The taxi dropped me off just after midnight. I’d been working my first night shift at the paper. Mum had left the door on the latch and gone to bed. I spotted an expensive looking pottery book on the side table as I walked in. The classes were obviously going well.
Gracie hopped to when I stepped into the living room, barked loudly and ran a few laps round me before realising who I was with elation. Had she grown? Thankfully, three months hadn’t erased me from her memory.
I walked past a pageant of pots, spouts a bit skew-whiff, sat on the dining room table. Mum’s ceramic habit might be her most productive for a while. Mum’s projects always go well at first. Her reusable lino Christmas-card prints, used just once, are beautiful too. As is the only chair she ever upholstered.
No food had been left out and the fridge, though well stocked, looked like too much of a challenge at this hour. Luckily, I snuck a snack at my desk in the office and tomorrow, I’d get to the bread machine.
I spotted a panettone tin hopefully, only to lift the lid to a technicolour assortment of Mum’s breast cancer pills. I’d been very rational when Mum first got sick. It seemed such a common and easy-to-treat disease.
“Your Mum has cancer? What type?”
I knew she’d be fine but the after effects, menopause 2.0, sounded shit. Round one wasn’t a walk in the park. The pang her stash gave me knocked me harder than I would have expected. A pottery-class discount card wasn’t the only thing old age brought.
The dog rushed upstairs to wake Mum; the bathroom fan did its bit too. She got up to give me a bleary-eyed cuddle, apologising for not being awake to pick me up. I told her not to worry and went to bed.
We woke up to Dad’s 60th. I’d wanted to surprise him but Mum had let news of my impending arrival slip before I got there. It was probably a good thing. Dad hates surprises: not telling him was more for us than him.
When I made it downstairs to give him a birthday squeeze – I hadn’t got him much else – he’d already left the house. He came back with croissants and probiotic drinks for a “protracted stomach”. Mum tittered naughtily when I asked if that meant the angle of his belly had got too big.
I wished him a happy birthday. “Oh shit, I’d forgotten,” he responded. The year before he forgot his age altogether. His face looked more tired than I remembered but he gave me a quick warm hug we both enjoyed. Mum’s prezzies were waiting for him on the table: more pottery.
Two days after I moved to Spain, I got a call off Mum telling me his biopsy wasn’t looking good. I asked her to point out to him that he need to tell me himself: I knew a chat with me would be for him. Mum’s manic, Tom’s has a different relationship with him, and he doesn’t trust many other people.
Eventually, he called. I left the party I was at for about half an hour. He wasn’t particularly forthcoming but it was more than I had expected, and I wasn’t going to leave the stream until it stopped flowing.
I did a lot of talking too, working out my own feelings out loud, telling him off for keeping it to himself. His stoicism could be cancerous too. It was selfish if nothing else.
As I walked back to the party, I told myself I wasn’t going to tell anyone but it just came out when my new Australian friend asked why I’d been gone so long. “Bloody oath, wasn’t expecting that mate,” he replied, patting me awkwardly on the shoulder and offer me the end of his beer.
I booked flights for this trip when I got offered shifts in London. I didn’t want to be alone in Barcelona. Everyone I know had gone away for August and my girlfriend was about to leave after the road trip we’d been on. It was a good excuse to see Dad before his op too.
In the retelling, I tend to frame Dad as my primary motivator but I’m not so sure.
Last time I came back for a week, I got Dad to talk to me about his cancer face-to-face. He almost stood me up. I was shaken when it looked like he wasn’t going to show but, if I’m honest, my mate’s birthday party and a job with a British wage were probably more influential in my decision to get home.
As he sat down in front of me, I was glad I made it back. I remember thinking I had to make the most of my time with him as I boarded the plane. That was the first time I’d directly contemplated his mortality in relation to real things.
He looked like he’d been giving the “in control” masquerade a go but I was surprised that time as well about how prepared he was to talk to me. No matter what he says, Mum’s taught him a lot about expressing himself. The shock appears to have opened him up a bit too.
I encouraged him to chat to more people, listing off our mates who’d had prostate cancer. “I don’t trust anyone, Harry,” he told me. Many men his age don’t but, this visit, I found out he’d spoken to a few people.
His protracted stomach and the prostate cancer too have push some of that rugged ambition that saw him overdo it when he had malaria in Cameroon. He’s not young anymore, he’s having to accept it but his mortality is a fairly new topic for him too.
We talked about his career plans. He was contemplating the final big job change before retirement, whether to become CEO of his company or a smaller one which paid less but the tax arrangements would mean his actual earnings weren’t far off.
Nothing material was lost but status might be. A few contacts that might be useful if he went into consultancy after would be gone too. So would a long commute and the pressures of running a massive NGO that has taken him for all he is worth.
Old Dad would have gone straight for the top job but New Dad is old, he might be forced to take a lighter burden. That he was even contemplating his weakness impressed me.
As we talked over birthday breakfast, Mum butted in lovingly, pointing to The Healing Power of Sickness, a book she was given a year ago when she got her diagnosis.
One year, two parents sick. Dad had physically deteriorated more than I thought he would. Maybe I notice the changes less with Mum. We expect different things from our parents and I’ve been her counsellor since I was 8.
Me and Dad stayed focus on our conversation. In a family of interrupters, you grow used to the necessity of doing so. I brought it up later so she knew we hadn’t missed it and she took the opportunity on the microphone to get Dad to open his presents. Some things are more important.
Another piece of pottery and a silver-plated something or other. For a few years she’d been using birthday’s to restock a few of the pieces the movers nicked. She’d written two cards for him, having forgotten she’d done the first. Dad fiddled with the wrapping and inspected the contents as he talked about his health.
The only time he stilled and faced me directly was when he explained the technicalities; his stomach ulcers; the prostate surgery; and the atrial fibrillation, something they both had neglected to tell me about beforehand. The pills for his heart thinned the blood in his stomach. This made his ulcers more likely to bleed which would “turn my shit black”. He doesn’t notice, but his language goes harsher when talking about his own discomfort. He took stomach liner to combat that. Those pills blocked him up though, hence the probiotics. The biologist explaining the science was a role he took to more easily than the dad discussing his poor health with his boy.
Mum had another chuckle midway through when he explained the side effects of surgery: he could pee when he laughs or coughs sometimes. Apparently, she laughs every time. “If it’s willies and bums, Sylvia can’t help herself,” Dad smiled, happy at the comic relief.
I got out my phone to show them pictures of Spain. They both made the appropriate noises but Dad couldn’t see them properly without his glasses and Mum’s mind was elsewhere. Dad had to leave to see his boss and Mum had to go to work so I took the plates to the dishwasher.
I couldn’t stay home another night. I was called into work again and had to get back to Barna. Dad told Mum off for making me feel bad about it and she accused us of ganging up on her as usual. We forgave each other quickly out of necessity.
“It was good having you here, Harry,” Dad said. A sentence that settled once I’d found a seat on the train.
Days later, me and my girlfriend broke up. It took a few trains and buses before I stopped crying on public transport. I thought about returning to London. Ostensibly, for them: her and my parents.
It took a phone call from Dad to remind me I needed to stay more than they needed me there. My first real homesickness since I was little is for a home that’s worse than when I left it. Maybe I’m growing up too.
Photo credit: Martha Rose Bailey
Originally published on Pure Moth