Resilience sparks

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‘It’s like an episode of The Middle’ marque 2 declares as our holiday falters and shudders to an end. Ah yes, The Middle, how I used to love to sit and watch that with the kids. The excuse was that a baby or toddler or somebody around the place needed to be breastfed just as an episode was starting. Any takers? Then we’d all sit down and laugh our way through the all too familiar chaos of quirky family life, the topsy- turveyness of it, the high octane domino effect when some small little thing goes wrong. Sadly my excuse days are over, no one seems willing to be breast fed any longer, and I’m not sure if the show still runs, but my identification with the ever ascending cortisol levels of the mother is alive and well. There’s a twist now though. Now, for some unknown reason I can see every little thing that goes wrong as a lesson. A resilience building lesson. I’ve no idea what’s fuelling this, but I’m going to run with it. The kids may already be getting a little tired of my evolving mantras which seem to navigate around the idea that, while this may seem bad, just imagine if it had happened when…

It seems to have begun in the middle of the summer. There are a couple of really good Irish short story competitions I like to enter. I don’t have the time to focus on shorts much at the moment, the bigger project has to take precedence, but entering the odd short keeps it all fresh and exciting. There’s an immediate adrenaline hit when you press send. I was super organised this year, entering my favourite competition – RTE Guide/Penguin Ireland – a full week ahead of the deadline. Then some weeks later, mid summer, I couldn’t remember whether I had used the second or third person voice for the story – the you voice or the he/she. Often when a story is almost working but something undefinable is niggling, a change of voice, a change in the point of view from which it is told, can make all the difference. I went to my sent mail box to check. No sign of the story. Maybe it sent from Outlook instead of Gmail? Nope. I did a complete search and found it, in the end – and if you’re a fellow writer you may need to stop reading now, such is the pain – in Junk. Yes, there it was, utterly unsent, in my Junk box. I waited for the panic to strike. For the scream to come. Nothing. Instead I walked calmly upstairs and accosted a couple of computer whizzes to confirm what I had seen. 

‘Is there any way that it did actually go and also ended up in junk?’ I enquired with a low serene voice as if it didn’t much matter at all.

‘There is no way, no, sorry’ one of them said, waiting for the fallout.

‘Well, that’ll teach me not to check my sent box at the time’ I heard myself say in a slightly out of body ish way.

‘There’s always next year’ I continued, waiting along with everyone else for the real me to step forward. I didn’t arrive. Instead I came up with another plan. I submitted it to a literary magazine – something I’ve never dared to do, the chances of publication being depressingly slim. If it isn’t selected by this one, I’ll just send it in to another, I thought. I was behaving very much more like my husband than myself, a person who sees every mistake as an opportunity to learn something and turns things to the good when others would throw in the towel. Perhaps I’m morphing into him or I’m being hypnotised or drugged  by him – whatever it is, I think I like it.

So it came to the end of the holiday and we had been rained in for three days solid and we needed, desperately, to get down to the beautiful bay for one last swim. We shopped, we tidied, we packed the togs and towels, we timed high tide so they could all jump in off the rocks. A last blast. We went to unlock the car and noticed how the lock was slow, stiff, not responding. We put the keys in the ignition and turned. Nothing. Nada. Dead. We called the AA and two hours later we were told there was nothing for it but a new battery, otherwise we would not be returning home to Dublin for the new school year. This notion held some considerable appeal. There was one battery in a garage which was closing ‘out the road’ and he took off on the 30km trip with marque 1 and marque 4, clasping the end of the holiday budget brown notes. 

My resilience lessons with the disappointed ocean-bound jumpers were about to begin.

‘I was so looking forward to that last jumping in at high tide’ marque 3 declared. 

‘It would’ve finished off the summer so well, and now, now, it’s just so disappointing’.

‘Yes I know it is, but imagine if that had happened, if the car had broken down while we were miles off over the commonage, stuck out there we would have been. Or if it happened on the journey home, or…’

‘But Mum, I’ve had the anticipation of the adrenalin all day and…’

‘The what of the what?’

‘Looking forward to the jumping and swimming, there’s a build up to it Mum, and when it’s suddenly gone, well it’s hard to explain, it’s more than disappointment’.

Uh-oh. Think brain, think. Maybe tell him how lucky we are that there is a battery ‘out the road’ because tomorrow is Sunday and we’d have to wait until Monday, when Daddy is supposed to be at work, to get it sorted. Or maybe say nothing, nothing at all. Acknowledge it with a nod. Permit him to feel it. Revisit later, if needs be. 

On Sunday morning I whisk around, packing and cleaning with a bit of extra zeal with the luck we’ve had. There’s a car that can now take us home, after all. With a couple of hours before we’re set to leave I decide to wash some of the bedding. Yes I’ll wash it and drape it around – one less chore for next time. It is then as we stand in the kitchen and watch the smoke curling out of the powder drawer on the machine that marque 2 declares that it’s like an episode of The Middle. I open the door to the drum and the smoke billows out. Smoke perfumed with poisonous burnt rubber. I haul the sodden lead-heavy bedding, complete with suds, out onto the balcony and drape it around in the rain.

‘Isn’t is just as well that this happened while we were here, not out somewhere, the place busy being set alight. Or while we were asleep. And now at least we know. At least we know for the next time that we will need a new machine’.

A collective vibe of ‘yeah Mum, whatever’ seems to permeate the air. 

(P.S. Just received the magical e-mail below. More fuel for the burgeoning resilience fire.) 

