THE LONG FAREWELL

When your child starts school, one of the biggest changes is the use of the refrigerator. Not the inside—the essential foodliness of the contents remains the same—no, I’m referring to the outside.

Where once a clean brushed-aluminium surface gleamed in the morning sunlight, perhaps adorned with a socially aware sticker or a novelty magnet, now sprouts a wilderness of notes, notices, essential phone numbers and lists. It’s like the chaotic desk of a harried admin officer has been flipped to the vertical plane and had a handful of advertising magnets flung willy-nilly at the mess.

When the boy was young, we had a couple of non-matching sets of letters and numbers on the fridge door as an encouragement for him to forever associate words with food. Just joking. They were for play, and for announcing special timelines or events.

“Four weeks to Xmas!”

“Cats for the premiership!”

“8th Birthday party on Saturday!”

The exclamation mark was one of the most used tiles.

As he became a little more sophisticated, sometimes I’d put up a phrase relating to current affairs and see how long it took him to notice the covert communication. In the lead-up to the last election, for instance, I mounted a political message:

“Darth Vader for President”

Usually it took the youngster mere seconds to notice the change on the fridge door, but he’d only comment when he thought the line was worthy of notice. Our fault. We’ve trained him to be a critical consumer of media, even fridge-memes.

Change is constant. Every phase of childhood is more complicated than the previous one; the new version overlays the old so effectively you can sometimes forget what the little fella was like. Browsing old photos or mini-films can mist you up quicker than you can say “The long farewell”.

Because that’s what it is, being a parent. A series of lettings go coupled with moments of holding close. When he’s sick he still needs us for comfort and re-assurance, but other times he’s immersed in a world for which we have no key, no entry pass, no real training. It’s how it should be, and doesn’t change one jot the immense love I feel, but often I notice a twinge of sadness, a stab of pre-emptive grief. Childhood, endless when we traverse it ourselves, passes in a blur of days for a parent—especially when there is you and a single child.

In our home, we are fast approaching the end of Primary School. Six years of elementary education have been completed; the new year will usher in a new adventure. Not sure if we are ready, but the boy is. He is tall and twelve and up for the next challenge. Deep into the endless Wheel of Time fantasy novels, downloading complicated sheet music for Undertale tunes, using language I was grappling with in senior high school. I hope I can keep up.

Yet in the rush of daily routines and weekly cycles, some things stand out.

Recently the lad was unwell. Just a cold, but a nasty one that laid him low for the best part of a week. Mum re-arranged things so someone was at home, offering paracetamol and comfort as required. He lay on the couch and read or watched old DVDs. It’s funny, that. When he’s unwell he reverts to entertainment from long ago, like Thomas the Tank Engine or re-reading Captain Underpants.

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A.A. Milne’s classic books were featured one sick-day. As I departed for work he was well into Winnie-The-Pooh and when I returned around supper time he had just finished The House At Pooh Corner.

I sat next to him on the couch. And after checking on his recovery, I made an observation.

You look a little sad, I said.

He fiddled with the sash on his Star Wars dressing gown and nodded. The books sat next to him on the other side. The same volumes that had entranced and entertained me as a child.

Not quite knowing how to proceed, I waited (a skill still needing considerable practice on my part).

It’s the ending, he said.

Of the books?

Yes, he said. The second one especially. Christopher Robin is leaving. He’s going to school. It doesn’t say exactly, but that’s what’s happening.

There was a very slight quaver in his voice.

It’s a long time since I’ve read The House At Pooh Corner, I said. Maybe I better refresh my memory.

He reached for the book and carefully opened it.

CHAPTER X

IN WHICH CHRISTOPHER ROBIN AND POOH COME TO AN ENCHANTED PLACE, AND WE LEAVE THEM THERE

The boy sat quietly as I read the chapter, easing a little closer as he detected the occasional sniffle.

Eeyore’s poem provides an eloquent summary.

Christopher Robin is going.

At least I think he is.

Where?

Nobody knows.

But he is going—

I mean he goes

(To rhyme with “knows”)

Do we care?

(To rhyme with “where”)

We do

Very much.

