I FOUND MY TRIBE
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 Wicklow, Ireland, and regularly throw themselves into the freezing cold water. The Tragic Wives’ Swimming Club, as they jokingly call themselves, meet to cope with the extreme challenges life puts in their way. 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’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 Wicklow, Ireland, and regularly throw themselves into the freezing cold water. The Tragic Wives’ Swimming Club, as they jokingly call themselves, meet to cope with the extreme challenges life puts in their way. 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.
- Bloomsbury USA
- March 2018
- 224 Pages
Newcomer of the Year, Irish Book Awards
“A lyrical and moving memoir.”—The Economist
“A moving memoir of family life, coping with her husband’s motor neuron disease and the icy joys of wild sea swimming.”—Good Housekeeping (Best Non-Fiction)
“An uplifting, life-celebrating memoir written amid extremely difficult circumstances.”—Kirkus Reviews
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. Discuss 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”?
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