Last Pic

Holiday Quandaries 

AnchorThe sirens blast through the town and then, some minutes later, the roar of the helicopter. It circles your house, getting louder and then fading, then louder again. You catch a glimpse of it. A great big dark military style yoke. Something is brewing. Your kids run out to see it, clasping cameras. You let them go. It gets a little quieter, the roar, but it’s still there. Somebody shouts ‘it’s landed’ and you look out the window to see your youngest child, laces untied, running around the corner, following the others. You must run too because you’ve no idea what they are running towards. There’s a road to be crossed. Will they just run straight out, the sound of the cars silenced by the whirr of the blades, the shout for them to stop drowned out? You run, faster than is respectable for a woman your age wearing flip flops. You see his new Messi football boots first, all luminous orange and black. He is across the road, upright, kind of, but bending now to tie. You breathe. They are all there because the massive helicopter has landed in the field where the pony show usually takes place. Your children are on a collective whoop of a high. It’s like the moment when you set the Christmas pudding on fire, only now it goes on and on. They snap and they video it. An army guy stands guard. It is then that you see the police car. Then the ambulance. Somebody is very ill or very injured you think. Others have gathered now too for this spectacle but what do you do? Do you turn your own away now, ask them to stop with the excitement and the pictures of the copter because some poor soul is to be airlifted out of here? The doors of the ambulance open. Tears sting your eyes. You cannot look and you say a little prayer of sorts for whoever it is. Then something breaks the tension, little murmurs all around. He’s talking and breathing, the man. Heart, somebody says. But he looks okay. Arms crossed over his chest as if to protect him. A young woman comes over to your husband to stroke the dog. Smiling now. She knows him. This man to be airlifted. And he’s talking so she can talk now too and talking to your dog is perfect relief. Her boyfriend joins her, stroking and talking. It’s going to be alright now. More than alright for your own kids. A highlight. 

The funfair has been spotted in another village at the set up stage. It begins. You know you’ll not get away with it now. It’s Friday and you’re heading home on Sunday and it’s going to rain between now and then. Do you take your kids to the funfair in the rain? You sit in the bar consulting the forecast, again. The bar man offers you a drink. You decline. You tell him you’d love one, but the kids think they’re off to the funfair. He looks out the window, raises a brow, laughs. It’s to be worse again tomorrow you say. 

You get there at night in the persistent soft drizzle. The potholed carpark ground is all puddles with a grey concrete milky mix. You must step into these puddles, too numerous to avoid, to get at the rides. Your dog’s white paws turn grey. You think about electricity and rain. Safety tests. How it’s only really you and your kids mad enough to come along. Your kids are the safety tests. You watch as they are spun on the waltzer for far too long. No one else waits. Then as the three older ones go to the big attraction. The Terminator. The one that spins them up into the air. You watch as they use a cloth to wipe it down for themselves. It’s only after they are raised up that you notice the duct tape holding the hinge beside your child. You see him notice it too. What do you do? 

The money flitters through your fingers. You stand beside a woman at the bumper cars. She has a dog that could swallow your one whole. She looks fumingly on as her husband and child collide with yours sending them crashing into the step where you are. They smile at you with a pinch of terror in their eyes. Keep your hands in, you think but try not to shout out. You are hating every minute of this as you knew you would. You put your thumbs up to them. The woman points to her feet. Destroyed she tells you. You look at her formerly white plimsolls, fully soaked grey. 

You pick your wet shivering dog up and wrap him in your hoodie. The youngest has noticed a ball throwing game and you wander over. Toilet lids flap at you. Get the balls into the toilet and win a prize. His aim is good. All balls in. Which prize would you like? The goldfish he says, eyes lit like stars. A brother tries to tell him there’s no such thing as winning a goldfish, maybe in the olden days or in the movies but sure enough there they are. Little fish shimmering in translucent buckets. You widen your eyes and shake your head at the woman, conspiratorially. You do not want one at all, at all. You’d have to play twice and win twice to get a goldfish she tells him. Phew. Good woman. Okay then, I’ll play again he says. Or what about me, his next up brother says. If I play we can combine and win the fish. He hasn’t gone on many rides, this child. He’s due a turn at something. It is somehow agreed. Everyone gathers. His left handed aim is not along the lines of his younger brother’s right. The pressure is on. The brothers will him along as the flapping lids trick him each time, just. Awww. There will be no fish (phew, but your heart sinks for him too, maybe you should not have set him up for this fall). Then the woman reaches behind her, grabs a bucket, hands them a fish anyway, and winks at you. What do you do?

You buy five rounds of pink fluffy candy floss, which dissolves efficiently in the misty rain, and you listen to the squawks of delight as they place a name upon their prize. Then you drive back to your own holiday town, a little faster than you should, hitting the supermarket just as it closes. You emerge clutching a half decent bottle of red along with the little tub of fish food. That’s what you do. 

Fish

Matmata


The decks have been hit running and I think I like it. Most summers kick off with a compulsory week at home recovering from the wicked routines of the school year. It takes this week to refocus the lens. To wash and hide all the nasty little uniform pieces. To stash lunch boxes on top of presses. To empty school bags with unread notes crumpled and mixed up with pencil shavings at the bottom of them. To realise and allow ourselves to wallow in the glory of another good year, done and dusted. This year we hopped over the unwinding week and took off like the clappers the day after the school broke up. I grumbled, most uncharacteristically, about the poor person who had to switch violently from organising and stashing and hiding, to finding and cleaning and packing. For seven. Oh and yes, for the last chance saloon prep for the NCT on the day the school broke. Hoovering and cleaning and dipatening and revving the smoke out of the lungs of the tired old jeep. Twenty she is now. As knackered as I am. At 5.10pm she passed and this gave a lift to the self-pitying grumbler. If she could do it, rise to this critical test, then so could I. And if I collapsed altogether in the middle of packing we could always go on Sunday instead. Which gave me the added juice to get on with it. Despite my mother visiting to bid us adieu and telling me how frighteningly tired I looked. It had been a big week, I reminded her, with marque 3 graduating from primary and marque 4’s birthday. She knew, of course, but seeing it all in action, the busyness of it, seemed to startle her. A protective streak in her called out for me to put my feet up and have a cup of tea. I had to say no. If I sat down I’d never get back up. A mother of four herself, she has no memory of being as busy as this. Hopefully I’ll be the same down the line. There’s a reason for the premature departure. Of course there is. I jiggle it in my mind. But no. There is no other way. 

