When I was pregnant with Bear, it was impossible to imagine how life would become. I was hanging up the little bodysuits to dry for the first time when it began to dawn on me that I was going to have an actual baby. I know it sounds daft, but there’s a world of difference between a theoretical baby and a real one.
I had a similar experience this evening. Dad is at Auntie’s this week and we have been talking about him, how we manage and how we might manage as his condition deteriorates. I went into his room to check for washing earlier and came down clutching a jumper. As I held it close to me, it dawned on me that the opportunities to do these things for him are diminishing. Every day, people ask me how he is. I am able to reel off what is happening. How he really is and what we expect to happen next. I am so caught up in the practicalities, spending time with Dad and making sure that he is happy. I forget the temporary nature of the situation. The temporary nature of life itself.
While I can, I forget that one day I will be left holding the jumper.
Wiser folk than I say the art of storytelling was lost when we started writing things down. I’m sure something changed forever the first time someone put chisel to stone, but we also gained in the process. I love writing. The feel of my Waterman fountain pen on fine moleskin paper, or biro on the shopping list pad, or pencil in a notebook. I love books. Crisp new books, never before touched by human hand. Secondhand books whose history I share with unknown readers who maybe left a shopping list or a boarding pass behind as a clue. Library books shared with a whole community. I love them all. I even managed to save a few books from my own childhood to share with Bear. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Mary Poppins, The Water Babies. When I was pregnant I bought a book for him each month. My postnatal hormones wouldn’t allow me to read Dogger without crying for at least a year!
I love reading too. Bear calls any book without pictures a “mummy’s book.” I love being pulled in from the first sentence. Well-crafted description is so satisfying. Believable dialogue makes the characters leap out and into a future beyond the confines of the pages. The last sentence of a book can make it or break it. I love a happy ending, but I’d rather have a sad one than fake a happy one.
And yet. Sometimes stories just have to be told for the sake of it. If it’s unwritten, the ending can change each time. The plot can thicken or dilute according to the time available and the audience. Some stories are good only good for the moment. Others would completely lose their meaning if they were written. Sadly, we mostly only tell made-up stories for our children now. Bear even likes stories that are simply about his day. There doesn’t have to be a point to them. His favourite is about going on the Clipper. Before he started school we used to sit on the same bench in the park every Wednesday for the same story about a dinosaur called Eric. He can make up stories too. It’s great. It’s another way for him to make sense of his world. My Dad used to make up bedtime stories for Auntie and me. I can remember them now, but I bet Auntie remembers them differently and Dad differently again. Making up stories for Bear would be too much for him now, but he’s always enjoyed reading to Bear at bedtime. This evening, after Bear had got his pyjamas on and brushed his teeth, he clambered onto the sofa next so Grandad could read to him. Whatever day it is, that’s a perfect ending.
My Dad and I are drinking tea and watching Newsnight. Dogford is contentedly curled on the rug and so is Eeyore, although I’m not sure why. I’ve got a to-do list the length of the room and a pile of ironing to the ceiling. But somehow, everything feels right with the world. Dad is here. Bear and I went to collect him from Auntie’s where he’s been for the past two weeks. Auntie won’t get a break exactly, but she will at least have some freedom from the relentless responsibility. That’s what Auntie and I can do. We can give one another a break.
We are mindful that we have a shared responsibility. We know we have to check with one another before we arrange to go away, even for a night. Going anywhere together for more than half a day is out of the question.
Dad has always been there for us. Over the years, he has cared for our children, taken Dogford out for countless walks, made a million cups of tea and coffee. The sink was always empty of washing up when he was about. One of the most thoughtful things he did was playing with the children whenever my friends visited, so that we mums could talk for a bit. Heaven knows there’s little opportunity with little ones. Heaven knows we needed it!
He would never accept thanks for anything. He just wanted to make our lives easier. Over the past few months, Dad has had to get used to a new way of living. He is no longer as mobile or active. He can’t really do much for us anymore. He’s had to understand that while we appreciated the help, the main thing was being together. That hasn’t changed. It’s just that we’ve changed places. He understands that he needs more help day-to-day but still he doesn’t take it for granted. It’s not about paying it back. It’s not about being fair. It’s just people who love one another doing what they can. And even if we were counting, don’t worry Dad, you’ve still got loads of credit in your account!
Auntie (my sister) and I were sorting through stuff at our Dad’s house today (long story) and came across the pink Playtex girdle tube that my mum used for storing her knitting needles. I could barely contain my excitement and failed miserably at pretending to put it in the recycling pile. Auntie thinks I’m a bit mad, but she did anyway so nothing lost there.
There’s something that tickles me about the whole thing. It was even retro for my mum. And although she got it from my nan, I’m not even sure it belonged to her. In those days, it didn’t matter that packaging was not environmentally-friendly because no one threw anything away. I can imagine the conversation now: ‘Do you need a long tube for anything love?’, ‘No thanks, it’s not quite wide enough for my spanners. Does little Elsie need one for her crochet hooks?’, ‘No, but Betty down the road is always losing her number 7’s …’
It also brings to mind the sort of shop from which it would originally have been bought. Every High Street would have had one, with a charming window display, lovely wooden drawers containing all the merchandise and an elegant lady or two to serve. They’d have sold a bit of clothing, stockings and suspenders (not like the ones you can get now – we’re talking underwear here – ‘ladies’ who wore ‘lingerie’ shopped elsewhere!), knickers, nylon nighties and nothing bigger than a size 12 (hence the girdles!) My mum took me to just such a shop for my first bra. I was a respectable age too. Oh how times have changed.
I must hide my treasure from Mr. Invisible, as it’s just the sort of thing he would whip into the recycling bin before you could say ‘bit of history!’