Sink or Swim
This summer I realised that I am not as immune as I has previously thought to the effects of ageing; I had not made the link between the greying hair, the permanent frown lines, the need to calorie count and now being in my mid-forties. I have been engaging in self-deception ... again. The summer holidays were so blissful, because we nearly forgot all about ballet - except for one slight nuisance. Our son needed to maintain his cardio-vascular fitness. The normal running around of a twelve year old is not sufficient apparently for someone in full time vocational ballet training. So, we went swimming. Especially towards the end of the holiday, we went nearly every day. We assumed the unnecessary habit of swimming together in the same lane - a watery convoy. He's a strong and elegant swimmer; efficient, sleek and graceful. And, I would swim behind.
Aside from swimming lengths, we would also play racing games and diving games, hiding plastic clam shells for one another under the water and then racing to find them. I'm not ashamed to admit that it gives me a tremendous sense of pride to be able to announce that I am the stronger swimmer. Even at 45, I am faster, more agile and I can hold my breath for far longer which gives me an unfair advantage in the diving competitions. This makes me want to punch the air, clench my back teeth and shout, 'Yessss!'
There is a reason behind this child-like celebration of a Pyrrhic victory. Before the father and son underwater Olympics commence, we would swim lengths in the way described. He would swim first and I would follow. He set the pace and I fell into line. He decided how many lengths we would swim, and I would. This swimming of lengths is what gave rise to the sense of time passing and my own mortality. I may be the faster and more experienced swimmer, but he is the the more resilient. After about twenty minutes or so of ploughing along the lane, I would begin to tire. As the end of each length approached, I would think, 'This is it. This has to be the last one.' And then, with the mechanical precision of a well tempered machine, he would begin the next. Each time, I would react as much as it is possible to breathe a sigh of regret when swimming front crawl. Every time I caught sight of him kicking off to continue our marathon of lengths, I'd silently plead, 'Please let this be the last one.' And so it would continue: the son effortless and steadily gliding along, length after length; the father hoping that each length would be the last.
Eventually he would stop. He'd turn to me with an exhausted expression and say, 'Sorry, Daddy, but I think I've had enough now.'
'That's fine, Son.' I would say. 'You're only young, of course that's enough.' I would be nonchalant, casual, deliberately patronising, and hope that he didn't notice every pore in my body exhaling with relief. We'd have a few minutes' rest, and then I'd beat him in all the games.
I'm impressed by the way he swims; tenacious, systematic and resolute. And once again, our son challenges me as he sets an example. My rhythm of swimming is different. I swim in bursts that are powerful and direct, but hard to sustain for longer than ten or at most fifteen minutes. Perhaps this applies to the way I live my life. I am very efficient at fulfilling the short-term needs of myself and those around me, but I neglect the long-term. My patterns of behaviour involve short sharp bursts of energy that get stuff done but leave me exhausted. Swimming in the pillion position has given me new knowledge of what it feels like to just keep going. This is perhaps the mind-set which makes him want to excel at something so difficult, and why my talent seems to lie in finding immediate solutions, and initiating flurries of activity. The thought of long-term projects make me gasp and splutter - almost as if drowning in panic. I need to learn how to keep going, inexhaustibly. For me, the concern has never been about whether I sink or swim, or about the distance that I can complete, but for how long I can keep afloat while simply treading water.
Fathers and Sons Part 2
I feel a bit 'Bah Humbug' about Fathers' Day, to be honest. I don't ever recall it happening when I was a child. I don't remember writing my father a card or ever giving him a present. This would imply that it is a more recent invention - a conspiracy of commercialism. Something to get cards and gifts sold, and restaurant tables booked. If the money is staying in the local economy, this is no bad thing, especially in these times of austerity.