We arrive and it all begins to fade, gloriously. How could it have been only this time last week that we were standing in the school car park for the guard of honour for marque 3 and his year? The sun stinging the shoulders of parents taken by surprise by its intensity. The stifled gasps of emotion. The damp eyes behind the sunglasses. I won’t, I told myself and a school gate Mum friend. Not this time. I won’t get upset, because it’s our third and we’ve done this before and he’s ready to go. He’s happy and looking forward to embracing the newness of secondary. So I won’t. Certainly not. I glance around at the parents for whom this is a first experience. Poor things, I think. All the stingy surprises. Then I see them. The boys. Walking for the last time through the glass encased corridors and I am gone. Taken away on a puff of emotion. I will never again see him walk that walk. They emerge. The clapping and high fives from their younger schoolmates begins. They pass proudly wearing their class-mate autographed yellow P.E. tops. He approaches. Beaming. Slapping the hands of the fifth class boys, those next in line. He’s ready, you see, I tell myself. Ah god, I hear myself say. 

This day last week. How is that possible? The emotions of it receding now into sepia. Here they all are moulding an entire village into life. Team working. Delegating. All five. Burying themselves with fervent digging. Disappearing. Half bodies. Underground systems and living spaces. Overground bridges and roads. It reminds us of Matmata, a village in southern Tunisia. We travelled there – pre marriage and kids, naturally – on an overnight bus for the thrill of sleeping in a sand cave underground. They were built in a bid to escape the intense heat, and are known to many as the filming location of the Bar scene in Star Wars. We stare into their creation and we remember. The freedom and the dangers. The day-time hike into desert scrubland, ascending a scree filled hill in terror. The pack of wild white dogs – wolves or hyenas – running yowling towards us. Arming ourselves with stones while backing further up the hill. Is this how it will end? Missing a train and hitching a lift instead with a local in his clapped out front seated van into the middle of nowhere, in search of the ancient Roman city of Dougga, and him telling me, whispering, while my boyfriend stepped out and consulted the map, that I’d be better off with him. Is this how it will end? 

The brothers collaborate and encourage their own Matmata into life while ignoring my pleas to rest for their ham rolls. Take a break, lads, for goodness sake. They strip, bare chests, while I search for a second hoodie of theirs to put on. My fingertips are becoming numb. A freezing summer’s day. 

‘Why don’t you buy us spades any more Mum, this would be so much easier with spades’ marque 4 pipes up from his cave. Because you’re too bloody big for spades, I do not say. I hadn’t actually noticed. It’s true, we no longer need buckets and spades. Perhaps I should be emotional about this too. But I’m not. The dog keeps a watchful eye. Barks relentlessly at a cow trying to join us on the beach. No. This beach is just for me and my crew, he says. Quite right too. The cow backs away. The dog accepts bits of ham from the unclaimed rolls. When will all this team work lark be done? Do we want it to be done? In years to come, we know, they will not be having this sort of fun together. They mould on, trying to force a canal up to it, and then one of them shouts that it’s time to swim. Swim? It’s grey and cold and there’s a drizzle set to descend any moment now. They screech and laugh into the ice as if at an alcohol infused stag party. I dance a jig to keep the blood circulating on the shore, while thinking this time last week. This time last week I was ironing a white shirt and polishing black shoes for the evening graduation Mass. We are in a whole other country now. Thankfully. 

Quilting

Quilt

We set ourselves up for it, I suppose. Quite early on along the parenting road we decided to create our very own family traditions. We thought of it as a sort of identity quilting. Stitching and layering us colourfully together. Creating bonds and memories. This is our particular quilt. Look at how it wraps us up, keeps us warm. 

The kids have taken over now though. Remembering how we always do certain things on certain days. How we are never allowed to break these traditions, even if we beg. 

It’s a scorcher. It’s Father’s Day, but it is also my mother’s birthday. I have been sweating away trying to work out how to juggle the two things. When marque 4 pipes up with the suggestion of a barbecue. The idea marinates for a while. It is perfect. Everyone agrees. Just the shopping to be done so. Until marque 3 pipes up.

‘What time are we going into town?’

‘Town?’

‘Yeah, you know the way we always go into town for Father’s Day?’

‘We do?’

‘Yes Mum, every single year for as long as I can remember. It’s a tradition. We go in and get brunch and we go to Stephen’s Green, you know, for the photograph we always take in the bandstand’.

‘We do?’

Crap. We do. Every year. 

‘But it’s too hot today for that and it’s my mother’s birthday, we have to get ready for that, you know, shopping, tidying…’

‘We have to do it Mum’ he says. I look at the time. Midday. We’ve been having a lovely leisurely present giving morning. No-one is dressed. I run it by the Father. He agrees with marque 3. There’s simply no choice in the matter. 

They are right, of course. Town is a soft mellow buzz of celebratory delight. We get pizzas and sit on the grass in Stephen’s Green to eat them. We ask a tourist to take a snap of us. Then we hot tail it around to the bandstand for the compulsory annual pic. Although today the Green is so full of people lolling about in the sun that there are some self conscious grunts of dissent coming from the teenage department. One does not wish to be seen actively posing for a picture with one’s family. The smile is not quite forming. This tradition may fracture yet. 

‘Ah go on’ his Dad says.

‘Do it for me. Sure I’ll be dead someday’ – a better guilt trip than even I could muster – and he laughs as he takes the picture. We finish off with ice creams on Grafton Street and then we are done. For another year. 

We scoot out to the suburban shops to get the barbecue food and discover that everyone is a lot more organised that we are. Of course they are.

