I have just spoken to my mum this evening, she has not had a good day, which I could tell the moment my dad picked up the phone and offered his attempt at a cheery “Hello”. It’s there, hidden in his tone of voice, in the way he sighs between words, in the way he sounds relieved to have someone else to talk to, even if just for a few minutes. She has been agitated with him today, unwilling to accept anything he said, even when it was regarding the ironing she was attempting to do, which involved her apparently leaving the hot iron, face down on the wooden table. His attempts at trying to minimise the damage to the table and to stop a potential fire were shot down in proverbial flames as she has disagreed with everything he has said today and has seemingly detested him today. He sounds so sad. God, it’s all just so bloody sad.
I feel closer just now to my dad than I ever have. We talk more often than we ever have and when we talk, we are talking about personal things, things that hurt and things that matter, things that are emotional and exhausting. I have seen him cry a few times over the past year, more times than in the whole of my life put together and I bet he could say the same about me.
My dad is amazing and I have always been incredibly proud of him, both as a dad and as our local GP. I know my friends used to love coming for tea when we were little because my dad was fun. He was silly and daft and used to love playing games and setting up treasure hunts or weird tasting party games (I distinctly remember mustard, tomato ketchup, butter and other disgusting things – when eaten off a teaspoon – were involved). He would beep and wave enthusiastically at people walking at the side of the road, as we drove past which caused us immense merriment when we were small – as these people would wave back, a look of happy confusion on their faces – and immense embarrassment when we were teenagers (the responding waves still as confused and still as happy). I remember my first pre-teen disco, I think I was about 12 and it finished at 10am. Dad was coming to pick me and my friend up slightly early as we had a Scottish country dancing competition the next morning (highly embarrassing at 12), but I was not keen to leave, in fact, I was embarrassed to leave early, so hovered in the darkness in the corner of the village hall watching the slightly older kids slow dance the last ten minutes with each other – some of them snogging madly, as if they were trying to eat each others’ faces. I was fascinated! Until…… the moment, I felt my dad’s hand on my shoulder and heard his voice telling me I was late and we had to go. Now! I ran out that village hall so bloody fast, head down, hoping to God that no one spotted my father in there. He was fun, but he also had boundaries, and boy did I know that I had crossed one that night. My face still flushes slightly as I remember my humiliation.
I was desperate for a pony all my childhood and have been horse mad my whole life. I was eventually allowed a pony on loan when I was ten years old, just for 12 months. It was the happiest year of my childhood and I remember the day my parents told me about Peter Pony and how he was to be mine – if only for a short time – like it was yesterday. He was a scruffy little chestnut, 12.2hh and old and slow, but my goodness, I loved him. Dad and I didn’t have a clue – I had been riding for a few years and was pretty good, but I had never had to tack a pony up (put the saddle and bridle on), or put a head collar on (the thing to lead the pony with). I didn’t know how to muck out (clean the shit out the stable) or how to pick out a pony’s hooves (clean their feet)….we were complete and utter amateurs. So, what did we do? We got a book from the local village library and we practiced how to put on a saddle (we had it way too far back for the first few attempts) and a bridle (believe me, this is very tricky!) and we got through it. Dad and I would get up at 6.30am every day and go and see the pony before school, then he would come with me at 4pm to feed the pony and settle him for the night after school had finished. He was my constant support throughout that year of learning, that year of mud and cold and wind and fun! I still remember walking through that field in the dark, my dad with his hammer ready to move Peter’s tethering post, banging it into an area fresh with grass every morning.
Despite all my amazing memories of my childhood though, I was never told that I was loved. Never told those three specific words, I love you. I have never doubted it though, never for one moment have I ever been concerned about how important I am to my parents, how beloved I am. I always knew, it’s just that it was never said.
Cuddles were sparse too, especially from my dad. Even now when I try to cuddle him his natural reaction is to tense up and to strongly pat me on my back, and we joke about it. “Come on, Dad! Give me a nice cuddle!” I will say to him as I hold my arms out wide, and he will laugh it off, all the time both of us knowing that he cannot change. But, of course he is like this – his parents, my grandparents were the same. They were strict and you knew when you were in trouble but you also knew they were kind and that they loved you – they showed it though in their actions, not in their words.
