Monday, 9 May 2016

The stories we tell

Unlike you, I have never been a reader of science fiction. I haven't studied quantum physics or pondered the conundrum of parallel universes or time travel. I was about six when I last watched Dr Who. But suddenly I find myself wondering about these things now.

Today, I drove out to the Peak District with my children on the first really hot day of spring and imagined, as I often do, the narrative in which you didn't die. In this narrative, today, you came with us. I would have introduced you properly to the children by now and things would have been going well. For the first time, perhaps, today, we were like a family in the making. I felt you sitting next to me as we drove out of the city and pictured you paddling in the stream with the children, trousers rolled up, a giant in a mini adventure of stones and leaves and water. I saw you studying the rocks that Douglas collected, watched you carry the sticks that he'd found. You acknowledged to him that the big one was like an evil emperor's staff, the little one like a sword and the nobbly one like a walking stick. You demonstrated each one in turn and agreed that it was essential that he brought them all home because that's the kind of man you are. I imagined us sitting on the picnic blanket and you telling me stories of your childhood trips to Padley Gorge and you would have told me the story about wrestling some dog in the water, the story that Ed told. We would have been like all the other families out there today enjoying the sunshine. It would have been a lovely day. It was a lovely day. Except for the shadows.

My memories of the last week of your life are plagued with shadows. I was about to introduce you properly to the children that week. But something happened on that last Saturday to make me question things. I remembered it again today as I sat on the picnic blanket, looking up at Longshaw where we had walked. I was feeling sad that day. The prospect of my first Mother's Day without my mum was a cloud over the day and I was tired, so tired. And you were not yourself. You'd had a chest infection for weeks and you had dark bags under your eyes. You were forgetting things, not in the way that you usually forgot things, but in a way that seemed pathological, that now seems like it was a warning. It was so bad that I asked you what was wrong with your brain. 'There's nothing wrong with my brain!' you said. I pointed out the droopy eyes and you laughed it off as a sign of my critical nature. 'What fault of yours can I pick on?' you asked and made me laugh too. I loved that you would give as good as you got. We agreed that I was tired, grieving, paranoid. After all, I had a father who died from brain tumours, a recent ex-boyfriend with a brain injury, a child with a rare disease. I was hyper-vigilant.

A few days after you died, I had an epiphany and suddenly I found a new narrative and, to my grief-stricken brain, it all made sense. In this narrative, the whole of my life had been leading up the moment of your demise: the father with the brain tumours, the sick child and the heartache of the ex-boyfriend with the brain injury were all part of a complex plot.  I had thought he was 'the one' but I had misread the signs. He was a red herring, a plot twist, a foreshadowing of the main event. You were 'the one' and all of these previous tragedies had been some kind of universal training programme. In fact, I was put on this earth purely so that I could recognise that you were ill and save your life. In this narrative I had failed spectacularly. I was hysterical in my kitchen sobbing on my brother's shoulder. I should have saved you. No wonder Joan Didion called her widow's memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. My writer's brain was piecing things together, looking for a narrative that made sense. Even if it left me and my survivor's guilt as the villain.

The notion of parallel universes may or may not be magical thinking. Apparently, the theory has some backing by scientists who believe that consciousness outlives the human body and transfers into another realm upon death. I find this a more comforting narrative. In this narrative your death was simply the opening of a door from one universe to another, a fork in the road, a pivotal point in a Choose Your Own Adventure story. In this narrative, you slipped, in a moment, out of this universe and into a parallel one where you are living in some different form, exploring some different realm. You were an adventurer by nature and there is no question that you would have loved to explore a different dimension, although I still like to think that you would never have chosen that path over the one you could have walked with me.

You sometimes talked about the narrative you would have chosen. The one in which we got together at the first opportunity, eighteen years ago. In this narrative we would have got married and had children. We spoke about it in the campervan on the way back from Knaresborough. Unusually for me, I was the cynic, joking with you that you would have been too messy and disorganised and that I would have been stressed and impatient, worn down with childcare and housework and eventually I would have fought you for custody of the children. You didn't like my version of the story.
'What about my version?' you said. 'The one where I get to gaze adoringly at my beautiful wife and baby. The one where we live happily ever after?'
'It's better this way,' I said. 'This way we get to retire together and have the bookshop by the sea.'
'I like that version too,' you said, though you still wished that you had passed on your genome, the little genome with a pointy hat.

I think about the various narratives and think it might make a good novel or a film and then I realise it has been done multiple times: Sliding Doors, The Time Traveller's Wife, One Day, The Versions of Us. We've all wondered at times about the paths we didn't take, about the role of fate or chance in the narrative of our own lives. We all want things to make sense. But life is not a story and the ends aren't always tied up neatly. There isn't always a scene of redemption or a silver lining to the cloud. Weeks after you had gone I sent you a message saying that I wished we could start again and do life properly. Did I think you could read it? Did I think we could travel back in time? Had my magical thinking come to this? The truth is we can't go back in time and do life properly. Even if we could, we've seen Back to the Future, we know the risks. We can't have the narrative that we wanted. But we did have this.

Today, the novelist, Lesley Glaister sent me an email. She'd been reading my blog and had to stop because she found it so painful. But she said the words of Raymond Carver kept coming into her head:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself 
beloved on this earth. 

You were beloved and so was I. And as people keep on telling me, not everyone can say that.

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