I often find myself these days watching my sons slip sliding into adulthood – a chaotic mix of grace and clumsiness, joy and struggle, excitement and fear. It’s a time of change un-paralleled in its depth and breadth, well at least in that part of our lives we can remember in any detail. As I watch, and interfere inelegantly as all parents are doomed to do, I try to reconnect with that time in my own life.
Up it flashes, a moment late at night sitting in my darkened room, watching the street outside as if it was a scene from one of the Nouvelle Vague films I was so obsessed with thanks to the wonders of the 1970’s BBC2 continental cinema season. The camera pans over the shoulder of a girl, sitting quietly peering through a crack in the curtains, to the view through the window. A small town in Scotland, the dirty yellow street light washed into a brief moment of beauty by the drizzle that accompanied more Scottish summer nights than not.
Or an afternoon in the nearby big town’s bookshop, fretting over bookshelves of mind-expanding drugs in the form of Penguin paperbacks, grateful at last for the money my aunts and uncles would thrust on my sisters and I each birthday and Christmas. I would wander the shelves, fingers running along book spines as if they might somehow divine where to stop, mind racing as I wondered if I’d read enough of ‘the Russians’ to warrant moving on to the next country in my self-directed educational tour through world literature. Would ‘they’ – the mysterious characters in my imaginary future in some unspecified city, for it had to be a city – mock me if I had not read Turgenyev? The lists of other titles at the back of each book gave some clue as to what to read next, but never fully relieved the anxiety that I might miss something important. I worried constantly that I might fail to educate myself to the imaginary standard of some sophisticated ‘rich girl’, in some posh school, in some exciting city, a city that was always ‘somewhere else’.
Ah, the fabled ‘somewhere else’ that accompanied me all through my teenage years. Where somewhere else was the cipher for someone else; it was by moving to this place that I would become me, I reasoned, in those slip-sliding times. I remember that I imagined adult life would be a time of completion, a journey finally ended, a destination reached. I was sure that the furious tumble of possibilities, the bewildering array of choices flashing confusingly like the departures board in some central European city train station in one of the continental films I was obsessed by, would end when I arrived in the City of Me.
But of course that was not to be, each City of Me merely another stop on a never-ending journey along the railway networks of life. With each year the choices made and, more alarmingly, not made build into a travelogue of triumph and loss, shame and pride, satisfaction and discontent. I never found the City of Me. He was right after all, old Ralph Waldo Emerson.
As I watch my sons preparing themselves to set off on their own journey, excited and fearful for them, a darker thought looms off-screen, waiting for a moment of weakness or fatigue to make its entrance. It found it last night as it lured me to finally watch all of Edie and Thea: A Very Long Engagement, a heart breaking film about two women who fell in love in the 60s in America and who had to live for almost all their lives in secrecy. For most it’s the tale of two women in a society which, for reasons I have never been unable to understand, deemed their love to be a crime worthy of refusal to large parts of the railway network of life. It’s the story of what happens to people refused the public recognition of love, the forced secrecy and lies. But there’s another story in that film, rarely mentioned. Woven into the story told largely through private snapshots of their lives is Thea’s story of life with MS. The photos are like ghosts of my own story – the before, then the clinging to furniture or walls for balance which moves on to stick, then crutches. And then it becomes my likely coming journey, not my past or present one. The manual chair, and then powerchair, and finally a bed and a machine to breathe. And the inevitable notice of her death.
Their love is of course the heart of the film, her journey with MS a sub-plot. It plays out in Edie’s careful consideration tenderly setting up her breathing apparatus or perching on her wheelchair to dance. Thea’s loving stares at the woman she longs to dance with again. I long for more of that sub-plot, even thought what’s there is almost unbearable. Thea watches the haunting travel snaps of her MS journey. She talks of her stubborn refusal to change trains in a timely fashion. Like me and, according to the literature like most people with MS, she lingered as long as she could on each train. Lingered ‘too long’, but long enough to rack up a few more travel shots of destinations that might not have been reached had she made the move to the next train ‘on time’. Were the trade-offs the right ones? She mused on that, noting the positive side effect of those choices to delay the change as long as possible, for she was also able to fully enjoy the liberation of each new train. Each new support, each act of acceptance, opened up possibilities that her brain – a railway network full of more and more lines falling prey to ‘the wrong kind of leaves on the track’ – had been denying her.
In that one small part of the film I found myself – the stubborn denial, the need to fight each stage ‘too long’, the endless, exhausting, boring, thinking through and around and against that living with a progressive illness demands. The balancing act of being caught between acceptance of that simple twist of fate that led to railway lines and signals failing in my brain, and fear of the connecting train to come. Coping with the conflicted feelings of anger at the journeys denied and gratitude for those still available. And I wonder about Edie and what she thought all those years watching the woman she loved, despite a society that refused to acknowledge their legitimacy of their love, struggle from train to train. Thea may have been the passenger, but Edie had to accompany her, carry the bags of frustration and fear and grief. Hardest of all, my dark thoughts forced me to watch the once vibrant woman lying in bed with a machine to help her breathe, a weakened and indistinct voice instructing a loving partner setting up the machine. I wonder if I will be able to cope with the change to that train, and what other trains will be available if I cannot?
But then holding my son this morning I suddenly wondered if perhaps our youthful ignorant belief that we will arrive at the City of Me one day soon is in fact a useful, necessary deceit? The awareness that there is no city just ahead but rather an endless journey where each new train will be slower, less comfortable, more challenging, can suck up all our energy and joy, destroys the ability to embrace the current train and the current view, destroys hope as it destroys the prospect of a destination about to be pulled in to. I watch my kids and remember the scarily exciting prospect of the City of Me, electrified by that feeling of preparing to leave the train and start life. And I decided this morning to embrace the wisdom of that necessary deceit. Thea was right. We wait too long to change trains. But it’s because we still want to believe in the City of Me, the place where change ends and life begins. I know it’s a deceit, but I find the idea that it’s time to get the bags down and prepare to leave the train enormously comforting. The journey can wait a bit Mr Emerson, it’s time to suspend disbelief and hang out in the Imaginary City of Me for a while.