The BookBrowse Review

Published May 15, 2019

ISSN: 1930-0018

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I Found My Tribe
I Found My Tribe
A Memoir
by Ruth Fitzmaurice

Paperback (26 Mar 2019), 224 pages.
Publisher: Bloomsbury Press
ISBN-13: 9781635572933

A transformative, euphoric memoir about finding solace in the unexpected for readers of H is for Hawk and When Breath Becomes Air.

Ruth's tribe are her lively children and her filmmaker husband Simon who has ALS and can only communicate with his eyes. Ruth's other "tribe" are the friends who gather at the cove in Greystones, Co. Wicklow, and regularly throw themselves into the freezing cold water, just for kicks.

The Tragic Wives' Swimming Club, as they jokingly call themselves, meet to cope with the extreme challenges life puts in their way, not to mention the monster waves rolling over the horizon. Swimming is just one of the daily coping strategies as Ruth fights to preserve the strong but now silent connection with her husband. As she tells the story of their marriage, from diagnosis to their long-standing precarious situation, Ruth also charts her passion for swimming in the wild Irish Sea - culminating in a midnight swim under the full moon on her wedding anniversary.

An invocation to all of us to love as hard as we can, and live even harder, I Found My Tribe is an urgent and uplifting letter to a husband, family, friends, the natural world, and the brightness of life.

Three-year-old Sadie says that Dadda talks with his eyes. An eye gaze computer sounds less romantic. I'll ask his eyes she says when she wants something. He loves me! she exclaims like a surprise present. Love like a present is the gift we share from him. I hold it fiercely. His magnificent heart. My husband is a wonder to me but he 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. I won't stop searching. My soul demands it and so does his. Simon has motor neurone disease, but that's not the dilemma, at least not today. Be brave.

I am sitting in my car in Wicklow town, looking out on the harbor. I'm watching these yacht masts dancing. Their heads are swaying to and fro, warbling along to Joni Mitchell on the radio. Wicklow harbor is nice. It's vast and full of blue. It has a higher, wider reach than the Greystones view. I feel as though I can't breathe in Greystones right now, so Wicklow is good. Maybe Greystones is like all great loves. You either marvel at every familiar dancing step and soak it into your bones or, like today, the familiar edges trip you up and annoy the shit out of you. Too claustrophobic – a rat in a cage, a lift with no panic button.

We have lost many things. But sometimes I find my husband: lips on the curve of his temple, a crawl space in the crook of his arm. Some things are lost and found again. I email him words of love, and he emails back. A mad moon tidal wave. Screen to screen, we're holding hands at last. Two souls. It's a marvelous, familiar dance. Great loves are for the brave.

Excerpted from I FOUND MY TRIBE by Ruth Fitzmaurice with permission from Bloomsbury Publishing, © Ruth O'Neill Fitzmaurice, 2017

