To feel the pain of loss and to understand its nature needn't be one and the same. For the former feeling I first felt when I was eight, when my mother left me after my father's death. The latter realisation was based on an insignificant series of events in comparison, but also one important conversation with my mother's's sister. Nevertheless since then the revelation these events generated may have proved more important to my life than the initial, awful feeling when my mother first left, no matter if the conversation also happened to contextualize these feelings.
The day my mother dropped me off at the two-bedroom council bungalow that my granny shared with her unmarried sister on the north side of Inverness, mum said she wouldn't be long - she was only going to the doctor's. A more conscious mind might have thought this strange - usually I would be taken to my paternal grandparent's place for convenience. Since my father had died, visits to granny's were always planned; trips to my grandparents were often contingent and casual. Experience, events in the past, could have allowed me to comprehend my immediate future: the awareness I wouldn't see my mother again for over a year. But at the same time all I could experience were feelings, nothing so grand as developed thoughts, and I sometimes wonder whether the opposite was more the case ten years later.
My mother, I later found out, had moved south to Edinburgh, where she took her modest secretarial skills and, in time, turned them into the empowering possibilities of information technology. She bought a basement flat in the Marchmont area of the town, and, four years after she first left me, and after numerous visits to Edinburgh (after that first year without seeing each other at all), she thought we should once again live together. I had stayed for six months at my granny's place; then the rest of the time at my paternal grandparents' much larger house. I was happy in both, but would have obviously been happier with my mother. Of course, being the age I was, she couldn't explain to me why she had left, and I would hardly have expected her to do so. I seemed to know that whatever her reasons for leaving, she had always loved me with warmth and tenderness. I can never recall my mother shouting at me, nor even replying to any of my many questions with irritation. That first year's absence was inexplicable, certainly, but (was it) any more inexplicable than many a slap a mother chastises her son with?
So I moved down to Edinburgh to coincide with my attending secondary school, and for the next five years I was, I supposed, happy with school and content with the friendships I had made. I would spend a weekend a month visiting my paternal grandparents and my gran in Inverness, while my mother would take me on foreign holidays during the summer, and occasionally trips around Britain at other times of the year. During this period my mother never talked to me of her year away, nor did my grandparents mention my mother's retreat whenever I visited them. Maybe I sensed in both gran and my grandparents no animosity towards her when the pair of us would visit, and assumed no underlying problem.
However, at the age of seventeen, while there may have been no tension between my gran, my grandparents and my mother, I felt perhaps there was a crisis developing between my mother and me, a tension that could have reached the point of argument the summer of my eighteenth birthday when we all attended my maternal aunt's Spring wedding up in the northern Highlands, near Wick. That the situation didn't become explosive but cerebrally implosive is central to this story.
My aunt's fianc, Peter, was from a tiny village in the north, but he was studying chemistry at London University with my aunt. Though she was a few years younger than my mother, nevertheless she went to study as a mature student and was about eight years older than the man she was to marry. They had decided to travel up north alongside a group of friends. They were all short of money, all in their final year, and would hitch-hike first to Edinburgh, and then on up to the Highlands. My aunt and Peter were travelling up at the same time, and they asked my mother if they and their friends could put pitch their tents in the garden of our basement flat. The eight of them pitched two tents in the square of grass surrounded by the high hedge. I looked on enviously at this wonderful communality, as they all fought for space in the two man tents, and I wondered whether any of them would be capable of a good night's sleep. My mother had insisted there would be room in the flat, but it is as though this would have ruined the whole adventure. They however accepted my mother's offer of using the shower, the toilet and the kitchen facilities, and spent the two evenings they stayed with us playing Monopoly with my mum and me. In our roomy basement lounge we sat around drinking wine and eating veggie food Peter and his friends had made up in our kitchen.
My mother decided it would be better if we all travelled north together and suggested to Peter that she would pay for the hire of a mini-bus. Peter and my auntie agreed after discussing it with the others, and my aunt, Peter and the rest insisted they would pay the petrol. It was a discussion I overheard and that confirmed my liking for Peter and his friends, and also undermined a comment my gran had made a few weeks before that they might all be scroungers. I remember the journey up to Inverness as the one visit north where I didn't feel a sense of isolation, not even loneliness. Usually passing by Dalwhinnie and through the Drumochter Pass I would look at the landscape as if it had been abandoned by people; on that trip I don't think I looked at the landscape at all.
We arrived in Inverness and flopped out of the van as we parked at my grandparents' place. Theirs was a five bedroomed house on Old Edinburgh Road, detached and stone built, with a long drive and an adequate back garden that was almost like a small park: it was the house my father had been brought up in, and the house I had lived in for more than three years after my mother left. My grandmother said that everybody should stay - in the house or in the back garden, the choice was theirs. On this third evening together we all sat outside, with the tents up and a fire we made nearby, and took turns telling ghost stories and fantastic tales. For a number of years after my father died and my mother left me, I couldn't listen to ghost stories; as if I was scared not because of the presence of ghosts but because of the absence of people. That evening, with so many living bodies around, the stories seemed scary in the moment, but didn't seem to possess any lingering sense of dread.
