A story of grief by a man and a boy
I took on a train journey with my son yesterday. It sounds like a simple, everyday kind of thing to do and it was once. But some things that used to be habitual and unremarkable have sadly become complex, anxiety-inducing, psychological issues. Without realising why until today, over the last few days I’ve actually made myself ill and overwhelmingly emotional just at the thought of getting a train from A to B. I’m 34 years old, I’ve been on more planes and trains than I can even remember, and yet I now find myself reduced to a state of panic at the thought of travelling on public transport. And I’m not even a snob; I don’t even own a car. And what’s really hard is that I can’t pinpoint what makes me grow so worried about journeys like these. I can’t decide if it’s because I’m leaving home behind, whether it’s because that makes me feel more distant from my wife, if I’m concerned that Jackson won’t behave or because I know that when I get back home it’ll be as a sad a place as when I left. But the mental torture and anguish crushes me whatever the case.
One thing I do know, however, is that these days the problem is rarely my son. We get on the train, play and read together, eat cake and get some time without anyone else around, and it’s fun. We chat, we laugh, we pull funny faces, and it’s a pleasure to be together. In fact it’s often very much like it used to be before Desreen died: I’d get on a bus or a train and people would remark about what a good and striking little boy my son was, and I’d beam with pride. But when she died that all changed: he’d shout at people for no immediately apparent reason, he’d get angry if a young woman took the seat next to me on the bus, and he’d throw things from his pushchair if people he didn’t like the look of seemed to like the look of him. It was a stressful and painful time and it often still is.
Yesterday was different though. I took Jackson on quite a long train journey and he was a joy. It wasn’t long until he stood up on his seat and introduced himself to an old man sitting right behind him. ‘This is Thomas!’ he exclaimed, waving his favourite toy train at his new friend. The gentlemen knew Thomas well. And Gordon and Percy and James and Edward. He seemed to know all of the story lines to all of the old episodes voiced by Ringo Starr, but none of the new characters that are regularly introduced to keep me out of pocket. So before too long Jackson had abandoned me in favour of his new pal. He introduced him to Bash, Dash and Belle and handed him a story book that he was invited to read. I was so moved to see Jackson happy in the company of someone he might well have wanted to bite only a few months ago.
It turned out this man had two adult daughters who, as children, shared my son’s passion for Thomas and his locomotive friends. The eldest was about to give birth to his first grandchild. The excitement in his eyes at meeting Jackson reminded me of when I used to see pregnant women on the tube when my wife was expecting. I so badly wanted to say I’m having one too before reminding myself that it’s just not acceptable to talk to a stranger – pregnant or not – on the London Underground. But two northerners sitting on a train together have different rules; we can talk.
When the man arrived at his destination, he said goodbye to Jackson with a broad smile and then turned to me bid me farewell. ‘What a privilege it is to have such a lovely boy’, he said. And with that he was gone.
What a privilege it really is, I thought. It’s bloody hard work, it crushes me that he’ll grow up without his mum and that I’ll grow up without my wife, but it truly is a privilege to be a parent. And it truly is a privilege to be the father of such of wonderful child, who is such an absolute reflection of his truly wonderful mother.