I came across a photo today. Another lifetime. My two boys having their very first trip on a double-decker bus in Dublin during a holiday there. I’m feeling very sorry for myself George. I’m in Australia and my two boys are in Europe.
I always said I wouldn’t be one of those mothers who pined when the fledglings started to leave the nest. I even thought it was vaguely pathetic. After all, doesn’t it mean that I will now have ‘more time on my hands’ to do ‘things I’ve always wanted to do’? I don’t want any more time on my hands and I don’t care if I don’t do all the things I want to do. . .
Right now, all I want is my boys back.
It just goes to show how foolish it is to talk with conviction about something you haven’t experienced. I’ve joined the club of pathetic mothers. Serves me right.
People have the habit of saying “How are you?” on meeting. Occasionally, instead of playing the game and saying ‘good thanks, how are you’, I choose to tell the truth. Last week, when a friend asked, I replied that I was missing the boys and therefore miserable. People are always surprised at such a response. I could have said, ‘I’m fine but I’m missing my boys’. We can’t be ‘fine’ and ‘not fine’ at the same time.
After a pregnant pause she said
“You’ll get used to it.”
“I won’t”, I replied, instead of saying ‘yes, I will’.
Because I won’t.
Grief doesn’t just fade away by your ‘getting used to it’. Rather, you learn to carry it less visibly––in an invisible backpack. Some days the backpack feels lighter. On others it can even seem as if you’ve left it at home. Right now, my sadness is raw. My backpack is heavy. But I will always carry it because my boys will never live at home again. Those days are over.
It’s very final.
An honest reply to my revelation of misery would have been, ‘that must be hard’. Because it is hard—made harder in that I lost both sons at the same time to the distant continent of Europe. No more would need to be said. Sometimes, not often, I get a refreshingly real reply if I say I’m not a ‘happy chappy’. One man recently looked at me in surprise and said “I’m glad you said that because I feel terrible. My wife just left me.” He added “When people ask how I am I say I’m fine because they all seem happy. I don’t want to appear negative.”
These days if you are not “happy” you can be seen to be failing in some way in your inability to engineer it. Happiness can be rather elusive. There are many things over which we have no control. There is an unhealthy preoccupation with the notion of achieving happiness—as if it was our right. It isn’t. The self-help shelves in bookshops burgeon with “How to be Happy” books. Being ‘happy’ will always be beyond our reach in some way. When asked how they are, Irish people often say, ‘I’m content enough’. Content is the best we can hope for. Adding the Irish ‘enough’ qualifies it well.
As far as grief is concerned the self-help books talk about the “stages” of grief. This was popularised in a best-selling book some years ago. How foolish. It is not a matter of ticking off each ‘stage’. Any ‘stage’ which seems to have passed can come back and pay a visit any time, even years later. Common sense would tell you that grief is a mixed bag with many shapes and forms and different for everyone. A sensible person knows that though its manifestations will change, it will always be there.
On the bright side, the boys are making their way in the world, fortunate to have interesting jobs. This doesn’t make up for the dark side—their absence. Rather the bright and dark co-exist. I prefer the word “content” to “happy” and despite my sadness I am content. The backpack just got a bit heavier, that’s all.
The apartment seems very quiet. When I see the two empty beds in their old bedroom I feel a terrible pang. Sometimes I almost automatically say, given that I must have said it a thousand times,
“Boys can you clean your room.”
The room is clean. And empty.
It’s an expensive 30-hour plane ride if I want to see them with one in Germany and the other in France.
Years ago a friend asked how I would sum up the difference between being a mother and not. I replied if there was a bullet coming for any of my children, I would step into the firing line and take it. I wouldn’t even have to think about it. I don’t know that I would do that for anyone else.
That primal urge to be close to them and protect them doesn’t lessen when they reach adulthood. It is likely there forever.
I couldn’t be further from my fledglings and how am I to protect them when they are 12,000 miles away.