You can’t choose your family but if I had chosen mine I could not have done better. Post-modernists insist I am “privileged.” I am, but not as they imagine. It has nothing to do with race, class, wealth or sexual orientation. Anyone brought up in a loving family under the guidance of both a mother and a father is privileged. It’s no criticism of single parents doing their best in difficult circumstances to make that obvious point.
There is an obnoxious but necessary stage of a young man’s life when his main focus is on asserting independence. I may have overdone the obnoxiousness in my youthful zeal to break free from my parents’ hands-on care. To make things worse, they made the mistake of criticising my choice of fiancée. I responded, as any fool might have predicted, by being loyal to her. She herself (understandably) took against them in consequence.
She drew me (as she would probably have done anyway) into the circle of her own family. Again, I was lucky. That family too embraced me and my late wife’s mother became a good friend. I gave her help and advice on practical matters and she was my advisor on softer ones. Her daughter had her issues and was difficult to live with. Her mum knew that better than anyone and quietly provided “after-sales” support throughout the marriage. She was also often my advocate when her daughter was inclined to focus on my faults, real and imaginary. The marriage would not have lasted thirty years without her.
When the late Mrs P died, her mum lost it, understandably. There’s no greater tragedy than for a parent to bury a child. Stricken by her grief, she couldn’t help me in mine. The Misses P. also needed more support than they were able (though they tried) to give. Fiercely loyal to their mother, it became clear they felt the wrong parent had died. I struggled and failed to help them as their mum would have done if our places were reversed, so perhaps they were right. I would have traded places if I could.
At that point, the nuclear family in which I grew up came back into its own. Mum and Dad never retired from their job as parents. They’d just been – as the French say of redundant employees who can’t be fired because of crazy labour laws – placardisé. Literally, placed in a cupboard. Metaphorically, shunted aside and ignored.
They helped me handle my grief as only they could. They’d known me as a small child before my face closed and I learned to dissimulate. They saw through the brave appearance my friends were keen to accept with relief. I don’t blame my friends for that either. Have you ever tried to console a two-metre tall, one hundred and fifty kilo man? There’s no way to hug such a beast that doesn’t look and feel wrong to all concerned.
As they become frail and elderly, my parents are still my advisors. I shall miss them when they go. I already miss the late Mrs P’s mum, who died recently. The de facto new head of that family – the sister with whom the late Mrs P conducted a lifelong sibling-rivalry feud – has made it clear she sees the Misses P (and therefore me) as “other”. Now her mum is gone, we’re out.
What of friends then? We can, they say, choose them. But do we? Most of us have no review process. A pleasant moment or two, often under the influence of alcohol – a shared experience or three at study, work or play and there they are. I watched grief and loss separate wheat friends from chaff friends in my dark days. In this winnowing the results were not (to me at least) predictable. In fairness, I’m not sure I’m not myself chaff. Certainly before grief and loss educated me as to the true value of friendship, I might well have steered clear of a grieving friend to whom I could offer no practical help. So, unlike Miss P the Younger, who formally fired friends who hung back when her Mum died, I am forgiving of those who just didn’t know what to say.
As I have faced grief again in the last few months, it has been noticeable this time around – though friends know I consider Freud second only to Marx in evil’s premier league – they’re suggesting I “talk to a professional”. I hear that as “don’t talk to me.” I have asked too much of them in the last decade and must study deserving of their friendship. It’s not possible to placardiser a friend. That cupboard has no locks.
I am tired of being a burden. There’s no dignity in it. So far from plotting against me, the universe no more acknowledges my existence than it does that of Meghan Markle. I mention her because I realise I have – shamefully – been adopting her approach to life’s disappointments. She’s an unlikely guardian angel but mine may prove to be the first life she affects positively – albeit by a powerful negative example.
In an unguarded moment, I told my Dad the other day, “I just need a win.” Whether I get one or not, I need to buck up. I had a long run of good luck and it ran out. Many only get bad luck so, on average, I am still blessed.
My frail, elderly parents are both now under the care of what their local NHS (with Northern bluntness) calls The Heart Failure Clinic. It’s the same bluntness with which they brought me up, so my parents can’t see why that name bothers me. I suppose I have spent too much time since I graduated from their care with the word-obsessed, over-sensitive bourgeoisie. If there’s silver lining to my clouds of despair, it’s that I found my way back into their lives before they ended.
Maybe that was my “win”, properly viewed? Who knows? Either way, so they can leave this life contentedly and so my friends can see my name on their phone without trepidation, it’s time for me finally to learn to live happily alone.
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