In our house, there was only one voice, my mother’s, and it was the loudest sound. It was louder than the dishes she hurled at the wall on Thanksgiving when my father and I inquired which one of the breaded cutlets was veal because we were too hungry to play detective. Her voice grew even louder when we knelt down to collect the broken pieces as she dumped our still-warm dinner in the garbage.

There were punishments for not playing her games, and they were severe. When everything was closed and there was nothing to eat, we’d come to learn that her silences were deafening, too. That day she locked herself in her bedroom and watched her “stories” — soap operas centered in fictitious seaside towns, where everyone was hatching, or falling prey to, a sordid intrigue — on the highest volume the television set would allow.

At 7-Eleven, we feasted on hot dogs and phosphorescent slushies, talking about the woman we used to know — a woman with flawed grammar, a taste for piña coladas, and a penchant for cartoonish layers of foundation. Yet, she made us whole with the ferocity of her love. We basked in the minor moments when she doled out affection like sweets; they made the rest of it easier to bear. Maybe it was the sheer magnitude of enduring a woman who will always be my first and only hurt, a woman who loved her drugs more than she loved me, or perhaps it was the fact that we passed our Thanksgiving in a parking lot, but I told my father — who wasn’t my real father but a man my mother tricked into our lives — that this is all I have.

I envied my father this big, sweeping love, while I came from broken things.

I ached for the dysfunctional families I saw on sitcom television, with their tables festooned with food and laughter and light. My father closed his eyes, gripped the steering wheel, and said he had all that back home, in Ireland. Seven brothers and one sister and a home in Whitehall where they slept in two rooms and were thick as thieves.

Back then, I didn’t know that the man who emigrated from Dublin would remain in my life for the next 25 years. Although he was the last vestige of a painful childhood, he would become the man I’d call my father and my very best friend. I didn’t know he would give me what I never thought possible — a family.


There’s so much beauty here, but we never see it because we drive by beauty every day and we take it for granted. So goes the exchange between my father and a cab driver at 4:30 in the morning. They’re reacting to my look of awe as we drive through the outskirts of Dublin to the city center.

More than two decades have passed since my father and I spent Thanksgiving in a convenience store parking lot, and now we pass doors painted in primary colors and old men stuffing daffodils into buckets in preparation for the morning market rush. Trees tower, their limbs spindly and their branches pregnant with spring bloom. Our hair is gray and our bodies creak in the pre-dawn hours, and while we are no longer young, we are wiser, our eyes are wider.


After months of persistent badgering (show me your home, your parents’ graves, and where you grew up), a call on Christmas Eve that had me predicting our imminent doom (we could die before we’d see your brothers again; we’re not getting any younger), a day’s delay due to a plane with mechanical failure, and a combined total of seven hours’ sleep in two days, my father and I are finally in Dublin and I’ve taken nothing for granted. I see this beauty; I’ve taught myself to see it in the smallest of moments and grandest of gestures.

The storybook opening to a holiday spent between father and daughter turned into a photograph we wanted to shed because our first morning in Dublin was a decidedly rocky one, so much so that we fought at breakfast, walked in silence, and traded barbs in the rain on Grafton Street. Exhausted, we knew we had to stay awake all day, and perhaps the flight and lack of sleep made us all too vulnerable to act on our insecurities — my father and his limping gait from an illness he refuses to have diagnosed; me and my distaste at traveling with a companion and having to plan, coordinate, and appease.

While I love my father beyond measure, he sometimes plays the martyr card. In response, I play the patronizing parent. On our first morning in Ireland, we were at our most gruesome. I had to take a step back, breathe, and remind him that we were here, in Dublin, together. This is our time, I said. We can choose to ruin it or we can choose to make it an adventure. So, after a morning spent on Grafton Street, we decided to retreat to our respective corners, white flags sheepishly waving.

After the storm had passed and the rains receded, we reunited to visit his brother, Jerome. We drove to the outskirts of Dublin to a small home outfitted with all the wooden furniture Jerome had built when he was a carpenter in a previous life. He built the pope’s chair, my father often gushes, proud of his big brother and the life he has built himself with his own two hands. I envy him this lineage, this love of one’s kind.

When we arrived, I was momentarily frightened of how Jerome would receive me — a half-Irish Moorish daughter not of their bloodline — but his embrace was deliverance. Standing outside, my body folded into his, Jerome whispered, My little brother’s driving you crazy, am I right? He has a way about him. I laughed and said that I was driving my father a little crazy, too. We stepped inside and I felt the effulgent light, the kiss of it, the ache of it, the warmth of it, and as I ran my palm along the banister I wanted to feel a splinter because I wanted something of this place to remain in me.

Is it worth it, this life lived and the people loved, if there’s no one to carry the memories of you on their shoulders?

Jerome’s wife, Norah, rushed in with the grandchildren and their books and requests to watch the telly and the chubby King Charles spaniel. In the solarium, we indulged in endless rounds of pressed coffee bleached white with the local cream, biscuits, and teacakes slathered in honey. My father beamed in the presence of his beloved brother, who had just turned 70. They caught up on the local gossip and neighbors who had aged gracefully or passed quietly, traded stories of men they used to be, and stared at a photo of their mother, who would have been a century old in March. For the remainder of the day, our voices rose above the din, and our laughter — interspersed with a bark that begged for a cake slipped under the table — was the loudest sound. A steady stream of family members wove in and out of the house like spools of thread. There was talk of a trip to Canada and a minor huff over the increase in city taxes.

The cakes from the market, everyone agreed, weren’t like they used to be.

This is what it’s like to be in a family of seven brothers. This is what it’s like to see three generations of a clan in one postmark of a home. This is what it’s like to be in a home. I envied my father this big, sweeping love, while I came from broken things. Shards of shattered plates that only reflected what we lacked and coveted.

My mother — even to this day as she raises another daughter in another home — values money over character, believes that opportunity is the manipulation and betrayal of an easy mark, even if that mark is of your kind. Sometimes it feels as if I’ve been birthed from ether or air because I have nothing behind me, and no plans to leave any children behind.

It occurred to me in that solarium that I’m the last of my kind. This thought broke my jet-lagged heart, killed me in ways you couldn’t imagine. Is it worth it, this life lived and the people loved, if there’s no one to carry the memories of you on their shoulders? Is this why I write, so people know that I existed, that I had a voice and a heart large enough to fit the whole of the world in it? Do we need a family simply for the promise of Please remember me. Please remember the shape of my face, the curl of my hair, the weight of my footfall, the pies I bake, the stories I write, the ’90s songs I sing loudly, proudly, off-key.

Jerome and Norah drove us back to our hotel, and we made plans to round up the rest of the brothers, wives, and children for a reunion at the home where they grew up. I pulled Norah close when I climbed out of the car and she said, We have a writer in the family. There was a moment where my heart might have stopped because it felt good not to be a guest, but to be considered, but to be included, but to be called family. The familial obligations that so many take for granted, I finally have trespass to birthdays and anniversaries and holidays.

Over dinner, my father asked me why I was quiet. I reminded him of the morning, of how he had all this beauty around him that he couldn’t even see. He poked at his stew and nodded. Then he lifted his eyes, met mine, and said, But this is all yours, too.

While the name “Sullivan” will end with me, my family — the Cluskeys — will live on.


This essay originally appeared in the now-defunct Anthology magazine in 2014 — a year before my mother passed away and a few years before I would stop speaking with my father.