Half Life – 35 – cards and letters
June 25th, 2021
The horse sticks its tongue out when it’s opened, a perfect card from Older Boy as the silliness mixes with the sincerity of words inside. His skill of lightening the mood with a joke or prank when the world became too serious showed itself when he was a baby and he’s had us laughing ever since. Younger Boy was not to be outdone, spent the whole day prancing about in a home-made superhero consume, involving a sheet, a lot of paper stuck together with Sellotape, and an ever-changing range of bizarre superpowers, added to a day of smiles. His card listed all the qualities I wish I had and could pass on to them. A bitter-sweet Father’s Day for all of us, the realities my cancer still raw for them, so finding the right words for their cards could not have been easy. I’m glad they didn’t see me crying in the bathroom, they had wanted to make me laugh all day, and they did.
Advice parents pass on to their children to help deal with complexities of life is never certain to be right, useful, or even taken on board. Most of it is destined to be something they realise, after the event, they should have taken notice of, but didn’t. Patching up cuts and bruises while reminding small children you had warned them not to play with the scissors/stick/matches/penknife/toilet bush, while hiding the relief the inevitable injury did not require a trip to A&E, is a scene acted out up and down the country every day. Situations can be addressed as they arise, giving parents the opportunity to present the advice together with the consequences of ignoring it. The bleeding and crying taking place in front of them adding valuable weight to the verbal wisdom.
If you’re going to be inconsiderate and die before your children grow up, then a modern cancer tradition is to write letters to them as a way of imparting this parental gold-dust in re-readable paper form. On a shelf, within easy reach and waiting patiently in their cornflower blue boxes, are sheets of glorious, rich, cream, writing paper with matching envelopes destined to be the letters for The Boys. Two pens, gifts many years ago from generous friends, lie on the desk ready for action as soon one is chosen as the champion for the task. The decadent Mont Blanc fountain pen suspiciously eyes up the opposition, a mottled green Parker ball point. Beauty competing with practicality. Starting to write is the key to getting them done, but what hope is there if even choosing which pen to use is proving too difficult.
Overthinking has generated creative paralysis as lists of possible subjects are generated, using a pencil to avoid pen favouritism, and then rejected. Topics are noted down, deleted, and then added back into a new list. Sex, relationships, love, politics, work, career, personal responsibilities, rights, food, the planet, nature, travel, religion, belief, drugs, smoking, more sex, alcohol, screens, fraudsters, cults, politics, thinking skills, philosophy, free speech, human nature, racism, sexism, meaning of life, death, work, money, people…! Where to start and where to stop?
Each attempt to write about these ends in acute embarrassment and, on reading back, a sense they are of no use at all. My views on sex, love, and relationships are probably not the most useful, and it might be kinder to allow them to work it all out themselves. Similarly, given the jobs of the future have not been invented yet, any advice on work and employment is already out of date. They have endured so many warnings about drugs, directives on healthy food, and conversations about alcohol over the years from school and relatives that they are probably tempted to sprinkle ground-up ecstasy tablets into their pot noodle and wash it down with a bottle of Jonnie Walker Red Label just to see what the fuss is about. The blank pages stares back at me, mocking.
All is not lost. Through the skills and generosity of a friend in The Village, a genius filmmaker, the first few episodes of what had been a planned series of short videos were made before lockdown struck. The Boys, already exhausted by having to listen to me, may choose not to watch them. They’re certainly not as interesting or exciting as The Umbrella Academy or the endless Japanese cartoons which dominate their evening viewing, but if I dress up in a headband and eat noodles loudly on camera, I might get a few minutes of their time. The differences in quality between the professional productions and my own videos, produced using the laptop camera after meeting other people was forbidden, are so significant that watching them was physically painful. They may have to join the ones of me singing, which were deleted on the grounds that there are some things which would be better, for them and me, if The Boys didn’t remember or have endure again.
Late at night with a glass of deep, rich, red in front of me, the pencil is put back into action in a burst of determination to drive the letter writing forward. It ends up yet another cartoon picture of a face sticking its tongue out next to the start of a list. Looking at the Father’s Day cards again, The Boys managed to say more through their silly cards and a few words than I have in all the lists. It may not be enough to fill a card, let alone a letter, but all I want them to learn from me is to find someone as wonderful as their mother to love and spend their lives with; earn a living through doing something they enjoy; be kind; think; read; debate; avoid extremists; and drink very good wine.