It’s 2.45 in the am and I’m reflecting on a long night’s journey into day.
I’m writing this up in real-time. There won’t be any rewrites, no polishes, no second thoughts. It’s all going to be first draft stream of consciousness stuff, whether either of us like it or not. If you’re sensitive about bad language, walk away right now because my emotions are running high. To put that more directly, I don’t give a flying fuck. It’s a comfort to write it up. It’s how I’ve learnt to get rid of stuff. I write it, fling it hard and it hits into that pond with a good satisfying splash followed by a furious exhalation of super-heated steam. When I do that right, it’s walk away Renee. That’s how I get by.
My wife has finally gone to bed because I insisted, I bloody insisted, and she really needs to crash. Some stuff is hard on her. I quickly rub her cheek and I assure her it’s all going to be okay. It really is Kiddo, trust me, it’ll all be good. She looks at me hard for a moment and knows me well enough to believe. The ordinaire stuff I’m a bit iffy wobbly on but when it comes down to the real important life-threatening shit, I’m a bloody guaranteed pipe-hard ninja bastard from hell. We exchange a pecky kiss and she starts to disappear upstairs; I tell her I’ll be up in a bit and she knows me well enough to know it’s one of those little white lies that don’t really matter, because she’s worn out. I won’t leave his side until I’m sure. She’s truly exhausted and needs to hand over the baton. She wants to believe.
She’s had enough but turns around anyway to come back down to me; that’s my lovely gutsy gal. Jesus Christ. She can’t find any words. To hell with words. I cradle her head in both of my hands in a sort of squint vee and kiss her lips oh so tenderly. Lordy. A moment of silence. Go on, get your rest Babe, it’s all going to be good, it really is. I swear to God. She goes. I can feel her warmth in my hands slipping away and never want to lose it. I’m a lucky bastard.
The paramedics have left, my youngest kid is laying on the couch, under several layers of blankets and I’ll stay through the night in the living room and I’ll watch him like a hawk and check him out every few minutes and in between, I’m scribbling and listening to some quiet Radiohead and Carl Orff in his gentler Gassenhauer moments. I compulsively watch the rise and fall of blankets moving, just to make sure he’s still breathing. I know he’s going to be okay but that doesn’t help.
For God’s sake, he’s in his early twenties and very much his own man; we’d not have it any other way. The last one, momentarily taking refuge back in the nest, as they all did a few times. I watch and worry. Parenthood makes such damn fools of us all I suppose.
It’s the quiet aftermath of things and I’m waiting for my body to react like it used to after events like today; stomach cramps, the shaking of my hands, watching that repeating movie as it loops around and around in the compulsive shock loop. The usual bollocks; buy the popcorn, watch the movie repeating, run away somewhere and find something to hide behind. It isn’t and I wonder whether that complete physiological thing has just been long ago burnt out of me. I got so used to functioning without ever showing any acknowledgment of all that shit until long afterwards, perhaps I burnt out that circuit. I killed those emotions, they’re no longer there. We all lost something in the fire.
It’s a genuine concern that I don’t seem to be reacting to something so close to home. I suspect something important got broke in me. I wonder whether I’m a smaller human being because of it and know that might be true. It’s not that I’m numb, it’s just that I’m still waiting patiently to be numbed. I’m the stupid dork waiting for a date who was never going to turn up and knew that all along. What a sad bastard I am. I’m not numb and know I won’t be and feel that’s somehow a deep betrayal of them all. It is too.
Learning self-control and calmness in frightening situations is always a good thing but you find out what the cost has been. You took a step back from the situation because that was what was needed but have now learnt how far back a step it was. There’s a little normal bit of you which has gone walkabout and you wonder what it took with it, but that sort of crap is a bit too philosophical for this time of night. That’s all something to park and think about later because for the moment, you’re watching their pulse. Philosophy later, just handle the situation. You stare hard for a paranoid moment, that blanket is definitely still moving up and down, so that’s okay. Fools of us all, complete bloody fools.
Your kid has a stupid wisdom tooth out, they’re sleeping off the drugs and all seems to be going well, and that night they’re suddenly awake and vomiting blood down the toilet. A lot of blood. Boys always call for their Mom first. It’s part of the price you pay for being a decent Dad and it’s one of those things you have to get used to. Your woman wakes you up and you struggle there half-naked, half-awake and frozen and you see them turn white as a sheet as the reaction hits them.
You kneel beside them and knead the back of their neck and tell them it’s all going to be okay, but you’ve seen what shock and reaction can do to people, so you quietly ask her to do the emergency call. This sort of stuff, you never wanted any of them to be near. None of them. What a fool you were. What a bloody fool. You kiss the top of his head, because you can’t help yourself. He’s lovely and at this moment in time, you’re fucking useless. There’s not much else you can do.
