The Easter And May-Day Bank Holidays - Part One
Beginning with the End
We've had a good run of holidays - first Easter and May Day. But, the final week of the Easter holiday caused me some anxiety, but not on behalf of our son. I now cease to worry about how he might cope when he is back at school - he seems to be taking everything in his stride and he even appears to be thriving. The almost broken child of eighteen months ago is such a distant memory that he struggles now to remember how home-sick he was. This time, I am much more concerned about myself. Having him back for three weeks has been rejuvenating for all of us and the temporary nature of his presence did not loom over us, like it normally might at a weekend, knowing that he was soon going to be gone.
During this time, we became a family once again - all four of us interacting. He is growing up, and some subtle changes were beginning to be noticeable: his humour has become a bit more adult - it is even drier than before, and he is also beginning to play around with the odd double-entendre. He is also more robust and self-confident. Our children have become inseparable from one another. Starved of each other's company during term time, they become eager to pack in all the fun that they have missed; constantly inventing, laughing, sometimes screaming when the joke has been taken too far. Once again, as a family, we felt whole.
It was only during his last week of the holiday, when his sister was back at school that the realisation struck me: we would gain a breathing space in which we'd look forward to the May bank holiday when he would again be home for four long days, and then that would be it - we'd lose him. Ballet was going to ruin it all once again. The sense of loss that I sometimes experience is immense. I can hardly breathe. It seems to be especially acute when he has been home for an extended period of time. Sometimes I imagine an alternative reality in which we exist in a parallel universe:
We would be living together all the time. Our son would go to a local school, and sit at the kitchen table for a couple of hours every day doing his homework. We'd have to ask his younger sister to not distract him. He would be involved in after school activities which might require him being taken there or being picked up. We'd all eat together, and catch up on the each other's daily news in person, live - not relying on Skype or email. There would be a welcome banality to our lives.
However some things would also be missing - unknown to us. Weekends would not have the same sense of occasion; they would be less sacred. We would not have learned how to value the precious time that we have together. The children would understand that familiarity breeds contempt, rather than absence making the heart grow fonder. Perhaps I wouldn't be as meticulous with my diary - making sure that nothing intrudes on those rare random week days that he is at home. If possible, we try and turn these days into events: we go to galleries; eat at his favourite restaurant; explore places that we have never been to before. It's special when his sister can join us and she is also not at school, or when their mum is not working; but it's just as special when there are the two of us. I do not take the time I have with my family for granted. These are the things that I never would have learned had he not gone away to boarding school. It hurts me to say it, but I am grateful for this initially unwanted experience of our son's ballet training.
It's probable that if we didn't have to suffer the pain of absence, that we wouldn't also understand the intense joy of being together - and it is this thought that I cling onto now that he is gone, and the long summer term stretches ahead. Our family landscape is one of peaks and troughs - preferable always to a flat plain with a clear view of the horizon.
I've been travelling for work. I had been away for about a week, and still had about five days to go when I received an email from our son:
Daddy. It is like I am living in a parallel universe in which you don't exist, but you are still in my head somewhere.
I went into panic, a paralysis - I was unable to process this simple sentence, and the explosive nature of its content. My initial reaction was one of distress at the notion that he was somehow suffering; in pain that I had been gone for so long. I felt sick and my inclination was to pack my bag and return home. Then, I calmed down a little, my ego became less inflamed and I saw this sentence for what it really is: an effective strategy for managing separation - he has developed a way of coping.
Some of you might recall how it was in the beginning. Our separation seem irreconcilable to me only eighteen months ago: the over-riding experience of having a child at boarding school was, at first, my agony at our son living away from his home during the week. This severance was terrible for me. Even when it became more comfortable for him, I still felt abandoned; a type of emotional cauterisation. I was numbed - unable to face up to the experience of the pain. Each week, this sensation would gradually decrease as Friday approached, but it would return again on Monday morning after I had dropped him off. Unlike our son, I was unable to shift into a parallel universe in which he didn't exist but was in my head somewhere, anyway. Had I been able to make this leap of faith, perhaps I would not have caused myself wallow so much. As an 'enmeshed' parent, I was stuck - unable to reconcile the feelings that I was having with the idea that the situation might be something that our son desired. I was unable to separate my own needs and feelings from his. I imagine that this is a typical parental mistake, and the result was confusion and living my life in a terrible muddle.
