The Gift of Story
This article was originally published in Area of Effect magazine
Sometimes it can seem like moms are made for missing. Anyone who has ever lost their mom in the mall as a child knows this; so does anyone who’s lived through the death of their mother. While I’ve tearfully lived the former experience and it’s unlikely I’ll avoid the latter, The Song of the Sea reminds me of the hope I share with my mom in the power of stories of faith and faerie.
Come away, oh human child
to the waters and the wild
with a faerie hand in hand
for the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
The Song of the Sea tells the story of Ben, a young boy who must deal with the loss of his mother. Ben is the son of Conor, a soft-spoken lighthouse keeper, and the storytelling Bronagh. She paints stories of selkie and the giant Mac Lir on the nursery walls Ben will soon share with his sister. Bronagh is also a singer of songs and she introduces him to the song of the sea on their last night together, playing it on a seashell horn. Ben cherishes the horn and guards it jealously after Bronagh’s apparent death giving birth to Ben’s baby sister, Saoirse.
Bedtime was actually one of my favourite times growing up, or it’s a bright spot in my memory at least. I’m sure bedtime was far from idyllic, but I remember the stories and the songs—and I hope she does too. This nightly ritual of storytelling lasted through several Harry Potter books, and even though I could’ve read them myself they were something we enjoyed sharing. We visited enchanted lands, invented voices, and turned pages with anticipation. And whenever I was scared or sad, there was a song and a prayer. I can’t claim to understand a loss like Ben’s, but I do understand what I stand to lose in my mom and I’m thankful for the all bedtimes she’s faithfully presided over.
Bronagh’s unexpected disappearance from Ben’s life is traumatic and so he hoards mementos of his mother, mostly in a book where he draws her stories, but he also broods over how poor a substitute a mute sister is for his missing mom. Ben cocoons himself in memories and regards Saoirse with the unveiled hostility of a child. His grief robs Saoirse of the big brother Ben should be; the one Bronagh told Ben he would be. It ought not to be this way.
The thing about Bronagh’s faerie tales is that they’re true, and they’re a clear reminder to Ben of their time together. Quite understandably, Ben clings to these tales. He rehearses them in the faint hope of meeting his mother across the words and whispers, but he refuses to share them with his sister. When he does it’s only to frighten her, weaponizing his pain.
Hope is not far off, however, and the truth the true tales hold will carry Ben past grief and into a life that is fuller and brighter, in spite of what he’s lost. The power of stories isn’t bound to ink and pages, the voiceless wisps of faerie are at home in the city as on the wild coast. So, when Ben and Saoirse are banished to the city they aren’t cut off from the seaside magic of their mother, in fact, they’re thrust into a shared story: their mother’s story.
Ben and Saoirse’s adventure is essentially a journey home by bus, through reality and myth. So, far from the song of the sea, Ben is faced with a Saoirse overcome by sickness; she is slipping away. Ben steps up to face both his fear and bitterness, and he grows up and begins to love in equal measure. The stories of Bronagh, the faerie tales she tells Ben, give him the tools he needs to discover the truth, save Saoirse, and find closure. The stories are the interpretive lens through which Ben can rightly navigate the world—which is full of beauty and danger.
Bronagh gave Ben her stories: a way of looking at and living in the world. My mom never left for the sea, but she gave me a similar gift. She read to me, she sang to me, and she prayed with me. This combination of faith and story has been a lens of truth in my life, turning birds into friends and my enemies into future brothers and sisters, provided I pray for them.
The power of stories isn’t bound to ink and pages. Just as the wind of the Spirit blows where it wishes (John 8) so the wisps of faerie whisper to us of truths unseen, but hearing the stories comes before living the story. In a world more full of weeping than I can understand, my mom couldn’t have given me a better gift.