This week, in The Sandbox Writing Challenge, my good friend Calen challenges us to explain; What is it that keeps you from being still?
Since I became a parent, I have always found it difficult to relax. My daughter needed me, so I had to survive. As a child I had thought myself indomitable – surely, nothing could kill me, but the responsibilities of adulthood forced me into a new reality, and suddenly I found myself walking carefully on slippery surfaces, avoiding climbing ladders, being over-cautious when I crossed the road. I became secretly nervous of sharp knives; fearful of inadvertantly cutting my throat as I was slicing carrots.
I knew I was not immortal after all, and that meant I had a limited time to do everything that needed to be done in this life. My obsession with work, of any kind, started gradually, but accelerated. Throughout my mid to late twenties I found it hard to sit and watch TV unless I had sewing or crochet in my hands.
At about the age of 30 I left a good, caring, non-abusive husband and father. I brought misery onto myself and my two young children by living with the man who became the father of my third and fourth child, even though I had quickly realised that I should get away from him fast. I felt tangled, unable to make the necessary break .
I got a nasty gall-bladder infection which wasn’t treated until one of my older daughters found me collapsed late at night on the stairs, clutching the bannister, weakly crying and groaning, unable to go back to bed because the pain was so intense. She somehow made my step-father accept that which he had so far ignored; my for urgent medical treatment. Up until that moment he had pretended that there was nothing wrong with me – that I was being a drama queen, and I didn’t have the strength to stand against him. I suppose Sarah must have shamed him into action that night. I expect that she and her sister thought I was dying, and I felt as if I was.
The doctor told me that his medical intervention had probably saved my life, but without the quick-thinking of Claire, and the courage of Sarah, in standing up to her intimidating step-father, I would not have been taken to the hospital.
I was ill for ages, bedridden and exhausted. I don’t know whether it went on for 3 months or a year. I was in too bad a condition to be aware of the time. Gradually I recovered, spending less and less time in bed, until at some point I regained some kind of normality.
I was more aware than ever before, that, like all mortals, my time on this earth was limited, and that is when my obsession really took over.
I could die at any minute. Any of us could. I had to decorate the bedroom, crochet a bedspread, build shelves in the kitchen, strip the paint off every wooden surface in the house – and then seal the timber, build a wall in the garden from vintage bottles, re-model the bedroom furniture we had just bought for Paul, so that it fitted exactly…
This went on for years, until I left that man, and lived in a series of tatty flats with my older daughters, who were teenagers by this time. They needed to get away from him. He wanted to keep the two younger children, pointing out that he was only two minutes away from the school. I agreed, provided I could have them with me over the weekends and any other time that they or I liked, AND provided he found a way to undo the damage that he had done them. He had turned my beautiful Laura and Paul into nightmare children, with his inconsistant behaviour as a father, bullying and creeping in turns, shouting and yelling, and then giving in to things he shouldn’t have. I thought, and still think, that his bad parenting was more an attack on me than anything. I said we must be consistant, so he just had to do the opposite. I really believed that once I was out of the picture he would sort his crap out. As it turned out, he made no effort whatsoever.
Away from him I felt safer. I didn’t have to be constantly improving things. This is a revelation – it’s only as I write it that I realise it to be true. I was no longer under his thumb, so the fear of death was removed. All of these years I’ve revisited the horror of the fact I could have died because he actively discouraged me from going to a doctor, but it never occurred to me that he made me feel endangered!
Life became more fun. I began to re-connect with Sarah and Claire, and to feel like myself again. They brought their friends back. I learnt to smile and to laugh again. Claire fell in love. Laura was very fond of her boyfriend, and Paul adored him. Nobody had ever treated paul in quite the way that Mark did. Time went on, and Claire became pregnant. We took this shock in our stride. She was young, but they wanted the baby. We’d get by. I was going to help them to bring him up. Everything would be fine.
When Mark died, suddenly and unexpectedly of acute pulmonary pneumonia – seven weeks before the birth, our lives spiralled. I had to take care of Claire, but Paul was devastated. He hadn’t realised that death could hit so cruelly.
A few months after little Mark was born, my ex-partner began a campaign to win me back. I was impervious to his serenading me, but he worked on everyone he could think of – every family who would listen to him, and my friends. He told them that he was lost without me. That Laura and Paul needed us to be together, as they were still reeling from the tragedy. That he loved me, and if I came back he would behave differently. Paul begged me to return. I knew he was crying himself to sleep every night.
I was torn. I wanted to be with Claire, but also felt that I may be stifling her, making it impossible for her to move forward with her life by babying her. She was a lovely mum, and didn’t need my support any more than any single mum does. I could give her what support she needed without living with her. On the other hand, while the thought of going back to my ex-partner was repugnant, Paul – and Laura needed me.
I went back to that man. Within four weeks he was telling me that he had fallen out of love with me eighteen months ago. That didn’t hurt me, but it made me angry. What on earth was wrong with the dickbrained dick?
But I’m straying from the point, which is that as soon as I went back to him my obsessive workaholic behaviour returned with a vengence. When my gardening obsession hit, I used to pull weeds by torchlight after it got too dark to see. I avoided going to bed until I was dropping from exhaustion, for fear that I would die before my work was finished.
Although I finally left him for good about seven or eight years ago, the need to keep going was firmly fixed by then. Lately I have taken to visiting family and friends as a form of relaxation, because if I don’t, my only moments of relaxation are those enforced on me by visitors to my house – when I don’t truly relax (unless it is a visit from one of my children, which is always a welcome pleasure) because I want to get on with whatever I’m doing, and I’m being forced to sit around doing nothing, and those times when I look up from my laptop as I am working, and watch the wind-turbine turning, or the sun setting. But even then my mind is obsessively searching for lines of poetry.
But sometimes I look up, and a blanket covers my mind. I stare at the metalic angel on the horizon, and the word Angel repeats itself over and over, and everything slips away; my awareness of mortality, my damaged children, the death and the pain and the sickness of the world. For a few moments I am still.
Angel, Angel, Angel.
Please accept my apologies for the length of this post, and for any typos. I can’t edit it. I can’t re-read it. I can’t look for an image to head it. This is probably the most difficult, shameful, and painful post I have written since I started blogging. If I pause to think it won’t get posted. I promised you honesty, and I give all that I can offer without causing too much pain to those I love.
©Jane Paterson Basil