Passing the ball forward. (Or, how Anglo-Saxon Poetry finally proved useful)
I had another one of those moments last week where I watched my own life like a movie. Just a moment, a vignette in instagram colours, with the camera close up on our faces. I was in hospital. Billy had brought the boys in to have an ice cream with me after tea, and brought my mum too. I hadn’t seen the boys since I’d been admitted at A&E the night before. And my mum hadn’t seen me. I rushed up to give my sweaty, slightly odorous boys a mummy hug. They resisted my cuddles so I was left to ruffle their tousled heads whilst they told me purposefully about a snake, a fight with Fletcher, something important that had happened that day. Mum hugged my arm whilst I was mid hair ruffle. And she looked at me the way I look at them.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about parental love: what it is now, how it might change over the years, and what it’s really for. I’ve been preoccupied by the weight of my love for the little Knights. The weight of my worry for them like a vast anglo-saxon góld-hòrd. Worry is the currency of my love, because worry is just what I do, and how love manifests itself in Kate-world. Worry for how they are now, how they will be in the future. I hope my worry-love doesn’t weigh them down – I am so used to living this way that the gold and jewels of concern anchor, rather than tether me. But I try hard not to pass the weight to them because little shorts have such small pockets, and carrying treasure around would make it very hard to climb the highest trees and slide down the sheerest drops. Knights (or even cnihts) need to travel light and fast, accompanied only by gossamer armour and weapons of their own choosing.
My parents have the same treasure-house of love for me. It has never weighed me down. But realising how limitless this parental store of treasure is has been one of the best parts of becoming a grown-up. I think I started to get it when I was about 23, about the same time I started seeing dirt and recognising the necessity of housework. Before then I was entirely self-centered. Entirely. Parents were a blurry backdrop, an irritation, available to take things from and argue with when needed. They remembered my birthday, I forgot theirs. But slowly, slowly over my twenties they became people as well as parents. Formed human beings with actual features and personalities. Then I had my own children and suddenly I could see right inside their góld-hòrds. Could anyone love anything as much as I loved Oscar and Isaac? Aha. That is how they love me. And how completely, unspeakably crap it must be for them to watch me labour with the Nuisance. I know they would have it instead of me in an instant if they could. And how sure I am that that losing a child is the worst that can be in the world. There is a horror, an unnaturalness which compels me to read and think about it, and to remember that how I would feel is how my mum feels and her mum before her, and before her, stretching back into the pre-history of Grosses. In my readings I came across The still point of the turning world, a story written by a friend of a friend whose little boy died of a degenerative disease. She writes like an angel and the book will stay with me forever. Read it, or some of her blog, because it’s the real deal in every way.
But what is the treasure house of love for? I have lots of unanswered questions about how it will feel to love a child of 10, 20, 30, 40 or more. Mum tells me it changes and instinctively I know the treasure house will offer up different bits of its vast hoard at different times. But I have answered the question of what it is for for the under-fours to my satisfaction. Being surrounded by this golden love provides security, even before a child can register their surroundings at all. It is what makes my Knights confident in their world. It is like gold in their banks to draw on for the rest of their lives. Even if the Mummy-Master of the góld-hòrd isn’t there forever, the bank accounts remain full of the gold checked in early on. That knowledge has been an inspiration and a comfort to me and I know to others in even graver positions than I. Realising that all children don’t have this is such a profoundly sad thing.
Billy had a conversation with his Dad about parent-love when the boys were born. Billy’s wise, wise Dad. He said to Billy that a parent’s love was like a ball. It got passed on to each generation. But the ball only went one way – from parent to child, to parent to child. You don’t expect to get the ball passed back to you by your own kids in this particular game. Yes, of course we love our parents. We need them (however old we get, we always need them), we adore them. But it is just a different kind of love to the sort you give a child. And as parents, our job is to pass the ball forward not hang around waiting to get it back in the same form.
But that doesn’t mean that we thirty-something in-betweeners, we who are both breeders and children can’t say thank you when we realise just how big the ball is, how rich the parental treasure house. So, for Billy and for me, how lucky we are to have been loved so much. The gold in the bank of all that love when we were small and now we are grown, and what it has let us be and accomplish. I wish so much I could promise to repay my Mum and Dad by wiping their incontinent old bottoms, grilling doctors and holding their memories together when they begin to fray (or smuggling them to Dignitas so they can be put down together like a pair of old dogs, as they threaten). I’ll be there if I possibly can. It’s the least I can do.
Some extra words of explanation..
When I was at university I spent many hours studying anglo-saxon poetry (eg the Wanderer). At the time I thought it was utterly thankless. But since, I have realised how the poems populated my word-bank and formed my mental landscape. And now very often when I search for a word I find myself wanting an anglo-saxon compound. Bone-house for my body, góld-hòrd for treasure house and so on. Me and Gerald Manley Hopkins both, though of course he was a complete GENUIS and I am rather less so. Anyway, it finally came in handy, so thank you to the late, great Professor Malcolm Parkes for teaching me so patiently.
For those wanting actual news of me: I started chemo 2 weeks ago and have just had round 2. The foxhole beckons with its usual joys, but so too do intermittent hospitalisations to keep the risk of infection from my still-healing liver at bay. We’ll keep you posted.