Everyone has been telling me that it is a good sign. I am not so sure. Our evening ritual of Skyping has fallen by the wayside. Year Eight, it would seem, is very different from Year Seven. The classes go on for longer, so he doesn't always get time to finish his evening meal, and contact us before prep starts at. By the time that he has finished his homework talking to us becomes a chore - he is just too tired. I would hate to imagine that either of my children ever view talking to me as a task to be ticked off a list. It has become apparent that our son, at age twelve, has become so busy that he no longer has time to talk to us. This has taken some getting used to. For the first week, I was quite angry. We still set the iPad up and waited for the Skype-call to come through ... Nothing. I waited again after eight o'clock ... Still nothing. The dog would start chewing the carpet and scratching the floor. This was usually the time of the day when she gets my undivided attention out on a walk. She didn't understand why I was sitting looking at a blank screen. When she started chewing my foot at about nine o'clock, I decided it was time to yield to the preposterous idea that another twenty-four hours would pass with no news from him, and it was time to honour the unspoken deal I have with the dog; the other unspoken deal - the one with our son - has clearly been reneged on. We were facing an eerie silence.
I found the change of routine (or lack of it) to be as stressful as the lack of contact with our child. Before the conversation happened as regularly as clockwork. The iPad would be set up, and he would usually call five minutes before the arranged time at 6.45. This is what last year trained me to expect. My days were planned around the evening Skype conversation. No evening event could occur before 7pm; I had to be at home so this time in my daily diary was definitively blocked out. Then suddenly it's gone, and there is nothing to replace it; nothing to fill the void. We could book a baby-sitter for our daughter and start going to the theatre of cinema again ... If only we weren't so confused.
At the weekend following this first week of existential waiting, I felt like being cruel. I wanted him to know that it hurt a little; and that a loyalty scorned turns into a very different creature - something bitter that bites when least expected. But I wasn't cruel. I loved him even more that weekend and cherished every second of conversation and every new revelation about the week that had passed. It was all news. He has been too preoccupied coping with a new schedule and an unprecedented level of exhaustion. I'm a grown-up. I can cope with feelings of disappointment and helplessness. I'll identify them for what they are. I don't have to unleash some sort of subtle sardonic attack. He would find it confusing; he's a twelve year old who needs his dad. Our unspoken deal is involves unconditional love, not punctual Skyping. I've agreed to love him forever, regardless, and that is the least that he should expect.
We had a bit of a chat at the weekend. Hopefully it occurred entirely without rebuke - I worked hard that it would. We agreed that if he has time and energy, he could write a one sentence email at night, just to let us know that he is still alive, and he could write just one word if a sentence seems too taxing. Like Mulder and Scully, I just need to know that, like the truth, he is out there. But this isn't a binding psychological contract. It's just an idea.
This seems to work. I am quite happy to check my emails just before nine in the evening, and see a subject line written by him. I still set the iPad up at 6.45 anyway ... Just in case. It seems that even though you can teach an old dog new tricks; just like chewed feet when it's time for the evening walk, we all still need a routine.
A Sibling's Perspective
I cannot imagine what it must be like to be our daughter. She has been born into a strange world. All her life she has been aware that she has a brother who is talented in a particular area, and this talent takes up a considerable amount of time and energy - time and energy which should be hers to spend. From as long as she can remember, whole days have been sacrificed to ballet. For two years she had to get up every Saturday and drive him into class - their mother used to work on Saturdays, so we had no alternative. She would then had to pick him up and wait around for several hours until we dropped him into his second class. Even with the bribe of Pizza for lunch, these days were painful, and we realised after a month or so that for her this schedule was untenable. Her entire day revolved around his schedule. We managed to find an alternative so that the only commitment required of her was getting up early and dropping him off on a Saturday morning; and for her that soon became irksome enough. Her Grandparents or her Aunt would come and visit and their visits sometimes also had a ballet-agenda. They often wouldn't be coming just to see her; but to watch her brother dance, and seeing her was just a lucky by-product.