Dad shows his love through his actions, his unshakable dedication to my stricken mother. His constant attempts to make her comfortable and to make her feel safe and loved. His efforts each day to protect us from the shitty reality of Mum’s illness, his attempts to be positive on the phone each day, to shield us from the worst of it. He is remarkable, truly. I know he is my dad and there is an element of bias in my words, but the man is a good ‘un, he really is. I said to a friend the other day, that maybe these things are only bestowed on those who are capable of dealing with them….it is a nonsense saying, of course it is. These things are sheer bad luck, I think the truth is more we are lucky, that Mum is bloody lucky to have my dad beside us – beside her – on this hard, painful, terrifying journey, a journey lacking in hope, a journey we are fearful of completing.
I tell my mum every day now that I love her. At first it felt awkward, like it wasn’t a natural thing to say, despite me telling my friends and my own children daily that I love them, to say it to her felt bigger somehow. She said it back and she continues to tell me that she loves me in response to my declarations. It is nice, it is comforting to know that I have said those words and perhaps she will cling on to them in her moments of intense confusion and fear. I don’t feel more loved though, despite her now telling me those words, I have always known I was loved, I don’t need those three words, not really, as nice as they are, they do not provide answers to any deep psychological issues I have ever had. My parents were not huggers or declarers of their love, but I grew up pretty OK.
I was in Waitrose the other day (a rare thing, the naan breads are worth it though) and at the checkout with my three monsters, the elderly man scanning my items asked me if this was my family. “Yes” I replied. “They’re mine.”
“You have a big family,” he quipped.
“Yes!” I laughed (possibly too manically and far too loudly to sound sane). “Too big some days!”
He smiled at me as I hurried to pack my new purchases in my brought-from-home, screwed-up-in-a-tight-ball plastic bags. Then he explained that he had recently finished a psychology degree (or something to do with psychology anyway) and how if you don’t hug your children when they are young, this can have a massive, catastrophic impact upon them in later life. “Really?” I asked. “Wow, that’s so interesting.”
“Yes, you have to cuddle small children,” he went on. “You have to give them that affection from an early age or it can be very harmful.”
Part of me felt like collapsing on the floor in tears, had he seen me shouting at them just a few moments before as Mabel was throwing the tomatoes on the floor, or as Archie had asked for chocolate for the 79th time that day? Had he seen me roll my eyes and snarl at Martha, as she rammed me with the trolley for the 8th time, catching the back of my ankles with the wheels? Had he seen the honesty in my eyes when I said “too big sometimes”? I didn’t mean it, not really. I didn’t mean any of it. The other part of me wanted to tell him to sod off. He might be old and therefore deserve my respect, but he had no idea what other people were going through, what kind of a day I had had, or the mother behind me in the queue. Who the f**k did he think he was preaching at me?!!! Then, on my way out the store, I realised he was probably just trying to make conversation, trying to be nice (hopefully that was the case anyway) and I felt like running back in and taking him for a coffee. You see, it’s not always detrimental – the hug thing. My dad can’t hug me even now, but I know how much he loves me. My mum never said she loved me until very recently, but I have never doubted it, have never questioned it. I felt like I needed to educate him on this – so that he could have a balanced view on it. Some of us don’t get hugged as children, but really, it’s not bad. If your parents love you and they show you in the boundaries they bestow upon you, in the discipline they expect, in the manners they teach, in the fun they create, then you really do come out the other side quite strong.
I honestly think the hugs don’t count, the declarations of love don’t count. Anyone can say those words, indeed there are girls, boys, women and men up and down the country, around the world even, who may be hearing those words tonight, but they are not meant, or they are not believed. Saying them is easy, proving them is hard. And, my parents proved their love time and time again, over and over, year in, year out and are still doing so today. I told my mum tonight that I loved her, that I was looking forward to seeing her next week. “What? Who do you use?” she asked.
“What do you mean, Mum?” I asked her.
“Who cleans your car?” she went on. “You mentioned someone was cleaning your car.”
“No, Mum, I didn’t,” I replied. “I said I’ll be up to see you next week and that I’m looking forward to seeing you and giving you a big cuddle.”
I got no answer. She went quiet and I hung up the phone. I don’t doubt she loves me though, wherever she is and I don’t need to hear her say it for her to prove it to me. She’s done that my whole entire life and I am so lucky that she did.