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. Consider the memoir's epigraph, "I must be a mermaid, Rango, I have no fear of depths and a great fear of shallow living." What would Ruth consider to be "shallow living"? How does Ruth combat shallow living?
  2. Discuss the members of Ruth's "tribe" and how they support her physically and emotionally. Before Simon's diagnosis, her family was her tribe; she writes: "We knew nobody at first but didn't need anybody. Friends were secondary. We were our own tribe" (49). But as Simon's symptoms worsen, Ruth realizes her tribe needs to grow. They move back to Greystones, and she begins to assemble new members. Her friends, her children, and her cove all become a part of Ruth's tribe. How does each tribe member contribute to Ruth's wellbeing? What does it/they bring her? Additionally, explore the concept of having a "tribe." Do you have people or places in your own life who collaborate to lift you up? Who/what are they?
  3. Throughout the story, Ruth struggles to find a balance between chaos and order. MND erased any normalcy Simon and Ruth once had. She laments that "illness by its nature is disorderly" (53). Medicine prescribes order, and Ruth tries her best to believe that it will work: "Safety systems soothe our sick souls. A religion for the unwell. Systems will save us and bring forth serenity" (53). But she ultimately discovers, after taking a hard fall outside their home, that "systems won't ever win" (57) and "playing things too safe would swamp us" (85). Discuss the ways in which Ruth fights chaos with chaos. What systems does she reject? What chaotic or unpredictable coping mechanisms does she embrace?
  4. Ruth firmly believes that the cove is hers. She returns to it time and time again throughout the story to stare at its waves, cry on its rocks, or dive deep into its icy waters. She writes, "We all gather here at the cove: the lost, the happy, the lonely, the young" (8). Why is the cove magnetic for Ruth and the others? What about the cove brings Ruth peace? Explain the moments when Ruth seeks solace there and why. Ruth writes, "I only wish we could hand the whole cove to Simon so he could put it in his pocket" (77). What about the cove does she think would be healing for Simon?
  5. Ruth finds magic everywhere from the cove to her marriage. After three dives at the cove, she knows "that real magic is here" (167); for her and Simon, "true love was the deep magic" (36); and when Simon is filming his movie, he "inhabits a magical state of mind" (131). When imagining advice to give her younger self, Ruth writes, "The journey is upon us and to survive it, you can't just ride the wave, you have to become one . . . Becoming a wave just might be the deepest magic of them all" (37). Explore magic as a theme throughout Ruth's story. What exactly does she mean by "magic" and where does she find it? Does Ruth successfully "become a wave" and, if so, how
  6. Daydreams are an essential tool for Ruth before MND. After Simon's proposal, Ruth remembers that in that moment, "daydreams and reality embrace as though they are always one and the same thing" (23). But after Simon's diagnosis, Ruth feels that "for the first time it felt like daydreams couldn't save me and nobody seemed to notice" (26–27). Explore this part of Ruth's personality. How does she use this thoughtful and playful quality to cope with Simon's illness? How does it enhance her relationship with her children? Discuss the harsh reality of illness and how it affects Ruth's ability to daydream.
  7. iscuss how Ruth handles her new role as caregiver. Ruth writes that she is a "superhero in disguise" (66). She balances five children, an ill husband, a home, and an increasingly irritable pet. She defines superheroes as being "so matter-of-fact. They just get on with it and it's no big deal" (114). But at times, she thinks, "Are superheroes allowed to get scared" (90)? How does this "super" persona helps Ruth cope with Simon's MND? Do you agree with Ruth's definition of a superhero? In your opinion, can superheroes get scared? Does that make them less heroic?
  8. Ruth and Simon's five children play a large role in her memoir. They are often rambunctious, mischievous, and wise. Each child has their own unique personality, and they form a tribe of their own to help them handle their father's illness. When new playmates are skeptical of Simon, Raife tells them, "It's just my Dadda." Ruth writes, "I want to protect him but the great joke is that he is protecting me. Through five pairs of eyes, I see that Dadda is just Dadda. Things are what they are" (76). Seeing her husband from her children's perspective is informative for Ruth. Share other moments throughout the book where Ruth's children display their inherent wisdom. How do their unfiltered perspectives differ from Ruth's? What are their own coping mechanisms?
  9. Since Simon's diagnosis, death is painfully present for him and Ruth. "I have no desire for it," she writes, "but death just won't shut up (95). Though the thought of losing her husband terrifies her, Ruth has no fear of death for herself: "I am not afraid of dying and I never have been . . . Perhaps chronic daydreamers don't fear death because we are used to slipping away . . . It feels like arrogance not to fear death when Simon lives so fearfully close to it" (93–94). Why does Ruth fear Simon's death but not her own? How does Ruth cope with the inevitability of Simon's early death? As a reader, how does knowing the finality of Simon's condition affect how you read the memoir?
  10. Consider the scene in which Ruth decides to euthanize Pappy, the family dog. She thinks, "Perhaps we need a death. A release from all this pain. A resting place for it. If death is coming, so be it" (162). In this scene, Ruth is able exert a level of control that is often absent in other parts of her life. Ruth does not consult Simon because she does not want "anyone to live with this guilt of this decision but me" (163). He is furious, and it is one of the few times in the memoir that the two are truly at odds. Discuss Ruth's decision. Why is she intent on shouldering all of the guilt? Does Pappy's death create the resting place that she hoped it would?
  11. Throughout the story, Ruth flashes back to moments of her courtship with Simon: their first meeting, their proposal, the early years of their marriage. After the diagnosis, Ruth writes, "I have sliced married life in two parts with a knife: before and after MND" (33). Before MND, they approached life as if they were invincible. After MND, their future is uncertain and every day brings a new and unexpected hurdle. Ruth becomes Simon's caretaker, their marital bed becomes a glorified hospital cot, and Simon's movement is reduced to eye contact. " 'Kiss me on the lips' demands the computer voice, 'My mother kisses me on the forehead' " (29). But often, Ruth feels closer to Simon than ever: "The carer-patient bond may not sound so sexy but it is stronger than the urge to eat" (105). Discuss how Simon's illness alters the dynamics of their marriage and relationship. How has it changed the moments in which they find comfort or intimacy? Has it brought them closer together or further apart, or both?
  12. Throughout the memoir, Ruth is in a constant struggle with pain. Her pain is dynamic and intense but also so pervasive that at one point she writes, "Pain is so boring now" (148). Discuss the unique pain inflicted by chronic illness. How does Ruth experience pain in comparison to the other members of the Tragic Wives' Club? Even though her pain is sometimes unbearable, it becomes part of the fabric of Ruth's life. She writes, "Where would I be without the dark, raging waves and the torture? Maybe nowhere good" (167). Explore how Ruth's battle with her husband's illness changes her. How does her pain change her and perhaps make her a better person? Explore Ruth's assertion that "intense beautiful living involves pain" (167). Do you agree? Why? How are we defined by our pain? And is that a good thing?
  13. Throughout the memoir, Ruth's personal connection to the wolf increases dramatically. She writes, "My eyes are increasingly intense and wolflike. I crave meat and my own company. I am living a wolf's life. Wolves cannot be domesticated" (132). Explain this shift in her personality. What causes it? Compare and contrast it with her other alter ego, the superhero. At the end of the memoir, Ruth completes a swim at the cove during a full moon on her wedding anniversary. These two occurrences are significant for Ruth: The full moon harkens to her wolf side while her wedding anniversary marks the beginning of her most important relationship. Discuss the importance of this particular swim and how it is healing for Ruth.
  14. One of Ruth's favorite possessions is a Winnie-the-Pooh plate she once made, adorned with a quote from the text: " 'Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?' 'Supposing it didn't,' said Pooh after careful thought' (139). The plate traveled with Ruth and Simon to each of their many homes. When her children accidentally smash the plate while playing in the house, Ruth finally breaks down. Explore the significance of this quote and the importance of this scene. What does this quote mean to you and how does it apply to Ruth's current situation? Explore the metaphorical implications of it breaking at this point in the story. Why is that the catalyzing factor in Ruth's breakdown?
  15. Discuss the concept of home. Ruth wonders, "What is a home? What exactly does home mean" (38)? Ruth and her family have multiple homes throughout their life. They move from Greystones to North Cottage and back, Simon lives in the country during part of his treatment, and they spend a six-month holiday in Perth in an attempt to escape the gloom of Ireland. "We are up to eighty per cent water, Marian says, and that is why the moon and the tides affect us. That is why I jump in the sea, I say. I am trying to find a home, make a home, be a home for my five children" (3). How does Ruth attempt to make each house feel like home? When Simon gets sick, the pressure to create comfort intensifies. What is Ruth searching for in each new home? How can one person "be a home"?

