When tragedy strikes, we often marvel at the fact that life goes on, regardless. Something awful and planet-sized has happened, changing the landscape of your life – and yet people around you are still watching Hollyoaks, still vaping, still walking around with highlights in their hair, totally unaffected. Less talked about is the fact that you also go on. Not quite regardless and not just in the sense of a vapid you-got-this-mama platitude. You go on because you don’t have the option not to. You go on – despite being shocked and shattered and running on empty – because someone has to fill in the council forms, or clear out the house, or talk to the police. Or parent the child.
I recently got some Really Quite Bad News (not The Worst News, but almost) about my mother. And, the second after I got it, I still had to coax baked beans into my two-year-old son, and do all the character dances from In The Night Garden, and find him some clean pyjamas, and sing our special “brush your teeth” song, so that he would put his toothbrush in his mouth this time, and not the toilet.
And, in a way, it helped. In a way, when your head is a tarry mess of bad thoughts, it is comforting to have a small warm body snuggled into your side, solemnly intoning the last words of every sentence as you progress through The Tiger Who Came To Tea. When you’ve had a week of forcing yourself to nod reasonably during quietly horrific conversations about resuscitation, it is healing to have to clean out a diarrhoaeic infant nappy on a crowded train. Because one of the worst things about grief is how it dogs your every waking moment – and spending at least a few of those moments panicking about where to wipe your pooey hands is, believe it or not, a welcome relief.
When you’ve had a week of forcing yourself to nod reasonably during quietly horrific conversations about resuscitation, it is healing to have to clean out a diarrhoaeic infant nappy on a crowded train
The hospital my mother is in is 100 miles away. Going there twice a week involves a five-hour round trip on a series of increasingly frigid trains and, when I get home, my son is asleep and my husband is often sloping up the stairs. So, I asked them to come with me one weekend. It would be like a city break, I reasoned, only a shitty one, where you spend most of your waking hours on a beeping ward with doctors shaking their heads sadly at you.
Imagine my surprise, though, when we had a lovely time.
Not perpetually, of course – the hospital part was still a drag through purgatory – but hanging out with my family was a balm on my soul. We admired the architecture as we walked around. We did a spot of shopping. We even enjoyed coffees in cafés. Even the rougher stuff was fun. The fact that we, as a family, accidentally checked into a hotel designed with romancing couples in mind – all dim lighting and lilies and black walls – was hilarious. The evening meal in Jamie’s Italian which was 10 per cent eating and 90 per cent moving wine glasses out of the way of my son’s flailing cutlery. Even the fact that he wouldn’t sleep in our ultra-comfortable, super-sleep super-kind bed was glorious. Because I had to cope with it. A very lonely part of grief is the feeling that this crushing sensation will never change, and you will never cope again. But, with the tornado that is toddler management, you are constantly learning that you WILL cope, because you ARE coping right now. One life might be ending, but another is trying to stick sweetcorn up its nose. I’m not saying that children are the cure for unhappiness – I’m just saying that my child is helping me.
No one gives out prizes for “adulting”. You don’t win a cookie for doing your taxes, or regularly clipping your toenails, or getting that mole checked. Similarly, people just accept that parents will wither and children will grow, and no one will give you a trophy for navigating either scenario. But sometimes – just sometimes – one will help the other.