‘I know you don’t need me any more and I’m happy with that. It’s the way it should be.’
Before you were born, I took a photo of the beach where we lived – this is a long time ago, more than a lifetime for you of course, and buying a first home near the beach was still a thing. The wide sea and the horizon is everything in front of me. The following summer I took the same photo from the same spot but now everything is different because you are in it. The focus, the scope, has narrowed down to just you in the centre of my whole world and now it’s your blue-eyed gaze on the tiny waves trilling, then flopping onto the sand. The shadows are long with evening, so I suppose we are waiting for your father to return from his other life in the city. You didn’t even notice that I had stepped away to take this photo of your fat little L shape in your fluffy pyjamas. I was mildly surprised – annoyed, even – that you were so calm about my brief absence from view. I would have been frantic by yours, of course, and the imbalance seemed more than a little unfair. I know your hands were methodically kneading the dry grass and that your face would have worn a thoughtful frown. I knew from then on it would always be you watching the horizon, and me in the background, watching you. There are so many of these old photos of you but none of me in 2002 – at least, not the whole me. Here and there, a clue that I am still alive – a hand on your back, my arm around your middle. My feet. But really, in all the ways that count, I’m gone.
The week your youngest sibling starts school I buy a dog. We drive a long way to find a small house on a farm to get one of nine puppies. He cries all the way home for his brothers and sisters and I hold him in my hands, no bigger than a block of cheese, smaller than a lunchbox or a pair of school shoes or a packet of baby wipes. I can only think of domestic detritus to compare him with, because that’s all I ever think about. For seven years feeding and cleaning and caring and holding and calming and wiping and lifting and changing has been my waking thought and my nightly dreams. Seven years submerged in parenting has washed away everything else. I have nothing else. I carry the puppy everywhere, feeling guilty for taking him from his real mother. I carry him around the house, to cafes, to school pick up. Another one of the school gate parents lifts his eyebrows. “Ha!” He knows what is going on. “That’s what happens when they all start school.”
But that was years ago. And this week we had to put the poor boy down. So that was that. And this week you graduated high school and will soon move away to live on your own, and that, I guess, is that, as well.
At your graduation the teachers I can’t tell apart keep droning on and my eyes drift around the – hall? Auditorium? Sports arena? Big school rooms have flash names these days – but it smells like it always does when you pack a lot of humanity into a wooden structure with windows that are more about discouraging vandals than encouraging air circulation. I see the same semi-familiar faces every year. Old people at these events – well, me anyway – will blurt out drivel like “oh wow look at you! So tall! Gosh, I remember you at playcentre” but it’s not really true. What I actually remember is everything, all at once. Your friend’s lanky frame swings into view, bristling with new adult features, and I can see the baby on his mum’s hip, the seven-year-old in my kid’s carpool on Farm Day, the nine-year-old who slipped over and cried at swimming sports. I gave him a Bandaid, remember? Like a set of ghostly Russian Dolls, all of these versions of all these children are still there, hanging in the air between us. For me, anyway. I’ve known most of your class for most of their lives and it maddens me that the memories are all on my side. How can I know so many things about these people that they can’t even remember about themselves?
I realise that one of the girls you started school with all those years ago is missing. She was in a car accident last year. I am suddenly very angry, as I often am these days, about the good or bad luck that is handed to some and not to others for no reason, no reason at all. A young friend recently told me a piece of wisdom she heard; as women get older, she says, we need to remember to cultivate our wildness. I can’t think of anything less true – the older I get, the closer my natural wildness cruises to the surface, all by itself. Ready to bite. No cultivating required. If this comes as something of a relief after far too many years of holding my tongue and laughing at sexist jokes out of politeness, it is also a bit alarming. Well, to others, anyway.
I see another child I know, and think: I can remember your mum before she even had you at all. Tell that to a teenager and see a flicker of existential uncertainty in their eyes! But that would be needlessly cruel. The Class of 2020 has been through enough trials this year so I relent and leave these tender, putative adults with the belief that they have always been the centre of our gaze and always will be. The art teacher is making a wonderful speech that is just a lot of in-jokes for his students, incomprehensible to the parents. But he loses his audience a bit at the end by telling them they are all stardust, just as important and insignificant as everything else in the universe. It’s a beautiful thought but they’re not ready for it yet. I can see your eyes glaze over.
I know you don’t need me anymore and I’m happy with that. It’s the way it should be. You’ll be fine and so will I. So much absolute bullshit gets said about the tragedy of the mother with an empty nest, the horror of her drooping, menopausal, into the invisibility of old age, rendered helpless with the loss of her vaginal fluids. I hear so much about drying up I sometimes imagine that I will just endlessly shrivel, smaller and smaller until I am no more than a pile of sentient dust on my 60th birthday. None of this bewailing is relatable to me. I got lost for a while, but now I’m back. I love being older, my interest in being interesting to others long gone. Nobody notices me and nobody cares what I do. It’s insanely liberating– has an old woman ever told you that?
You’ll be fine and so will I, but I still witter on and on trying to get the last bit of practical wisdom into you before you go to your pesky final exams. Your teachers do it, too. We all do it. I can sense you growing stiff with boredom at all these adults around you, pouring our silly advice into your brain. Most of it probably irrelevant to you anyway. I think about your head getting so full of information that it becomes heavy and comically wobbly on your shoulders, which I guess is why your Airpods are stuffed in your ears 24/7 these days, to keep all that shit you’ve had to learn from falling out. You never hear me coming up behind you and every time you see me you jump; “Jeeeeeez, Mum!” as if you are surprised I still live here. The feeling is mutual, kid.
Soon, very soon, you’ll be gone. You tell me you can’t wait. There’s so much important advice I still want to give you about never apologising for asking a question and how to find a good GP and buy yourself a quality raincoat and how to make cheese sauce and not to feel guilty about saying no, but you won’t wait, you tell me you’re ready.
I believe you. Maybe it’s true. Anyway. You’ll always be fine and so will I.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.