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Posts Tagged ‘dad’

Just of late, my elder daughter has been a bit… concerned about death.  She knows that people die, but she doesn’t really understand what that means.  So she’s trying to wrap her four-year-old brain around it.  She plays games about dying.  She sings songs about dying.  She discusses dying.  And she asks a lot of questions…

“Daddy, where is your granddad?”

M paused for a moment, and then replied honestly.  “He’s dead.  I had two granddads and two grandmothers when I was little, but they died.  I had a daddy too, but he is dead now too.”

We have discussed how to handle these questions about death.  We could skirt the issue, or offer euphemisms, or sweet stories to soften the reality.  Maybe we should, really — she’s only four, after all.  But somehow, we’re both a bit rubbish at that sort of thing and so we tend to just answer her questions plainly, without elaborating much.  I keep hoping to come up with a better way of handling it but, so far… nothing.  I really do feel like I’ve failed her in that way.

“Daddy…  ”  Oh no, more questions!

“Daddy, when you die…” she spoke quietly, evenly, “I want to hold your hand.”

And with that, she had grasped all that we have failed to explain to her.  Not a question at all, but the answer — the reason that parents have children.  And the calmest, most honest concept of death that I could have hoped her to have.

M stood, with tears in his eyes.

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My husband is a pretty straightforward guy.  He gets up before the birds start singing, he is on time for everything and, if you ask him a question, he’ll answer you honestly.  And, as such, he has a habit of telling the truth when people ask how he likes living in the US.  Every time, he replies that it’s ok, it’s good, but that he’s left his two older kids in the UK and that’s been hard.  Just like that.  And it’s always more than the questioner was expecting — more detail than they wanted to know, more personal than they were expecting to hear.  And more than I wanted him to tell them.  They’re uncomfortable, I’m uncomfortable, he is… he’s just him, answering the question the only way he knows how.

“Oh!” they always say, a little shocked, a little concerned, but trying to hide it.  “How old are they?”  They’re expecting to hear that his other two children are in their early 20s and so it’s all ok, really.  When the reply comes that they’re in their early-mid teens, they are shocked all over again.  “OH!”, like clockwork.  And I feel all the accusations that I believe are suddenly running through their minds: He left his children!… How could anyone do that?!?… He left them for her!… Did she make him do it?!?…
The truth is that he didn’t leave them for me, and we tried everything we could think of to stayNeither one of us wanted to leave Britain, but we were between a financial rock and a hard place and we honestly couldn’t figure out how to make it work, no matter how we reworked the numbers.  Leaving Britain — leaving them — is something we both regretted at the time, and more and more with every day we’ve been here.  And we will put it right, just as soon as we possibly can.

But the people asking a casual question of two foreigners they’ve just met… they don’t know that.  They have too much information, but not enough information…  enough to condemn, but not enough to understand.  And in that moment — the moment after they say, “Oh!” and then nothing more — everything becomes very uncomfortable, everything slows down, and we all stand — hesitant, expectant — in the silence.  And then someone, us or them, breaks it with some lighthearted comment about how it will all surely turn out alright in the end and, gosh!, such a hard economy in which to make a move like that!  We all smile, tightly instead of genuinely, and carry on…

It happened again today, at a bagel shop we go to, with a Greek lady we’d just met.  We all followed the script perfectly.  But this time, when we smiled and carried on, I broke from the usual dialogue and mentioned that we’d been thinking of having M’s son maybe come and live with us for six months (or is it three months? however long a visa will allow…).  It’s not something we’ve shared with anyone before, let alone a complete stranger, but we’ve been talking about it for a while.  It’d give the two of them the kind of day-after-day time together that they haven’t had since his son was starting primary school, and it’d give his son a wonderful opportunity to experience America in a way most Brits never do.  I was surprised to hear myself speaking the words and giving life to the idea like that but, as soon as I did, it felt good.  And the Greek lady’s face lit up.

“Yes! YES!” — she grasped at the positive spin — “It would be so good for him!  And you could get him involved with something to do with kids his own age…  He could make friends!”  We were all smiling now.

I had already mentioned my parents — it’s my standard answer to why we’ve moved here: the grandparents, the grandchildren…! And they always emailed with so many opportunities…! I don’t mention the rock or the hard place — no one really wants to know that in casual conversation.  But the Greek lady began waxing on about the good of our situation — such a rare response given M’s unnerving honesty — and now she brought up my parents.  She said, “It is good for you to be able to be near your parents for a while,” and then looked right at me.  I could see that she meant it — this wasn’t some sugar-coated babble to smooth over the uncomfortableness.  She had lived abroad for twenty years, away from her family…  she got it, how tough it is for everyone, the balance needed on both sides.

It is good to be near my parents.  For as much as I complain that they drive me nuts, it is good.  And they won’t be around forever — they’re not young anymore — and even though I know they won’t be around forever, I don’t think I’d really thought about it that way until today, in that bagel shop.  My parents are here now, lively and young  enough to enjoy having us so nearby, to know and enjoy their grandchildren.