‘Sold out’ we are told repeatedly. Four shops later and we burst into the house with some bits and pieces. All the tidying and prepping still to be done. But hey, it was worth it. Kind of. 

Now a little tradition curve ball hits marque 3. He is sailing his way towards graduation day from primary school. There’s a talent show on the final evening after the Mass. I overhear his older brothers talking to him.

‘You’ll have to do something’ marque 1 says.

‘It’s a family tradition’. 

I’m laughing behind the door. Sure enough both of his brothers did something for their talent shows, despite us trying gently to dissuade them. Marque 1 played a solo guitar piece and marque 2 sang. Terrifying and beautiful all at once, for us parents at least. 

‘It’s your turn, you can’t break the tradition’ one of them says.

He comes to us parents about it and we listen. He does not want to sing. He has a treat of a voice but he’s clear that that won’t be happening. He has taught himself a piano piece from YouTube. He loves it and could do that. Our gentle dissuasion works on him. There will be people who go for lessons who might play. Maybe something else? His passions lie in technology and also tricks. His teacher has suggested, jokingly, that he performs a hacking trick. He considers it. He could ask for a phone from the audience and hack into it without the password. Nah. Not really how he would wish to be remembered. Another trick comes to mind also, some sort of a physics illusion. He’d love to do it. It involves foam and an arm and blood as far as I understand. But it could go wrong. It’s a bit too risky. Nah. His teacher suggests something else that he has a flair for – a call my bluff word game. He’s super at the bluff (a little worrying perhaps for the teenage years yet to greet us). He did that with class pals for another celebratory evening earlier in the year. It went down a storm. All the boys were great. He doesn’t want to detract from that high, as it were. Also, he argues, it’s not really a talent. It’s a game. Someone else can take his spot. So he’s making a great play to break the tradition created by his brothers. Maybe we’ll be let off the hook with some of the compulsory traditions we’ve created over the years too. 

‘Eh Mum, it’s the summer solstice. We have to go for our night-time sun going down swim’.

‘We do?’

Yeah, we do. 

Leo and Myles High Five at Seapoint

Talks

img_0253It’s time to elicit a pep talk from someone. I shall choose my victim carefully. Tell them exactly what I need to hear. Ask them to drum it into me any which way they can. Tie me up and blind fold me and loud speaker it in. For a fee, naturally. 

There are swings to be contended with in this whole parenting a big brood thing. Great swathes of feelings of achievement having navigated them narrowly through a hectic, demanding May. Then the foot comes off the pedal in June just a tad and with it all the niggly doubts swarm in. What if I’m just not doing a good enough job? They seem happy though, don’t they, but should they seem happier? Any free moment I get, shouldn’t I be trying to improve things for them, hoovering a little more, pairing up a few more socks, baking something, blending a smoothie? Instead of hiding somewhere trying to scratch out some writing. Am I, in fact, quite absent from them as in my mind I’m off with the characters I’m eking out and carving into existence? Is there something perverse about this, creating people and worlds, while the real people in your real world might be crying out for you? 

These thoughts are cyclical and can be prompted by any little random thing. Like marque 3 asking me to sign a piece of paper about ‘the talk’.

‘What talk?’

‘You know, the talk Mum, in school, about, you know, well you have to sign it otherwise I’ll have to do science all day instead’.

One of us is blushing. Not the one that should be though.

‘Did we do that with you?’

‘What?’

‘Tell me that we already had a little chat with you about, you know, that your Dad took you out for breakfast and you know…’

‘No Mum, that never happened’.

You see, I tell myself, just not bloody good enough.

‘But I googled the one for a ten year old’.

‘The what for a ten year old?’

‘The talk’.

Hell, can they do that? 

‘Is there one for a twelve year old? We can do it together. Look it up. We’ll do a crash course before the one in school so as you’re up to speed’.

‘I’m up to speed Mum, don’t worry about it. Just sign here’. 

Hell.

‘Any questions, sweetheart, just shoot, we’re always here, kind of, you know, and your Dad owes you a breakfast out for anything you might want to chat with him about, instead. Okay?’

‘Okay. I’ll definitely go for the breakfast. Can I go to Sweet Moments afterwards too?’ Sweets. Yes. Give the children lots of sweets and forget to cover the basics with them. Well done you. 

‘When can I have my breakfast chat?’ marque 4 pipes up.

‘What age are you?’

‘Ten, nearly eleven’.

Christ.

‘Soon. Very soon. Maybe Dad will do a bumper pack chat. Take the two of you out. Or maybe even three…’

There are ways to make up for areas of neglect in big broods after all. A three-way Christening in 2010 comes to mind – yes we got three of our sons Christened on the same day, only the greatly disorganised can manage a feat like that – with marque 3 and marque 4 standing together as water is dripped down onto their copiously coated blonde heads and only marque 5 is small enough to actually wear the robes. It was a magical day remembered far too well by all.

On an up swing, such as it was on the last day of May, I can be heard calling out things that seem a little surreal.

‘You’ll have to all get your homework done super quick this afternoon. I won’t be able to supervise it later. I’m meeting my agent’.

‘Your what?’ Marque 5 asks.

‘My agent, you know, for my writing’.

‘Oh yeah, your agent. What?’

Exactly.

‘Can I come too?’

‘No you cannot’. 

‘Awww, please?’

I sail off with no one in tow, thrilling enough in itself, briefcase swaying in hand – a little uncalled for, but hey, it makes it seem a little more real – and talk about the book and the characters in the making as if it’s all perfectly normal, everyday work. Then I go back to the unfinished homework. Which doesn’t seem to bother me at all anymore.

So my own pep talk person, when selected, will boom out that parenthood is full of swings, it always will be, and accepting them, going with them, ignoring the niggly doubts, is the trick to surviving. Maybe even thriving. In the meantime, this luckily chosen person will be asked to pin me down and tell me to keep carving and scratching away. I will do my best to listen. There is someone in my corner now, after all.

