This week I have been an adult.
This week I visited my friend who has terminal brain cancer. We wanted to put on a 'play in a day' with her children, mine, and her cousin's, because she and her cousin used to love to do this in their own childhoods. The play eventually ended up as a two-minute iMovie, some kind of insane Arthurian Dance-Off. It was fun, but it was also not at all fun. It is not fun to see children playing, and know that their mother is going to be taken away from them. However much one can dress up the day with costumes, and ice cream, and pasta and iMovie. Yet this is what you do when there are children, because children want to play. They understand what is going on, but they want and need to play. They are full of unquenchable optimism.
The next I tried to go fruit picking, with someone else's child, and the car broke down in the field. I had to be very grown up and call the AA, as opposed to bursting into tears and kicking the car. He duly appeared, trundling across the field, a knight in a white van, and saved me with coolant. It could have been worse.
The next day, after crying my way through Inside Out, there came a call from our neighbour. Her husband, too, has a brain tumour, and has suffered such severe seizures recently that he has lost the power of speech. They needed help getting to hospital for a blood test, because he is falling a lot. The rain poured from a leaden sky, as though smiting me for my previous life of blithe indifference to other people's suffering.
The day after that, I tried to take the family to a local festival, to do a water slide. A Planned Happy Day! Except that… my daughter managed to use up all her dry clothes, and had to be taken home in tears, because she felt judged by others for wearing a swimsuit. Her excruciating embarrassment brought years of changing room unhappiness flooding back to me. Why is puberty so cruel?
Normal relentlessness in motherhood comes to an end once the little blighters are in bed. In my son's case, practically tethered to the bed. But this kind of relentlessness connects you like a laser beam to all the suffering on earth.
Of course I could 'choose to distance myself' – except that I cannot. These are people I know, they are my friends, we have had fun together, I love them, they have children, they are my age, they could be me, I could be them.
All I can do is offer compassion. But compassion tears you to pieces. Better not to care. But I cannot not care.
I get it in the neck from my own family for not sorting out their, much more minor, problems. Except that they are not altogether minor – daughter having a large tooth extracted, then having a painful fixed brace fitted; son having a removable brace fitted and needing to learn to speak and swallow saliva again; husband working incredibly long hours, salvaging our financial situation after months of difficulty…
So it turns out that caring is a bottomless pit. You cannot save anyone by caring. You are ripped to pieces by doing it. And through it all I hear the critical voices of those who say, 'this isn't about you', 'grow up', 'suck it up', 'get over yourself', 'get it in proportion', 'just get on with it', 'if you can't stand the heat', 'you shouldn't have had kids then', etc. etc.
To me this is Motherload in extremis – where your natural tendency to care about others becomes too painful to bear, because you are helpless to help them. Expected to sort out everyone's problems, unable to do more than put a sticking plaster over them.
I've got to a point where I can't even write about Motherload, because the ethics and politics of care are so entangled. It's not my place to expose others, to seem to cash in on their suffering. To bear my Motherload honourably, I should, perhaps, do so in silence.
But… I tell my daughter not to be self-conscious, because everyone else is too busy worrying about how they look themselves to judge her. I tell her to be proud of herself. Yet here I am, worrying about being judged for writing about how life feels at the moment.
I will write. Because these experiences are not mine at all. They are other people's suffering witnessed. It is my role to bear witness, to scream at the heavens about the injustice of it all. Life itself is so grotesquely, so unbearably unfair, but it is the task of the adult to bear it, to allow that unfairness to stream through the body in waves and particles, to be aged and denatured by it, and still to hold fast to what is good, beautiful and true.
After I had written the above, I found out that my friend, Nicole Smith, died this morning from brain cancer. Grace, who is nearly nine, Alex, who is eight, and her husband, Rod, have to go on without her.
Nicole was a wise, witty and formidable woman, whose courage during her illness was humbling and inspiring. I always had a good time with her. She was the real thing, feisty, hardworking, and funny. She had complete integrity, and a great bullshit detector. She fought for reason, right and justice all her life. She was a force for good. She never gave up, and she found true joy in life. I'm going to miss her.