There is no relationship with as much responsibility as that of a parent to a child: M’s relationship with his kids trumps my need to see my parents or their need to see the girls — absolutely, hands down.  We need to go back to Britain for their sake, and we never should have left in the first place.  But I have family that I’ve been away from for 15 years, and I have missed them, and now I am getting the chance to have some little time to be near them, while I still can — and there’s a certain validity to that.   Talking to this Greek lady, I think she was the first person to hear the news of M’s children, to be shocked by it, and then to still go on and take the whole situation into consideration, to acknowledge that there are two people in this partnership and that we both have been away from the people we love.  No one can ever doubt that his kids have the higher priority but… well, it felt good to be part of the equation.

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I was standing at the sink doing the dishes and M was scraping the last of tonight’s dinner into a bowl for tomorrow’s lunch.  E2 came around the corner and stood in the doorway.

M looked at her for a moment, and then said, “If she were a zombie…”  I thought I’d misheard him, turned the water off for a moment and turned to look at him.  He continued,  “If she were a zombie, and her face were that kind of zombie grey and her eyes were all dead and stuff… could you kill her?”

I was startled, dumbstruck, slightly amused.  I looked at my daughter, standing in the doorway, gazing up at us with that angelic face, those big eyes, a huge grin.   Then, found my voice, indignant, disbelieving: “No! No, I couldn’t!”

“You’d have to.”  He said it as if it were obvious, as if it were… important.

“No! No, I couldn’t.  I couldn’t kill her!”

“She’d be dead already,” his voice was earnest, insistent.  “Well, she’d be undead.  You’d have to kill her.  No choice really.”  The matter thus settled, he turned back to the bowl.

I looked down at my daughter, now standing by my leg and only coming to mid-thigh, her head upturned with that huge grin and her wispy strawberry blond hair falling straggly over one eye.  I picked her up, held her into me, tucked my nose into her hair and breathed her in.  I was supposed to go along with him, I knew, but…  If she were a zombie?!? A zombie! Honestly!  Whatever was in that man’s mind?!?  I’m her mother, she’s my daughter.

He’s… he’s such a boy.

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What I didn’t tell you, in that last post, was that, as M was looking up at the ceiling and crying in the dark after leaving his kids again, he suddenly muttered, “Oh, this is ridiculous!”

I was careful. “What…  err… what is ridiculous?”

“I tear up every day.  Like this.  Every day.”

I paused, calculating what he might mean exactly.  Then asked, “Every day since…  you’ve been back?”

“No.”  He sighed, a slow heavy breath that wavered a bit under the weight of it.  “No… every day.”

I was shocked.  Quickly rolling up onto my elbow to look at his face in the moonlight, I blurted out,  “But… but I never see this!”

“It’s usually on my way to work,”  resignation heavy in his voice.

I paused on my elbow for a moment while I tried to think what to say, and then gave up and rolled back onto my back and stared up at the ceiling too, and we laid side by side in silence for a few minutes while I let this bombshell sink in.  He has welled up with tears every single day for the past 20 months. And I have had no idea.  He’s never told me.

Days later, I am still feeling the shock.  And it is so clear that this changes everything.  What I was thinking of as our decision to go back to the UK is nothing of the sort.  There is no decision, because there is no choice.  There is only what must be done.

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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.

“I know.”

“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…

“I know.”

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.

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Today is quite a significant day and I feel I ought to write something monumental to match it, but no sooner do I start typing than all the words fall away from me.  I can’t catch them.  It’s been a year today since we moved to the US, and I don’t know what to say about it.  A year since we left England.  A year since we last saw all our dear friends.  A year — a year! — since I’ve walked through places that I can see with such clarity in my mind, that still feel so close that I should be able to just get up and go out the front door and go to them right now.  What words are for that?

It has been a hard year, there’s no doubt of that.  We’ve had a mysterious and devastating medical problem and E2’s diagnosis of multiple food allergies, which have both completely upended our lives.  We’ve had a sudden, frightening job loss and insurance problems and run up medical bills that we are still paying off.  We’ve lived most of the year stressed in a house that was being sold out from underneath us.  And we had a surprise tax bill that wiped out a huge chunk of our moving fund — the chunk that was meant to buy us furniture and bedding and all the stuff that makes a place feel like home.  I have really struggled to find a balance in my relationship with my mother, after 15 years of distant independence.  And there’s been a lot of loneliness.  And, for M, more heartbreak than either of us had known was coming.

And yet, for every set-back, there’s been an answer.  M got another job, one that suits him better.  And, as of the first of this year, we are all, at long last, completely insured.  The medical bills are being slowly paid off .   We have learned to manage our dietary restrictions, and even found a couple of safe places to eat out.  We’ve bought a house of our own which we both love.  And I’ve found a couple of friends whose company I really enjoy, and I’m working on making a few more.  And my mother has been an enormous help, an absolute force of love, provision, and care.