Recommended reading

It's Not Yet Dark: A Memoir by Simon Fitzmaurice
Swell: A Waterbiography by Jenny Landreth
The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs
The Best of Us: A Memoir by Joyce Maynard
Happiness: A Memoir by Heather Harpham


Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Bloomsbury Press. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

A heartbreaking memoir of love and loss chronicling a young mother's struggles to cope with her husband's disability and impending death.

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Ruth O'Neill was only 28 when she married film director Simon Fitzmaurice in 2004. Changing her last name to her husband's, Ruth, along with Simon, pictured a fairy-tale life in the Irish countryside. They lived a romantic existence in a cottage with "rolling hills and apple trees," and had three children together before Simon was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease (MND) just four years later. Those afflicted by the incurable and fatal disease, known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's Disease in the United States, gradually lose motor function until all bodily systems fail. Ruth Fitzmaurice's memoir, I Found My Tribe, chronicles her emotional journey as Simon becomes completely paralyzed and eventually succumbs to his illness.

As Simon's condition worsens, the couple decide to return to Greystones, Simon's hometown on the Irish coast. It is here that Ruth discovers her love of the ocean and finds friends who help her cope, forming what she calls The Tragic Wives' Club – her "tribe" of women who have also experienced loss. Together they dive into the ocean on a near-daily basis year-round, as a way to bond and, for a few minutes, forget the realities of their lives and just be.

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 all possibly be…Swims like this clean the cobwebs from my mind, like clearing the laundry basket with a good run of hot washes. I am a woman restored.

Fitzmaurice's writing is at its best as she pours her pain into her prose, which at times reads like poetry:

We live our lives in fragments and that's just the way it is. Clocks circling time have little meaning for me. From days and months to moments, fragments of time swing solely between good and bad. I never dare to presume, beyond a hunch, what is coming next…I feel sadness on a deep level, deeper than skin and veins and death. Clock hands circling time are overwhelming and endless.

