Sunflowers

by Jean Valentine

Sligo, February 1996

In August 1994, my husband, Barrie, a long-standing friend of the Heaneys, had a heart attack in St. Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin. When I called the Heaneys, Marie’s immediate response was characteristic of herself and of the whole family: come stay here.

Seamus was at the hospital almost every day to see Barrie—and those were days that included, first, a trip for Marie and himself to Denmark and then the first heady days of the IRA ceasefire. I don’t even know what else went on in those weeks, but Seamus lit up and sustained Barrie’s travails day by day. And it was in those days too that I first needed, and felt, his friendship for me, not me-the-wife-of-Barrie.

One night, when Seamus was still there at the end of visiting hours, he went round to the men and boys in the other five beds and said good night. After we’d left, one of the men, a farmer from Clare, asked Barrie, Who is that guy? I know I know him from somewhere. Outside the intensive care unit after Barrie’s surgery, the nurse said, Are you family? His brother, said Seamus, and strode in. Later, back in the waiting room, he said he was going for a coffee, and I looked and saw he was white as chalk—I hadn’t noticed till that morning how hard the hospital was on Seamus.

No matter what time I came and went in the Heaney household, someone was always there, and the same at Felim Egan’s, where I stayed about half the time. One night at Felim’s house, when everything got to me and I was exhausted and crying, a friend called Seamus, and he was there in about ten minutes to give me a hug.

In those same weeks Dorothy Walker had a very sick daughter; at the opening of Barrie’s show in September, I was standing talking with Dorothy, and Seamus came over and hugged us both. The best hugger in the world, said Dorothy, and Seamus said, with the Heaney grin, I know my limitations.

He often calls our family on Christmas Day, and that year Seamus said to Barrie, being with you when you were sick was the high point of my year. You were so brave and stylish. So I recognized these two old friends in this verse of Miroslav Holub’s poem when I saw it in Seamus’s essay, “Joy or Night”:

After the third operation, his heart pierced
like an old carnival target,
he woke in his bed and said, “Now I’ll be fine,
like a sunflower, and by the way
have you ever seen horses make love?”

Published on September 15, 2021

First published in Harvard Review 10, in homage to Seamus Heaney.

2021-09-15T12:03:51-04:00