HelenHayward

life writing

Tag: family

shame

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On holiday in Adelaide – ironic that I’ve ended up holidaying in my old home town – I went shopping with my daughter in the rain (it never rains in Adelaide, except when we visit). After two hours spent looking in fashion and surfing shops in the city mall, and buying a sweater for my son who wasn’t with us, I asked my daughter for ten minutes in a bookshop.

 

At the top of the escalator, it was a big bookshop, I headed for the business books, hoping my daughter would saunter off, which she did. I felt queasy, in need of water. Why are big bookshops so often airless? A sensible-looking woman, around my age, offered to help me find what I wanted. I smiled and asked if they had a pet section, which she pointed me to. We are currently on the list for a new puppy and, keen for it to be a happy experience, I thought a good book might give me some pointers.

 

Next to the pet section were the psychology books. After browsing various titles I picked up the only book by Brene Brown that I hadn’t read, I Thought It Was Just Me. The title was spelled out in big orange and pink capital letters on a dark cover, and though it didn’t have the word shame in the title, the quotes suggested that it was a book about the experience of shame.

 

How, I wondered, would Brene Brown open a book about a subject that most of us naturally avoid? ‘You can never’, she wrote in the first paragraph, ‘shame anyone into changing their behaviour’. With these nine words the author hooked me. Reading them, standing up in a bookshop, made me realise that I’d spent much of my marriage trying to shame my husband into changing his behaviour. I’d done it unwittingly, unconsciously even. And, as Brene Brown pointed out, it hadn’t worked.

 

Until I read these words, I wouldn’t have admitted to shaming my husband. Yet seeing this simple idea in print allowed me to accept it. It instantly gave me perspective and, yes, relief. It wasn’t just me. It isn’t just me. Lots of us get caught up shaming each other into changing behaviour.

 

What have I been unsuccessfully shaming my husband into changing? Working too hard, drinking and smoking. My own family’s medical history is pock-marked with conditions, mainly heart and cancer, that I have done my best in middle age to avoid. My husband’s family history is stronger than mine, which may be why he refuses to share my anxieties about his health. Whereas I apply the precautionary principle in avoiding risk factors, my husband, a philosopher, is more sanguine. He isn’t the only one. When I told my GP about my concerns for my husband’s health, he smiled. ‘Ah’, my GP said, ‘society hasn’t caught up with medical research in these areas, and contradictions abound’.

 

Last weekend, as I read Brene Brown’s book under the duvet in a freezing converted barn in the Adelaide Hills, I realised that I was guilty of putting my husband on the spot, of driving him into a corner from which he could only pull in his head. Reading this book, high above the plains below, I felt guilty. But I also felt absolved. Because until I read this book I’d unconsciously assumed that it was my job, my responsibility as a wife, to help my husband see the light. Until last weekend I’d felt sure that one day my husband would read an article in The New Scientist, or The Guardian Weekly, on recent medical research into alcohol and smoking and, that very day, would drink less wine and order a vaping kit.

 

But Brene Brown made it clear that complex human beings are not like that. Complex human beings, and I should know because I am one, need to be stroked not shamed. They need to be stroked and made to feel good about themselves. ‘Being nice’, is the way my husband puts it. Making someone feel bad about their behaviour backfires, Brown explains, because the experience of shame damages their capacity for change.

 

On returning from holiday I realised how simple my brief with my husband is. It’s to not be critical of him. Every day I wake up and remind myself of this. My job is not to make him see the error of his ways, any more than his job is to point out mine. His health isn’t my responsibility, just as my career isn’t his.

 

Perhaps this is what holidays are for. All that packing and unpacking, marshaling through airport security, and cliff-top walks, were for the purpose of seeing life from a different point of view. What felt intractable a week ago, my husband’s seeming immaturity and my own excess of it, now feels looser. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to look back and laugh.

 

 

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my bed

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It started with a tiff over the way I use the steps of the stairs as a clutter collector, coupled with my bad darn of a favourite rug that I unthinkingly allowed my daughter to use a Stanley knife on. Small, domestic, trivial things. Not something to lose sleep over, or so I told myself as I lay in bed staring at the ceiling. My husband seemed to think so too, as he drifted into sleep with a light snore.

 

Having been with my husband for a good number of years I know that small, trivial things are rarely slight. They’re just the things that make me toss and turn at night. Which is how I found myself on the sofa bed in the spare room the following morning, where I woke under a cotton blanket.