The book is laid out in short chapters, each loosely held together by a theme, throughout which the author ruminates on a specific aspect of her life. For example, in a section called "Bed," Ruth's narrative moves from her first encounter with Simon at a drinks-heavy student party, waking up next to him on a couch; to the day their "marital bed became a hospital contraption" with "multiple tilts and reclining functions" to make Simon more comfortable. Eventually Ruth decides to leave their bed because she can't sleep with all the electronic beeps and whirrs of the equipment needed to keep her husband alive. The text has a stream-of-consciousness feel to it that renders it raw and honest. It can also be a bit confusing, as it's not always clear which period of their lives is being discussed at any one moment.

The memoir focuses primarily on Fitzmaurice herself, specifically her internal struggles as she remembers the good times and grieves over what their lives have become and how Simon's illness has impacted their children. It's heartbreaking reading her pain as she tries – unsuccessfully – to explain to her four-year-old daughter why her father can't go back to "the old Dadda" who walked and talked.

Interestingly, using an eye-gaze computer (see 'Beyond the Book') as his sole means of communication, Simon wrote a memoir of his own, It's Not Yet Dark and wrote and directed a film, achievements that are only glancingly touched upon in this book. Ruth's memoir also has very little to say about her communication with Simon as the disease progresses. One assumes they would continue to "talk," but there's little here about their interaction.

I Found My Tribe is a beautiful, haunting work throughout which Fitzmaurice bares her soul. Readers who enjoy memoirs will likely find this a must-read and book groups will discover multiple topics to discuss within its pages.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

The Economist (UK)
A lyrical and moving memoir.

Best Non-Fiction, Good Housekeeping (UK)
A moving memoir of family life, coping with her husband's motor neuron disease and the icy joys of wild sea swimming.

The Sunday Times (UK)
I Found My Tribe is one of the year's most arresting, humbling and acute memoirs. It is a catch-in-the-throat, life-affirming work that you want to gulp down in one and recommend to all your friends. … This debut is set to become a global bestseller.

A moving and emotional piece of writing, Fitzmaurice's captivating memoir shares her unique experience and invites the reader to realize the strength of love and the support of true friendship.

Kirkus Reviews
An uplifting, life-celebrating memoir written amid extremely difficult circumstances.

Publishers Weekly
Fitzmaurice is a lyrical writer, and her story is intimate and sad but ultimately one of bravery and survival.

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Eye-Gaze Computers

Ruth Fitzmaurice's husband Simon, who had Motor Neurone Disease, communicated using a type of adaptive technology known as an eye-gaze computer. The author mentions its use as a critical part of their lives throughout her memoir, I Found My Tribe.

Adaptive technology is a subset of assistive technology and while the two terms are often confused, they are different in scope. Assistive technology can be defined as "any item, piece of equipment, or product system used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capacities" of those with a physical impairment. Items such as a large-print book or Bluetooth headset used to hear one's TV at a louder volume fall into this category, and often those who wouldn't consider themselves disabled, rely on this type of device. Adaptive technology is "any object or system that is specifically designed for the purpose of increasing or maintaining the capabilities of people with disabilities. Adaptive technology would seldom be used by non-disabled people…[A]daptive technology often refers to electronic and IT-related systems – like systems that help blind or deaf individuals use a computer."

An eye-gaze computer is a type of adaptive technology that allows an individual with profound disabilities to communicate via a computer using only eye movement. By projecting harmless infrared light onto the eye, the device pinpoints the pupil center and also the corneal reflection, which is an accurate indicator of where the person is looking. The user can then communicate by looking at the relevant "key" on the control screen and "pressing" that key, which is achieved either by looking at the key for a specified period of time or by blinking, or if the user has sufficient mobility, pressing a switch.

Add-on software packages facilitate an interface with mainstream programs such as word processors, Skype, Facebook, etc. Microsoft has been working closely with eye-gaze hardware manufacturer Tobii to incorporate native eye tracking technology in Windows 10. The software can be set for voice output, and to control appliances like one's TV, wheelchair or hospital bed.

An eye-gaze computer needs to be calibrated to the measurements of the individual using the technology. It can be used with very young children with disabilities, not only to teach them and allow them to communicate, but to help identify undetected visual or cognitive issues.

Technological advances have improved the usability of eye-gaze systems over the past decade. A basic eye-gaze computer can be purchased for $1500 and often some or all of the cost is covered by health insurance. However, a few challenges remain. These systems may be difficult to configure and some find them too frustrating to learn. They are also slower than speech, which often leads to emotional challenges as one tries to communicate with others. Nevertheless, many with devastating illnesses find the technology crucial for maintaining a reasonable quality of life.

By Kim Kovacs

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