Every year we take the children to Cornwall for the second May Bank Holiday to stay in my mother-in-law’s cottage. Every year since we started this tradition it has caused Mum to rail against me for a good two weeks before we leave, her anxieties and panic and fear coming together in a perfect storm of rage.
May 2015 is different. Mum is careering towards another stretch in the Mental Health Unit and Dad is waiting to be admitted to have his leg amputated. Mum is, of course, wrapped up in far more nightmarish thoughts than whether or not I will spend the Bank Holiday with her. She is consumed with panic about Dad’s death sentence, not to mention his imminent operation. She is at once eaten up with fear and at the same time unable to voice it. Her anxieties are instead projected on to the contents of the fridge and her wardrobe, both of which are full to bursting, both of which she constantly frets are empty.
We are all of us in a similar state: in two minds. Dad is in two minds about being back home. He is relieved to be off the ward for a short while; to be able to see his friends and sit in the garden. He is also, however, finding Mum’s behaviour heart-breaking. She cannot cope with the chaos he has brought into the house: his weeping leg which will not heal; his cancer; his death, hanging over them both, implicit in every act, decision and spoken word.
I am in two minds about Mum: on the one hand I am angry with her for not looking after Dad. On the other I am angry with myself. I know she cannot look after Dad. Maybe I am not in two minds at all. Maybe I am simply angry.
I am also tired and I need to get down to our little sanctuary on the far south tip of West Penwith. I feel guilty about needing this, but I know something in me will implode if I do not get down to the sea this weekend.
‘I don’t think I should go,’ I tell my sister.
‘Yes, you should,’ she says, knowing this is what I want to hear.
And so we do, and I sit on the granite rocks and I look out across the green-blue millpond-calm bay, and I watch the shags and the rock pipits and the swifts that dart and dance across the water, and I think, ‘Dad would love this.’
Dad loves water. Dad loves birds. Dad loves sitting in the sun, his eyes closed, his face tilted to the light, his gentle mouth smiling.
I wish in that instant that I had braved Mum’s rages and panic attacks and hatred of mud and rocks and damp and wild animals and Nature in general, and that I had brought them here while I still had the time. I wish I had got up early with Dad and walked down through the woods, stopping to take in the majestic flight of a buzzard, chuckling at the rabbits bounding from the undergrowth. I wish I had shown him the easy way across the rocky bay down to the edge and dared him to jump into the icy water. I wish, I wish, I wish …
Since making the decision to have the amputation, Dad has been talking happily of rehabilitation, of getting back into his beloved kayak and following the kingfishers along the Medway. I know now, staring out to sea, that this will never happen.
He will never see the river again. He will never see the sea. He will never swim, kayak, paddle or dangle his feet in fresh, cold, blue-green water ever, ever, ever again. But whenever I am staring out across a river or a stream or a sun-speckled bay, I will remember him and smile.