I was talking to my dad last year, as he drove me home from the airport, about how his parents felt when he was moving away from home in the 80s. I was at a funny stage in my life just then, finished with Ireland but unsettled in London, just back from three months in Greece trying to puzzle it all out.
“Did they mind?” I asked him, “when you were all leaving?” Meaning, I suppose, were they disappointed? Were they angry with you? Are you disappointed? Are you angry with me?
“They were the same as I am with you,” he replied. “I love you to be here and I miss you when you’re gone, but I’d never want you to change your plans because of that.”
I nodded in response, staring idly out at the motorway zooming past. This is the sort of answer I was soliciting – something that wouldn’t make me feel too bad. I was wrapped up in myself, more than I usually am, and didn’t want to focus on anything but the bittersweetness of my own confusion about what was going to happen to me.
Then, casually, as he indicated and switched lanes, he continued: “I suppose the thing that gets to me is thinking about how limited times like these are, times when you’re home for a substantial period instead of just a night or two. When you think about how many more of these we’ll have together – well, they’re limited. They’re very limited, really.”
I can’t remember now what I replied, but I remember the lump building in my throat, remember the fierce concentration I had to summon to keep my stare steady and focused, to not let any tears leak out. There it was – the biggest fear of my life, condensed into one throwaway remark my dad probably doesn’t even remember making.
I have to suppress my panic that I do not see my family enough, my suspicion that I will be ruined with regret at some point in the future for ever leaving in the first place
I’ve been afraid of my dad dying for as long as I remember. The thread of fear runs from me at seven years old, weeping to a babysitter that I didn’t think he was ever going to return, to me at 27, unable to sleep last night, compulsively counting how many years I could reasonably expect to still have left with him; trying to guess at what age I would be able to cope without him; not being able to imagine one.
In the years since I left home at 18, but particularly since I moved country, the fear has been thickened and amplified by the addition of guilt. I come home for Christmas every year, have never missed one yet. I love it, but it functions as a reminder that though traditions stay the same, everyone is getting older – me, my brothers, my stepparents, my mother and father. It comes around so quickly, forcing me to think about how many more we will all have together. I have to suppress my panic that I do not see my family enough, my suspicion that I will be ruined with regret at some point in the future for ever leaving in the first place.
The Christmas period becomes such a complex, knotty one for these reasons. I think this hyper-awareness of brevity I’ve cultivated impacts my relationships both positively and negatively. I don’t take people for granted as I did when I was a bratty teenager. I genuinely look forward to and relish the time I get to spend at home every year – look at it as a restorative incubation to prepare me for the coming year. I feel completely safe, cared for and sated when I am home, and the longer I’ve been out in the world, the more I’ve come to appreciate this, to see how rare it is and how lucky I am.
On the other hand, such awareness brings a certain pressure to the relatively brief window I am at home. It becomes difficult to be grumpy or lazy or quiet, to just sit in front of Coronation Street without remonstrating yourself later for wasting a precious evening. I find it hard, too, having big life catch-ups with my dad. Even if I am broadly happy, there will always be something difficult going on that I inevitably cry about. But I feel guilty, then, that I’ve made him worry. There is an inclination to just dial up the wattage of my smile and not go into the hard stuff to avoid that happening.
There will always be a tension between honouring the life you came from and focusing on the new, still-forming one you are building for yourself elsewhere, but this year I’d like to try and get out from under it when I’m home.
It’s commonly advised to tell your relatives how much you love them, before you miss your chance. But I think I need to take the opposite tack. I constantly make sure my parents know that I love them – there is simply no danger of anyone doubting it. Instead, I’d like to enjoy their company without accounting for each moment, without imbuing every visit with meaning and portent. This year, I am trying to sit calmly within the minutiae of home, the afternoons of mute television-watching, the shouting at my brothers when they’re whisky-drunk and wrestling, the walk to Mass – those things which my dad calls the “ordinary-extraordinary”.