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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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.