Yes, we care very much.

And when Pooh and Christopher Robin are at The Enchanted Place, and Christopher Robin knights Pooh and Pooh worries about being a bear of little brain and how he’ll live up to being a knight if he doesn’t understand Christopher Robin’s world, and when he wonders if “being a Faithful Knight meant that you just went on being faithful without being told things” it was all the boy’s daddy could do to contain his love and grief and overflowing heart. So he reached his arm out for a hug and the boy nestled in and they held each other and who’s to say whether there were tears or who was comforting whom but it felt good.

A few days later I noticed a new message on the fridge door.

Time g0 to

colLge and

make U prouDs!

Eeyore would complain about the grammar, but Pooh would understand.

It’s the long farewell, you see.

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GOODBYE PIPER

It was obvious that a new, possibly final phase had been entered when Mother got lost walking home from the shops, a journey undertaken every second day for many years. Closer examination—forensic, domestic—suggested her weight loss was not illness but forgetting to eat.

A few weeks of regular meals in the new accommodation and she was looking fuller and healthier. Happy pottering around the paths of the facility and stopping for a cigarette on her favourite bench. Then she started wandering further. Down the street, across a main road. Traffic sense intact yet, with so little language now available, not exactly safe.

She always liked walking. As long as she was walking she was happy.

Happy? An assumption, but one borne out by seeing the negative contact prints. The police got a bit grumpy about picking her up and depositing her back at the facility. The facility got grumpy about having to interact with the police (who were invariably kind to Mother, it was the business they were exasperated with). What can be done with this old lady who walks? Ah, they said, we’ll have to put her in the lock down ward. With all the shuffling dead, yelling and pissing themselves and raving and shitting their pants and my mother, speechless and horrified, locked in with the demented zombies because she followed the paths. You see, the Aged Care home had no fences.

An aged care facility without fences or gates. Couldn’t believe it. Still can’t. A building full of old folk beyond the end of their tether and there is no perimeter boundary. Rage sits in my gut like a flaming cannon ball. And I did not even see her in bedlam, that interstate hell hole ward. My sister told me of her edging to the walls, eyes glazed with terror, saying ‘Shit, shit, shit…’ under her breath. One of few words she had left. We have to act, said sister. We did, decisively.

A new home in a different state. Not just my city, but around the corner in the same suburb.  Different surroundings. Shit shit shit, she muttered. You’re feeling a bit scared, it’s new, but it’s OK. You’re safe here. The muttering subsides. Soon there’s a regular seat in the tiny walled garden where she can have a ciggie. Does so, until she forgets that she smokes.

Could have seen her every other day, easily, little bother. But didn’t. The shame curls my lip and brims my eye. I so wanted to be the kind of man who could leave behind the solitary confinement of each inmate in our family of origin prison; share the autumn garden. Or at least peer over the fence and say, how ya going? And I did, but not often. Not often enough to take satisfaction from the entries on the Family Compassion Ledger just inside the number-coded front door. Frequently enough to feel a chill portent; what if my child will not sit with me either? But no way I could think about losing language myself. A nightmare too far. Her, not me.

This year, as Mother slowly lost the ability to move even within the confines of her room, as the compacting process of an organic life-form shutting down for good claimed one capacity after another, I wondered to myself to my partner to my therapist to myself, what I could do. Time is getting short, the wizened carcass with eyes now glazed, now dreaming, now anguished, said. Time, intoned this collapsed suitcase, emptied of communication, has almost run.

Read to her.

Take a book, and read to her just as she read to you.

Forget the sadness, the transferred trauma, the inability to understand who you are. These did matter, but no longer.

The choice was simple, instant. The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame.

Given to this grandchild by Nana, inscribed by her daughter. I looked at the pictures by Ernest Shepard and Mother read the words.

Unsure if she can move at all, sat positioned so her face was pointed towards me. Started at the beginning, a very good place to start. Do Re Me with Mole and the beginning of his journey to a bigger self in a larger world. Over a couple of weeks we got through a few chapters, through the Wild Wood, meeting Badger, a role model for the son in grumpiness if not valour.