His idea of shifting into a parallel universe is helpful. When it comes to an emotional intelligence our son displays some promising traits. The construct of another universe allows me to live and acknowledge two separate truths: I am a caring dad who is deeply loves his my children, but I am also physically absent from one of them most of the time, and unable to look after him in the way I had imagined I would. The rhythm of the week has been exhausting for me. Without a parallel universe, I was involved an enervating three stage spiral:
- Bonding with our son at the weekend
- An extreme sense of loss on Monday mornings
- My mood lightening as Friday approaches
At its worse, this weekly cycle left me with little energy to do anything else, but I can now replace it with two simple transitions - one shift into a parallel universe at the beginning of the week and one jump again at the end. I will develop a futuristic ability to quantum leap.
I've commented on the Zen nature of our son's world-view before now. His awakened heart often exposes my foolishness - my inflated sense of self and my ego-driven ways. If he were a judgemental type, he would find me ridiculous. In Buddhism, there is a notion of something called Boddhichitta - a practice which involves acknowledging that we are all in some way connected. Or, as our son expresses it so simply, shifting into a parallel universe - one that involves a recognition of the presence and the absence simultaneously. It is possible that in the event that he does not become a dancer, he will instead explore the world of science - quantum mechanics, in which particles exist in two states at the same time. Or perhaps his sanguine acceptance of the world will lead him to a very different environment, and he'll become a Buddhist monk.
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.
10 Things I Wish I'd Known Before Sending My Child to Boarding School
A New Level of Understanding
I have hardly left the house for four days. It is not flippancy to say that I fear the onset of some kind of agoraphobic state of mind. I've been travelling for work again, and arrived back late last week. I'm prevented by professional constraints from telling you exactly where I was, but I spent five days last week in a very different environment from where I sit, typing. Now, the window is open, the sun is shining and a cool breeze is enabling the flow of thoughts inside my head. I've come back from a place where some of the conditions that we in the West perceive as freedoms are not available: choosing how to dress; who to socialise with; where to socialise; expressing opinions; having a vote.
The work had its rewards, and yet I am depleted. I am aware of the reason. For five solid days, I had little or no time to myself. Our hosts were gracious and kind, but perhaps a little worried of the mischief we might cause in such an unfamiliar environment. They filled all our available spare time with a visit or event. I am of course grateful to have been so well looked after, and return with a sense of the warmth of human spirit that can be extended across cultural boundaries. However, I spent a relentless five days with people whom I had no choice but to spend time with. Incidentally, I tried to break free - a forty minute walk, but in the heat, and with no pavements, it meant that I got nowhere. This is not a reflection of the personalities involved, all of whom display a plethora of merits. I am aware that I am not the easiest person to spend time with. Undermining, capricious and sardonic are some of my least attractive qualities. Being glued together for the equivalent of a working week took me through a range of responses which culminated in an extreme sense of restriction: a skull clamping, chest tightening, enervating sensation. I began to question my most basic responses. In nearly all non-work related situations, I began to view myself as a bit of an idiot: trivial, unfunny and banal. If this was my own impression of myself, I can't imagine what it must have been like for those around me.
As I sit at home in silence, and my personality again dares to unfurl, I gain a new level of understanding. This is what it is like for our son at ballet school. This is why he comes home at weekends and wishes to spend time at home, or walking no further than the area he grew up in as a small child. There is a need for him to reassert who he is and where he came from. As I have discovered, when private responses are always assessed publicly, it leaves you with nowhere to go and and a profound need to hide. It can sometimes feel like an assault, the only barricade is a fixed false smile. An inner scream concealed by The Joker's grin.
There is doubtless great love and care at his school, but this is compensation for having to be the best version of your public self during every waking moment, surrounded at all times by scores of other children.
At the weekend, I looked at our son with a new admiration for his strength and determination. I was and warmer father, and gave him more space. Today I have an empty diary and an open window besides which to recover. He is back in the ballet studio, and tonight he'll be sharing a room with eleven other boys.