This afternoon I woke from the longest sleep I’ve had in years, and looked out onto mountains that are cliff-faced and chalkily white. For the past few days I’ve been in transit; now I am in Athens, at the beginning of a six-week jaunt across Europe, making my way west through Budapest and Marseille on the way to the Disquiet Program in Lisbon.
Six weeks: that’s how long I told Owen that I would be gone, trying to gently habituate him to the idea of my absence. It didn't take, though. Up until Mike carried him away crying at the airport, he was trying to negotiate.
“I’m going to be away for six weeks, darling, and you can put a sticker on the calendar you made for every day that I am gone.”
“No, darling. Six weeks.”
“Okay, six minutes.”
“Weeks, honey, not minutes.”
“How about… six days?”
When my flight was called he picked up his few possessions, confidently, said goodbye to Mike, and took my hand. When the truth finally sank in—that he and Mike would be going home together, that I would be leaving him behind—his little face crumpled, and guilt stabbed me deep in the guts. Not the usual mother-guilt, the deep-seated kind.
After all, I do not need to go right now. When Mike left for long stretches last year, it was a matter of necessity, and that is how we got through it. During those stretches, when I myself felt stretched out and stretched thin, overwhelmed at the task of being functionally a single parent, this is the thing I used to fantasise about—a hot country where I could move freely, unencumbered by pusher and nappy bag and child, going wherever my feet would carry me. When a grant came up I put my name in, never expecting to get it. And then I got it. And then I really had to go.
Checking Facebook during my stopover in Dubai, my feed was lit up with Fiona Wrights latest, ‘A World of Bald White Days’. I put aside The Hothouse By The East River, which was already making me cry, because I will read anything Fiona writes. I feel in a way as though she is a literary big sister, or fairy godmother, presaging my book with her book. She was also one of the first people to know of Owen’s impending existence, entirely by accident, when we pulled aside our friends at their wedding to tell them and Fiona came too, face radiant with happiness, expecting to take part in more congratulations and love. That moment feels telescoped with this moment, in a way that she writes about so beautifully; like her friend Lucy, I have lost my grip on time.
I was lucky to never have it so bad that I lost years, and I never had to resort to electroshock, either, but there are chunks of my life, particularly around Owen’s infancy, that are simply missing. I can call up the physical sensations of this time precisely, but the actual events and conversations that made it up are mostly gone. And they are not gone in a way that makes me feel their absence, but just not there; as though a record has skipped smoothly enough to make sense of the missing grooves.
My memory is shot as though instead of being depressed, I spent Owen’s early years in a bout of hard drinking. It has made the work of reconstructing these years for the book difficult. I try to hold the threads of things together, but I am no longer good at chronological time; cause and effect, illness and recovery, everything seems jumbled in a perpetual, continuous mash. Writing the essays for this book has been an ongoing exercise in trying to excavate the things that, even after intensive therapy and the right medication, my mind still believes should be jumbled and told in code. I'm in the reworking phase now, carrying my manuscript with my in my suitcase, putting little red interrogation marks next to things that could be construed as facts. I am acting as though somehow physical distance will give me critical distance.
When I fantasised about coming to Europe, that of course was the endpoint of the fantasy. Just an escape; just a daydream about a place where I was no longer a mother or bonded to the chores of motherhood. When Fiona mentions the metaphor of the fig tree, that is a metaphor for the childless woman only. When there is a child cradled in the fork of the tree, you cannot reach for any particular fruit without limiting your armspan, or you risk being split in two. The truth is I will never ‘just’ be myself again, and I am learning to sit with that and accept it and move with it in the same way as I have learned to live with and sit with the various symptoms that still rise up and snake me around the throat.
Mike rang this morning, waking me up, and I talked to him and Owen for a while before I fell asleep again. Owen was in a good mood; he has learned to bounce back quickly, he is breathtakingly resilient. The fact that he has become so through necessity will always cause me grief. I think what got me the most, sitting in the airport, was this: that I have lost so much time with him already, that the things Fiona writes about as meaningful, moving moments in Lucy's life--her pregnancy, her child's infancy--that many of these things for me are ghosted over. And that is the source of my guilt, I think; that for so much of Owen's early life I wasn't present, and now that I am, I have vanished, to pretend to be myself only, autonomous, to work on my book, to write travel stories, to pursue the things that I might have felt defined me before he came along.
A child's concept of time is pretty elastic--ten minutes, six weeks--all of it is pretty much of a piece. The things I fantasied about--bodily independence, creative freedom, professional development--are important, and I don't plan to fritter them away, now that I have them and have worked so hard to retain them, in missing him desperately. But sitting in the airport I felt a sadness for the things I can't remember, and that was unexpected. And I don't know if there is any amount of time that will shake that sadness away.