Can’t see nothin’ in front of me
Can’t see nothin’ coming up behind
I make my way through this darkness
I can’t feel nothing but this chain that binds me
Lost track of how far I’ve gone
How far I’ve gone, how high I’ve climbed
On my back’s a sixty pound stone
On my shoulder a half mile of line
Springsteen, The Rising
Stupidly, I’d only booked a three-week stay that second trip and they flew by with alarming speed. There is so much you need to cram in when time is short. Ultimately, it can never be enough. And so, too quickly, the day came when, once again, we had to say our farewells.
This time, the kids insisted on coming with us to the airport and I had four people to say goodbye to instead of just one, so my sorrow was multiplied. I knew it was tearing Jersey girl apart, but she kept a brave face for the kids and I tried to do the same. As I held her in one last embrace, I felt a void begin to open in my chest which only continued to grow over the course of the long flight home.
I remember dropping my bags on the floor of my apartment when I got back and just breaking down. How much longer could I keep doing this?
By now, you’re thinking, what is your problem man? Why not just move there permanently and be done?
Those are good questions; very good. The answers require a little background context.
I’ve mentioned already that I, like Jersey girl, am a parent; I have a son. He is a beautiful young man; intelligent, handsome, and conscientious to a fault. At the time Jersey girl and I began, he was about seventeen. He lived with his mother in a small town called Castlemaine about an hour and a half outside Melbourne by train; a fact which had made the years of shared custody particularly grueling. His mother and I had parted when he was small (her choice) and she’d quickly remarried and moved him out of the city.
I’m not quite sure why I didn’t make this more difficult for her, I probably should have, but in the end, I agreed not to veto the move. And so for a good ten years, I had to make the regular trips out to the country to pick him up and drop him off. I mention this only because I believe all that travelling together helped build the incredibly strong bond he and I share.
As soon as I was quite certain that my plans with Jersey girl would eventually mean relocating to the States, I sat down with him and we discussed the ramifications. To my relief, he was all for it. He was just glad in the end that his old dad had found a bit of happiness. I realized at that point he’d been worried about me for a while, probably scared I was going to end up alone.
With my son’s blessing, Jersey and I began to plan how I would make the move to her side of the world. It was all progressing slowly but surely and, if things had gone to schedule, I’d currently be writing this in New Jersey instead of Melbourne.
What’s the old saying, man plans, God laughs?
I was out with some friends one Saturday evening when I felt the familiar vibration of an incoming text. We’d just climbed into the car to head home and I remember struggling to get my phone out of my Jeans pocket. When I looked at the screen, my world suddenly swam around me.
Dad, mums sick. Dad, she has cancer.
I could feel his shock and panic in the phrasing of the text and I well understood it because I had just been punched in the face by those self-same emotions.
What came next was very hard on my boy. The cancer was terminal and all there was for him to do was be there while his mum slowly faded.
All of this almost feels too personal to write about, but I feel I have to because it has had such a lasting impact upon all of our lives.
His mother’s fight lasted about a year. During that time, I was there for him as much as I could be, not as much as I wanted to be, and he never ceased to impress me with his grace and strength. I had lost my own mother to the bastard disease (though at nowhere near such a tender age) and I knew the pain he was facing.
I was carrying some myself.
Though my relationship with his mother had ended acrimoniously, I had shared my life with her for nine years. We had been through the birth of our son together and I had cut the cord which joined them with my own hand. You don’t just disregard such bonds.
On her final day, I travelled up to Castlemaine to see her one last time. She wasn’t conscious, but I sat with her, holding her unbelievably frail hand and let myself feel the realness of what was occurring. It was the opposite of the void I had felt at the airport as I left my love behind. It filled me like a welling spring bubbling up from deep down below. It was grief and despair. And it was inescapable certainty.
As if the whole thing were a scene from some heavy-handed movie (or perhaps the song Lightning Crashes), the sound of another woman, in the throes of her labor, were coming loudly through the wall from the adjacent room.
His mother passed in the middle of the night and I felt the cold certainty that my son’s life would now never be the same.
It was at the funeral service that I finally realized my child had become a man; and such a man. When his time came to speak, he stepped up to the podium, looking like a young Ulysses. He laid his notes down before him and then gazed out into the crowded room taking in every face. When he began to speak, his voice was deep and calm as he recited the lay of his mother.
He compared her to a tree, under the branches of which, he and his younger sister had grown in safety and contentment….
“She always stood true to her intent, no one could tell her otherwise. The imperfections of her character were few. Burns and broken branches – as any good tree will have – did not stop her from flourishing in her own modest way. And in retrospect, even they served as selfless lessons for our benefit.
“She worked hard, from the beginning of her life until the very end, her every action a valiant choice towards her belief in a better future for us, ahead of herself and the more immediate opportunities she could have had in her time here. We were so lucky to be her children.”
He never wavered, not for a moment. Even when recounting his mother’s passing.
“But when the fight was done and all the final goodbyes were said, only when the last watchmen went to sleep did she pass, as selfless in that moment as ever.”
The room was weeping now, but his face remained serene. He gazed out past us and began to speak without looking down at his papers.
“She was so fundamental to me that I could describe her as elemental; unflinching and stubborn as mountains, fierce and beautiful as fire, as intricate and intelligent as the veins on a leaf, as kind as an autumn breeze, and as real as the smell of the earth when it rains.”
At least twenty people came up to my side at the wake specifically to say, you must be so proud of him today. Pride didn’t begin to describe it. I was in awe of my son. And I was terrified.
He was too calm, too composed. I knew he hadn’t even touched upon his own grief yet and I was in fear of what would happen if it were delayed too long. Understand, this is an incredibly empathetic young man. Some people can process their grief and pass on from it seemingly untouched. I knew my boy; there were deep, deep wells of pain within him, but he wasn’t even ready to dip a toe yet.
I knew then, I couldn’t just up and leave; not for a time at least. And indeed, the months that followed were an undeniably hard road for him, he needed his remaining parent to help guide him through. Jersey girl was in complete agreement. It would be tough on us both, but we had always said, the kids come first.
Over a year has now passed since his mother’s passing and I see him growing into a stronger and more resilient version of himself with every passing week. He has moved to Melbourne and was recently offered a place at University, having worked diligently at a fairly menial job for the better part of this past year.
Last weekend, He travelled to Tasmania to carry out his mother’s last wish; that her ashes be scattered over the Gordon River, a place that she loved.
He is still troubled at times by all that has occurred, but he has taken measures that have helped him begin to come to terms with it all.
I, at last, feel that I can pick up my own plans where I left off.
It was difficult to write this post, many memories have been stirred up from the sediment of my own psyche. However, I can see that things have slowly come back into line and that my son is now looking mostly ahead. I am so grateful for that.
I’m also grateful for all the patience and support that Jersey girl has shown throughout this long ordeal. It’s just further proof, as if any were needed, that she is the one.
The images in this post are my own.