Sometimes it’s not the event itself that causes all the stress and the pain, it’s the in-between time. That cruel elasticity it seems to take on when you’re waiting for an inevitable conclusion that seems like it’s never going to come. During those three weeks, slowly overcome by a creeping tension, I would find myself running a morbid competition in my head. Will this candle burn down first? Will I finish this book first? Will it happen when I am in the middle of a movie, or arguing with someone at work, or writing an email?
It’s said that in times of great stress a family comes together. An admirable thought, but I’m afraid I’m with Tolstoy on the subject of unhappy families. We’re all unhappy in our own way, but human nature being what it is, you still insist the ducks on the smooth surface of the water are all you see, not the mad paddling underneath. No one wants to admit they’re anything but civilised as a family in the face of something terrible. I can’t hold myself up as the model of civility at the time – I was in the midst of yet another petty fight with Annie about how she was dealing with the state of her marriage – or how she was not dealing with it, rather, as she seemed to have outsourced her common sense (as well as responding to emails and phone calls) to that toxic K, who seemed to find playing havoc with someone else’s family intensely amusing. I had been complaining about it to our mother, who seemed even more vague and cryptic than usual in her response – something about ‘remember she’s your sister and anything can happen’. I wasn’t too surprised – she’d had a lifetime of the two of us at each other’s throats over one thing or another. I think in reality she had given up on the idea of anything but temporary truces between us, but deep down she still had that fairy tale hope of having two children who were inseparable best friends. That was the week that I found out, and thinking back on it, I can’t remember for sure who it was that told me. It was probably our father, I’m almost certain of it. If he hadn’t, it would have been the first time in our lives he didn’t tell us something directly.
At any rate, I was told in an email. No fanfare, no rivers of tears, just a very matter of fact statement that he had stage 2 cancer. He was going in for chemotherapy shortly, and that was about it. I think that shut Annie and me up temporarily, even though we didn’t actually stop our arguing. We just carried on after what we considered a decent interval and kept it to ourselves – ‘ourselves’ including K, naturally. Because the one thing that’s going to really resolve a shitty marriage in a mature and logical manner is getting all your advice from your so-called best friend. A friend who thinks a healthy relationship is never telling someone they’re wrong, thinks all men are useless arseholes based on her experiences only, and thinks families should do nothing but blindly support each other even when it’s a howling great mistake, otherwise it qualifies as emotional abuse. Don’t get me wrong, we all make some pretty awful decisions in life, and I can claim more than my fair share, but at some point growing up is facing those decisions and maybe telling yourself that’s exactly what they were and maybe something, even yourself, needs fixing. K had originally thought we were all awful human beings for daring to question Annie on her engagement announcement – to someone she had known for two entire weeks. To be absolutely fair, no one actually went crazy when they were told. But can you blame anyone in the family for registering some surprise? Annie took it the way you’d expect her to – badly. At the time I still had a pretty good relationship with her, and when she told me I didn’t think she was serious. I hadn’t even heard of the guy before that. But when I realised it was really going to happen I just said, well, if you’re sure, I hope you’re happy. And I meant it. But I did tell her, once she started off complaining about our parent’s reaction, that it was pretty natural and that any decent parents would react the same way. It didn’t mean they were against it (because even if they were – and it was certainly never said – they considered her adult enough to make her own choices), and as it happened, they welcomed Luke like she had known him for years.
Within a year it came out (although our parents didn’t know) that Luke was a serial cheater, and had a couple of children via prior relationships besides. I don’t think he ever saw them. The story he gave Annie, whether true or not, was that the mothers were crazy types from his own younger crazy days and rather than have a drawn out legal fight with them he agreed to their having full custody. Annie herself claimed they didn’t want children for a long time, but got pregnant pretty much as soon as the statement was out of her mouth, and then proceeded to explain it as shit happens. She left him shortly after the birth but then went back for reasons unknown and got pregnant again, and now was in the process of leaving him again for someone else. The someone else was courtesy of K playing matchmaker. That was why the fighting had kicked off between us again. I just wanted her to leave him and stick to it, but leaving to move in with someone else, because K thought this was now the ideal guy for her? That was insanity. She needed to just be with her children and get herself together especially considering how young she was. It wasn’t a great time to be getting into a relationship, and I told her so. At this point I started getting the outsourced responses from K saying I didn’t love Annie, otherwise I’d stand by all her decisions. Nice, I thought. She helps advise Annie into one lousy marriage, tells her to leave, to go back, to leave, set up with someone else, and we get to deal with the fallout, otherwise we don’t love her. Never mind about growing up, or being an adult, or thinking for yourself. It’s Hollywood movie style drama or nothing.
