psychology Today Magazine, Airplane Reading, 101 Words, The Oxford Review of Books, The Story Seed, was shortlisted for the Benjamin Franklin House 2019 Literary Prize, and won first place in the Nature 2020-21 literary competition for the blog, “Tales for the Ones in Love”.

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