Ruth Fitzmaurice: “The sea is my salvation. It shocks my body back to life”

In this moving excerpt from I Found my Tribe, debut author and mum-of-five Ruth Fitzmaurice describes the freedom she feels as she dives into the sea. It’s an escape from her restricting role as carer for her husband, who has motor neurone disease… 

Ruth lives in Greystones, Co Wicklow, Ireland, with her husband Simon, who has motor neurone disease, and their five young children.

My husband is a wonder to me but is hard to find. I search for him in our home. He breathes through a pipe in his throat. He feels everything but cannot move a muscle. I lie on his chest counting mechanical breaths. I hold his hand but he doesn’t hold back. His darting eyes are the only windows left. This little house of ours holds a lot. A family of five young children, a father who can only move his eyes, a mass of medical equipment that hums and squeaks. The footfall in this house is high. Nurses and carers steer tactfully around us. Lint balls gather in corners. My husband needs a ventilator to breathe and a person to stay with him at all times. Often that person is me.

Motor neurone disease is a tough thing for a child to say. They call it ‘meuron’ disease instead. ‘Will Dadda ever move again?’ they ask matter-of-factly. ‘No, he will never ever move again,’ I reply, and that’s the truth. ‘Aw, really? He’s still a good Dadda even though he can’t move,’ they shrug.

When we moved back to Greystones on the east coast of Ireland to be closer to family and friends for support, our marital bed became a hospital contraption.

It had multiple tilts and reclining functions. We are mid-30s living like 80-year-olds with a bed built for easy TV watching. I lie on my well-padded mattress at a moderate tilt with restless pulsing limbs. Motors hum like machine guns all around me. Television sounds seep into my dreams. This bedroom is a sensory assault of sound, light and equipment. Benedict the night nurse is slapping cream on to Simon repeatedly and I can smell it. He massages his limbs and it feels like a small earthquake.

I take to sitting in cars for a little peace. Hunter sleeps in his car seat holding a naked plastic baby. Sadie is snoring. I wish I could sleep and wake up renewed, but I never do. I would love to sleep for a month, be on my own for a month, leave and live in isolation to think and drink tea, hear the clock tick and rest my limbs on a quiet bed. All I have are the bleary warm moments in cars and it’s never enough to feel restored.

I know I can be brave as long as the waves keep pounding. That’s just what waves do. The sea is my salvation. It shocks my body back to life. My soul is calmer and refreshed and content when I climb back up the steps. The cove is my tribe and the sea saves me.

I plonk the kids in front of the TV with our carer and sneak out to the cove. The tide is perfect. I leave a small pile of clothes on the rocks. My mind relaxes as soon as I smell the air and my feet touch rock. Cold sea can blow those flies away in one swoosh! Three dives later I know that real magic is here. The stones hold secrets and the dread in my heart flows free. It is so solitary and dream-like I wonder if it is real. Twenty minutes later I am home.

I don’t believe we are just numbing ourselves in this sea. I look at my friends coping and surviving. Like the rolling of waves, the thrill of the dive, the rush of cold, they choose to stay unchained. This is as free as we can possibly get.

Swims clean the cobwebs from my mind, like clearing the laundry basket with a good run of washes.

I am a woman restored.

I Found My Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice (Chatto & Windus, £14.99) is out now