Christening 

A last hurrah 

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It all comes flooding back. It’s the last Communion and memories of the first one, a short eight years ago, flash before me. The circle is closing. We’ve come a long way.
Eight years ago our fifth child was due to be born on our first child’s first Holy Communion day. When the date for said Communion was announced the mother guilt, only a scratch away at the best of times, burst through the skin and became inflamed. There aren’t nails long enough to get at it. I will not be able to attend my very own child’s Communion. Imagine what that will do to him.

But then a hand intervened. The baby arrived dutifully a full four days early. Which meant delightfully that I was in with a chance of getting along to the Communion after all. There was, how shall one put it, many a raised brow when I’d chirp my great news to the medical staff at the hospital.

‘Yes, isn’t he sweet, and guess what, now that he’s here a little early I’ll be able to go on Saturday to be there for my first child. Sooo excited’.

‘You’ll get out on Friday, afternoon most likely. Do you think you might be pushing yourself just a little too hard to make it along to the ceremony?’

Of course not. This is a gift. The baby’s a gift and he’s had the thoughtfulness to arrive on time to let me go to another gift’s Communion, and it’s wrong to look all these obvious synchronicities in the mouth. Or some such gabbling. Then I rang my Mum to make sure that Marque 1’s shoes would be ready. The rest of the garb was hanging up. She searched and searched and came across them, eventually, in the garden having been left out for days on end. It had been raining, naturally, and they no longer looked quite so black.

‘Nothing a bit of black shoe polish won’t sort’.

‘If we had black shoe polish’.

‘Ah sure, I’ll just use Mr Sheen furniture polish. It’s all the same in the end’.

Maybe the lovely nurses were right. My blood pressure was going dangerously high.

The birth had not been straight forward. He was in an occiput posterior position – his head was down but facing my front instead of my back. He wanted to come out looking up at us, so as not to miss a trick. Which is still how he is. But it’s harder for a baby to work through the pelvis in this position. Harder, longer, a little more dangerous. It upped the drama of the delivery and with it the interventions, which is not ideal. Although we were all singing from the same sheet. A baby to be delivered safely, please. Do whatever you need to. There was talk of an emergency section in the last few minutes. And then, as if he got wind of it, he flew out while nobody was looking. Beautiful and perfect. The manner of his sudden bursting through left a little devastation in its wake. More interventions. More meds for ongoing pain. Which is also why the medical staff could not quite join me on my high of being able to go to the Communion.

They were right and they were wrong. I was thrilled to be able to attend. Although I didn’t quite know what it would entail. He had a little job bringing something up to the alter, bless him. So we were in the prime position of the front pew. Fantastic. Then a bit of mother guilt began to fizz. All the other Communicants had white rosettes with medals expertly pinned bang in the centre of them. My child had an empty rosette with a medal strung around his neck. How could I have been so stupid? Why didn’t I know? There he was with his Mr Sheened garden shoes and his uncoordinated rosette and medal. What kind of damage are we doing to him? We’ve over done it, obviously, on the procreation front. But I didn’t expect to feel so, what was it, neglectful? My poor little sunny first born. I’ll make it up to you, I thought.

Then came the video camera man, positioned right in front of us courtesy of our prime position. In case it wasn’t already obvious that we weren’t acing this event, it would be there for all to see forever. Oh and I was wearing jeans. I know, I know. You see the point was about being there, not about the clothes. Which is all very well, until the ultra casual bloated mother in jeans ends up in the front row.

Then came the pain. It was already there at the beginning, but the adrenaline of making it along seemed to disguise it. Every time the priest said ‘kneel’ I did. Kneel, sit, stand. Kneel, sit, stand. Kneel. I wasn’t going to be the complacent casual bloated mother in the front row who couldn’t be bothered to follow the priest’s commands. With each one though, the pain increased. Pain, lightheadedness – no time for a cuppa beforehand, baby to be fed – engorged breasts and a queer colour about the jowls. A shade of greenish yellow.

When it was all over I tottered to the back of the church to a beautiful sight – the oasis of my mother-in-law, her arms outstretched to mine.

‘You made it darling’ she said and then really dangerously close to fainting I walked linked between her and my father-in-law and they whisked me off to the sanctuary of their home where I was fed and watered and minded and told how wonderful it was that I could do that for my first child. I’ll never forget it. It was like being a child again, being rescued from peril and utterly taken care of.

Later that day I was back in the hospital for some work around the pain issue. Then we were all at home together as people called in to wish him well. We whipped him off to Milano’s, just the three of us. It was a triumph.

So our last little Communion is a doddle. His four older brothers attend to support him. He has a medal pinned expertly in the centre of his white rosette. New shiny black shoes smile up at me. We party it out in a hotel in a picturesque small Wicklow village – a favourite of all. We don’t want it to end. Oh and nobody is wearing jeans.

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The fifth

IMG_5073Oh the glorious symmetries. Our fifth child was born on the fifth of the fifth. The dangerous perfectionist streak in me delighted in this far too much at the time and delights in it still. When all else around me is falling asunder I can always remember that one great feat. And then revert to beating myself up for not managing it for the rest of them. The thirteenth of the eleventh for the poor first child. Not trying hard enough at all at all. There are therapy bills looming for someone down the line. Although it was the millennium, so that’s some sort of consolation I suppose. At least we’ll always know what age he’s turning without being too taxed in the poorly resourced maths department. 

Oh the high when my fifth of the fifth fifth child turned five. Does it actually get any better than that? There are burdens for him with it though. Being the youngest of five. Burdens of excessive love.

