And mine, with my heart in't
The problem with The Girl being like me is that when we have a disagreement, it becomes a standoff. There can only ever be two losers. Food, clothes, toys, bedtimes… - you name it, we will face one another, and neither of us will back down. So when I do manage to achieve a victory, however small, it becomes a source of immense pride and satisfaction. To date, I have managed one victory. In six years. Getting her to hold my hand.
Remember the toddler years? The
hourly daily battle of wills you have? Every weekday, at
half past eight, and three o’clock: ‘You need to hold my hand.’ ‘NAAAAAAAOOOOOWWWWW.’
‘Hold. My. Hand.’ ‘NAAAAAAAOOOOOWWWWW.’ ‘HOLD. MY.’ ‘NAAAAAAAOOOOOWWWWW.’
Exhausting. Painful. Public. After several months of squirming and twisting,
trying to free herself from my grasp, The Girl decided to focus her energies on
more entertaining methods of thwarting peace and quiet, and meekly submitted to
holding my hand whenever we walked anywhere.
And she still does it now, aged six. She panics if I can’t, because I’m weighed down with holding schoolbags, lunchboxes, book bags, discarded coats, apple cores, school created works of art, etc. She won’t even just hold my arm. It has to be her tiny, soft hand placed in my aged and rough mitt, my fingers enclosing hers.
The Boy’s not the same at all. He’ll hold my hand when we cross busy roads, but beyond that, he’s never been bothered, probably because when he was a toddler I didn’t have to negotiate A roads and city traffic, and car parks and things like that. Anywhere we went, we went in the car (the joy of living in the countryside, where there are no pavements), so the question of making sure he couldn’t dart off into traffic did not arise.
But then Tuesday happened. And for The Boy, things are never going to be quite the same.
I knew who she was. Two sons, the eldest of whom is one of The Boy’s friends, the younger six years old, the same as The Girl. We’d spoken a few times in the playground, but the way these things work out, we had never really clicked, and become closer. Friendly enough, but we didn’t hang around and chat. Then, about 18 months ago, I noticed she was becoming paler, thinner. Her husband started doing the school run more often, she wasn’t around much. Then she started wearing a headscarf for a few months. When that came off, it was to reveal fresh new hair, regrowing. In the very British way of doing things, we observed, but ‘didn’t want to pry’. Didn’t want to seem nosy, rubbernecking. None of us said anything to each other, either. Some topics aren’t right to gossip over. Those who were friendlier with her had quieter, more thoughtful chats at hometime. The rest of us hung back, taking care to make eye contact and smile at her, hoping to let her know, wordlessly, that we didn’t know what to do, wanted to do something, but at the same time, didn’t want to add a further strain.
Thinking about her this week, I realised I couldn’t remember seeing her at the school gates since term started. It wasn’t necessarily significant. The Boy is always one of the last out, so the Girl and I take our time on our way to pick him up. Now they’re in Year 5, a lot of children walk home by themselves in any case. I chided myself for automatically thinking negatively. But then Tuesday happened.
The Boy has swimming last lesson on Tuesdays, thus adding to the delay in leaving school. Fifteen minutes after school had ended, he still hadn’t come out, and The Girl, clutching my hand, and doing the ‘Dying for a wee, I didn’t need to go when I was in school, but now I fear it may be about to start the trickle of humiliation’ jiggle next to me, was scornfully saying ‘Let’s just GO!’ when I spotted him, shoulders slumped, head down, slowly shuffling along the path. Irritation at his tardiness turned to annoyance. Why did he always have to be the last one out? Then I saw his face. Streaked with tears.
‘Have you heard, Mum?’
‘Tom’s mum died this morning.’
I held him as he tried to stop the tears from rising again, feeling his body shudder with the effort, his chest expanding. And all the way home, despite the fact I had my bag, his schoolbag, his lunchbox, both Blondie’s swimming bags, The Girl’s book bag to carry, he kept hold of my hand, never once letting it go.
And I knew it wasn’t just sadness for his friend. He was struggling to cope with the realisation that bad, sad things don’t just happen on the news, or in books. Bad, sad happen in real life too. That his friend was going to grow up without his mother. And if it happened to his friend, it could happen to him, too. For the rest of the afternoon and evening, The Boy was quiet, withdrawn. A longer than normal hug at bedtime. Wednesday morning, the same. I had to go into the school office and say he ‘wasn’t feeling well’, with an exaggerated eyeroll at the secretary on the counter, who discreetly winked back.
Then the phone call at one o’clock. ‘The Boy’s here in the office. Says he’s not well, and needs to speak to you?’ He sounded fine. When I asked him what was wrong, he said nothing was wrong, he was fine. Why then had he got the school to phone me? ‘Dunno.’ Did he want to come home? ‘No.’ Hmm.
An hour later, another phone call. Did he want to come home this time? A tearful yes. And I knew what that first phone call was about. It wasn’t that he was feeling unwell. It wasn’t even really that he wanted to come home so much. He had just wanted to hear my voice.
So we sat in the park for forty minutes, until it was time to collect The Girl. And it was a hard conversation to have. My instinct was to tell him not to worry, to reassure, to rub away the anxiety and fear clouding his mind. But I couldn’t. Because bad, sad things do happen in real life. Because Tom and his younger brother are going to grow up without their mum. Because The Boy had realised that we are all frail, earthly beings. Because Tom’s mum died.
And The Boy held my hand. His soft, rounded hand, nearly as big as mine. He held my hand, and I held his. Because things are never going to be quite the same again.