Dylan missed being born on Mother’s Day, in 1994, by 21 minutes. “Hurry up”, the midwife said to me towards the end of my 72 hour labour “or you won’t get a mother’s day baby.” I wanted it to be over but I didn’t give a fig about Mother’s Day. In more than 30 years, I’d given my mother no more than a handful of cards to mark the day. I wasn’t the sort of person who cared about such things.
I care now I’m a mother myself of course. I love it when Dylan gives me a gift on Mother’s Day. This year, it was the most glorious bunch of roses: pink, lemon, cream, peach, apricot and white. Yesterday (more than two weeks since Mother’s Day) I said to a member of staff at Dylan’s home: “the roses Dylan gave me have been amazing: I still have a few in a jug”.
As I threw the last stems out this morning I wished I’d given roses to my mum more often.
Dylan and I drove to Brighton on Mother’s Day to celebrate his 24th birthday. We hadn’t been back since we left when Dylan was six months old but this year things fell auspiciously for a return visit to the town where he was born.
Firstly, Dylan has developed a passion for Premier Inns; an overnight stay in a different one, for his birthday, should go down a treat. Secondly (by coincidence) it is the town where Dylan’s beloved ex-key worker now lives; if Dylan could meet up with E while we were there, that would be birthday happiness indeed. And thirdly, my work commitments meant that (unusually) I could take a couple of days leave. For me it would be a welcome trip down memory lane; I wanted to find my old flat, by the sea, and piece together the life I’d lived.
This would be a joint and double celebration then: something for both of us.
What I hadn’t bargained for was my mother. I didn’t connect her with the trip at all but as soon as we arrived I was ambushed by memories. Although she and I hadn’t been particularly close, mum stayed in Brighton with me after Dylan was born. This wasn’t planned; she had only meant to visit while her first grandchild made its arrival. But I didn’t have a clue how to look after the baby and when she realised this mum asked for leave from her job in a school so she could stay on for a couple of weeks.
Although mum and I hadn’t spent much time together previously we got along just fine. Full of tact and diplomacy, she was the ideal mother of the child’s mother. Her presence was empowering; she suggested ways of taking care of Dylan but always left it up to me to decide. We had a lot of fun together taking the baby out for the first time and hanging out in my airy flat in the sky. I remember how she loved the sound of the gulls and the sea at the end of the avenue.
When the day came for her to leave I didn’t want her to go.
I had taken ‘Baby’s First Photo Album’ to Brighton hoping it might help me to explain to Dylan that we had once lived there. I’m not sure Dylan understands that he is the baby in the photographs or, indeed, that he was once a baby himself. Babies hold a special terror for Dylan; he hates the sound of them crying and is made very anxious by their presence. So Dylan has not really been interested in looking at photo records of his early life. Knowing Dylan’s interest in matching images, however, I thought he might pay attention if I could recreate the photographs while we were there.
So when we arrived at our Premier Inn, on Mother’s Day evening, I flicked through the album for a photo to take with us on a short walk along the seafront before dinner. Surely I had a picture of the stretch between the town centre and Hove, where we had lived? The ones I found were of Dylan’s first day at the beach; according to the inscription on the back he was one week old when mum and I took turns to push him along the front. “Look Dylan”, I said, “you and your Gran.”
This year, on Mother’s Day, I celebrated my mother and me, by the sea.
“I have become my mother” I said to my friend R over coffee next day. I’d suggested meeting a poet friend and his partner for a walk while Dylan and I were in town. It was a cold, wet day and we’d retreated to a cafe for coffee and cake. “I wear my hair longer than she kept hers but otherwise we look the same, right down to our coats of green”. OK, mine is lime and hers was emerald. But even so…
Dylan was twitchy, asking when he would see E, so I kept him moving through the rainy day. But everywhere we went I found my mum; we rode the carousel and the ghost train on the pier and I remembered her with an ice cream, fending off a gull. In the Brighton Lanes I recalled her buying gifts to take back for a colleague and her Head. Even when Dylan and I went to ride the brand new i-360 (where mum could not possibly be) I heard her voice in my ear, telling me how much she loves this town, how comfortable she feels here.
And then, of course, she was waiting for us at my old flat.
“Smile, Dylan” I said. “Let mummy take just one more”. Dylan grimaced at me in the rain. I put my arms together and rocked them. “When you were a baby”, I said, “this is where mummy and Dylan lived. Mummy and Dylan the baby lived here in this house”. I pointed up at my top floor flat. It looked shabbier than I remembered but just as lovely. “We were very happy here”, I told Dylan. “And your Gran stayed with us and helped mummy to look after you.” Dylan tugged at me. It was past lunch time…
The thing is (I thought to myself as we walked down the Western Road looking for somewhere Dylan- and vegan-friendly to eat) things were different then. Were they? What was different? Actually, the place seemed remarkably unchanged. I couldn’t find my beloved Sanctuary Cafe and the sea front had been tidied up a bit, but these were superficial changes. Other than the i-360, it was all pretty much as I remembered. So what was the thing? I grew sad. The cafe I had decided would be OK had been awful. The rain was falling slantwise. I was cold and exhausted. I felt as old as my mother. “Mummy’s tired, Dylan”, I said. “Let’s go back to the hotel. You will see E later. I promise you.”
What was different, I realised, is that I didn’t know Dylan was autistic then.
Caring for Dylan is as natural, now, as breathing. My mum taught me how to look after a new born baby and I learned, from Dylan, how to take care of my autistic son. Our six months in Brighton, 24 years ago, seemed suddenly unreal; I had been in a bubble then, my eyes fixed on a thin blue line between sea and sky. Today, I couldn’t even see the horizon. I wanted to cry but I said “Dylan, let’s buy an umbrella then go and find E.”
By coincidence, it is E’s birthday as well as Dylan’s. In the pub where we have arranged to meet they exchange gifts. Dylan beams at the fiddle toys she gives him and gazes at her, unbelieving. Here is another thing for Dylan to process; just as he has a past, here, so E has a present. ‘Time’ is a difficult concept for Dylan and his birthday trip has been full of its knottiness. On the way back to our hotel afterwards, I find more knots: the number 7 bus passes the hospital where Dylan was born and where, four months later, he would spend a week on a drip, being treated for meningococcal septicemia.
I push it out of my head: some questions are too difficult to ask.
The next morning is the bluest of blues. After breakfast we walk down to the beach. The thin line at the edge of the world is so clear I imagine the ships could tumble off. I watch Dylan throw stones into the sea. He concentrates hard on this for 40 minutes, testing the arc of his arm against the waves. I read some poems, try to make out the avenue where we lived, away in the distance. I think of mum and Dylan and feel part of a chain, a piece of their history.
“Let’s go back to the hotel and get our bags”, I say. “Then find a birthday cake to take home.” There was almost a meltdown but I somehow managed to head off Dylan’s disappointment at not being able to strike out along the seafront, explore some more, and his intense frustration at the broken slush machine at the end of the pier. As I steered Dylan away from potential triggers, and toward the sublime joy of a Rainbow Unicorn Cake, I realised Brighton was no longer my rinky-dink town; the place belonged to Dylan too.
“But”, I said to Dylan as we left; “I am never staying in a Premier Inn again”.
It was a particularly grotty Premier Inn (though the staff were lovely). I know Dylan adores this chain but I really think I have reached my limit. Suggestions for moving Dylan on to alternatives gratefully received 🙂