One of the reasons that I don't remember giving my dad treats on Fathers' Day is perhaps because the man rarely sat still. When I was a child, I never saw him with his feet up reading the paper, or asking to be left alone while he sat around doing nothing. He was restlessly productive from morning until night. I have no memory of him watching television. It has been claimed that we watched Doctor Who together - in the days when you could still follow the plots, and the set wobbled - but I don't actually remember this happening. My memory is of him making wooden toys, or go-karts, or getting his car ready for its MOT with the help of a Haynes Manual. Or, he used to inflict endless DIY and decorating on our desire for a well-ordered environment. It always looked brilliant when he had finished; until the next project commenced. Constructing a few cold frames in the garden was nothing. On one house he built the extension himself. I only know of him going to the cinema twice, and one of those was Star Wars. That doesn't really count. Everyone in 1977 went to see Star Wars. The last thing in the world that he would have wanted on Fathers' Day was insistence that he stop for a few hours while we all gather around him with treats. He'd have just found us irritating. It now seems tragic, rather than ironic that he is no longer able to do any of these things, and, I fear, he may have little recollection of ever having done them.
I wonder what memories my own children will have of Fathers' Day. The downside of being so relentlessly dissident and anti-capitalist is that people take you seriously. So, when I said that I didn't want any cards or any of the other trappings of a made-up crappy excuse to get people to part with their cash, I meant it. But, I still got a bit grumpy as I was making lunch. What did I expect? When could the eleven year old have done something? He is incarcerated in Ballet School six days a week and needs his only free 45 minutes a day to keep his head together. Did I really imagine him to be colouring in a picture of a racing car, or a tractor, or a golfer during this precious three-quarters of an hour? And the six year old? She had been advised by her (adult) cousin on the phone the night before to just give me a hug; which she did. That'll do. Any evidence that she isn't a sociopath - our greatest fear in life - is gratefully acknowledged.
So, how will they reflect on their dad when they are older? I expect they will say that he watched a lot of TV, and did some writing; that he had a pathological fear of anything practical like gardening or DIY, and they will probably say that the greatest love in his life was ice cream and sweets. They will also probably mention that he was an iconoclast who hated the Tories, and that he only had two modes of operating: merriment - when everything is silly and fun; and martyr - when he lets everyone know how much he suffers ... like on Fathers' Day.
I hope your Fathers' Day was okay.
The Imaginary Machete
There will be two blogs this week ... probably. Both will tell a personal story. If this is not your thing, just fast forward to next week, when it will again be about boarding-schools and ballet, and the family left behind.
I had a strange realisation this morning as I was doing my usual Monday flirtation with urban rush-hour traffic. He had been dropped off at school, ten minutes later than normal, but still in time for registration. The delay had been caused by a rant. I had been having an enjoyable rant and lost track of time. Then, on the way home I realised something about how I've been behaving over the last few months. I think that I've been acting as if stuck in a strange sort of Limbo - that place where unbaptised souls are sent, as they qualify neither for heaven nor hell. My own personal Limbo is suddenly finding myself to have both a missing father and an absent son; one lost to Alzheimer's and the other astray owing to his service to Classical Ballet (admittedly, he comes home at weekends). To be honest, I would not have chosen this for either of them. It just happened.
This synchronicity would only happen in well plotted novels.
I realised while driving home that I was presenting a version of myself to the world which fluctuated between joylessness - at its worse - and - at its best - a state of being broken-hearted. Not a great deal of fun for those around me, I imagine. I definitely have a feeling that even if something is not exactly broken, then something is certainly in need of repair. I'm not exhausted; but I am nearly always tired; I'm not depressed, but I am certainly teetering on the abyss of hopelessness. I'm still productive and I am writing a lot; but this is not my usual level of functioning. Although, some of what I'm writing is actually quite good.
In my view, there is no happy face to Alzheimer's. Any suggestion to the contrary is deceitful sentimentality. Still Alice gets it about right. We know how the story ends, and our anticipation of this ending overwhelms any present moments of joy. There is little comic potential in someone getting lost, or putting the remote control in the freezer, or forgetting their grandchild's name, or no longer being able to ask when they need to use the bathroom. All I see is fear. All I smell is a lingering loss of dignity. Eventual failure is inevitable. I haven't lived in the same house as my dad for over twenty years, but I am now trying to reconcile the cruelty of his condition every day. Both my father and my son are on my mind all the time. For very different reasons, contacting both of them is difficult.
