Monday 24 October 2016

'This is a family home. Without my children, I'm a stranger in it'

The holidays have come and her children have gone. Miriam O'Callaghan hears the sound of silence in a house that is suddenly eerily empty

Miriam O'Callaghan

Published 09/08/2015 | 02:30

HOLD THE MOMENTS: Soon the Lego-Men assassins and Sylvanian megalopolis will be mere memories. Treasure your small children, as in this scene in ‘The Imitation of Life’
HOLD THE MOMENTS: Soon the Lego-Men assassins and Sylvanian megalopolis will be mere memories. Treasure your small children, as in this scene in ‘The Imitation of Life’

It's the holidays. The children are gone. I'm home alone. Back from the airport, I throw the keys on the hall table. In every room I enter, it is the same: I collide with my children's absence, the walls shrinking, then bulging, momentarily, from the force. Beneath me, the cat has pounced on and is devouring my secret, exposing its small white bones: this is a family home, and without my children, I am a stranger in it.

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Yes, they've been gone before, but this time it's different. My son recently turned 18, and even as we pack up the car, there is the definite, though unspoken, sense of this being, somehow, a dress rehearsal. Not long from now, he will begin a life where 'home' is relegated to somewhere for holidays, Christmas, eventually, to bring the one who might be the one. With luck, the mother of my grandchildren. With greater luck, not for a while.

Of course, I tell him that when the D Day of departure arrives, I will 'Do a Dave' on it. Our friend Dave, so devoted, he waits at the airport until his mother-in-law's plane is in the air. As he puts it "I like to make sure she leaves the country". I suspect, though, I will 'Do my Dad' on it. Summer 1983. On a 747 taxiing for take-off to JFK, I look out the window and see a figure racing us along the runway. It is my dad heading straight for the Atlantic, calling out to someone as he runs. I know now it was to the pilot. "Fly safely. You're carrying precious cargo".

By the time we take off, it is summer 2015 and I am flying through my house, unfathered by his death, unmothered by my children's absence, unmade by being an intruder in my life, home. As I look into my son's room (curated) and my daughter's (Gaza) I see that identity once held fast, becomes a confusion, a conundrum of the middle years. Because who are we when we are dead men's daughters? Who are we when we are mothers without children? Who are we when we're at home without the people who give meaning to our lives?

Growing up, my sisters and I knew exactly who we were. To all and sundry we were "Pat's Girls". To Pat himself we were and remained "My Beautiful Daughters". Only towards the end, at the various wards, ICUs, three beautiful girls never showed up. Staff expecting visions of beauty were greeted instead by a sight: three tired women battling time, hormones, gravity and the savage uncertainty of life as lived.

It is a cruelty of middle age that we can lose our parents to death and amnesia, and our children to independence and the world at around the same time. We lose, too, our sense of immortality: the death of a parent, conscripting us, marching us up to the front line, as their raw replacement, our boots hardly polished, our papers barely in order. Fate, luck or genes - the no-mans-land between us and our demise. At the same time, as childhood friends come apart at dodgy seams, or lose cells they want and find cells they don't, there's the sense that above the clouds the sign reads 'Gone Fishing' and the spiteful gods are headed for our pond.

These are the years we go from knowing exactly who we were to wondering who are we at all, as we live with the consequences of our choices and decisions, our failures and successes, of what we have done ourselves and what has been done to us by others. But, just as we need to start kicking over-confidence out of our children (for the record I'm rabidly anti-beating or the saccharine "smacking") as mothers of teens, we need to start punching cop-on into ourselves and each other. Our nests are emptying - rightly and perversely - thanks to how well we nurtured our young, introduced them to the world, got them to fly. The task of waking the sun up, tucking it in, before doing it all over again with the moon, is done. Now, the sun sets, the moon rises and though we watch them still with our sons, our daughters, we do so in different parts of the world. And of our time in it. And of our time with each other. So who will be? What will we become, or will become of us, when we are mothers without children? When we are home alone? Sitting uncomfortably? Then we'll begin.

On the radio, all week, tuned to their station, the songs are all wrong; there is a prurience to my listening. Apart from the cat or the phone - I reach at light speed to pick it up, it might be Them! - there is no sound unless I make it, switch it on. At the front door lies a dead blackbird. I scold her murderer, gathering kitchen paper, trowel, gardening gloves, the accoutrements of the sexton. In my pocket the phone explodes. Them! Through a gap in the paper towel, I examine the hole in the bird's throat and they tell me they are having a ball. That I'd have loved x, y, z. Thanks to the gloves, I have put them on speaker. Their voices are startling. "Love you millions." Gone. The house silent as the dead songbird in my hand.

If you have temporarily retreated from your Smallies and are reading this in the safe haven of the coffee shop, the car, the bath, the kitchen, the garden shed, when you get back to them, make the most of them. In a blink, there'll be no bikes in the garden. No digging for dinosaur teeth at the end of it. No Sylvanian megalopolis in the attic. No Mozart married to a woman named Symphonies. No small boy in a sheriff's badge quizzing "Elvis is dead? Why didn't anybody tell me?" No Tiny Tears or Baby Born stuffed into the oven of Rose Petal Cottage. No Lego-men assassins on the floor. After 10 whole seconds that are in fact 10 years, when you reach out to your children, yours will be the small hand in theirs. They will dwarf you, pity you, confer over your head, holding on to the remote, telling you solemnly "No you can't watch that. It's totally unsuitable. Jesus, woman, do you want to give yourself a stroke?"

In the house, my children's absence is a presence. The silence is growing. And growing on me. The meals eaten, more usually uneaten, alone. It's time apart. Time to rethink, reinvent, re-imagine.

It's the holidays. The children are away. I'm home alone. Only without the censors, I have the remote. So, there's the cat and me and The Wolf of Wall Street.

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