It’s early morning and I’m up in my attic space with a pot of coffee. This is my best time of day; ideas and poems and flashes of song come bursting with the breaking light. Not this morning though, I think to myself, glancing at my open diary: ahead of me, back-to-back commitments from first to last. I feel my heart sink. Time to get going.
I will never forget how extraordinary the two weeks after Dylan moved into residential care felt; although there were times of day when I felt his absence keenly, and was sometimes anxious, my main memory is of feeling nourished and healed. I could hardly comprehend the space I had fallen into but I filled it deeply and gladly: I went to the cinema, took long walks, swam, met girlfriends for tea and cake and sat staring at the sky. I would wake in the morning feeling the delicious weight of unbroken sleep lifting, and in the evenings I would lounge, uninterrupted, in the slow exhale of a book. I felt transformed; I was missing Dylan, yes, but in some essential place I was restored.
And then, in week three, the builders came. I had been postponing house maintenance for years, knowing that Dylan would find the disruption difficult. Last year I watched a damp patch on the attic ceiling creep across both bedroom walls; the roof would not last another winter, I predicted. Dylan’s room had lived through some pretty grim days too; I could conceal damaged walls with strategically-placed pictures but there was nothing I could do about the faint stain on the carpet where he had been violently sick after consuming polystyrene balls. Every time I saw that mark I recalled my fear as I held Dylan in my arms and willed the ambulance to come. I would decorate that room, I promised myself, as soon as I could.
So when the first two weeks of Dylan’s move to residential care passed so sweetly I gave the builder, decorator and maintenance man the nod. That week – people up ladders and on the roof, tools and tiles and tins in my house and garden – life became ordinary. The walk to work turned from joy to slog. The house was too upturned to relax. I couldn’t go to the cinema after work as I had to rush home to see builders. And I had marking to do. The pile of scripts sat stubborn on my desk as I fiddled and sighed and (to my surprise) missed Dylan. Missed him out of the blue, suddenly and terribly.
What’s wrong? the black-haired therapist asked me at the end of that week. I didn’t know, I told her. Something. I had been fine. Going out. Seeing people. Getting exercise. I’d been sleeping well. Feeling positive. Not missing Dylan. And that had surprised me, I’d told her – that I hadn’t missed him the way I thought I would. That I’d been feeling good. That life seemed possible. Actually, I reflected, I had almost been happy. Nothing had actually happened, I reassured her (catching the question in her face). Dylan was fine. I was OK. Except. I pulled a face. Except I was fed up. And missing him.
Perhaps the things you’ve done this week, the therapist observed, haven’t been very nourishing? It might be the case, she suggested, that some activities are more helpful than others when we are learning to live without someone we love. Maybe how we experience absence depends on what we are filling it with. If the space is taken up with things which nourish us – exercise, perhaps, or friendship or gentle time for ourselves – then perhaps we don’t feel an absence so keenly. Maybe I was more aware of Dylan’s absence this week because marking and home maintenance simply didn’t nourish me?
Adjusting to Dylan leaving home isn’t, I have realised, about keeping busy; he was too significant a part of my life for me to be able to simply distract myself from his absence now. It is on busy days, in fact, that I miss him most; my diary might be full, but if it is with the wrong things, I feel the emptiness. Far better, I find, to build things into my days which nourish.