It would perhaps be overdramatic to describe this process as a 'grieving'. Freud suggests that detaching is the primary step in the grieving process. The aim of this process is to return to 'normal functioning'. Detachment is just not an option when you are still required to be someone's dad - even when they do not live with you during the week; and it is certainly not possible when you are someone's son, but you are struggling to remember what he was once like as a father. All my efforts are spent trying to engage with how my dad is now, and I feel a failure.
Unlike Heaven, Hell (and Purgatory, if you wish), those who find themselves in Limbo do not deserve to be there. It just happens. They have become cosmically stuck. But, Limbo is a jungle, not a desert. In a desert, effort is futile. Your feet sink in the baking sand - until the energy gradually drains from you, and you are either rescued, which is unlikely, or you die. Jungles require activity. I will thrash and splice with an imaginary machete - relentless and violent. The pathway I clear must be easy to find. I may be treading it again and again. Perhaps others will need to find the pathway also. I will try to move forward in a straight line. An earthly Limbo can't go on forever.
Next time ... an unexpected transformation which happens to the Dad when the Son starts doing ballet.
Fathers and Sons - part one
'Rebellion lay in his way, and he found it.'
Shakespeare's Henry IV (both parts) focuses on a father and son who do not initially share the same values. The vicious circle spirals. The father disapproves while the son looks after his own juvenile needs. Each adopts a temporary surrogate. For Henry, it is the impetuous but decisive Hotspur; for Hal it is the cowardly but doting Falstaff. Hal's rebellion burns itself out eventually, and the surrogate father is spurned. Reconciliation plays out at the very last moment. Meanwhile, Hotspur, the surrogate son, has initiated a more official and perilous rebellion - one that involves overthrowing the king rather than simply hanging out with some drunken buffoons.
And so, this is the archetypal model of the universe. The father sets an example. The son refuses to follow it, but discord eventually leads to mutual appreciation. My father worked hard. These were the days before David Beckham taught men how to parent. My Dad provided for us and his provision justified his lack of involvement. He was a loyal employee and honoured the system in which he served; moderate ambition allowing him to climb a certain way up a very particular ladder. He was sociable, well-liked and believed in doing more than his duty. His life depended on a rock-solid faith in an ideology bigger than him. He served an indelible sense of order and justice - a concrete world view.
In my teens I rejected this way of thinking, and I still do. I believe in hard work, but I am an iconoclast. I like to challenge, and refute. My success and my downfall has been caused by the same quality - an ability to analyse with clarity, and when necessary urge for reclassification, regardless of the sanctity of the status quo. I speak the truth - as far as I see it - and I am contemptuous of anyone who doesn't. For me, servile compliance is worthless and expedient. My father practised temperance. I yield to excess.
This is the natural way. It is as it should be. We never argued, but I think we found each other perplexing. We lived our lives as different species - a differing understanding of what it means to be a man. However, my father and I have been robbed of the story's inevitable conclusion. The universe of justice and order, whose principles he served decided to steal his memory, and also his ability to be fully present. Areas of his brain no longer work as they once did. This gross injustice has denied us the effortless reconciliation and appreciation that a father's old age can bring. There are days, now, when he no longer recognises me. This is not the end we had anticipated. I had hoped for a gentle, mutual, long-lasting acceptance. We only glimpsed from afar what we nearly had.
I watch my son in a ballet class. He has a strength and a determination that I do not recognise. He dances with a love that I appreciate but do not fully understand. Perhaps his joining this hierarchical world of ballet is his form of rebellion - conformity is radical when you are raised by individualists. In the last few months he has been changing. There are clues of the man he will become - strong, tenacious, gentle and full of grace. He is taller, leaner and more sinewy. My own process with my father has been regrettably lost. I will retaliate. I will thwart the natural scheme of a son rejecting a father's values. I will seek to understand ballet and be less of a renegade. And we will treasure our collective memory. I will make it something permanent. I will blog.