I get a lot of people coming up to me for a chat when I’m with my daughter, so it wasn’t a surprise when we were sat in the cafe and a woman, perhaps in her sixties, wandered over to us. Her opening gambit was to stare at my daughter in a mildly unnerving manner, which worried me a little, but when she started talking to me it was the usual questions “what’s her name?”, “how old is she?” and so on. This woman had a tendency to repeat herself, and her memory seemed like it might to be starting to go a little, but it wasn’t the difficult conversation with the crazy stranger I had been concerned it might be.
A few minutes later, a man she was with, a little younger, wandered over too, his conversational skills consisting mainly of non-sequiters like “we’ve been to Derby on holiday”, but he was pleasant enough, and my daughter happily munched away on her croissant while I chatted with these strangers. Presently the man wandered off, and the woman seemed as if she was going to leave too, but changed her mind. She started to talk about the man, it becoming apparent he was her son. “He has that Aspergers, have you heard of it?” “It was hard, because they didn’t know for a long time” “It was hard”, she kept repeating.
She took a couple of photos out of her wallet, dating back perhaps to the Seventies. Her son 3 or 4, blond, angelic and as cute as any child that age, her in her twenties looking beautiful, short black bob, blue dress that would be much in demand in a modern day vintage store. I could easily have been looking at a picture of my wife or one of her friends, the styles, as is there way, having come round again in more recent times.
I’m not sure why this woman had chosen to talk to me about all this. It felt like she didn’t get to have too many conversations with anyone but her son, but of course I don’t really know. Whatever she was trying to say, I took it as “my life wasn’t always like this, I used to be young, beautiful and full of hope. I never expected to end up old, memory shot, taking my autistic, middle-aged son round a department store being the highlight of my weekend”. I felt bad for initially having dismissed her as a crazy person, and I’m glad I spared ten minutes of my life to chat to her, rather than following that instinct many of us have, to avoid conversations with strangers that might turn out to be difficult.
Later that same week, and I’m listening to Mount Eerie’s album ‘A Crow Looked at Me’, an album written and recorded by singer-songwriter Phil Elverum after losing his wife to pancreatic cancer. In 2015, when this occurred, his wife was 35, meaning his wife was the same age as mine. He also has a daughter, coincidentally also the same age as mine. I find it difficult to even think about what life would be like if I lost my wife. This album lays it out with excruciating honesty The little details like the mail still arriving in her name, and her toothbrush still in the bathroom. The larger worries like not knowing how much it’s to talk about his wife to his friends and family, and most of all, how to bring up his daughter alone.
It’s impossible to listen to this album and not put myself in Elverum’s position, and it makes it so, so hard to hear. I have no idea how I would cope with bringing up our daughter myself, even though cope I would have to. I can’t imagine not having my wife by my side, even in the often imagined far future, past our golden and diamond wedding anniversaries
One week, two glimpses of ways a life can unravel. The first, the slow unravelling of hopes, the possibilities of life limited by illness and unexpected responsibility. The second, the sudden unravelling caused by the death of someone expected to always be there. There are so many ways a life can unravel, and this week has made me want to wake up every morning and shout about how lucky I am that none of them have happened to me yet. Lucky that my problems are minor, lucky that my family are happy, healthy and close, and lucky my life as I know it is intact, for now.