On a Milestone

On this day, ten years ago, my inspiration died. Her name was Barbara. She was 55. She gave me all my good bits. She taught me that being the smartest person in the room doesn’t mean anything if you’re an a**hole about it. When I covered my books and walls with glamorous photos of actresses, she worried that I would overvalue the superficial. She was my first feminist. She encouraged rigorous thought and diligent work. One thing sure to bring out her iciest side-eye was any sign I was ‘coasting’ at school. She was generous with her energies, as wives and mothers often are, perhaps to a fault. She cooked seriously good French-American food every night and, to my retrospective shame, cleaned up after us all. She survived grief, abandonment and abuse. Her humour was warm and wry and she was wicked good at Scrabble.

My mom was a gifted pianist, and loved the arts so much she crossed the Atlantic to live in London, where museums are free and history goes way, way back. She raised us on theatre, ballet and painting. I swear to God there was one point in my adolescence where I actually threw a strop about seeing too many frescos.

I remember one weekend morning in my childhood when the weather was good and my family had been eating breakfast in the garden. What must have started as one or two newspapers had, in the course of dissection into their composite parts, become a large ink-continent surrounding us. In this setting, I always looked for the colour parts. Colour meant Style or Entertainment. I was not yet a diligent reader of the ‘serious stuff’. I still recall feeling cheated whenever the Business section disguised its true purpose with some fantastic graphic on the front page. Still, I must have wandered off-piste because I came across the expression ‘right-wing’ or ‘left-wing’ — one of the wings in any case — and had asked her what it meant. My mother was an excellent explainer. I remember her hands tracing a compass in the air as she described big governments and small governments, welfare states and bootstrap self-determinism. At the end of her description I said, “So I’m a Communist?” She laughed. “Maybe,” she said, and then offered, “I’m a Socialist. Your father isn’t.”

Barbara knew she was going to die. She waded through two and a half years of chemotherapy. She left letters for my elder brother and I to help us in the aftermath. She left one for me to open on my 21st birthday. I have spent the morning working piece by piece through the shoebox in which I keep the material half of my grief. Photos, birthday cards, letters, her perfume, her watch, her favourite barrettes. It contains many wonderful notes of condolence, from her friends, my friends, teachers even. To all of you who were so kind to us, thank you.

Nothing teaches you about permanence like grief. I have tried to rebuild her from my own salt. I have followed her haircut through public spaces on strangers’ heads. I have stuttered agnostic prayers over the river she loved. There are two things I cannot change, no matter what I do: I can’t bring her back, and I can’t change how I behaved in her final years. If I actually face up to it, my horror and shame about how little I helped her are enough to sink me. She was discreet about her suffering, so I ignored it. I remember brushing past her foot once in bed, causing her to yelp in pain. When I pulled back the sheets I saw that her foot was swollen so badly the skin had begun to rip apart. She hadn’t mentioned it. I hadn’t asked. I would relate, mile-a-minute, how much fun I was having on my adventures, without pausing to think how that might feel to my best friend, wired for fluids and waiting out a death sentence. I didn’t visit her nearly as much as I should have. Whilst she was still mobile, but very much mid-wrestle with chemo, I let her clean up after me just like before. She told me it would be useful if I learned to drive so I could take her to her treatments, but, I told myself, I wasn’t really into cars. Yes, many teenagers are terribly selfish. Many aren’t. It was a choice. Kind people tell me I have to forgive myself, which I’ll admit is not something I understand. What I do understand is consequence. I know well the unbeatable demon regret. Sometimes I dream her just so I can apologise.

One of the most popular delusions of our species is the phrase “everything happens for a reason”. No, it doesn’t. We retrospectively assign meaning to things that have happened as a way of processing them. People use that phrase to mute their fear of the violence of chance. We are all part of a plan, they say, we are all somewhere on the journey we’re supposed to be on… no and no again. There is no plan, your journey is improvised and it can end at any time for no reason at all. I learned that ten years ago, and I’m still trying to figure out how the f*** to use my metaphorical compass. I try to live in her honour. I am very, very lucky to have known such a True North.