I’m writing this from a silent house: half my family are away. This is remarkable. No one has left the familial bubble for more than a supermarket run in months, an unnatural state of affairs that has left me hollow-eyed, monosyllabic and short-fused, and them condemned to live with a harpy.
The 16-year-old went to France for a few days (an agonising should we, shouldn’t we dance, due to none of us having a crystal ball) and now his father has joined him. My elder son is here, but keeps himself to himself (yes, that makes him sound like a murderer and me his neighbour, interviewed for the local paper. I can’t rule that out, it’s 2020). He watches TV with me for an hour in the evening, as one might dutifully keep an elderly relative company. Other than that, it’s just me, the dog and the pigeon that occasionally puts its head through the skylight.
This means an unprecedented degree of space, silence and only one type of meal to prepare, all things I appreciate and thought I was longing for. Instead, I have found it hard: I have grown accustomed to their faces, it transpires, asking what’s for lunch, making calls on loudspeaker or telling me their ailments, unsolicited.
But the spare time, the space for creativity! I have long nourished a secret belief that only my family commitments prevent me from becoming a high-minded public intellectual, asking important questions, but these snatches of solo time suggest otherwise. Home alone, I spend my every waking minute tidying: reorganising perfectly functional cupboards, dismantling bowls of domestic rubble unmolested for decades, and flirting with storage solutions in the Lakeland catalogue. I’m not Alain de Botton, it transpires: I’m a Channel 5 documentary: The Woman Who Can’t Stop Tidying. My son walked in yesterday to find me lining up copies of New Scientist at perfect right angles and walked straight out again.
I lost momentum, however, when I turned my attention to the space he used for his A-level artwork. Whirling through uncapped pens and hardened brushes, canvas offcuts and dried-out glue sticks, I felt my cleaning zeal drain away, replaced by a grey ache. So that’s over: the turps and linseed oil, the paint-splashed walls and sink, the scrunched-up masking tape and commandeered mugs? Ouch.
I read an article back in 2012 that has stayed with me: it was about how as a parent you are wired to anticipate and celebrate firsts, but you miss the last times. They slip by, unnoticed, was the gist: we don’t know when we will give the last bath, or read the last bedtime story.
I think some “lasts” came into painfully sharp focus this year. We suspected, back in March, that the 18-year-old wouldn’t get back to school: he didn’t, of course. I’ve skirted his ID card a couple of times, unable to consign it to the bin. The last times we normally celebrate – last exam, graduations, leavers’ assemblies – have been absent, or abrupt and abortive, marked by awkward video meets and composite photos. There have been beautiful, defiant attempts to make them special: beach photoshoots, ultra-glamorous outfits and elaborate cakes. I managed 23 seconds of Obama’s speech to US high-school leavers before tearing up (the pandemic-perimenopause pendulum is a cruel mistress).
For all the balloons and confetti, there is a sense of loss: we feel the passing of these last times especially keenly, because the firsts that should follow are stalled and uncertain. I feel unhelpfully, self-indulgently sad, so I am forcing myself to reframe my feelings.
I’m using seagulls, of course. You may recall Junior Herring Gull, my accident-prone neighbour. After cheating death-by-cat, he spent several weeks slithering heart-stoppingly around our steeply pitched roof to parental shrieks of encouragement or alarm, before landing on next door’s dormer window, where he stayed for another fortnight, alone, peeping pathetically, prompting my neighbour Franz to text me in concern for his welfare. We watched, exchanging anxious messages about the scope for rescue as JHG wandered gormlessly around, until Franz spotted the adults feeding him. One morning I looked out the window and saw that JHG was gone. There was a tiny emptiness, but more exhilaration. I imagined him soaring the skies, embarking on a life of kebab crime. Every time I hear a scream, I wonder, fondly, if it’s him, mugging a tourist.
I need to access that exhilaration for our human fledglings. Maybe there are things they won’t do again – there are probably things none of us will do again. But for young people, last times are memorable mainly as a springboard to new things. Perhaps not ones we anticipated or recognise, but new all the same. The world is changed and strange – terrible in some ways, certainly, but unusually unburdened by expectations. That isn’t sad unless we make it so: it could, actually, be amazing.
Follow Emma on Twitter @BelgianWaffling
Source: The Guardian