I imagine that now he is away at boarding school, her life is even stranger. She has a brother, but only gets to see him at weekends. During the week he is oddly present and absent simultaneously - his presence can still be felt in how much of our time he consumes. We worry about him; we talk about him; sometimes we rant and we rage. And at a certain time, we stop doing whatever we are doing because we are expecting him to Skype. Those precious fifteen minutes with him mean everything to us; to her they are a something irritating interrupting the evening's flow. Her brother returns at lunchtime on Saturday. He is her favourite playmate - such is their bond that they become inseparable immediately. A side of her lights up with him in a way that we perhaps don't see during the week. She buzzes with stories: the type of chicken she hates was served up at dinner; her class won a prize for good behaviour; a teacher made a throw-away remark which now deserves repetition. We learn more about her during these conversations than at any other time. She seems yielding, expressive and soft. This is when I am at my happiest. Even when stuck driving in impenetrable traffic, or doing the washing up, if I am listening to the children share their perspective of life with one another, I am joyful. In the context of their sibling relationship, she has a place and her identity again makes sense. For her, he has always been present: laughing with her; building worlds on Minecraft together; discussing life's mysteries. She doesn't really know of a world without him ... until now. How can any of this make sense to a six-year-old? I often confess I struggle to reconcile myself with the loss. As you know, I've found it tough, and I'm forty-five. The ground for her must be constantly shifting: a part-time only child whose favourite companion often seems to have better things to do. Her behaviour sometimes indicates that she can't find stable ground. She has a habit of clinging on to people or places - this is the only way she can steady herself.
She has only ever referenced her feelings of loss, once. She was talking about him leaving so early in the morning on Mondays: 'And then he's gone ... while I'm still asleep. I don't even get to see him'. That was all. She is not a child who speaks easily about her feelings.
We have tried to ease the hardship, but I fear that owing to the fact that - like a sparkly black hole - ballet consumes all around it, we have not done enough. I don't think she always feels as looked-after as I would like. We point out how she is unique: she is witty and sharp; she has exceptional powers of observation, and makes searing insights; she appears to be a natural swimmer; she functions at a very high level of energy and charming people has manifested itself as her superpower. She has a tremendous capacity for enthusiasm and she is passionate about several things: sweets, her favourite television shows, kindness to animals, roast potatoes. We try to guarantee that her experience of a life next to the radiance of her ballet brother is not one of an all encompassing dancing shadow. She is too bright and funny.
A couple of weeks ago, she asked if she could try ballet. I took her to a trial class with every intention of making it a weekly commitment if she wished. She emerged from the class indifferent. She'd had a good time, but felt no need to go again. A new ambition has arisen - she has decided she is going to be a gymnast, and represent Britain in the Olympics. She is starting classes soon. I'll let you know.
A Change in Direction
The blog is being redesigned. There are two reasons for this.
The first is that the readers deserve better. When I started doing it, I imagined only a handful of readers, and so I took a picture of some old ballet shoes on our kitchen table and stuck it through a photo-shop app. Coincidentally, there was a bit of red paint on the table. I liked this fortunate bit of synchronicity. The paint was near the big toe of one of the shoes. You might mistakenly have assumed that it was blood - appropriate for the struggle that we were all experiencing. As the readership has grown, I feel that I should now put some more thought into how I present the stories. I'd like to appear a little more professional; and a little less home-made. So, I've made a new 'banner', I'm adding some new features and I'm redesigned the site. This is my renewed commitment to the blog.
The second reason for a change of direction concerns our son's transformation while this academic year gets underway. It is a completely different experience for all of us. His activities at the school appear to be giving him such a sense of satisfaction. The ballet has become even more challenging - even more is required of them. He has some new teachers - some are new to the school, and others are just new to him. These teachers have given him a renewed enthusiasm for school. He also seems to have settled down with the other children. He seems to have found his place. In terms of the academic tasks and the ballet challenges, he is thoroughly enjoying himself. At the moment his school life has the idyllic texture of an Edwardian children's story. I am genuinely happy for him, but I've always hated the Edwardians - patriarchal and repressed.
Where, then, does this leave me? I have become lost in my own story. The narrative of my own blog has abandoned me. This is the story of a son ripped away from the heart of his family, and the father's attempt to reconcile what it happening. It is a story of loss, incomprehension and unnecessary pain. Or at least it was. Now it is the story of a child who has found a path in life that he enjoys. He understands that this path involves living away from home during the week. He is dropped off every Monday full of excitement and anticipation. Who would begrudge this for their child? Surely it is what every parent wishes.
I have to seriously rethink my part in the story.
So the blog needs to be redesigned.