The whole toilet and the floor around it is spattered with blood. It’s even on the back of your hands and the top of your thighs. That’s my kid’s blood drying on me, so he’s a checkout. Fuck that. Scary stuff but you hold it together. The spray on the floor is very finely distributed, in the good old coughing blood tradition, but the stuff down the toilet is pure concentrated red. Lots of old-fashioned vomiting red and too much of it. It’s a technical observation but the good news is it’s all black.
Inside your head, you’re raging. You want to shake them hard; be a man, be a fucking man, nobody dies over a fucking tooth for Christ’s sake, come on, fight. Fight you fucker, fight. You get them downstairs with a bowl in their hands and pretty soon, it’s full of red shit too. There’s too much of it. This is getting serious. Where are those fucking medics? Move it, you dipshits.
You want to keep him good until the backup arrives. He’s too quiet and they’re the ones you gotta worry about. The nasty bastard in you starts to come out. Gimme your eyes bitch, gimme your fucking eyes. You do the first two fingers jabbing at your own eyes as you slap him hard around the chops, harder and harder with your other hand until you get his attention. He finally looks up and you see into his baleful eyes and in that fleeting moment, you can see he’s hanging in there, and your heart swells with pride at his unexpected toughness.
It’s that awkward hunkered down bastard I’m still here look you were hoping for. It’s all a bit new for him but he’s a tough kid rising to the occasion. Some shit, you just can’t teach. It’s there inside them or it ain’t. The good news is you can see it’s there, glaring back at you and wanting to kick your ass for being a prick disturbing them while they’re busy digging in.
Shit, how come I could ever have had a great kid like him. He heaves another big gush of Rhenish. You dab his mouth with the disintegrating remains of a grabbed hunk of tissues and notice how the blood outlines his teeth against his gums. It’s outlining your fingernails too and that comes with too many bad memories. Please God, none down his nose. It’s just a detail but for the first time, the fear begins and suddenly, its icy hands squeeze your heart. The fear, the fear, no way, not my kid, not him. Ain’t never going to happen to one of mine. Not over something as fucking stupid as a tooth. Hell will freeze over first. We will fight every fucking damn inch of the way all down to demolition.
This sort of stuff, she don’t handle well, so she’s glad of something to do. It’s drama, which she likes, but this one is way too close to home. I give her a few immediate missions, just to keep her busy. What a cold bastard you’ve ended up as. She strips the ruined quilt cover from his bed and starts cleaning up the blood in the bathroom. I know she feels guilty about running away from it. We’re a good team and this sort of grief is where she needs me to step up to the plate and do the swinging and that’s okay by me.
Shite like this is too hard on her and she looks to me, because she knows about the cold and hard side of me that we choose not to talk about. She gives me that waiting and deliberately nano-second too long look. She needs what she thinks of as Mr. Edward Hyde to appear. He’s always there and we both know that’s supposed to be my particular tragedy. I’ll take that unfair bullet. No complaints.
It’s the necessary roughness that’s sometimes needed to get everybody home. They’re her babies and although they’re my babies as well, it just don’t count, the emotional connection is so much more intense for her, so she’s hopelessly distressed if they’re doing things like vomiting blood. That she can’t handle and I can, but when she hurts, I hurt. She’s a fine woman and I’m the lucky man she chose to take an interest in. Convent school girls, they’re always trying to save the sinners and I’m very defo a sinner on pretty much all fronts you can imagine and believe me, when it comes to sin, I’ve got a much better imagination than you.
In such circumstances, all her veneer of being a calm serene personality flees, all the intellectualism flees, and I know that because I’m a primitive sort of person, which is why she relies on me in these extreme occasions. Subtleties I struggle with, but I do gritty basics very well, it’s the daily stuff I can’t be arsed about. I don’t feel things too deeply but I’m brilliant at functioning in brutish ways when things get really ugly, so it’s so much easier for simple people like me. I work a lot better in a broken play situation rather than a plan that’s running as expected. That’s probably why I was never interested in turning up for practise. Depending on the game, I was a player but in general, never was much of a joiner.
I’m a backs to the wall contingency, a very practical and basically insensitive person, I’m not supposed to really feel or empathise much. I’ve become everyone’s desperate plan B, which is why people choose to walk around me and I let that happen. It’s one of the mutually understood and easy betrayals of each other we all share, and that’s just the way every good man-woman partnership works. In different circumstances, she does the same for me and I love and depend on her totally for that. She’s the well-intentioned Dr. Jekyll in a loving but symbiotic relationship.
It’s my turn at bat and I will very definitely hit that ball at the first go. When it comes to family, I don’t need a second or third strike. I will hit that fucker hard the first time around.
The Medics ring because they can’t find the damn house. I guide them in and tell them I’ll be standing out in the road with a flashlight waving, just to get them here. Pop the smoke. Every month, I make sure that flashlight works and the batteries are good. That’s one of my routine jobs I’ve been doing for years. They finally get here and it’s all flashing lights, and two guys humping suitcases of equipment into my home.
