I’ve noticed a change in my dad lately. His mum’s been ill and he seems to have lost some of his energy; some of his unrelenting hope and zest for life. It’s still there, for sure, but it’s not shining quite so brightly.
Just after his 89-year-old mum, my grandma, had a fall that left her unable to move for a while, my 31-year-old brother went into hospital for an elective knee op. He was meant to be in and out in a day but after the operation his blood pressure dropped dangerously low and he kept spiking a temperature. So they kept him in overnight.
My dad, who would usually say that worrying is a waste of energy, sat staring at the floor in a sort of exhausted trance. Then he started talking about MRSA and other infections and how you hear of people who go in for a routine op and never come out. He looked scared. It wasn’t like him.
A day or so later, when my brother was safely out of hospital and watching 2001 episodes of Teachers with his leg up on the couch, I asked my dad what was happening and why he was uncharacteristically beaten. ‘I’m totally knackered,’ he explained, ‘and suddenly, at my age, you start to realise that time is running out.’ It made my heart hurt.
Now I’ve moved away from home, I’m very aware of missing out on all the little things I used to be privy to. Arguments, unexpected acts of tenderness, bickering, learning about the past in weird little bite size chunks that are shared because the moment demands it. I’m not around for those moments anymore.
Never has it been more obvious than this week, in the run up to my sister’s wedding. My mum and dad are doing things to prepare. Normally I’d be there, listening in, helping out, soaking it all up, learning about life, learning about those I love the most. Instead I’m proofreading in a summer house on the Isle of Wight, wondering what they’re all up to.
Sometimes my new world feels so isolated. I miss the contact I used to have with old people and babies and locals who knew my family history and how great a teacher my dad was and the way my granddad used to sing in the social club. Other times I feel relief that I can breathe my own air and not feel pressured to be places and see people all the time. But when I feel like that, guilt is not far behind, and then fear follows; fear of growing selfish; fear of being forgetten; fear of losing them all together before I’ve done all I can to get to their bones.
The story of Hannah Smith hit me hard this week. The fourteen-year-old took her own life after being bullied on ask.fm – a social networking platform that to me seems pointless. I had some experience of it myself last year when my own 14-year-old cousin received some vile anonymous comments on her page before finally deleting it. Because I was close enough to visit her regularly, she showed me the page and confided in me. I doubt that would happen now. We’re still close but I just don’t have the time with her and her sister that I used to have. They’re growing up and I’m missing it. And if anything happened to them, I wouldn’t be around. Not immediately, anyway.
This isn’t unique, I know. It’s age-old. Millions of people move away from home and miss out on precious family experiences. But it’s new to me. And I’m still trying to work it all out.