On taking to the bed


Friends tell me tales: of the woman in Mayo who took to the bed for three years, and the man in Donegal who took to the bed for a year, and the cousin of a friend who takes to the bed every winter when the rains begin. I am reminded of Darby Ruadh of Aughinish, who took to his bed for a year for yearning love of a woman he saw in a river, and of Aoife of Connacht, who took to her bed for a year, emerging only to change her stepchildren into swans, for which she was punished by being changed into a gray vulture, doomed to live on the wing as long as time endured; which is to say that she could never take to her bed until the end of the world, which is a long time to be deprived of a particularly Irish form of refuge, retreat, restoration, surrender, defiance, passivity, prayer, and sadness.

In Irish culture, taking to the bed is not considered especially odd. People did and do it for understandable reasons—ill health, or the black dog, or, most horrifyingly, to die during An Gorta Mor, the great hunger, when whole families took to their beds to slowly starve. There are black days upon me every year when I cannot help but see those families in their skeletal beds, the wet wind snarling, the infant boy whimpering, the last moans of the mother, the father weeping silently, the daughter staggering up at the last to fold the arms of her family across their chests as bony as birds.

So many dead in the bed.

And in our time: I know a woman who took to her bed for a week after September 11, and people who have taken to their beds for days on end to recover from shattered love affairs, the death of a child, a physical injury that heals far faster than the psychic wound gaping under it. I’ve done it myself twice, once as a youth and once as a man, the first time in sheer confusion and the second time to think through a tottering marriage. Something about the rectangularity of the bed, perhaps, or supinity, or silence, or timelessness; for when you are in bed but not asleep there is no time, as lovers and insomniacs know.

The great American songwriter Brian Wilson famously took to his bed for three years, as had his hard-fisted Irish father Murray. The writer Brendan Behan’s grandmother took to her bed for three years, sending her son out to the pub every afternoon for a bucket of porter, and ruling her clan from the fortress of her four-poster, dressing every day for visitors, and finally rising from her bed without apology or explanation and resuming her former bipedality. A friend in Mayo tells me of his friend Annie Mary’s mother, who took to her bed one day for no reason anyone could tell, no physical ailment or complaint did she state, no wound of the world apparent, and she stayed so long abed, years and years, that eventually she was called the cran, that is the tree, the rooted one. This was told to me by a man told it by his cousin who was raised under thatch four fields away from Annie Mary, so you may be sure it is true.

I know a man who once took not to the bed but to the top of a telephone booth, late in the afternoon, and there he stayed deep into the night, on the theory, as he said, that as long he was atop the booth none of his problems could get at him, no decisions or mistakes need he make. He had, as he said, placed himself in parentheses amid the sentence of life, and there he wished to stay for a time, considering the lilies of the field, how they grow, and the birds of the air, who did not sow nor did they reap; which he did, until a policeman came.

Before the law arrived I had been sent by women to the top of the booth, to remonstrate and persuade and dissuade, but after climbing up and listening to my friend explain himself I felt that he had a good point, so I clambered back down to the street. On my way down he leaned over the edge of the booth and said quietly: Which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to the span of his life?
A very good question.

Yet, anxious, we take to the bed, saddled by despair and dissonance and disease, riddled by muddledness and madness, rattled by malaise and misadventure, and in the ancient culture of my forebears this was not so unusual, it happened in every clan, a brother to the bed or a mother to the mattress for a day, a week, a month, a year, three years, the rest of her allotted days; and ultimately what is there to wonder at in this? For from the bed we came and to it we shall return, and our nightly voyages there are nutritious and restorative, and we have taken to our beds for a thousand other reasons, loved and argued and eaten and seethed there, and sang and sobbed and suckled, and burned with fevers and visions and lust, and huddled and curled and prayed. As children we all, every one of us, pretended the bed was a boat; so now, when we are so patently and persistently and daily at sea, why not seek a ship?

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, in Oregon, and the author most recently of Leaping, a collection of essays. His work appears in the Best American Essays anthologies of 1998, 1999, and 2003. A collection of his essays about writers and musicians, Spirited Men, will be published in October by Cowley Publications of Boston.



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Existing comments

Great writing. Enjoyed it although I found it while googling for a remedy. Avoidance of an unhappy life is my own excuse but it never works.

Rita | 21 August 2017  

Agree, great writing. Thank you.

Michele | 30 January 2018  

Found this when I googled Taking to the bed. Beautiful, it moved me to tears. I wish I could Take to the bed more often. Thank you for putting this into words.

Niamh O'Connell | 30 November 2019  

Thanks for this beautiful article.

MGbrt | 18 February 2021  

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