Not eating, not really drinking. Not long to go.

This day I jumped forward to Chapter VII, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. Unarguably my favourite part of the book and perhaps my favourite chapter in all children’s literature. Mystical, deeply spiritual, touching and mythic. Rat and Mole search for the missing baby otter, Portly, through the summer night and luminous dawn of the River Bank.

And then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humorously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter.

I cannot say the reader remained dry-eyed to the end of the chapter. Your greatest gift to me was a love of reading, I said. Words have enriched my life. Thank you.

Maybe it was the position of my chair, but she seemed to be staring at my face with piercing, ravenous intensity. I held that energetic link as long as I could manage, then kissed her forehead and said goodbye.

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Illustration: Ernest H Shepard

 

LITTLE BOY BLUE AND THE MAN ON THE MOON

Over recent days I’ve read a number of dad-related posts and wondered about the huge range of father experiences out there. It got me thinking about one of my favourite songs on fatherhood, Harry Chapin’s “Cats in the Cradle”.

When you coming home Dad I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then.

Playing the song again just now, I cry at the end. Again. It occurred to me, my son was just like me. An emotional surge part loss, part relief. Half my life has been spent trying to un-knot the smokey ropes of paternal control, with mixed success. Half a life spent in therapy, seeking a space to unpack, the trust to grow, the acceptance to heal… with mixed success. If development can be measured in dollar terms, this journeyman has spent a small fortune trying to avoid the conclusion the son is just like the father, only to reach a point of middle-aged resignation. I’ll always be part him, part me. More of the latter is the goal, now. Less furious demands for total eradication of the paternal legacy, the ‘him’.

“My son turned ten just the other day.

He said “Thanks for the ball, dad, come on let’s play.

Can you teach me to throw?” I said “Not today

I got a lot to do.” He said “That’s OK”

And he walked away, but his smile never dimmed, 

And said “I’m gonna be like him, yeah,

You know I’m gonna be like him.”

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And what would my son say of his father? What will he say to his friends, his lover, his own child? He was born, child of older parents, four years after my father died. Does it seem strange to him that there are so few stories of his unknown grandpa? Maybe you don’t miss what you never had. Like affection, trust, warmth. Yeah, right.

Well he came from college just the other day

So much like a man I just had to say

“Son, I’m proud of you can you sit for a while?”

He shook his head and said with a smile

“What I’d really like dad is to borrow the car keys

See you later. Can I have them please?”

I miss it. Or what I imagine it is. Warmth, trust, connection. And when Harry Chapin reminds me in four verses how brief the parenting lifetime really is, it focuses my attention very sharply indeed on enjoying each hour I have to observe, hug, play with and occasionally admonish this child, this individual, this precious human I’ve been gifted. Not given to keep, but to nurture as best I can with my clumsy insights and wrinkled heart.

When I lived in Germany for a year, I painstakingly translated a poster in the train carriage of my daily commute.

“When they’re young, give them roots

As they grow, give them wings”

Neatly put; wonderfully true, in an aspirational way. But as my boy bounds towards teenage-hood I want to shout, Slow down! What’s the rush? The anticipated grief of his launching into his own life fills me with such wonder and pain it feels as if my chest is being wrenched open with a pneumatic jack.

We went to a giant hardware store on the weekend, just for light globes and gardening gloves, this boy’s Daddy doesn’t do DIY. While I was trying to work out which globes were dimmable (dim being the operative word), he wandered to the next aisle to look at the signs. I went on to grab something else from another part of the store and was gone longer than anticipated, by me and by him. When I went back he looked scared. The big twelve-year-old was a little boy again, where’s my Daddy? I checked: are you OK? He nodded, I felt guilty. As we walked towards the checkout I thought, a good parent would check the child has a plan for such circumstances; what would you do? Where would you go if you were uncertain? But then he reached out and took my hand, and all my words vanished.

So did at least one heart-wrinkle.

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This is the first new content at Lonely Keyboards. Hope you can join me for what is sure to be a varied journey. The above post connects to my other blog, Vinyl Connection, via a simultaneous post on the album Verities and Balderdash by Harry Chapin.