 

My husband is a writer with a UK company, writing to tight deadlines. Often this means working late before waking early, with a nap late morning. My husband works hard, too hard really, though I do my best not to say so. I myself have given up working late at night. Whenever I can I’ll head to bed with time to read, my little ritual. I love this reading time, this me-time, particularly with a teenager in the house. With middle-age has come lighter sleep. I no longer sleep the way I once fell off a log into a slumber that the alarm fetched me from each morning. Mostly I’ll wake early and go out for a walk or to yoga, and bookend my day in this way. So that whatever happens in between, it feels like my day.

 

After that first night on the sofa bed, I found myself finding reasons which sounded like excuses to repeat it. I had an early start. I had a sore throat. I was worried about a deadline. My husband’s snoring got to me. I was grieving loved ones, even though years had passed since their deaths.

 

Over the years my husband, a Europhile and Scot, has lengthened his overseas work trips. He’s learned Italian and made Italian friends. He enjoys working in the same time zone as his partner in London. Having lived together in London and started a family  there, I understand my husband’s need for these trips, and support him in them. However this isn’t apparent in the days leading up to his departure , when I invariably feel like an abandoned child no matter what my grown-up self thinks.

 

Last year, when my husband set out on his annual trip, I realised that I had a choice. I needn’t feel abandoned in our big bed. Instead I could sleep on the sofa bed next door, and feel cosy and warm there. I could go to bed as early as I liked and wake up with the birds. I could relish the space and flexibility of sleeping on my own. I could lie in my single bed and feel continuous with my younger self, despite being middle-aged. Why, I wondered, hadn’t I thought of this before? Why was sleeping on my own such a big deal that in twenty-five years of sleeping with my husband I had never entertained it as a possibility?

 

Following my husband’s return from his work trip last spring, I didn’t leave the sofa bed for the big bed next door. I already had a bed. The big bed with my husband in it became the bed that I visited before returning to sleep on my own. Why, I asked myself, had it taken me so long to recognise my desire for my own bed? Had I just assumed that loving someone was synonymous with sleeping in the same bed? Not waking up in the same bed as my husband, not doing things as others did them, wasn’t this a betrayal of love? Wasn’t this cheating? Was I really allowed, in the middle of family life, to sleep alone? Yet no matter what questions washed through my head, as I lay in my bed, there was no denying that what had at first been a compromise now felt like a sanctuary.

 

Perhaps if I hadn’t become a light sleeper, perhaps if I was less sensitive and thicker skinned, perhaps if my husband hadn’t worked late or snored. Then again if I’d been a heavy sleeper, thicker skinned and insensitive, if my husband had come to bed without my nagging him, I’d never have discovered how much I enjoy the physical and spiritual act of sleeping alone, independent of the facts which led to it. For this simple change has liberated me. I don’t have to be divorced or widowed, or even unhappily married, before I can sleep alone. I can sleep in my own bed with my husband in his own bed, or even in another country in his own bed, and stay married. I can go to bed and wake up when I choose, just as I choose so many other things, like the weight of my duvet and the shape of my day.

 

As a young woman I felt sorry for Virginia Woolf, who slept in a narrow single bed despite being married to Leonard Woolf. I knew that she’d had a troubled girlhood and had suffered psychiatric problems. Perhaps, I thought, sleeping in a single bed was the price she’d had to pay for losing trust in others. These days however I don’t think this. These days I find myself imagining Virginia Woolf dreaming up scenes for her wonderful books as she drifted in and out of sleep in her single bed.

 

Usually I avoid telling friends that I sleep in my own bed. I feel sheepish about it, as if it’s something to be ashamed of, an admission of failure. Clearly for some it is, hence my sheepishness. Yet for me it feels closer to a kind of growing up, part of the messy process of finding out what I need to be me at this point in my life.

 

Sweet dreams.

 

 

 

Ageing well

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Around this time in the afternoon last Saturday, I called my favourite and only living aunt. When she didn’t pick up I called her back a few minutes later and spoke to a nurse who kindly took the phone to where my aunt was sitting in the sun in a corner lounge. ‘Are you coming?’ she asked, excited. When I explained that I was walking our dog on a bush track in Hobart, the excitement left her voice and we went on to familiar topics. My daughter was sailing in a Regatta near Launceston in the rain, my son’s ship was nearing the Shetland Islands; I was completing a manuscript and my husband was working too hard.

 

‘But’, my aunt said, ‘my second husband will be here any minute to take me home’. ‘Yes of course’, I said, knowing she’d been married only once. ‘Do you need to get ready?’ ‘No’, she said, ‘I’ll just wait here on the beach. He knows where to find me’. Getting wafty was nothing new. My aunt had been getting wafty for a few months now. What however I was never prepared for was her lucidity, which came and went at the same rate as her waftiness. ‘Mind you don’t let that daughter of yours get the better of you’, she’d say. ‘In no time at all she won’t need you’.

