We had both known this trip would be difficult. We knew it the whole time, and we thought we’d prepared for it. But, really, there is no preparation — like so many things in life, there is only the getting through it. And now that he is home, we are going through it.
The night before he flew back to the US — and the first night of the trip that his son didn’t stay in the same house — he couldn’t sleep for panic. His panics come to him when something in his life is terribly wrong, his mind’s inadequate way of coping with the overwhelming. And leaving his kids again — all over again — is overwhelming.
The night after he arrived back, he didn’t sleep either. I woke to find him staring up at the ceiling in the dark, and saw glistening lines running from the corners of his eyes down to his ears.
“Are you alright?”
“No.” His voice wavered.
“It’s just…” He stopped to steady his breath and then let it all out in a rush. “It’s so hard to leave them.” I shut my eyes hard, instinctively trying to block out his words, because I knew… I knew, but I just didn’t want it to be so hard for him. And I had nothing useful to offer, so I gave him the only words that came to me…
We carried on talking in the dark, awkwardly and to no purpose, and eventually I faded back to sleep. When I woke again at 5am, he was still staring at the ceiling. I tried again to say something useful, but I suspect I managed nothing more than to mumble half-slurred, half-slumbered nonsense before succumbing to unconsciousness and leaving him alone, again, with the overwhelming.
The next day, I sat down with a cup of tea to peruse leisurely the local newspapers he’d brought back for me. I wanted to read news of the recent agricultural show, check out the pictures of kids going back to school, and sympathise with the locals’ frustration at incoming Londoners. But instead, I found myself skipping past all that and going straight to the back of the paper, to scan the estate agents’ ads and then the jobs pages with a sense urgency that made my stomach suddenly flip-flop. I was hoping to find something miraculous, some wild change from the situation we’d left 18 months ago, but I found exactly what I’d known would be there: houses that were half the size at twice the price, and jobs with salaries so low that my heart just sank at the sight of them. No miracles. And no idea how to make those conflicting numbers add up.
Suddenly, the panic rose up inside me too — up from my guts and into my chest — and I had to push the paper away hastily. How am I going to make this work? How am I going to fix this? I stared at the table, at the spot where the paper had been. My heart raced and I ran one hand up through my hair. He needs me and I have no idea what to do. What am I going to do? How am I going to fix this?!? How am I going to fix this?!? How? How…? HowamIhowamIhowamIgoingtofixthis?
We thought we had prepared for M’s trip home. We’d talked about it, talked through it. We’d remembered the battles he’d fought when he got back last year, and tried to learn from them. But the truth is that all the preparation in the world is inadequate to the reality. And… time had passed and those battlefields had fallen quiet… the casualties buried in their shallow graves, and the ground above them going to seed and turning into peaceful meadows.
We had been fooled by the wildflowers.