‘Isn’t he just the icing on the cake’ we used to say often, because whether he liked it or not, he was the last. A very hotly debated last. There was a traumatic late loss before him and I just didn’t know if I could do it. Someone sensible spoke up, loud and clear. We should not end our child bearing on a sad note. We were lucky in the past and we were lucky that we had the choice. To go for it or not. It’s unthinkable now. If I’d remained like that, stuck, not finding the courage, we might never have met him. We burden him in our own minds with that a little too. That there’s an extra spoonful of magic about him. There’s magic about all of them, of course. But he was conceived when our lost baby was due to be born. Exactly when. And there’s something lovely about that. A continuity of spirit. But then he is his own little person and he happens to be blessed with the sunniest of dispositions. A joker. A joiner. Always laughing. A real little lover, as his granddad once said about him. And that he is. Full to the brim with it. 

‘Have you any idea?’ I used to mutter to him, often while feeding. Have you any idea how much we love you, was the question thrumming in me, but it always came out as have you any idea, and was as much to myself as to him, overcome with the oxytocin fuelled joy of having him safely here with us. Then one day he pulled away, looked up at me beaming and said ‘yes idea’ before continuing on. His Dad chimed in chuckling with ‘well you know the breast feeding has gone on too long when they start to answer you back’. That you do. ‘Yes idea’ became a little mantra of positivity. And today, on the fifth of the fifth as our fifth child turns eight he tells me something on the way into school. 

‘The only word I have is thank-you, that’s all I can say for everything and I wish I had more words, better words than just thank-you all the time because I just can’t explain how much you make me happy. You’re the best ever’.

Ditto and happy birthday baby. 

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Peppered delights

 Kids running into Sea

It’s just as well that the Easter Holidays were peppered with lots of little delights that we can now cling to. I flood my mind with the images. Hidden golden sanded empty beaches. My crew stripping off and flinging themselves in to icy water, daring one another to duck their heads under and bring on a terrible aching brain freeze. Unselfconsciously entering the water at times in their boxers when the foolish parents thought the weather was for walking rather than swimming and left the togs bag behind. Surprised by the sudden burst of sunshine. Every little ray counts. It’s just as well. Because now that we are back, ensconced in the wicked routines again, an unsettling sort of pressure is building. I’m greeted at the school gate by a blast of needs. All the things that require urgent attention.

‘You know the way we took the day off school for marque 3’s Confirmation?’ Marque 4 asks with a hint of indignation.

Ah yes, that seems like an age ago now, but in truth it was early April, just before the break. A lovely special day.

‘Yeah well, that’s when our booklists were given out and we missed them so now they need to be in by Friday with all the money paid, or else no books’.

A quick tot. A few hundred euros by the end of the week. Great. I pull an image from my holiday archive. It’s the dead dolphin at Dog’s Bay. It works.

‘I need braces’, another announces. In fairness he waits until we are in the car getting our belts on to deliver this one. 

‘No you don’t, you have lovely teeth’. He looks at me with an ‘it’s all relative, Mum’ sort of smile. Terrified really that I’ll tell him again how I wouldn’t get braces for myself, how I didn’t want to put my parents to that dreadful expense. Sure what harm did an acute angled front tooth ever do to anyone? 

‘Everyone was talking about their teeth today, their lovely straight teeth, that they are so proud of and a few of them told me I need braces’.

‘Did they now?’

‘Yeah and I was laughing at the time’. This is a softener. In case I begin to probe. To find out if he was upset. Who? What boys? The cheek of them.

‘But I really, really do. I think if they’re bad enough we can get them for free. The others in the class think I’d get them for free’.

I conjure another image. This very child running around the bay plucking multi-coloured foil eggs from their hiding places.

‘I need to decide my Leaving Cert choices by tomorrow Mum’. Now that does sound serious. 

‘And the thing is that I really like geography and history and art and music and I wouldn’t mind doing physics or biology and economics could be a good one but I can only choose three’. 

‘Your father. Speak to him’. Ah it’s great to have a decisive person in the house. There needs to be at least one of those. I picture this child relaxing in the steam room and sauna at the pool. Bubbling away in the jacuzzi. Enjoying a non-alcoholic beer with us. His Leaving Cert calling him now.

‘The French teacher asked if there was anyone, anyone at all who is still 13 in the class and I had to put up my hand, at the end of second year, when plenty of people are 15 already. J’ai tres ans. That’s what I have to say’. Well now there’s not a lot I can do about that one until the end of the month, sweetheart. A little fizzle of guilt though. Being the youngest in the class has always been a bit burdensome for him, even if he did have the maturity of a young adult at age five. 

‘I’ll need matching socks today Mum, we have P.E.’

Now that is a challenge. It’s 8.30 and I’m leaving the house with the 3 primary schoolers as well as the dog, late as ever, when this secondary school demand is drummed at me. 

‘They’re both black’ I say reassuringly, ‘even if that one has a splash of yellow at the top. Sure just roll it down a bit. No-one will notice’.

‘Mu-um…’

‘We had another teacher today and she was talking about all the lovey benefits of travel and asking where everyone has been. Five people have even been to Tokyo. (Point of information: they are 12; they have not been to Tokyo). And one has been to Russia (POI: he’s Russian). And they’ve all been somewhere and then she asked me where I’d been and when I said I hadn’t her face, well it’s hard to describe really, she didn’t know what to say, her colour, she went a sort of, well I don’t know what it was really, she was just so shocked’.

Great. It’s probably best not to respond, I think. To let it wash over me instead. To not say all the things that are rattling in me as I picture him squirming there puce in the classroom. To hell with it. ‘I didn’t go abroad until I was 15, and it doesn’t seem to have done me any harm, in fact…’ and I lecture on, more to myself than to him, about mortgages and multiple children and fees and gratefulness and values and how we’re all doing our best and counting how lucky we are is, in fact, the best way to look at things and how someday, yes someday, we might all be able to have an adventure off this island, we’re working on it as it happens, but in the meantime… In the meantime just finish your homework and go to bed.