Our mother during this time let our father take the lead on everything, the same as she had done our whole lives. He acted normally, so she acted normally. I think she believed, naively perhaps, that acting normally meant everything would be fine – but who doesn’t do that at some point? Sometimes the comfort and repetition of the familiar keeps you from going crazy. I’m not sure she allowed herself to even entertain the thought of anything else until it happened, but she was always pretty one-track in that way. She had a focus, and that was it. Maybe that works when you’re trying to manage a family, and it appeared to work all these years in her relationship with our father, but it didn’t really work that way with us. She knew it, and even tried to adapt her behaviour to us, but I think we were always too much. We didn’t match what her experiences were growing up, which were just flat out obedience to your parents, undeviating good behaviour and good grades – none of the tribulations and temptations most kids have growing up. That was just a cultural difference, but she never got over or learned to cope with that particular shock. It must have been a bit like having changelings in the house – they look like your children, but they don’t act they way you’d expect your flesh and blood to act. I don’t think she really worried about me anymore, mainly because she knew my difficult days (as far as parenting were concerned) were over, but her relationship with Annie was as contentious as it ever was. Annie knew early on that she could manipulate our mother into just about everything, because she had hung a lot of weight on her from a young age to be a classical musician. I don’t know where that particular wish came from, but it was always there as far as I can remember. I still can’t listen to The Four Seasons to this day as it was used as the morning alarm wake-up music of our school years. She had tried pushing me towards music as well but for some reason I was more under my father’s wing, and she pretty much left me to him completely after I got sick of it and asked him if I could quit behind her back. You’d have thought that they had struck some sort of deal as far as raising us was concerned – maybe they had. Even though it was never said outright, it was a pretty open secret in the house that I was the favourite of our father. I’d always naturally assumed it was a firstborn son situation, but it even struck me as strange at times growing up in the oddly detached way our mother treated me. Even when I rang home as an adult, if she answered she always just said hello, made a minute of small talk and then put me on to our father without being asked. It was if she assumed any meaningful conversations naturally would happen with him and never her, or that he had more right to me than she did. But it whilst it wasn’t so curious that I always gravitated towards my father, why Annie and our mother always gravitated towards each other was always a mystery to me. They seemed like such complete opposites, always locked in some sort of battle, whether spoken or unspoken.
Our mother told me once a story that pretty much summed up her and Annie’s relationship. She told me that when Annie was in school and in her pretty serious tearaway phase (trouble with the police, running with a bad crowd, never going to school), at nights she would go out, sometimes not coming back until the next day, and sometimes coming back just to change or get something and go back out. Apparently our mother would keep her shoes right by the door, pointing them towards it, she said, so that she could get into them faster in order to chase after Annie to try and get her to come home. I’ve never told my ex-wife this – even after the divorce, but this story is probably the main reason I’ve never wanted children, which in its turn, is the reason we got divorced. That story haunts and terrifies me. The idea of being so in love with your child and have them never reciprocate it, or even worse, use it to manipulate you even into adulthood, is something that I can’t shake free of.
One morning I woke up to find an email from our father saying he was in remission. He had finished chemotherapy, and his insistence that none of us treat him any differently during that time had been a command that we had all just followed, asking no questions. We would get brief updates from our mother or him, but they were always just buried in normal small talk, unless you count the time he told me about how he had been waiting to see the doctor and the hospital chaplain had come up and tried to get him to see some religious light now that he was gravely ill. We both found this quite funny; he had lost any interest in religion as a child when he found out the reverend at the church he gone to had been a used car salesman prior to discovering his true calling.