 

Last Saturday my aunt was extra lucid and super wafty. ‘What about those bandages on your legs?’ I asked, bringing her back to earth, knowing from chatting to the nurse that the sores on her legs were infected. ‘Oh, I don’t worry about them’, my aunt said airily, and turned the conversation back to my daughter. At that moment I wanted to call her back, to reach out physically through the phone to stop her slipping away. To keep her feet on the beach, on the reclining chair on the second floor of her nursing home. I knew I was being selfish. I knew perfectly well that if I was 91, sitting aimlessly through the afternoon with my legs bandaged from consecutive falls, nearly blind and unable to work the television in my room, eating food I didn’t like at boarding school hours, I too might feel that it was time to move on.

 

Every time I’ve ever called my aunt she’s sounded pleased to hear my voice. Thanking me for calling she’ll insist, in the next breath, that she couldn’t possibly be of use to anyone. My response, like a refrain, will be to point out how important she is to me and that she can never be replaced. However recently even hearing this from me isn’t enough to outweigh the soul-sapping losses that have accompanied her ageing.

 

On Wednesday afternoon, finishing up at my desk, I call my aunt. A man picks up. Confused, I apologise, thinking I’ve called the wrong number. After a couple of seconds I realise that it’s my cousin, my aunt’s only child. He quickly explains that Nina has lost consciousness and that the doctor reckons she hasn’t long to live. As we chat I imagine Nina in the next room – my mother died of pneumonia – and pray silently that her end, much as I can’t bear losing her, won’t be prolonged. Knowing my aunt’s wishes, and the presence of her family doctor next door, reassures me that it won’t be. I end the call, get up from the desk, leave my husband’s office and join the street, which seems a different street to the one I stepped out of a few hours earlier.

 

Refusing to decorate her room in the nursing home, my aunt always maintained, rightly as it turned out, that it wasn’t worth decorating because she wasn’t there to stay. She was going home. Every time I called she’d mention that she was waiting to be taken home; a taxi or her son might be arriving any time. It was as if in her mind her whole existence had become a clerical error. She had, as we say, lost her dignity. But more fundamentally she had lost her reason to live, taken off her like a visa at border control, leaving all those who her loved her looking on helpless and hoping like hell that such a fate doesn’t await us.

 

Like King Lear railing in the storm, my aunt refused to accept ageing – reality – as it is. Yet even as she railed, even as she agreed with me that she felt imprisoned on the second floor of her nursing home, she was capable, in her next breath, of radiating an emotional intelligence that I’d be proud to possess.

 

Thankfully, five hours after I spoke to my cousin on Wednesday afternoon, my aunt died.

 

There have been a finite number of people in my life who get me in the deep way that Nina did. She was able to see the good in me even when I couldn’t. She recognised when I’d been brave, and worried about my future. She was there for my kids too; her support of and interest in them was boundless. My husband too, though not as boundlessly.

 

Stuck in the limbo of not knowing what to do with myself in the hour after receiving news of my aunt’s death, I packed my bags and drove across the state to spend the night with my daughter who, in the middle of a long conversation largely unrelated to her great aunt, told me that she’d never been to a wedding.

 

Two days away from home work for me, even though they change nothing. Travel is perspective and there is much kindness to be found in others – especially when I don’t realise how much I’m in need of it.

 

Did my aunt, I wonder, as I walk around a neighbouring city, age well? No, not really. Was she good at living? Yes, absolutely, which is surely more important. Is she still with me? Yes and no. Certainly her spirit will live on, inspiring me to find time to draw and play piano and garden, and to embrace the transience of life.

 

Every writer needs an aunt who puts one of their books on the coffee table before a visit.

Thank you Nina.

 

 

abide with me

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After scrolling through The New York Times headlines I flipped over to facebook – breaking my rule of no social media till late afternoon. A friend I’d often visited with my now grown-up son, when he was a toddler in London, had posted news of her divorce. Twenty-four years of marriage, which when I knew her was as strong as mine, had broken down after what she said the courts described as ‘fifteen years of psychological and financial abuse’. I reeled inside, knowing how much more complicated my friend’s story must be, and also that I risked missing a yoga class if I spent any more time on-line.

 

The morning after I got married, twenty-two years ago, I walked across Hyde Park with my mother-in-law. As she strolled along, in her shoes not made for walking, she told me how much better a job at marriage she was confident that I’d do, than she had done herself. Head to the ground she told me that she’d always done her best, and that this was all, in the circumstances, she’d felt able to do. Walking by her side I felt sorry for my mother-in-law, who after raising four healthy children with her artist husband, felt that she’d failed because her marriage had ended in divorce.