The images seem to be leaving me. It’s just as well I have the pictures to prove to myself that we were a semi-blissful non-comparative family unit a few short days ago. I have a peep at my archive. Yep. There they all are, laughing and swimming and enjoying barbecues with the dog. Although there was a hint of it on one of the days.

‘Can you get a picture of me sitting high up on this rock. Everyone’s posting pictures of themselves on Instagram in Madrid and Barcelona. (At Easter? Really?). Sitting on a rock in Connemara will have to be it for me’. That it will. At which he leaps off and swims like a very lively dolphin. 

This particular child did tell me to play the lotto though (is it a concern when your children tell you to gamble?) on the day we were coming home. He’d had a dream, and I always tend to trust his dreams. I screeched into the shops at the last second and got a ticket and then left it in the car for a week. I checked it yesterday. He was right. 42 glorious euros right. I beamed as if I was holding the jackpot ticket and then purchased a lovely hardback notebook for my scribbles. I can be found for the foreseeable hovering over his bed ready to catch his dreams. He needs braces too apparently, and there’s no such thing as a free brace, it seems, after all.

Ellen and Smudge

Distressed leather 

Old Man

I have a distressed leather brow and I’m not quite sure what to do about it. I’ve always had a touch of it, coupled with lovely dark circles under my eyes. A skin too sallow to give off a glow. But glower I did, and do, quite well. In my youth I used to glower at the occasional wolf-whistler. It was an affront, naturally. In my twenties I used to glower at the whistlers as well as the staff in the off-licences and bars who always asked for my I.D. 

‘Ah you’ll be glad of it someday’ they’d say cheerfully, ‘looking younger than your years’. In my early thirties I used to glower at the wolf-whistler who decided not to whistle but to call out instead: ‘Don’t worry about it. It might never happen’. The cheek of him. How the hell does he know what I’m thinking about? Now that I no longer have to contend with anyone shouting or whistling or with-holding alcohol, I’m glowering all the more. Particularly, it seems, when I take my lenses out.

‘What?’ he says often. Followed by 

‘What have I done?’

‘What the hell are you talking about?’ I say, reasonably, ish.

‘You’re looking furiously at me, what have I done, now?’

Oh dear. 

‘I just can’t see you, is all’ I say squinting at the blur in the corner. I can’t tell what his reaction is. If only I could find my glasses when I whip my lenses out. Things might just run a lot more smoothly. Then again, it’s really his fault. He has taken to sketching people recently and he’s frighteningly good at it. But with it comes a realisation, worse than the one that happens when your phone camera is switched to selfie mode.

‘It’s easier to sketch older people’ he says one evening which otherwise is set to be perfectly pleasant. He produces a photograph of me and poises his pencil.

‘All the lines, gives you more to work with, you see’. See I do. I hand him an eraser and glower at him expertly until he makes me look 19 again. 

I will not chop a fringe onto the distressed leather, having not a hope of being able to maintain it. My locks get some sort of attention about every four months. A fringe would be too demanding for me. I’ve heard of tricks committed fringe wearers use. Tricks with nail scissors that somehow feather and tether it. I don’t fancy my chances there either. That could be one holy mess. 

I don’t want to look furious and worried all the time, especially when, for at least part of the day, I’m actually quite serene. It really is a curse. Apart from when I really am cross about something. Then it’s a godsend. One daggers look from me can send the kids scurrying to tidy their rooms. If I have a complaint to be dealt with at a customer services desk I tend to be taken rather seriously. I’d be a bit of a chicken when it comes to the obvious next step. Injecting my disloyal brow with toxins doesn’t seem right somehow. Slitting it and stitching it further up my skull is never going to happen. 

I’d like to think it’s a writerly thing. All that pursing with the creative juices blocked. But I’m sure some actual research would show that a writer’s brow is no more distressed than anyone else’s. Perhaps they’re just not trying hard enough. 

A distressed leather couch is all the rage. Maybe, somehow, someday the same will be in vogue for our ravaged brows. 

Ellen

Happy Papillon

IMG_8420It was getting a little tiresome. Every single time we passed a dog:

‘Awwww’ in a singing crescendo. Sopranos, tenors, the lot. 

‘Awwww, look Mum, soooo cute, we NEED to get a dog’. Years and years of it. Rescuing dogs that didn’t need rescuing on wild beaches. They’d only be trying to have a swim. But my lot would sense abandonment and danger and invite whatever mutt up to join in on our barbecue. Which they’d dutifully do until some owner or other, a camper or a walker, would appear over the grassy headland and reclaim their pet. A different sounding ‘awwww’ then, dripping with disappointment. 

Then there was the evening when I arrived home after my monthly novel writing group meeting. I was greeted by marque 5, who really should’ve been fast asleep, but something thrilling had him wide awake.

‘Dad said if I finished all my homework quickly and well, we’d get a puppy’. Ah, good one. These kids really are geniuses at trying it on.

‘No he didn’t, now get to bed, quick’.

‘He did, he did, he said we’d get a puppy if I got all my homework done and…’

There was, how can one put it, a little confrontation.

‘Tell me you didn’t promise a puppy for completed homework’.

‘I did. We’ve talked about it. We both know we’re getting a puppy. So yeah, why not now?’

That familiar feeling of needing to throttle someone near and usually dear to me tingled in my finger tips. 

‘Well we’re not getting one, because guess what? While you sail off into the sunset interacting with real people I’ll be here cleaning up shit, which, I think you’ll find I’ve already excelled at and no longer choose to do. Really? Supervise homework once and promise a bloody dog? Well you’ll just have to un-promise, poor kid’.

There. Sorted. All the lovely feelings of creativity and potential from the encouragement of my colleagues in the monthly writing meeting had seeped down into my toes. 

‘But we’ve been promising this for years and…’

Ya-da-ya-da. I can’t hear you.

But then. The hamster went and kicked the bucket and there was a palpable void. It would be disloyal to her to shove another hamster into her cage and pretend. 