And though the funds for buying furniture disappeared, we’ve managed to pick up a few pieces  — a second-hand dining table and china cabinet, a family friend’s old washer and dryer.  And today, something that has really lifted my spirits: my father’s office was getting a new couch for their lobby and throwing the old one out, so he grabbed it for us and brought it round this afternoon.  I had assumed it would be…  well… probably pretty  awful — perfectly usable but not all that nice.  But to my utter surprise, it turns out that it is a low-line, sleek and modern, leather sofa of exactly the sort I would have chosen if I were paying for one.  I have spent the afternoon standing in the living room just staring at it in joyful disbelief!  And not only at the sofa itself, but at the way it has transformed the living room — which, up to now has contained only a rocking chair, an end table, and the china cabinet and, thus, not felt like a living room at all.  And that, in turn, has somewhat defined the feel of the whole house: empty living room led onto strangely unfurnished family room led onto bedrooms with mattresses on the floor…  It makes a home feel unhomey, to be so spare.  And it makes a person feel unsettled… uncommitted… transitory…

But this couch has changed that.  The room felt like…  a room.  I found myself today mentally arranging end-tables and coffee tables and area rugs and potted plants.  I feel I could invite someone around now without embarrassment and endless explanations as to why the place feels so odd.  I feel inspired to unpack the mound of moving boxes that has acted as our one design statement for the last two months.  …It’s amazing what a couch can do!

But there has been one set-back for which there has been no answer…  there is no answer here.  M’s heart is broken at being so far from his older two kids.  And no amount of house, or couch, or homeyness, or — the reason for the move — financial stability can make up for that.  And what financial stability we have achieved has all come at his expense anyway.  He hates that he gets no paid sick days, no holiday this year and a meagre five days next year; he is weary from working such long hours in this extreme weather (it was an 11 hour day on Friday, when the temperature was -20C); and despite his hours — and paycheques — being painfully short of late, he has had only two days off since Christmas weekend — and he’s on call again this weekend as well.  To be working so hard, and to be going to school at night as well, to be stressed by the erratic hours, to feel the pressure of his upcoming exams, and all while missing his kids so desperately…  Well, I know it feels like he is being kicked while he’s down.   There is only one solution for that, and I know he wants it badly.

And so, on this one-year anniversary of our arrival in the US — one year and one day since M asked me to make sure we came home someday — it feels appropriate to announce that we have decided to move back home to the UK in the next three to five years.  We’ve been talking about it on and off for a while, waffling and unsure, but once we made a firm decision, agreed on it, and put a timescale to it, it felt like a weight had been lifted off our shoulders.  It certainly felt like a weight had been lifted on mine — M, I think, was walking fully a foot off the ground.

Don’t get me wrong — this has been an amazing, changing, growing experience — and necessary to get us out of the hole we were in in the UK.  I am grateful for the gains we’ve made (and hopeful that the world economy will continue turning on its ear so we can somehow afford the move back) but they have come at a great cost that we can no longer shrug off.  When it comes time to leave the US, I know my heart will break afresh.  The truth is that I have two homelands and it will tear me up to leave this one, knowing it will be for good this time.  But M and I both know, in our hearts, that this is not right, being here is not right.  For all that has gone right with it, there is one crucial wrong that just cannot be ignored.  And that, in the end, has trumped everything.

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Today I am grateful for:

  1. The fact that it is Saturday, which means that I was not on my own today taking care of the girls after getting a scant few hours of tortuously broken sleep last night. Both girls have something that’s making their noses run and giving them sore throats (and me a bit too). They haven’t been breathing well at night — and when they don’t breathe, they don’t sleep. And when they don’t sleep, I don’t sleep. Between them, I didn’t get to bed last night until 2.30am, and then E2 had me up five times after that, before I finally got up at 9.30. I have been a zombie today.
  2. The fact that it is Saturday, which means that M was here when E1 had a massive poo during her nap which rose up and out of her nappy and went everywhere. And he was here when I went in to get E2 and discovered that she’d taken off her clothes and found a poo in her nappy and spread it all over her cot, her sheets, and herself. She must have been playing in it a good while before I discovered her because it had dried and was an absolute devil to get off. I plucked her out of the crib and delivered her to her daddy, who deposited her straight into the bath next to her sister, and then I spent a full half-an-hour scrubbing that crib. And he was here when, about 2 hours later, she did exactly the same thing in the playroom. I was in the other room and heard M suddenly bellowing as he carried her to bath again, yelling, “Keep E1 away! And clean that up, will you?!?” This is the fourth time she’s done this now — and it’s not big and it’s not clever. I really need to figure out a way of thwarting her nudist, poo-discovering tendencies. Duct-tape on her nappy…?
  3. The fact that it is Saturday and so, after an exhausting night and very trying day, M went off to the pub for a few hours after we’d got the girls in bed, and I stayed home to hold the fort. And even though I didn’t get to go with him, it made me feel really quite content for him to pop out for a drink. It felt familiar… normal… It felt just right.

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