 

I didn’t empathise with my mother-in-law’s regrets. Perhaps thanks to my parents’ marriage, I felt confident that my marriage would work out, that I had it within me to make it work. Instead I blithely assumed that the difficulties my parents-in-law encountered lay inside of them. It was the peculiar alchemy of their personalities that had determined the trajectory of their relationship, two doomed planets crashing towards Earth. There was a poetic inevitability about it all. The fiery temper of my father-in-law. The submissive doggedness of my mother-in-law. The God in the middle who, despite my mother-in-law’s belief in infinite love, failed to hold it all together. All rolled into an after dinner story that Paul shared with friends round our kitchen table.

 

Walking across that London park, my mother-in-law at my side, I had everything to look forward to. I didn’t believe in happily-ever-afters, I’d spent enough time in therapy to convince me of this. Nonetheless something deep inside – a mix of youth, pride and inexperience – shielded me from my mother-in-law’s pain, the morning after I married her son.

 

These days, now that I have a few regrets of my own, I quicken to those of my mother-in-law’s. I can see that, like her, I’ve done my best; even though, as for her, my best wasn’t always enough. Like her I feel downcast when I view my marriage as a catalogue of errors, as riddled with bullet holes as a road sign after a teenage shoot out. However mostly I manage not to do this, preferring to see my marriage as a piece of metal lacework, as a thing of beauty wrought into intricate shapes at very high heat.

 

The morning after I married Paul, I had family on my mind. It was an easy fantasy to have: bedside stories before lights out, holding a little hand on street corners, jumping waves at the beach. Not for a second did my fantasy include sharing the dinner table with two teenagers as intermittently surly and acute as I once was, a spotty teenager seated at my own family dinner table.

 

Walking over Hyde Park, half a stride in front of my mother-in-law, I had no idea of the emotional fall-out that two healthy teenagers might unwittingly wreak on their hapless parents in their unconscious effort to free themselves from childhood. I knew nothing about being on the receiving end of the emotional shrapnel of family life, the casual teasing and constant belittling that even a happy family has to withstand if it’s to survive the changes brought by teenagers’ looming independence. I had no idea how brave and strong we’d all need to be in order to get through the joy and upset that family life would throw at us.

 

‘They fuck you up’, wrote Phillip Larkin, ‘your Mum and Dad’. Well, sure they do. However what Larkin, who never had children, failed to add, was that kids fuck up their parents too. My kids are far more acute on my flaws, and more unflinching in their critique of Paul and me, than even my worst self slander. They know us far too well, yet not well enough. Just as we, their parents, understand yet fail to understand them.

 

None of this harm is intentional. My husband and I didn’t set out to wreak havoc on our kids any more than our kids planned the havoc they wreak on us. In surviving family life I think that Paul and I, just like my mother-in-law and every other parent, deserve enormous sympathy. We don’t deserve a list of our errors read aloud in a court of law: I’m controlling, Paul is selfish, we’re both insecure. The fuck-up of my marriage now seems normal to me; it’s a sign of the messiness of existence, part of the way of things. It confirms my need for friends and family and Shakespeare and pop music and film; not legal process.

 

As it turned out, my mother-in-law was wrong. Mine has not been a marriage made in heaven. Paul and I weren’t made for each other. Never enough for each other, we’ve failed to make each other happy. More elusive still, we haven’t fulfilled each other. After thirty years of living side by side it doesn’t surprise me that our marriage contains a few cracks. Nor does it seem helpful to ascribe blame for these cracks on Paul or me. I’d sooner put the strains in our marriage down to the sheer difficulty of life, than to a list of our incompatibilities and faults.

 

The fact that Paul and I have let each other down doesn’t seem a big deal to me. I don’t mind having a few cracks in our relationship. They give me space to breath. Perhaps I’m being defensive, however the failures in my marriage seem beside the point. The real point is that Paul and I have chosen to stick together even though we’ve failed each other in various areas; even knowing that we’d do things differently if we had our time over – which we won’t.

 

Paul and I have done something more important than make each other happy (envious though I am of couples who can do this). We’ve abided with each other. The OED defines ‘abide’ in these terms: remain, continue, dwell; remain faithful to; encounter, sustain, suffer with; put up with, tolerate, wait for’. Though this word is only used rarely these days, for me it holds real value.

 

I feel sad that my friend’s marriage should have ended in heartbreak. It seems all wrong that justice should be meted out on a well-intended couple under harsh strip lighting in a courtroom. Surely there is a more gracious – a softer, more piercing and subtle – way to exit a long marriage? After years of trying to hold it all together, of getting three kids over the threshold of maturity, it seems all wrong to sully a marriage which, even if it hasn’t gone completely well, hasn’t gone entirely badly either. It seems all wrong that in a couple’s search for justice, the whole crazy unfolding richness of a life together should be cast aside by a prosecuting lawyer who deems it irrelevant to the case.