Maybe it was because we had all been told that everything was normal, or had been so used to him issuing commands (it was the military background in him), that we all just carried on during that time like nothing was going on. Looking back on it, all families must have that one person, no matter who it is, that they revolve around. As long as they take that lead, everyone else is happy or at least just used to being the satellites. And that’s exactly what we were, satellites – for all the fighting and worrying, we still revolved around someone that meant something to us. Now that he’s gone, I don’t know what we are. No one amongst us can take his place. We’re just drifting on the peripheries with no direction.
At one point he called me to tell me that he didn’t want me to come home. Not during the chemotherapy, and not if anything happened. He didn’t have to elaborate, and I didn’t need to ask. He just said things shouldn’t be disturbed, and that our mother knew what his wishes were. It must have looked like a strange request to outsiders. Perhaps people thought I was racked with guilt at following directions, a bad son for not ignoring them, or even that we had a bad relationship. None of it was true. We just all had our roles.
During the chemotherapy and after the remission, Annie pretty much pretended everything was happy families to our mother and father. Between us, it was as bad as it had been before. Once he was clear, we went right back at it with even more vitriol, with me telling her to grow up and start thinking of her children and not K or that lousy excuse for a husband. In return I would get emails from K saying that Annie didn’t deserve us as a family and that only she, K, really cared about her. I just thought maybe K was angling to take over Luke’s position herself. As for Annie deserving us, well, we probably all deserved each other more than K could ever dream of. Every once in a while I’d get an email from Luke trying to explain himself, but I didn’t pay much attention to those. As much as I hate to admit it, I’m not one of those men who think one circumstance of cheating in a partner – regardless of who is doing it – necessarily tolls the end of the relationship. It always depends on the circumstances and how much you want to be together. However, if you’re the serial type, you’re probably always going to be the serial type. I’ve seen too many of those guys to be convinced of anything else. Cheating is like a whole other layer to their life, practically a hobby. That’s probably why they don’t feel guilty and can’t grasp it when they get caught.
When I was a kid, around 10 years old, I went through a phase of insomnia. I couldn’t sleep because I kept thinking of what would happen if one of our parents died (although it mainly centred on our father) and the thought petrified me so much I couldn’t sleep. The funny thing was that death was something I had plenty of experience of. Since our father was older when we were born, and he was a younger child himself, we had a lot of relations on that side of the family who were very old. So throughout our childhood, funerals were just part of growing up, and there wasn’t anything much that was morbid about it. From my viewpoint, it was mainly boring, since the last thing you want to be as a child is quiet – and you have to be that and more (polite, dressed-up) for marathon stretches when you’re young and someone dies. Not that it was all sackcloth and ashes – in our family it was more like people just getting together for coffee and cake and a laugh, except there just happened to be a coffin involved. I got to the point where I was memorising details of the funeral homes and could remember which ones left out the nicest dishes of candy. If you ask me what I think of death now that he’s gone, well, I’m not petrified anymore. I wasn’t when I found out, and I’m not now that it’s had time to sink in more (a phrase I don’t really understand anyway – the sinking in happens with the waiting, as far as I can tell). All it feels like to me is a broken conversation. One minute you’re on the phone, talking to someone, and for whatever reason, the line goes. It’s like that. A simple break.
The great irony is that part of it actually happened that way. I got a call from our mother saying that he went into hospital because he had caught a chest infection. Normally he could have shaken it, but considering he was still in such a weak state….well, it doesn’t really need explaining. She said he could talk, so I rang up the hospital and asked to be put through to his room. He sounded terrible. His breathing was laboured and raspy and he was sucking in big gulps of air but it didn’t sound like it was doing him any good. When I heard him I suddenly wondered if how I felt right then – helpless, angry, worried – was how he felt when I was as asthmatic little kid, trying to sleep during a bad wheezing spell or when I had bronchitis. We tried to be as normal as possible, but it seemed utterly pointless on both our ends to make small talk. The conversation was mainly pockets of silence punctuated by his laboured breathing.
