Shadows on Spring Street on a rainy Thanksgiving Day

When she spoke of Michael her eyes filled with tears. This great, loving woman would never be the same
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The Independent Culture
IT IS wet and windy in New York. The rain is of the kind that makes taxis disappear and brings the African umbrella salesmen to the doors of the Algonquin Hotel. The rain sweeping in from Long Island drenched the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade as it passed slowly down Manhattan. All those floats and clowns and football stars soaked by the autumn storm while the television announcers strained to sound cheerful.

I didn't go to the parade, but I saw the highlights on TV and I saw the sodden families in the hotel lobby. Looking at them, I felt tempted to hide indoors for the day, channel-hopping and reading, enjoying the rare pleasure of doing nothing much in a country that had come to a stop. But I had something to do, an appointment with memory down in the small streets near Little Italy.

Whenever I come to New York, I make a point of walking along Spring Street and stopping near the small park, near the intersection with Broadway, where I mumble a prayer to myself before wandering on through Little Italy and Chinatown and back up to midtown, my ritual complete.

I first walked Spring Street in 1980, eight years after Michael had died there in a late-night fire in his apartment. Michael Hassett. Uncle Michael. Mike. Our lost and laughing boy. My grandmother's favourite. The boy who would never be coming home.

The last photograph taken before his death shows a dark-haired, handsome young man smiling at the camera. He is 30 years old and a respected theatre director. America has been good to him. A graduate of Columbia University, he has begun to make a bit of a name for himself off Broadway. He loves the bohemian world of early Seventies Greenwich Village. A world of actors, playwrights, musicians and a great many talkers and dreamers.

He had come to the United States in the late Fifties, sailing out of Cobh Harbour like hundreds of thousands of Irish before him. But he was not fleeing poverty or persecution. Michael was the child of a relatively well-to-do middle-class Cork family. He could have stayed at home and found a job. No, Michael left because he was a romantic, a young man whose eyes had, from an early age, been fixed on a world beyond the little streets of Cork city.

When he came to New York, he found a job with General Electric and studied by night. The photographs of those years show a boyish, earnest face. His letters to my grandmother told, in matter-of-fact detail, how he was succeeding at work and college. They told about the people from every corner of the world he was meeting, about his growing interest in the theatre scene, and his ambition to become a director.

And then they began to tell of his relationship with a young woman called Janet and his plans to marry. The marriage went ahead but soon enough ran into trouble. They were children of vastly different worlds and families and, in the end, they divorced.

I do not know the details but I do remember meeting Janet at his funeral in Cork. She was a slight, dark-haired woman and I bored her senseless with endless questions about America.

My own memories of Michael are few. When I see him in my mind's eye, he is wearing a plaid shirt and blue denims and he is laughing. Always laughing. He came home on a visit once when I was about nine or 10. It was August and we were holidaying on the south-east coast, in the village where my grandfather was born.

Michael took me to the beach at Goat Island. I remember him hurling me into the waves. He meant it as a joke but I was terrified and howled miserably. I will never forget his solicitude and tenderness, running into the water to gather me into his arms and hugging me until my crying subsided. I remember, too, a night in Dublin when he came to visit us at the very end of that holiday. He had told my grandmother that he would be coming home for good the following year. There was a job at a theatre in Dublin and he was anxious to take it up. He had had enough of New York. There were some drinks and songs. Michael sang the Red River Valley in his rich, melodic voice: "Come and sit by my side if you love me, do not hasten to bid me adieu".

That night, we dropped him at the train station and I remember that the train was full of football supporters, returning to Cork after some big game. I felt worried for my uncle. The crowd was noisy and boisterous. I should not have worried. My last image of him is of the smiling face pressed against the window and his hand waving frantically as the train pulled away.

A year later, on a January night, I was sitting in my grandmother's front room when my uncle Barry arrived. To this day I can remember his exact words. "I have some bad news for ye," he said. Bad news.

Michael was dead. There had been a fire in his apartment and he had died trying to escape. I remember muffled cries from another room. The sound of a world collapsing. I knew that the voice was my grandmother's. Later, a doctor came with some injections and pills, and I heard the word "sedate" for the first time.

There was a funeral with the shiny steel coffin in which Michael's remains had been flown from America. I watched it all from behind the backs of the adults. Children are kept on the edge of such events. They are ushered quickly in and out of them. But they see more than the grown-ups know.

I could tell that my grandmother, a great anchor of my life, had been changed utterly by the loss of her son. I was living with her at the time, my parents having separated a few months before, and so I saw her pain every day. She struggled on with what I can now see was remarkable courage. With young children to look after, she pushed her own feelings into the background and made our lives as happy and secure as she could. But when she spoke of Michael, her eyes filled with tears. This laughing, loving, great woman would never be the same again.

One night, many years later, I was staying in my grandmother's house after going to a dance in the city. When I arrived home, well after midnight, I found my gran sitting up with Michael's photograph in her hands. I made some tea and sat with her. "Do you think there is a heaven, Ferg?" she asked. "Do you think I'll see him again, that we'll be together again?"

I spoke for a long time. They were reassuring words, words of belief that I was not very sure of myself but which the old woman needed so badly to hear. I don't know that she believed either. She told me that her own gift for hope had vanished on the night Michael died. And then she said something that I would never, could never, forget. "Always remember him. Even when you are much older, remember him. And if you have children, tell them about him. Because he was special."

And that is why, on a rainy Thanksgiving Day, 1998, I walked down Spring Street and whispered a prayer for Michael.

Fergal Keane is a BBC special correspondent