 

If I could retrace my steps, if I could walk back over Hyde Park with my mother-in-law the morning after marrying her son, I’d start by congratulating her. Who cares if your marriage ended in divorce, I’d say. Everyone who endures a long marriage – or any partnership – deserves a medal. You mustn’t take it to heart, I’d say, my hand on her arm. It really isn’t anyone’s fault. The fault is in the stars. The sheer difficulty of life gets us all in the end, which is why we should celebrate rather than be ashamed by our run-ins with it.

Before getting up the next morning and doing it all again.

 

 

the two wolves

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‘There is a battle between two wolves that goes on inside each one of us’, the wise Cherokee Elder tells his grandson. ‘One wolf is anger, desire, pride, jealousy and ego. The other wolf is love, compassion, kindness, goodness and patience’.

Staring at the glowing embers of the campfire, the grandson imagines the two wolves circling each other, wary, vigilant, teeth bare.

‘Which wolf wins?’ the boy asks his grandfather.

The older man doesn’t hesitate. ‘Whichever one you feed’, he says.

taken from David Mitchie, ‘Enlightenment to Go’

 

going home

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‘If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult,

it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding

and accepts responsibility for a life lived

in the midst of such paradox.’

Barry Lopez

 

I’m sitting high up in the hills, under a tree at a wooden table bleached with age, overlooking the city I grew up in, laid out flat before me. It’s hot, as it so often was growing up.

 

I’ve lived away from this city for more years than the childhood and college years I spent in it. What then is the hold this city has over me? Half of the family I grew up with, who still live here, are blameless. They couldn’t be more pleasant and giving. They may think of me as selfish in one breath and brave the next; yet they make it clear that they love me for being both.

 

The city I grew up in still makes demands on me, all of them emotional. It makes me ask big questions of myself. Will I – have I – lived up to my promise? Will I – have I – given enough back in return for my good life? The voice in my head, as I drive our yolk-yellow hire car from the airport across the CBD, thinks not. This voice jumps in to tell me that I’ve only ever earned peanuts – a taunt my mother once made without thinking years ago and I’ve never shrugged off. This voice in my head knows everything yet nothing about me; hence, I suppose, its casual cruelty. This time I manage to catch this voice, just as it, dreamlike, speaks. After hesitating for a moment I relay what it has said to my daughter who, through her silence, makes it clear that she is more interested in finding the road to the hills where we are staying, than in my innermost neuroses. It is late and she is tired and hungry.

 

I have lots of friends who project their innermost feelings on to the place where they grew up; who can’t see it for the place it really is, so busy are they experiencing it through the prism of their emotional past. Does my inner bully’s taunt at the traffic lights mean that, like them, I’ve never truly grown up? Is this why I so easily regress into self-criticism while driving our yolk-yellow hire car through the streets of my childhood?

 

Most of the people I grew up with still live in Adelaide. I admire them for this, and sometimes wonder what their secret is. Why didn’t they need to leave the city of their childhood in order to become fully themselves? Was it that they had a less complicated Oedipal relationship with their family? Was a spell living interstate or overseas enough to push them into the next stage of life, cleanly delivering them into maturity? And those who did live away for a period, had they always known that one day they’d return home? What about those who stayed, who never left; were they more extroverted, jolly at barbecues come what may, or just less sensitive than me? Or were they simply more financially sensible? Did they have kinder voices in their head to support them in their journey through life? Lastly, and more troublingly, will my now grown-up children feel similarly about the city they grew up in, and so feel an unconscious need to live elsewhere – just as I did?

 

My eldest sister, who lives interstate, celebrated a big birthday in Adelaide last weekend. For my sister the city she grew up in, and spent some of her twenties in, is still very much home. Though she’s spent more than half her life living interstate, Adelaide is still her home. Why then is it so different for me? Perhaps I am living in a successful state of denial in assuming that the city that I now live in is home. But then perhaps I can afford to feel this way; life has tested me, just as it has my sister, but not nearly as forcefully.

 

At her birthday lunch my sister made a speech about the importance of family with tears in her eyes, words our parents would have been proud of, and I silently thanked her for it. And yet even as she spoke it I knew that when my next big birthday comes around I won’t be returning to Adelaide to dance the night away with old friends. I will be up a mountain, walking our dog by the sea, or cooking dinner for friends at home. With any luck, all three.

my inner parents

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Let me introduce my inner parents – who since my real parents died I’ve got to know better. My original inner parent, the one who took up residence first and some call conscience, is a bit of a scout master. He likes to be in control, thinks he knows what’s what, and hates it when I dither. He knows me better than anyone, yet not at all. He’s there to say ‘I told you so’ whenever I slip up, and pats me on the back when my work is done and I let go the reins.