After ten minutes, the line went dead. I rang again, and got put through. We continued the conversation, and after another ten minutes the line went dead again. I don’t know why it never occurred to me to just ring the main line of the hospital and find out what was going on, but I never did. I just keep ringing back after every cut off. After the fourth time, I didn’t ring back. Neither of us had anything interesting to say. I know those are the moments in movies where the parent, weeping, is supposed to disclose some minor parental wrong they’ve built up in their head over the years, or the child is meant to profess their love in floods of tears, but it just didn’t happen. Over the years we had been sparse with the emotions but it wasn’t because we were men or weren’t aware or even didn’t want to admit that we loved each other. It was just there, unspoken, and didn’t need constant validation. When I was cut off for the final time I already knew that was the end, and I think he knew it too. Maybe that was the big problem for me, in trying to deal with it. I thought I had been prepared for that moment, and then Time just decides it’s going to draw out the inevitable and let you torture yourself with what you thought was some sort of noble stoicism.
How we all dealt with those three weeks of waiting is what I meant when I said I agreed with Tolstoy. There we were, an unhappy family in our own way, and within that way, every one of us still had our own microcosm of unhappiness. Our mother, only naturally, convinced herself that all the doctors were wrong and that anything she could do that was different to what they said would be the thing that could save him; K escalated the situation with Annie and Luke by daring to ring up our mother to tell her that she ought to be paying more attention to Annie’s dreadful situation instead of thinking of herself – when I learned of it in a tearful and confused phone call from our mother, I lost my head completely and screamed at Annie to get her so called friend under control if she cared at all for our parents before K ended up destroying our mother with guilt on top of the guilt she was already feeling. Some months later, our mother appeared to have completely forgotten the K incident ever happened. I never pressed her about it, and just assumed it was her blocking it out entirely because it was so stressful. If that really was the case, I’m thankful for it. No one needs memories like that.
I spent those three weeks doing all the usual things– work, home, every daily routine the same as the last. The only thing that really changed was that competition I was having with myself. It hung there, invisible, like some spectral hourglass no matter what I was doing. You’ve finished a chapter of your book? Congratulations! He’s still alive! You’ve burned down three hours of that candle? Congratulations! He’s still alive! But after each imaginary victory, I could feel that tension creeping further and further through my body. Sometimes, alone in the early hours, I would read the emails from our mother that she would write when she came back from the hospital, and I would cry. I cried a lot in those moments, and I don’t need a therapist to tell me that I was probably crying for any multitude of things about me, about the family, about the situation. I know I was.
In the end, that competition ended up a tie.
I had been lying on the sofa watching an old war movie – it was Ill Met by Moonlight, I think – I was in the middle of a Powell & Pressburger run at the time – and the end credits had just started running when the phone rang. I knew that’s all it could have been, the call I had been waiting for, and I laughed for the first time in three weeks. It seemed fitting; that he couldn’t be beaten by that hourglass, but that he wouldn’t go before he had to. As it always had been, he made the decision.
If this were a movie, I suppose this is the part where I say his death brought us all closer together, but it isn’t, and it didn’t. Of course, we went through all the superficial niceties and togetherness, but when the formalities start to fade into everyday life as they do after a funeral, people tend to drift back into whatever patterns they were used to, or they just drift on the edges of whatever it was that they used to recognise as their family. Our mother was the only one who didn’t really have a pattern of her own apart from our father, but it never would have occurred to her that life was pointless and fall apart the way some people might. Still, she couldn’t help but fill that empty space he left with a copy of the ideas and the image of him, which I guess I can’t blame her for. When you’re so used to something, maybe you can’t ever or don’t ever want to be free of it completely. You could argue that it’s delusional, and maybe that’s true. But if it doesn’t hurt anyone – and it doesn’t hurt us – then maybe she’s the one with the right idea.
Charlie Hill is an ex-art school delinquent who fled to London to pursue a philosophy degree. In spite of this, she still doesn’t know any good Socrates jokes but she can tell you exactly how much Plato you can read without getting a headache. She is currently living and writing in a converted lunatic asylum near London.