We then carried on up north for the wedding, staying for three nights near Wick, on Peter's father's estate, with my mother, myself, my nan and her sister (who had both taken the train) sleeping in one of the four cottages on the grounds. But each evening - including the night of the wedding for the reception and the ball - was spent at the house, and I suppose by then a make-shift family had developed.
It was in this atmosphere that I realized my resentment towards my mother was fading just as a few days later my thoughts and feelings of loss would become more pronounced. During that week, in Edinburgh, in Inverness and in Wick, I believe I felt no sense of loss whatsoever. But at the end of it, as we all drove down to Inverness, stopping off at my grandparents' for a long lunch with a dozen of us crammed around an albeit adequately sized dinner table, I began to feel its presence - somewhere between thought and feeling - more deeply than ever before. That confused anger I had been generating towards my mother over the previous twelve months no longer seemed relevant, perhaps because my anger towards her was less anger than a confusion fighting for articulacy. What I guess I had wanted her to do was confront and reveal the reasons why she had left years previously, and to do so without me directly confronting her.
Yet that week when I felt for the first time involved in a social milieu (I had never felt quite attached to any group at school despite having friends), and in the wake of it I felt curiously but deeply bereft. I suppose I realized something about my mother, or maybe something about loss - or both at once - that made the vexation fade and the need to question her seem superfluous. And it lay in this I surmised: that throughout the week I knew in an emotionally abstract way that everybody would go back to their respective homes, and that my mother and I would be left together yet strangely alone. It was this aloneness together I seemed to dread more than anything, and it was an anticipatory solitude; where before, when my mother first left me, it was something else. It was simply the pain of loss and the confusion of absence that I experienced as a child. But after that week, I think I shared for the first time the notion of what absence might have meant to my mother.
I began to believe she surely understood anticipatory solitude; she knew for almost a year before my father died that he would pass away, and that she would look after me alone. He died a slow, cancerous death with medical lucidity (he was a doctor), and I recall with only the vaguest of memories, occasionally topped up by overhearing my grandparents talking about his demise. I could not have understood that this sense of aloneness might have required after the loss a period of inconsolability in a literal sense: a sense so literal that even my mother's child could not be expected to provide condolence and companionship. However I think I began to understand that my mother moved down to Edinburgh alone not just because of the practical possibilities already mentioned, but because of this more obscure need.
Did she realise that I was somehow affected by so apparently trivial an occasion as my aunt's wedding and the events surrounding it? I think she did. When I told her a week after the wedding that I was putting off going to Edinburgh University for a year, and that I wanted to travel alone instead, she accepted with only the mildest protestations, as if obliged to do her duty as a mum, but in letting me go more obliquely obeying another instinct. I wondered however if she knew that in going I was respecting her search for solitude all those years previously, and if she did, whether she also knew that in the process I was offering her a respect I don't think I could have ever moved towards using angry words and offering subsequent forgiveness. It is something I'm sure she comprehended, for we still, ten years on, haven't felt the need to talk directly about my father's death and her year's absence, nor about my gap year beyond the pleasures of the trip. There was something in my body language and my attitude that had changed from before the wedding to the days following our return from it, and something in the hug she gave me as we said goodbye by the security check-in that somehow said that she would miss me as I had missed her, but that she understood my need to take, also, a gap year of my own.
What I didn't know, though, was whether my mother knew that during that week, one night when I went with my aunt to pick up some groceries while in Edinburgh, she had told me about their own father's death as she expressed a wish that he could be at the wedding. I was aware that he had taken his own life when my mother was eighteen, but had never been told about the details of his demise, and yet there was something yearningly enquiring about my aunt's comment that left me free I felt to ask her further questions. As she explained that she was only ten at the time, she of course couldn't make sense of her feelings, but years later she found some letters he had written and a notebook he had kept, and she read through them. The letters were from his time working in South America, where he detailed his job and said that he missed his wife and daughters. The notebook was written when he had returned to the UK, couldn't find work and felt frustrated by his inactivity.
He was a working class man, my auntie said, a skilled fitter who needed to work. At one point in the note book he expressed a wish to disappear for a year and return with money that would pay off the mortgage of the house they had partly bought with his earnings abroad. Yet from reading the letters he had sent to his wife, my auntie knew that her mother had clearly not wanted him to work in another country again. Instead, it seems, he took his own life as if, my auntie proposed, walking out of it altogether was less painful than leaving a family behind in another place.
When my auntie initially started her story I assumed it was to tell me how she felt about her father, but by the end of it I suspected she had told me because she had sensed a resentment I had been feeling towards mum.
I am not sure even now ten years on whether my auntie told me for this reason, or whether she told my mother about our conversation. I don't even quite know what it says to me about this familial desire to be alone at certain moments despite this need having caused the family much pain. But I know I feel relieved that my mother found an outlet and escape from her own grieving by moving to Edinburgh, and that I managed to avoid taking my confused thoughts and feelings out on her when a conversation with her sister, my burgeoning sense of maturity, and a week where for the first time in my life I felt part of a group, all seemed to create a bond of wordless meaning between the two of us.
I wonder, though, if I will ever feel the need to talk to her about my granddad's suicide, whether she will ever feel the need to talk about his death to me, or whether somewhere she is keeping a note book where she writes about her feelings, just as I occasionally jot down stories like this in which I can examine mine.
© Tony McKibbin