 

My other inner parent, a more recent resident of my unconscious, has Zen-like qualities. She recognises the value of not pushing, appreciates that there are two sides to everything, often more, and promotes exercising control over being in control. She isn’t impressed by my achievements and likes it when I’m able to let life just happen. She never remarks on my failures and stands silently by when I have to make tricky decisions.

 

I want to be careful here. My Zen inner parent is not better than my scout inner parent. They both have important things to say. Mostly I listen to them both. At other times I’ll shut them out and experience their intermingled voices as stress.

 

Life, in the scout master’s opinion, is tough. Our time on this earth is finite. Life is not nasty, brutish and short, as Thomas Hobbes described it; but nor is it a bed of roses. Mostly I respect the scout master’s opinion; he helps me to obey rules and pay bills on time. Yet I don’t warm to him as I do to my Zen inner parent. There really is enough time, she soothes, if only my anxious ego can refrain from strangling the present with fears and regrets. Each day, she whispers, is a new mountain to be climbed. Any suffering I feel is self-imposed, she’ll point out gently. It stems from my unwillingness to accept the world and other people as they are, but rather wishing they were otherwise. I listen to her, nod, and continue on not quite as before.

 

When it comes to my family, my scout master days are over. Knowing what a turn off bossiness is, I don’t tell my kids what to do. I’m always on the look out for a carrot and long ago buried my stick. I listen to them as open-mindedly as I can, a sounding board for a future that will inevitably sideline me.

 

‘What will you do with your one wild and precious life?’ This question, from poet Mary Oliver, is one that I often ask myself as I look in wonder at my kids. One of them has already cut free, a sailing knife in his pocket; the other dallies with the same freedoms but isn’t quite ready to take them.

 

Over the last couple of years my job with my kids has changed utterly. It’s now a role, not a job. I would never tell them this; perhaps it’s not something that can be said aloud. My role these days is to help them to get to know their own inner parents; to soften the ire of their scout master, and to encourage in them a gentle attitude life. And then to get off their radar so that their own inner voices can guide them.

 

Soon enough I’ll get back to my own wild and precious life. Not quite to where I left it off, twenty years ago, but further along the same road. One will door close as another door opens. And when that door opens, I know where I want to be standing – and who I’ll be listening to when it does.

 

daphne

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Sooner rather than later my aunt won’t answer her phone when I call. As I stride along bush tracks with our dog, waiting for her to pick up, there will be silence. Though in her heart she’d like to be at home for ever, sitting in her comfy chair overlooking her garden, we both know that she’s beginning to look for the door.

 

My aunt has a magical ability to make me feel special. Everyone needs someone like this in their life. Someone who can communicate, in the tone of their voice, that they’d be willing to drop everything to be at your side. My aunt is nearly blind and shuffles with a Zimmer frame, which makes the idea of her dropping everything for me high risk. Nonetheless over the years I’ve found it immensely comforting to know that she’s there for me.

 

I’ve never dropped everything for my aunt, nor would she ask it of me. Our relationship is, especially since my mother died, maternal. It’s nonreciprocal and binding. Which is why I’m struggling to let her go. Selfishly perhaps, I’m afraid of there’ll being no-one there to catch me should I fall.

 

My aunt laughs about her age, about being past her use-by date. Yet she’s not too old for my love. Whenever I call, at however inconvenient a moment, she has time for me. Not every occasion – she fusses whenever more than one thing is happening – but reliably so.

 

A week ago I called my aunt and she didn’t pick up. When I alerted her son he got back to me to say that she was in hospital with an irregular heartbeat. On calling her in hospital, a few days later, her voice sounded woolly. Was she being medicated? Had there been something more than a heart murmur? The nurses who picked up her phone couldn’t, for confidentiality reasons, inform me.

 

Last Friday they moved my aunt to her own room, upstairs from the ward on which she’s struggled to sleep for the noise. The nurses, she tells me, ‘are teaching me how to walk again’, which I couldn’t help but take as code for her desire to escape from her hospital bed and return to her own.

 

My aunt has entered a liminal space between life and death. Too old to recover fully, yet not actually sick, she is frail and very nearly blind – and was not a little angry when the doctors decided to replace her pacemaker rather than let her leave this earth in her own good time.

