September 2010. My little one’s first day at school. Such a big deal. And in two months’ time an even bigger deal. I will have to move him out of our home, the home I dreamed of my boys growing up in, putting down roots in, coming back to visit with tales of college, of girlfriends, of their stage of the journey.
But just now I’m feeling relieved. I have made it through the summer holidays, taking care of a four year old and a seven year old by myself. I have survived waving them off on holiday with their father and grandparents for a whole week. So very small. Another agony to pile on top of the others, now so tightly packed they don’t so much cut as compress to suffocation.
Just now, though, the little one’s in Reception with one of the world’s loveliest infant teachers, effortlessly both tomboy and mother substitute. The oldest is having his first day in the Juniors. These are rites of passage which have been prepared for and are now in motion. I head to the coffee shop on the corner, feeling spare. For the past two years I have spent most weekday mornings between 9am and 9.30am in here, watching the little one learn to read via the second hand Thomas The Tank Engine books kindly abandoned by someone who knows. Now… there’s just me, a coffee and maybe a brief try at being an individual again.
And then, in front of me, is a woman I know slightly from the coffee shop mornings. She is clear-skinned and vivacious, American; she once stopped me on the street to ask where I got my hair cut; she has a gorgeous blond son in a buggy.
‘I’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer,’ she says, holding my gaze. ‘I am so scared.’
And we talk, for a while, caught awkwardly in front of the counter, and I thank her for sharing, and I am not sure what to do but we have a good conversation and at the end I give her a hug.
‘I just want ten years,’ she tells me.
And a bit of me is anxious, almost annoyed, that my relief at getting to the end of summer intact has been ruptured, that it isn’t heralding the start of a more stable time but pointing up that there is no such thing as stability, that life is an ever-opening succession of black holes.
We rarely come across each other directly after that. I don’t go to the café so much. Our children aren’t in the same class. I know she has a fantastic support group of wonderful friends. I think of another woman I knew, with breast cancer, who’d had to say good bye to her three children and the thought is too awful to hold.
My children grow. We move out, and then back into the area when our new, fiercely downsized place is ready. We cope. We stabilize. The boys do karate, art club, start swimming lessons at the local pool. And I see the woman, from time to time, in a series of beautiful headscarves, and once, sunning her elegant scalp outside the café.
‘Doctor’s orders,’ she smiles.
And then last year, at a mutual friend’s birthday drinks, the woman comes along, her exquisite bones striking through her skin, wearing an expensive jacket she jokes about not being able to afford, but bought anyway. And she goes on joking through the evening, about her increasingly strange behaviour since the cancer has spread to her brain. She has us in fits of laughter at the farce around the family portrait she organized, and the absurd argument she had on the bus home. She sets the tone and we follow. The laughing is good, a release, but at the same time it feels like breaking glass in my fist.
I am coping a little better each day, but every now and then something trivial throws me. The swimming lessons are going wonderfully well, both boys are progressing. But then the oldest starts swimming with school too, and it’s a bit too much so we riskily suspend his private lesson for a term and rather inevitably lose his regular Thursday slot. I moan at his wonderful swimming teacher. I really can’t find the energy to take the two boys to the pool on different nights, which is now what’s on offer.
And then it’s Christmas, and the woman is in front of me at the school show with her video camera, cruelly short curls clinging to her dainty head. We smile. I feel pathetically inadequate. I can offer nothing. The mutual friend from the birthday drinks is there. They hug.
And then we are in the café, other friends and I, and the woman comes in, and sits alone. We invite her to join us, but she smiles and says no, she has one or two things to take care of on her laptop. And so she sits separately, in the room but apart.
I have failed to meet her openness that first day in this same place – ‘I am so scared’ – because I am so scared too.
The wonderful swimming teacher rings and says she has solved the timetable issue. The family who come at 4pm on Thursday have said it’s no problem for them to come at 4.30pm. So I have minimized the degree to which I am inconvenienced. We will come straight from school, past the old house – ‘I miss my old bedroom, Mummy, and the garden’ – to the pool, no hanging around, both boys will have their lesson at the same time and we’ll be home by five. By seven the three of us will be on the sofa together, eating fruit, watching TV, their healthy bodies resting on my knackered one.
The woman died last Friday, peacefully, at home. She had everything prepared. No doubt she was doing some organizing that afternoon in the café, on her laptop. And probably in the evenings too, after her children had gone to bed, as she came to terms with knowing she would shortly have to stop tucking them in.
And I feel like all I did was stare in helpless horror at her loss, and her children’s loss, and the random brutality of it all.
This week, taking the little one swimming, the delightful instructor is talking to my oldest about welcoming him back after Easter. She turns to me and says again how lovely the family is, the one that agreed to move their lessons because I was so keen to have the two 4pm slots for my boys.
And then she says ‘but it’s so sad, because the mother, she died last Friday’. And my son says, ‘oh, that must be the same person you were telling us about, Mum’.
And I nod and I think of her, in the midst of her plans for her death, saying ‘yes, no problem, we’ll move our lesson time to suit someone else’.
I hadn’t known what to say to her. But I do now.
And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords Of life.
And I have something to expiate: A pettiness.
From ‘Snake’ by DH Lawrence