Let’s call him Ian. That’s not his real name—but in Northern Ireland these days you have to be careful about revealing names. There have been more than twenty-four hundred sectarian murders since the recent flare-up of ancient troubles between Catholics and Protestants. So there’s no sense taking risks.
And Ian has had misery enough for his twenty-four years of life.
He came from good Protestant stock, the sort that goes to church twice every Sunday as regular as clockwork. His father, a welder in the Belfast shipyards, steady as they come. Mother kept a clean and tidy house, baked the best bread in the neighborhood and ruled the family with the sharp edge of her tongue. Two elder brothers, both unemployed laborers.
Ian did well at school and was now earning good money as a craftsman in a production plant. Quiet, serious, fond of walking through the countryside during the green evenings and golden weekends of summer, he liked few things better than a book by the roaring fire during the long loneliness of winter. Never had much to do with girlfriends—though men tend to marry late in Ireland.
Two years ago, on his twenty-second birthday, he was walking home from work when a
terrorist hurled a bomb from a speeding car … and left Ian babbling in the nightmare of sudden blindness.
He was rushed to a hospital, operated on immediately for internal injuries and broken bones. But both eyes were destroyed.
The other wounds healed in their own time, though their scars would disfigure his flesh the rest of his days. But the scars on his mind, though invisible, were even more obvious.
He hardly spoke a word, hardly ate or drank, hardly slept. He simply lay in bed, brooding and sightless. Nearly four months.
There was one nurse who seemed to be able to draw some small spark of human response from him. Let’s call her Bridget—a fine Irish name. Good Catholic stock, the sort that goes to Mass first thing every Sunday morning.
Her father, a carpenter, mostly worked away from home over in England. A decent
man—loved his family, spent weekends with them whenever he could afford the fare.
And they loved him as only an absent father can be loved.
Mother kept a clean but untidy house, cooked the best stew in the neighborhood and ruled the family with a quick hand and a soft heart.
Six brothers, four sisters—with the youngest of them all, Mary, eleven, her father’s darling.
Bridget did well at school, had trained as a nurse at a famous London hospital, and now, at the age of twenty-one, was a staff nurse in Belfast’s biggest hospital.
Lively, though fundamentally serious, a singer with a sweet and gentle voice and a way of her own with folk songs. Never had much to do with boyfriends—though it wasn’t from any lack of young men who’d set their caps at her.
But now her heart was moved by Ian, for there was something of the little-boy-lost about him that brought tears to her eyes. True, he couldn’t see the tears, yet she was afraid that her voice would betray her emotions.
But in a way she was right about her voice, because it was the lilt and the laughter of it that dragged him back from the depths of depression and self-pity, the warmth and gentleness and strength of her words, the blessed assurance with which she spoke to him of the love of Jesus Christ.
And so, as the long dark of his days turned to weeks and months, he would listen for her footsteps and turn his sightless face toward her coming like a flower bending for the sun.
At the end of his four months in the hospital he was pronounced incurably blind, but what he now knew as their love gave him the courage to accept his affliction. Because, despite everything against them—religion, politics, the opposition of their families—they were in love and wandering in that young and singing landscape.
He was discharged and began the weary months of rehabilitation: how to wash and shave and dress without help, how to move around the house without cracking his shins on every chair, how to walk through the streets with a white stick, how to read Braille, how to survive the crushing pity he could sense in the very air he breathed. Their love gave him the hope to go on living and trying.
Not that they were able to spend much of their lives together: an occasional evening, perhaps an afternoon when her duties allowed. But they lived for those brief encounters and knew the beginnings of deep peace and joys.
Their families were appalled. Thinking of getting married? The very law of God forbade it, surely.
“What fellowship hath the children of light with the children of darkness?” thundered his father. “You’ll not be marrying her whilst I’m drawing breath!”
“The Roman Catholic Church,” stated her priest, “discourages mixed marriages, so you can be putting the idea from you!”
So, by all manner of pressures—constant arguments, threats, promises and even
downright lies—they were driven apart. And, eventually, they quarreled, said hurtful things in their black misery, and one evening, with the rain drizzling and their hearts cold, she walked away from him on the weeping street.
He withdrew into his perpetual night. Days and weeks of bitterness. “You’ll not be
regretting it in the long run,” he was told. “You’d have been inviting trouble by yoking with an unbeliever!”
|An Irish Love Story
She withdrew into her work, too sick at heart to remember. Weeks and months of
numbed agony. “You’ll live to praise the Almighty,” she was told. “You’d have been
asking for hell on earth marrying a Protestant!”
The months drained into a year. And the bombings continued, to the grief of Ireland.
Then one evening, as Ian sat alone in the house, there came a frantic hammering at the door. “Ian, come you quick!”
By the voice, hysterical, choked, with tears, he recognized young Mary, Bridget’s sister. “A bombing! She’s trapped and half-dead, so she is! Screaming after you. Come you, Ian! In the name of God, please come!”
Without even shutting the door behind him, he took her hand. And she led and stumbled and cried with him through the merciless streets. The bomb had devastated a little restaurant where Bridget had been eating supper with three other nurses. The others had managed to scramble out from under the shifting rubble. But she was trapped by the legs. And the fire was spreading, licking towards her.
They could hear her screaming, but couldn’t yet reach the pit where she lay.
Firemen, soldiers, lights and special equipment were on the way.
Ian moved into the chaos. “You can’t go in there!” shouted the official in charge.
“She’s my girl,” said Ian.
“Don’t be a raving lunatic!” shouted the officer. “You’ll not be seeing your hand in front of your face in the darkness!”
“What difference does darkness make to a blind man?” asked Ian.
And he turned toward the sound of her voice, and moved through that black inferno with all the skills and instincts of the blind, all the urgency of love. “I’m coming, Bridget! I’m coming!”
And he found her and cradled her head in his yearning arms, and kissed her.
“Ian,” she whispered, “Ian …” and lapsed into unconsciousness like a tired child.
And with her blood soaking into his clothes, the fire reaching them, he held her until their rescuers chopped a way through. What he didn’t see, being blind, was that the side of her lovely face had been seared by fire.
In time, a long time, she recovered. Despite cosmetic surgery, though, her face would always be scarred. “But,” she said, “the only man I love will never have the seeing of it, so what difference does it make to me?” And they took up their love from where they had never really left it.
True, both families fought it every step of the way. One dramatic confrontation almost led to a fistfight: shouted abuse, insults, desperate threats. But, in the middle of it, Bridget took Ian’s hand. And together they walked out of that place of hatred. Yes, they would marry. All the conventional wisdom warns of failure. But do you know a more excellent way than love? And what other healing is there?
– George Target