 

On those days that I don’t speak to my aunt I school myself on letting her go. It is, I tell myself, selfish of me to will her to go on living, given that she’s reaching the end of her wick. Her friends have gone and she is the eldest relative at family celebrations. And yet, I return, she has so much to give. Like the tone of her voice which never seems to age.

 

My aunt knows that she’s the only aunt I have left. She knows that I’ll be exposed to the elements once she passes and I edge my way up the family tree. Like the veins on my hands which stand out as my mother’s once did on her hands, we both accept that this is the way of things.

 

There are however things that I can do to return her love. I can keep calling her on the phone and make sure that she knows how much her love has meant to me – in particular her unfailingly positive view of me which issues partly from my likeness to her favourite brother, my father. I can get out my drawing things and keep my creativity alive. Just as she once did with her sketch book, which accompanied her everywhere. I can stop my busy life long enough to notice the daphne pushing into flower in our garden, as winter turns and spring waits round the corner. And I can try to love others in the special way that she has loved me, in the hope this may help them as much as her love has helped me.

Sunday afternoon

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‘Can we go sailing?’ his sister asks, her voice edging on petulance. It’s the fourth time she has asked since his return two weeks ago. He stares up at the dark sky and down at the wet courtyard. ‘Come on’, she says. ‘Okay’, he replies, ‘let’s go’. Within five minutes they are gone, with a quick dart back to collect a phone, disappearing in my car down to the boat that he has use of during his stay.

 

The dog yaps her surprise at being left in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. I feel it too but don’t yap. Instead I sit on the carpet, stroke the dog’s tummy, and wonder how to spend the next few hours. In my heart I thank my son for taking his sister out sailing, even knowing that it was premised on his leaving the next day. Picking up a rake I lose myself raking leaves which rise up like lava as I squish them into the already full compost bin. Then without a thought I clip the lead to our dog and drive down to the harbour for a walk along the waterfront.

 

There is only one boat on the water, with two white sails. At what point, I wonder, did my son learn to handle such a big boat? From a distance it looks like every other boat that sails on the river. Except that this afternoon it’s the only boat beneath a slate grey sky. For a smug moment I feel proud of having kids who are out on the water when everyone else is sensibly indoors.

 

A text buzzes on my phone. My husband, in reply to my message, is glad to hear that our kids are out on the water together. A blast of wind skuds across the water, leaving ripples in its wake. As I walk along with our dog, keeping my distance from fellow dog owners in case my dog lunges, I wallow in my unneccessariness. I am watching my kids sailing from the shore for my sake, not theirs. I am thinking about them knowing full well they are not thinking about me.

 

Another blast of wind comes through – a blast not a gust – forcing me to turn up the collar of my jacket and wish I had gloves. The only boat on the harbour lists to the right. I force myself to look away and resume my train of thought. It’s no good. The boat lists further to one side. My heart tightens into a horrible parental knot. I don’t like what I see yet can do nothing, not even a speck on the shore. Clutching my phone I have the distinct thought that even if my son were in trouble it would be someone else he would call, not me.

 

I stare out at the water, yanking our dog back from sniffing a rubbish bin. Are they in trouble? Even as I worry I know I am overreacting. Giving a yank to the lead I train my eyes on the only boat on the harbour, giving up any pretence of thinking my own thoughts. A sail comes down. Thank God for that.

 

Ditching my plan to do some writing in a café I make my way to the sailing club, leaving the dog in my husband’s car. The sun is low and it’s freezing. Wind whips under my rain jacket. The boat makes large sweeping tacks as I enter the marina, the gate left conveniently open. ‘Is that someone you know?’ asks a kindly looking sailor pushing a wheelbarrow. ‘Yes’, I say, ‘it’s my kids’. ‘Oh’, he says, giving it a moment’s thought. ‘I’m sure they’ll be alright’. Even though I know he is reassuring me I feel certain in this moment that they will be.

 

I know that I have to do this letting go thing, to make myself redundant in the knowledge that they’ll be fine without me. That their lives will go on no matter the longing that pulses through me, filling my eyes with tears.

 

I make out two figures on the boat, my son steering and my daughter on deck. Standing at the end of the marina, my daughter sees me waving and waves back. I head back to the mooring to help with the ropes as they motor the boat in. ‘Very successful’, says my son, jumping on to the pontoon and taking the rope from my hands. ‘Well done, everyone.’ My daughter’s face is flushed red, with cold or excitement I can’t tell. Whichever it is it makes her more sure-footed than usual, as she clambers round the boat pulling ropes and packing sails.

