The potato crops were failing. My little sister and brother had already died from disease, and my parents were about to die. They told me to save myself. If I couldn’t live a good life in Ireland, Da said that I should go to America. He and Mama were on their death beds, just hours from losing consciousness forever. I sat on the rickety stool in our dank little shanty, holding onto Mama’s hand tightly as the life was slowly sucked out of her. She coughed an awful, wet hacking sound. She pressed a pair of coins into my hands. “I’ve been saving this for years. It’s just enough to buy you a ticket to America. Kay, you need to go. Get a better life for yourself. Get a job, maybe even go to school.” She was exhausted from talking, and closed her eyes and laid down her hand.
I tried to give the coppers back to Da. “I don’t want to take your money. I’ll stay. I use this to get you both a doctor. It’ll be fine, you’ll see. The crops will get better, this disease can’t last too long. You’ll both get better, and everything will be the same as before. You’ll see.”
He shook his head weakly, his red eyebrows standing out starkly on his forehead that was coated in a light sheen of sweat. His cheeks were sallow, his eyes sunken in. “Kay, you know that won’t happen. You won’t be able to get a doctor in a million years. We’ve already spent most of our money on the local healers. It isn’t enough, not this time. Stop being so stupidly optimistic. This will never end well.”
“But Da, there’s always a hope. It’ll be alright, I swear. I’ll make it okay.” I knew that he was right, in a way. But hope was all that I had now. I clung to the very small hope that they would live, the crops will survive, and somehow, the British that we occupying us would give us rights.
A fierce look of anger and desperation came to his face as he struggled to yell in a hoarse voice. “Kathleen Marie McCabe! I won’t have you thinking so foolishly. It’s alright to be a dreamer, but at certain times, you need to know when to stop and be practical.” He thrust the coins back into my hands. “You need to go to America. That is my last wish. That you make a good life for yourself there. Do you hear me?”
He was gripping my wrist so tightly that it hurt, but I didn’t pull away. “Yes, Da, I hear you. I’ll do as you wish. Even if it means abandoning you and Mama.”
He let out a sigh of relief, leaning back. He reached up and pushed a strand of my reddish brown hair back into the loose bun. “Look at you Kay. I could swear that just a few weeks ago, you were two years old and were as happy as any child. Now look at you. A right grown lady of fifteen. You’ll find work. I just know it.”
We sat there for a few minutes and I tried to keep myself from sobbing. Tears and an awful choking sound came though. Mama gained consciousness for a moment to say. “Kay.”
I walked to her side of the bed and held her hand as she struggled to say, “In the Hope Chest, there’s a suitcase. You’ll need it to pack. At the bottom of the chest, there should be a photo album and a small box. It’s something that I had meant to pass to you on your wedding day, but it looks like I won’t live to see it. It’s an old family heirloom.”
I went to the chest the laid at the foot of their bed, rummaging around until I found a plain wooden box. I opened it by their bedside to show an emerald pendant hanging off a chain. I bit the chain, and sure enough, it was pure gold. All I could think of was how rich it would have made us to sell it. My children and their children would be set for life. “Mama! How could you have kept such a thing while we are starving? It would have ended all of our problems! I would be able to afford you and Da a real doctor. One who uses real medicine, not just herbs?”
She coughed, another wet hacking sound. “Kay, you promise me that you don’t sell it. It’s been in my family for centuries, and I want it to stay that way. Only in the most desperate situation, when you have absolutely no hope, do you sell it. Promise me that, as my dying wish.”
She had found a way to make sure that I never sold it. I knew Mama was clever, but this was one of the slyest things that she had done yet. She knew, as we all did, that I never truly lost hope. That’s the problem with being an optimist- you just don’t know when to stop dreaming. I did promise. “You have my word, Mama.”
I kissed her cheek and as I was pulling away, I could hear the low moan of the foghorn. Da said hurriedly, “Pack now, Kay! The next ship leaves in an hour!”
I rushed around the tiny shack, throwing a dress built for warm weather, extra socks, and cooking things, and the one photo that was in the album. It was of us, Mama, Da, my brother, sister and me. I picked up our old Bible and placed it on top. With a little hesitation, I put the necklace on, which seemed to have a huge weight to it. I tucked it under my dress. To have it showing would be an invitation to be mugged. My boots had holes in them, but my woolen socks were freshly darned, so there really wasn’t much of a difference. I wrapped a shawl over my shoulders and over my head and grabbed the suitcase.
Da and Mama were both passed out now, but I kissed them both on the forehead and whispered. “Good bye. I love you.”
As I was stepping out of our smelly shack, I felt like I should tell my neighbors that Mama and Da were still in there. But I could hear the whistle of the steamship that warned of only fifteen minutes left till they shoved off. I ran the way to the pier, making it just in time to shove my passage into the hands of the person collecting and hop on board with the other fifty that were also on their way to the Land of the Free.