A couple of months ago, I celebrated my birthday. Despite it being a Sunday, it was the end of term at the Ballet School. So on the morning of my birthday, I got up early and drove to the school. I spent some time admiring other people's Cath Kidson laundry bags, while carrying his stuff to the car. There was also some new packing technology to admire - some of the children were ending their academic year by vacuum packing their stuff. Bed linen, duvets and pillows were sucked into a transparent plastic package which is a fraction on the original size; a NASA space meal of dehydrated laundry. Next year we will also be vacuum packing at the end of the summer term. Our son was in rehearsal. The dormitories were open for the parents to do this only between 8.30am and 9.30am. Our child is ridiculously organised for an eleven year old. He has clearly had to over-compensate for the chaos surrounding his father. I was in and out of the dorm in ten minutes. I felt sorry for the parents who had a four hour drive, and then had to spend their time fishing for lost items under the bed. I was not one of the parents scrabbling around for loose change or run-away playing cards. I spent no time matching socks. We then watched the final performance of the year - a sumptuous and ostentatious orchestral affair. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
This was the best way of spending my birthday I could possibly imagine. I am writing this entirely without irony. Getting up early doesn't bother me. Spending time in the dormitory of pre-adolescent boys is not be pleasant, but he was so organised - as expected - that I was hardly there. Even driving back in the heat was not irksome; not even if I am stuck in traffic in my beat-up old car, with no air-con and a window that doesn't open on the driver's side. Despite all this, it was a glorious way of spending my birthday.
It felt like I was being given a present - a huge child-sized box wrapped up in paper with ribbons and bows on the top; something to tear open and then discover my son is sitting inside grinning. He belongs to a tradition of people packages: the Velvet Underground track, The Gift, or Henry 'Box' Brown posting himself to freedom in nineteenth century Virginia. Honestly, this is the most welcome present I could possibly want. He was then home for nearly two months. It was luxurious. I had been waiting for this day for the last ten months. We had survived.
Indeed, it felt like the clichéd 'gift that keeps on giving'. The summer holidays delivered all that was expected. Ballet and boarding schools were gleefully absent. Our life was no longer defined by others' opinions of the quality of our son's physical contortions. There was chatting and laughter and days free of the pressure of timetables. We travelled, we ate, we walked and swam. The dog became accustomed to both children being around and howled whenever they left her - even for ten minutes. The Norfolk and Suffolk coastlines were extensively explored, and some treasured places were discovered. We were even lucky with the erratic British weather. We basked in the sunshine.
And all this began on my birthday. Please excuse the over-engineered pun, but the birthday present was each other's presence. Perhaps, we can only assess the quality of love in how available we are willing to make ourselves to each other. Love is a difficult thing to be aware of during mental or physical absence. The fact that our family is not complete during term time has taught me to value those times when we are all together. Distractions are put away, and I strive - as much as possible - to remain present when we are all together in. It was as if the scars left from the very difficult first year were healing.
He's now gone. School started this morning and I dropped him off. We chatted happily in the car, and there was an ease to leaving him there. The familiar despair is strangely absent. He's back at school, but oddly, it's as if I still have the birthday present with me.