 

Standing on the pontoon once more I feel redundant. ‘Right then’, I say, ‘I’m heading home to start the fire and then supper’. ‘Great, I’m starving’, replies my son, not looking up from what he’s doing. ‘See you later,’ says my daughter, concentrating on tying a knot. As I head back to our dog, who will be wondering why she’s been left in my husband’s car, I quietly thank the world for this Sunday afternoon.

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‘But I like odd socks’, he says, exasperated, when I hand over five odd socks from the wash. ‘I like knowing that all I have to do is find another sock and I’ll be right’. He looks over and grins. I smile back, squatting on the floor as he goes about packing for another voyage. His small bedroom, the room furthest from the main house and dampest by far, heaves with stuff. Tshirts that I’ve washed and folded he grabs with his large hand and stuffs down the side of his rucksack. Picking his way over the strewn floor like a goat he makes his way to the desk by the window and loses himself reading a pamphlet about the fjords in Chile, his last but one voyage.

 

These days my son needs me less and less. Though he does like it when I leave him cheese and pesto sandwiches in the fridge, and serve supper on time. He may want little from me – I have no idea what to give him on his birthday – yet still he refuses to let go of anything. The squares of thick leather on his desk. The metres of furled ropes in his room. The stacks of boat magazines. The broken boat in the driveway. The ragged tshirts. The odd socks.

 

Friends come for dinner, keen to hear about his adventures at sea. Initially reluctant to join us at the table the moment he appears he slips into an easy affability that he has developed as a deck hand on board a ship with fifty others for stretches of up to fifty days at sea. As we eat he sketches his seagoing life – shifts of four-hours-on, four-hours-off, losing touch with world events, fish guts at the equator crossing, possible voyages to come. When the inevitable question arises – ‘How long will you stay at sea?’ – he answers with practised ease. ‘I’ll do it’, he replies, ‘until I get sick of it’.

 

The young man who claims to be not very good at traveling, who left home for Europe nearly a year ago, has already sailed to four continents, including two trips to Antarctica. Yet this same young man doesn’t know what to do with himself after five days at home, unsettled by the sudden lack of routine in his day and mates to help him make sense of it. He is, by his own admission, more at home on board the ship than in the home he spent his adolescence in.

 

For all his exotic sounding voyages the trip my son most enjoyed he expected to enjoy least. Complaining of what he called ‘the plague’, he set off with three science students on a small boat in Chile, hiking up whichever mountain took their fancy from the fjord below. This trip, this sense of possibility, and these splendid landscapes had more impact on him than all the icy splendour of the Antarctic, with its prolific wildlife, whales a dime a dozen, and fears of losing passengers into ravines in the ice.

 

My son’s hands are rough and calloused, toughened by scouring the ship’s galley below deck and greasing the ropes above it. Yet for all his responsibilities on the ship he still manages to lose his wallet every time he goes out, diving back into his bedroom for ‘just one more look’. To be fair he does jump up to do the washing up after meals in a way he never did before he left home. And unlike the mane of hair that he forfeited on his first equator crossing these days he hair keeps his hair short, cutting it with blunt kitchen scissors in the bathroom.

 

At first I assume he is wasting time in his room, watching Netflix as of old. But no, he is looking up boats for sale, or texting friends in Europe. Now that he is on the edge of twenty he is careful with his hard earned money, converted from Euros and taxed at source. He refuses to repair his mountain bike, choosing to stick to his road bike. Disdainful or despairing of shopping I can’t tell, he returns from his one foray into town with not one but two parking tickets, along with two pairs of shorts and a pair of trousers.

 

After nearly a year away, two and a half weeks at home pass slowly. His friends are all busy and much of the time he seems at a loose end. I try to coax him out of it, but to no avail. He loves me, I know this, yet he doesn’t want to do things with me. He’d rather go up the mountain behind our house on his bike than walk on the mountain with me. Besides he has a lot on his mind. He is waiting for a text from the ship to find out when, even if, they next want him; an uncertainty that he wears like a thick cloak. Instead, at his suggestion, we play Monopoly, a game which stretches over two nights and that his sister narrowly wins. We also play Risk, a game I play so cluelessly that both he and his sister despair of having to play against me.

 

Finally the text he has been hoping for comes, releasing him from his long wait. He will not be stuck at home, moored without a boat forever. He will sail on a smaller vessel to Greenland, and after that who knows? Two friends are marrying in Norway in July, and he might join them there for that.

 

Yesterday, it seems, he was carving ‘BOAT’ into the side of an apple with his pen knife, anything rather than study for his looming final school exams. Today he is floating the idea of attending a friend’s wedding in Europe and sailing round Greenland over the northern summer. In the meantime in a few days he sets sail across the Pacific in a small yacht with a friend’s father and a crew found on the Internet. Not bad for someone who claims to be not very good at travelling.