Last Friday as I walked home from the shops, I had to jostle the buggy through a cluster of photographers and journalists lining the pavement outside our local church. Within the grounds, crowds of people stood, wearing dark clothes, the air heavy with what could only be grief.
A photographer confirmed, when I asked, that it was a funeral, for a teenage girl who died recently
in tragic circumstances and whose death has been in the news (incidentally, he sounded fairly disgusted with me for asking, which was a bit rich coming from the man waiting outside a funeral with a telephoto lens. Just saying).
The only other time I have seen the same church so busy, and have felt the same heaviness in the air, was for the funeral of my sister. She was a teenager too; she too died in tragic circumstances (though thankfully her death did not garner so much media interest). On that day in summer 2004, hundreds of people packed the church, sitting, standing, her classmates cross-legged on the floor.
I now attend the church, and each Sunday I still have a moment when I am stunned by the fact that we had to have that funeral, when I stare at the space at the front of the church where her casket stood. My sister, her casket. It still doesn’t compute. Some days I literally can’t believe that my worst fear- to lose one of my siblings- came to pass.
Now I am a parent I have a new worst fear to add to that one, of course. And I am fearful, every day. It feels like it will stop my own heart sometimes.
It struck me as I tried to stop the tears, and snapped at the cameraman whose tripod took up the whole pavement and forced me and the buggy onto the road, that one reason the media make so much of an untimely death is that it is comforting for it to seem unusual, foreign, the thing that happens to Other People. An everyday occurrence isn’t news. We want tragedy to be freakish.
And in a way, it is. Sixteen is nowhere within the realms of a normal life expectancy. But it does happen every day. It did happen to my sister. Maybe I am more afraid than others, for that reason. When people say that they can’t imagine losing a child, I can. I do imagine it, in spite of myself. For though I haven’t known that specific loss, I hope I’m not throwing a pity party when I say that the loss of Helen was devastating, and that I can’t imagine loving Helen more than I did, so while I may not know the particular pain of losing a child, the pain I do know provides more than a hint of that horror.
But maybe I’m not more afraid than any other parent. Maybe we are all, but for the most optimistic/blissfully ignorant/rational among us, gripped by The Fear. Maybe all of us feel somewhere deep down that we were reckless fools ever to have children, because now look what we’ve done. Our happiness and potential happiness and potential despair is poured into these vessels; we are hostages to fortune. It is, as Barack Obama put it in the wake of the Sandy Hook atrocity, ‘the equivalent of having your heart outside of your body all the time, walking around’.
And maybe I’m not any more afraid than I ever was. I have always worried about losing my loved ones, almost obsessively at times. When Helen died it felt like a confirmation: I was RIGHT to be fearful. But yet, totally wrong. Because it didn’t make any difference, did it?
How do I handle The Fear? Do I forbid my children from going into the sea? Then the sea won’t take them as it did Helen, but they’ll also never know the joy of jumping over waves and floating belly-up in the sun- or even that strange slow-motion thrill of being sucked under by a big wave and it taking just a second too long for comfort to spiral up to the water’s surface. And then where does it end? Do I keep them out of school? Keep them in the house? In a sterilised pod where nothing and nobody can do them any harm- no disease, no evil, no runaway train or roof falling in?
Giving in to The Fear is not compatible with the life my children deserve to live. They deserve to have adventures and make choices and walk to school without me keeping them on a lead. They don’t deserve to be the only kids at university whose mother installed a cctv camera in their halls of residence.
I got myself into this heart-outside-of-my-body business, so beyond the obvious safety measures, I have to just suck it up, keep loving and enjoying them, and be grateful for all the days I have with them, even the crappy ones (though if either of them ever gets into that extreme sport where you ‘fly’ down the side of a mountain with a bat-cloak as ‘wings’, I will stage an intervention, so help me God). And hope that when I eventually go, they are still around, and well and happy, to remember their silly old Mum who would scuttle away from the window when they arrived home, pretending she had not been stood watching for them.