‘It’s time. We’re going to get a dog’, I announced, lounging in front of the fire one evening, as if it was all perfectly logical. He looked at me from his corner chair. Looked. Said nothing. And so it began.

We already knew the exact breed. We had met and fallen in love with a Papillon at a Christmas party. Prosecco coursing through me, I might just have tried to sneak away with him. Beautiful, friendly, bright, alert, performing tricks for cocktail sausages. This was a full year ago, practically to the day of my announcement. 

‘Oh my god, I could really imagine one just like him in our family’ I had said, stroking his little head. I suppose I could be accused, on occasion, of sending mixed messages. I’m particularly good at it. 

He got googling after my proclamation. Said nothing. Googled. The problem with falling in love with a Papillon is that they are damn hard to find here in Ireland. They are continental toy spaniels, named due to their beautiful butterfly style ears. They enjoy popularity in many parts of the world. But here? 

For all of you savvy pet loving readers, you already know how not to go about looking for a dog to purchase. But if you had seen the little face on Done Deal, maybe, just maybe, you’d have been stupid like us. Advertised as IKC registered, microchipped, wormed, fully vaccinated, sure what more could you ask for? He sailed off to the owner’s house with marque 1 to meet and greet. Something niggled at me. That place had been in the news recently, had it not? I googled. Too late. Someone had been shot through the kitchen window in the exact estate he was heading to. With my precious son. I rang him.

‘Turn back, feck the dog, it’s bandit land…’

‘But we’re just outside. I’ll go in and see and..’

‘Do not leave my son in the car to be shot at while…’

They went in. Fell for dog. Fell for owner. Sold it to me. A pushover at the best of times. Showed me videos. Yep, let’s go for it. 

Oh, we’ve learnt so many lessons this past little while. We continued on our perilous journey. I named the dog, having not actually met him, but hey, he had this beautiful gemstone colouring. Jasper. The kids loved it. I could be found calling him, in my head, perhaps out loud a little, perhaps patting my knees for him to come to me, occasionally. Watching the videos of him over and over and over again. Oxytocin or something like it fuelling me. 

The owner said she would bring him to us. How lovely and kind, we thought. So the day before his arrival, I brought all the kids up to Petstop and enlisted for the puppy package. Crate, bedding, lead, harness, bowls, food, treats, toys, brushes. Oh what fun we had. Then marque 2 spent the last of his savings. A little cream fluffy coat with a hood for Jasper. €29. Ah god. We went home and set it all up.

On the morning of the day he was due to become ours I googled the check list for buying a puppy. The IKC check list. Make sure that the owner has the registration papers, the pedigree history and the change of ownership form at the point of sale. I’m sure she knows all that, I thought. 

‘Just text her and tell her to bring them with her’ I said. He did so. Texted. Asked her approximate time of arrival. Oh and to bring the papers. Deathly silence for three hours apart from the kids asking every two minutes when he’d be arriving. Then she got on and said she’d be with us by six. That was it. ‘Will you have the papers’ he asked with my gentle pin-pricking persuasion.

‘I’ll have the microchip number’ she said. ‘The papers should be with me shortly’. And there it was. An utterly horrendous electrifying feeling of parental let down. Us to the kids. There were no papers, obviously. How could we have been such fools? 

‘But sure I can bring him over to you and I have his parents’ papers so I can bring them and I can draw out the pedigree for you’. Yes, you just come on over and dangle the adorable dog, who is probably the product of a brother and sister, right in front of my kids. Then get out your pen and start to draw.

‘Eh, no, we’d need the papers for this actual dog’ he texted. Slowly, oh so very slowly, the cop was beginning to come. I rang the Kennel Club.

‘Is there any way a dog could be registered with you and for the owner just not to have the papers?’ I asked, already knowing the answer. She laughed, but not unkindly. This happens all the time apparently. But usually the poor muppets have already purchased. Then they ring to find out that the papers are not actually on their way in the post. At least when the little bit of savviness came it wasn’t too late. We pulled out. The owner offered to drop the price, rather dramatically, as he would be going to such a good family an’ all. Eh, no, thanks anyway.

It wasn’t easy then, trying to dodge the empty crate, bedding and toys lying in wait, the little coat draped over it. Nor the lead swaying gently, uselessly by the door. The kids took to bedding themselves in the crate. Pretending. They’d crawl in and curl into a foetal position making little whining noises. Marque 5 announced that it was much more comfortable than his own bed, and wondered if there was any way we could just cart it upstairs and let him take up permanent residence in it. Years and years of therapy bills loomed. We needed to fix this. Only I was beginning to get cold feet, again. It had been such a close call. We are such fools. Would we even be capable of looking after an animal? There was certainly a mountain of evidence against us. 

Every cloud a silver lining, and all that. We set about doing some proper research. A lovely breeder, who breeds seldom, who keeps them living in the family home with her. She doesn’t advertise. She doesn’t need to. A communication began. We visited. We fell. All the lovely colourful stamped papers were shown. I sneezed and rubbed my eye and thought, here we go, I’m allergic, I’m going to shatter their dreams, again. So she let us take him on a trial basis. If he triggered anything at home and we didn’t want to go ahead that would be fine. The odd red eye and sniffle in some. A trifle of a thing. Nothing that a couple of anti-histamines and a bit of time wouldn’t sort. We have him. He is ours. Smudge. The  collective blood pressure in the house has gone right down and the joy levels are soaring. ‘Awwww, look at our happy Papillon’ they can be heard murmuring to one another, nuzzling in to him, accepting all his unconditional energetic love and dolloping out mounds of their own. He is, of course, the sweetest, smartest most beautiful little dog in the world. Alert and fun when needs be. Quiet and curled up by the fire when that’s what we’re into. Oh and it’s an absolute pleasure to clean up after him. 

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