Emergency medics are the same the world over. They all have the commitment of good doctors without the territorial arrogance so many doctors feel they’ve got to bring to the job. They know their task is to patch people up if they can, but pack them off to hospital when that’s needed. The ground zero of that job is all about making that vital decision.
These two are good. There’s the lead man, a ten years up veteran I instinctively understand, and his number two, who looks like he’s going to be pretty good as well. He just needs a bit more toasting. I watch them working, strapping him into the techno and oh so casually keeping an eye on the numbers as they start to appear on the LCD display, while they’re doing the reassurance thing. Even I can see his blood pressure is doing the boogie woogie. He’s just panicking, the numbers are all over the damn place. I’m working hard to keep my distance. Don’t be a civvie when you can be a helper.
I join the show and lead the conversation in a rock music direction and they take the hint, because they ain’t that many years ahead of him. Those two guys are sharper than snake shit and pretty soon, they’re swapping bands with him and even discovering they’ve been to the same concert recently. His vitals start to stabilise and he’s calming down. Like I said, they are good.
We watch him sitting at the kitchen table and I see those eyes begin to roll back as his head drops and we all dive forward to support him at the same time; no crashes of his noggin against the table or on the floor. I got my hands to his head before they even reacted, at the cost of knocking one of them sideways. It’s not a problem, because by this stage, we’re all old pals anyway. They shoot him up with a bit of chemical rush but we agree he doesn’t need the hospital trip, he was just emptying his stomach of a lot of accumulated blood. It’s old and dark blood, all the oxy is ancient history. Even I know that. Blood always dries to black. What he needs now is to get stabilised, which means horizontal.
They suggest getting him laying down somewhere but the stairs might be a big ask. I suggest the couch in the living room, so we get on all sides of him and help him out there and get him comfortable. I pack him with cushions, rustle up a few blankets, he sleeps and we all watch for fifteen minutes.
It’s a slow night for them so they’ve got the time. That can all change with one call, and we all know it. They’re just watching him to be sure. He sleeps and I exchange some stories with the medics as we keep an eye on him. The lead man has noticed all the computer kit. I sort out a pirate copy of a movie he really wants to watch. When you work animal shifts, it’s all too easy to miss a good movie you just wanted to get to.
He looks stable to us, so they start packing up all their kit. I walk them out to their bus and after a handshake, they get in and the engine turns over but it won’t start. A few tries later, when the battery starts to give up by slowing down, the decision is made to call their boss and tell him to bring some jump leads. We go back inside and I brew them another couple of coffees as we wait. It’s not their usual bus, an old one that they’re not very familiar with. The number two man bitches on about it.
The boss drives twenty miles and noses his wagon up against their bus. Jump leads connect the two batteries, the engine turns over but still the bus won’t start. It turns but it just won’t damn catch. In the ensuing what-do-we-do-now silence, I mention I once had a car with an anti-theft ignition kill switch; is there one like that fitted on the bus? After a moment of silence, we all hear a distinct click from inside the cab, where number two man is doing the driving, followed by a turn of the ignition key and the engine roaring into life.
Nobody says anything, but we exchange rueful shakes of the head. Boy, is number two going to take some heavy shit over the next few days. To adapt a quote of Marx, it’s life rather than history which starts as near tragedy and ends in comedy. We say the goodbyes and disappear out of each other’s lives, in the nicest way, but hopefully forever. I head back into the house.
Suddenly, it’s Thursday morning and I wake up with a start in the chair with the first light of dawn coming through the curtains. I’m stiff and achy and shocked I fell asleep. I find it hard to see a man’s bony face in the child sleeping before me, but it’s still of course there; he sleeps but like all of them, my love for them is hopeless and helpless but always a bit hard; that’s the duty I do owe them as a father. He’s going through that obscured patch where they’ve got to find themselves as an adult and we’ll meet again when they come out of the other side of that forest of finally growing up, which we all have to work our way through.
I’m a patient man and have many times sat on a log and smoked a pipe and waited in a clearing for each of them to appear out of the other side of their own particular forest. It’s the penultimate rite of passage. That I’ve always resisted the need to go in and mount any rescue missions, is an expression of my abiding faith in each of them. Scrub faith and just let’s say I trust in the buggers. I know that simple thing, with the deep and abiding conviction of a very much imperfect and deeply flawed man. They’ll all make it, because while I know they’ve inherited my feet of clay, they all have a certain cussedness, which is the final act of love. Nothing else gets you through. In the end, we all have to struggle on when there’s no particular reason to do so.
They’ve worried and scared the hell out of us on so many occasions but the important stuff they have to work their way through themselves. I would never deprive them of that challenge. It’s what in the end makes them all growed up people.
When they emerge, they think that’s the final thing, but it ain’t. You’ve known them from helpless lovely infants all the way to lumpy adulthood, but now they’ve got to start learning about that stranger in the clearing they’ve just encountered, who in their childishly me-centric world, they’ve never actually got to know. That would be you. Finally. It’s one of the great circles of life we all have to go through.
I hope they will recognise and recall that loop fondly with their own children.